The progressive proletarian writer, singer and actress Margarete Steffin was born into a working class family on March 21, 1908 in Rummelsburg, Pomerania in Imperial Germany. Rummelsburg, a part of the Berlin metropolitan area, was the home of the chemical and photographic film maker Agfa AG. (The Versailles Treaty ending World War I officially established the border of Germany with the recreated Poland 15 kilometers to the east of Rummelsbug.) Margarete Emilie Charlotte Steffin’s father was a construction worker and her mother took in sewing to supplement the family’s income. Her parents had two more children, her sister Herta Frieda, who was born in 1909, and a boy, Hermann Wilhelm Albert, who died shortly after birth in 1913. Her father was among the first round of draftees conscripted into the German Imperial Army in August 1914.
The young Grete was a gifted student. When she was 13, an hour-long play in verse she wrote for Christmas was produced by three schools. However, her father did not want her to go on to university, which was a common sentiment at the time: education should not be wasted on females. (He also may have been concerned that she would lose contact with her social class.) Instead of pursuing a higher education, she got a job with the telephone company Deutschen Telefonwerken after graduation.
Politically conscious since a young age, Grete as she was called, initially was attracted to the Social-Democratic faction on Germany’s left, a humane socialism; later, she drifted further to the left and became a communist and supporter of Joseph Stalin, who had an iron grip on the German Communist Party from the 1930s onward. Stalin would not allow the German Communist Party to form a Popular Front with the more liberal Social-Democrats to resist Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, as Stalin believed Hitler would bring on the conditions that would trigger a revolution that eventually would sweep the Communists to power. It was a fateful miscalculation for tens of millions of Germans, Russians, and countless others.
Steffin’s involvement in progressive politics enabled her to join left-wing arts organizations that were at the vanguard of creating art challenging the bourgeois status quo. Art was intricately intertwined with politics in this era: It was there she could indulge her passion not only for singing and acting, but for progressive politics. Grete also worked on putting out a guerrilla newspaper and took Russian language lessons. For the rest of her life, she would be a gifted translator, adept at many tongues.
In the fall of 1927, the 19-year-old Steffin began an ultimately unfulfilling long-term relationship with a young man. Her affair with Herbert Dymkethat led to her first pregnancy and abortion the following year. Fired from the phone company for being a left-winger, she got employment as a bookkeeper at a print shop; on Sundays, she performed solo recitations. By the time she was the secretary of the Social-Democratic Lehreverband in 1930, she had become pregnant again, which also was terminated via abortion. At the time, she found the physical manifestation of love between a man and a woman to be more of a chore than anything sublime.
While working for the Rote Revue (Red Revue) in 1931, she took a speech technique course taught by the great German actress Helene Weigel, Bertolt Brecht’s common-law wife. Introduced into the Brecht circle at this time, she broke up with Dymke that spring and soon became the lover and mistress of Brecht after appearing in the role of the maid in a production of Brecht’s Die Mutter (The Mother), under the tolerant eye of Weigel, who was the star of the play. With Brecht, she found out what love was: She became enthralled to the poetic genius, a man she would later condemn as an “emotional Hitlerite”, but whom she was unable to abandon. Theirs was a very passionate affair initially, and though Brecht later cooled towards her as a woman as he took on other lovers, they remained dedicated to one another in their literary collaborations.
It is generally known now, though still contested and denied by believers in the solitary nature of genius, that Steffin played the central role in Brecht’s “work shop” of collaborators between his first major collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann (who translated John Gay’s 18th century masterpiece The Beggar’s Opera that serves as the basis of Die 3 groschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s most popular and remunerative work), and Ruth Berlau, who took over the role after Steffin’s death in 1941. (The Dane Berlau had taken over the role of Brecht’s lover when Brecht, his family and Steffin had been exiled to Denmark in the mid-1930s.) Hauptmann herself might have written as much as three-quarters of the book for “Threepenny” without getting proper credit or remuneration, and Grete was denied all credit for her collaborations with Brecht.
Like a great 17th century painter, such as Rembrandt, Brecht used a circle of collaborators (students and assistants in Rembrandt’s case) to produce the works that he presented to the world under his own name. For while the collaborators did the research, the translation and the drafting of the texts, it was Brecht, with his genius, who provided the ultimate strokes or brushwork to create a final draft, as well as provided any songs or poetry on his own. (The great poet was not above purloining other’s lyrics and presenting them as his own: Hauptmann most surely wrote the lyrics of the famous “Alabama Song” as Brecht did not speak English at the time, the language the song is written in.) Despite the progressive ideology of the Brecht workshop, women remained second class citizens. In a variation of the then-contemporary status of children, their works were seen but their voices were not heard as their own.
For 10 years, Steffin served Brecht and his family, including his wife Weigel, as secretary (the role usually ascribed to her by Brecht’s acolytes), factotum, political sounding-board, mistress, and translator, to the detriment of her own health. Steffin suffered from tuberculosis, and she often traveled and lived in countries such as Denmark with insalubrious climates to remain at Brecht’s side, as the leftist author had to flee Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. Steffin also maintained relationships with other great thinkers and leftists, such as Walter Benjamin.
Steffin made an arranged marriage with Svend Jensen Juul, a Danish citizen, in August 1936, so she could stay in Denmark and help Brecht. As well-known leftists in a country threatened by Nazi Germany, Brecht and his workshop needed all the help and protection they could get. Although a talented writer herself, she sublimated her own talent to her lover-mentor, to the point of taking on translation projects to raise money for the Brecht family. These for-hire works, from which she saw little or no income, severely cut into the time she could spend on her own work, as her primary “job” was to serve Brecht, the writer and the man, as muse, secretary, collaborator and lover. When the amorous Brecht, possessed of a lickerish spirit, took on new lovers, he would leave the unfulfilled Steffin emotionally devastated. An idealist, she persisted, serving Brecht until the end of her life.
Grete Steffin died of tuberculosis in a private room at High Hills, the best sanitarium in Moscow, at five minutes to nine in the morning, June 4, 1941, during the last days of the German-Soviet Non-Agression Pact. (Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, was launched on June 22). The 33-year-old She had received a telegram from her collaborator and erstwhile lover Bert Brecht that day, as he and his family made their way across the U.S.S.R. to seek asylum in the U.S. Steffin had already raised the money (mostly through her own translations of other writers’ works) and made the arrangements by which the Brecht family was able to cross the Soviet Union and go into exile in the United States. Alas, she was never able to join them, and Brecht’s productivity — that is, the quality of the output of his workshop — declined.
Her last words were “Doctor, doctor, doctor.” Her friend Maria Osten, who checked in on her each day, arrived two minutes too late to say goodbye to her friend. According to Osten’s correspondence with Brecht, an autopsy the following day revealed that her lungs were almost completely eroded by the disease. A plaster cast of her face and hands were made for Brecht, and she was cremated on June 6th. (Osten and her child “disappeared” into the Gulag within weeks, and she was shot as a spy on August 8, 1942, according to the NKVD.)
She is now regularly credited as a co-author of Brecht’s great classics Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, Galileo, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, Puntila and Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui. Steffin was even credited by Brecht, in their personal correspondence, for writing his Threepenny Novel, singling out the critics’ praise for her clarity of language, though of course he kept all the credit — and royalties — for himself.
Steffin provided a great deal of preliminary text for Brecht, who polished the final output and presented it as a solo work of his own genius. Steffin collaborated out of love and out of fealty to the collective principle. However, as John Fuegi — the founder of the International Brecht Society — pointed out in his iconoclastic 1994 biography Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama, for the great poet, it was a one-way street, despite being a dedicated communist. No only did Brecht not share credit, he didn’t share royalties, which could have made a major difference to Steffin’s impoverished family, who lived in poverty in the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany) after the war.
Fuegi believes that Steffin’s being “hidden” behind Brecht, and having to speak through his voice, lies at the heart of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, one of Brecht’s greatest plays, and one on which Steffin collaborated before her death, Fuegi believes that the collaboration actually geneated a tension between their two voices that created a great deal of depth in the play.
There now is a street named after her in Berlin, Germany, “Margarete-Steffin-Straße” (“Margarete Steffin Street” ), south of Humboldt University. Berlin’s oldest university, The alma mater of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was the leading university of the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany) until the collapse of communism in 1989, eventually becoming part of the state university system of the Federal Republic of Germany. Ironically, Steffin was not allowed to go to university by her father on the grounds that it was inappropriate for her gender and class, and she remains largely unknown to the world at large, her life and work, her very being, subsumed into that of the man she loved and served, true to her principles of collectivization.