Song and struggle: “Bravely Comrades, In Step”

The struggle for socialism is international and constantly evolving. Socialist music is the same. Bravely Comrades, In Step is a good example.

Bravely Comrades, In Step was written in 1896 by Leonid Radin while in czarist Russia's Taganka prison, where he was incarcerated as part of the Moscow "Workers' Union" case. Radin himself was a story in internationalism and evolution. His first activity was as a Narodnik - a middle-class movement in support of the oppressed peasantry - in the 1880s, but during a spell in emigration he came into contact with the growing European Marxist movement and converted to Marxism.

Radin's song blazed through Russia's radical circles. It reached Lenin's place of exile, the Siberian village of Shushenskoye, in 1898. Lenin was reportedly enraptured. It has even been said that Bravely Comrades, In Step was Lenin's favorite revolutionary song.

Leonid Radin died of tuberculosis in 1900. Had he lived, he would surely have been overwhelmed with emotion as his song echoed through revolutionary Petrograd, one of the most popular of 1917.

It was in 1917 that German conductor Hermann Scherchen heard the tune. Scherchen had happened to be in the territory of the Russian Empire at the outbreak of World War I, conducting in Latvia. Interned by the tsarist regime, he had been a sympathetic witness to the Russian revolution. Scherchen, like Latvia, was liberated by the new Soviet power. He returned to Berlin, where he introduced his version of Bravely Comrades, In Step, called Brüder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit (Brothers, to the sun, to freedom), to labor choruses. The tune was the same, the spirit similar, but the lyrics were drastically altered.

Germany, like many other European countries, was revolutionary at the end of World War I. The last straw came when the Navy brass ordered a final suicidal attack "to preserve the honor of the Navy," despite the nation having already surrendered. The sailors mutinied, workers responded, and they set up soviets - workers' councils to direct society - all over the country. In this context, Brüder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit rose to popularity.

The ultimately unsuccessful German revolution burned the song into the collective consciousness, but like the legacy of the revolution, the song remained contested long after the fighting was over. In the 1920s a fourth verse was added that was sung by adherents of the labor movement. Subsequently, Communists added a fifth verse that only they sang. The verse reaffirms the 1918-1919 revolutionary attempt, and makes clear German Communists' opposition to what they viewed as the suicidal complacency of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the SPD. It reflects the desperate conditions of interwar Germany; after World War II this verse was typically omitted.

While indicative of bitter political disagreement, the difference between the three-verse SPD version and the five-verse Communist version pales compared to that between them and the Nazi version, Brüder, in Zechen und Gruben. The Nazis converted the revolutionary hymn into a nationalistic paean to Hitler, bringing to mind German-Jewish Marxist Walter Benjamin's adage that "every fascism is an index of a failed revolution."

After the war, the Nazis' Brüder, in Zechen und Gruben fell into disuse, while Brüder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit was resurrected. The West German SPD took the three-verse version as their anthem, and the song was also sung at the congresses of the East German Socialist Unity Party.

The song lives on today, not as fossilized history but as part of living culture: some question whether the SPD, which worked hand-in-hand with the right-wing to suppress the 1919 revolution, "deserves" to use the song as an anthem; anarchists sing "black banner" instead of "red." As the French say, "la lutte continue."

Brüder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit / Brothers, to the sun, to freedom

Brüder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit / Brothers, to the sun, to freedom
Brüder zum Lichte empor. / Brothers, get up to the light.
Hell aus dem dunklen Vergangnen / Brightly from the dark past
Leuchtet die Zukunft hervor! / The future is shining through!
Seht nur den Zug der Millionen / See only the train of the masses
Endlos aus nächtigem Quillt. / Endlessly filling the night.
Bis eurer Sehnsucht verlangen / Until your longing request
Himmel und Nacht überschwillt! / Overcomes heaven and night!
Brüder, in eins nun die Hände. / Brothers, unite your hands.
Brüder das Sterben verlacht. / Brothers, death laughs.
Ewig der Sklaverei ein Ende, / Forever an end to slavery,
Heilig die letzte Schlacht! / Holy is the last fight!

(Labor 4th verse)

Brechet das Joch der Tyrannen / Break the yoke of tyranny
Das uns so grausam Gequält. / That tortured us so cruelly
Schwenket die blutrote Fahne / Wave the blood red banner
Über die Arbeiterwelt! / Over the workers' world!

(German Communist 5th verse)

Brüder, ergreift die Gewehre / Brothers, seize the gun
Auf, zur entscheidenden Schlacht / On, to the decisive battle
Dem Kommunismus zur Ehre / For the honor of communism
Ihm sei in Zukunft die Macht. / Let the future (power) belong to it.

Links

Russian version
Recent live performance (Russian)
4-verse German version sung by Ernst Busch
3-verse German version

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  • Wonderful description re-capturing so much of our lost history & culture!
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 05/24/2011 3:16pm (4 years ago)

  • Here's a compilation of experimental renditions of old trade union & communist songs: http://www.discogs.com/Gx-Jupitter-Larsen-Friends-Solidarity/release/2481000

    Posted by Noisy Guy, 05/19/2011 12:25pm (4 years ago)

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