Mack The Knife

We do love our whodunnits, even today.

I confess to a penchant for those forensic pathology novels, Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornell and so forth. There is something about  re-enacting death, a macabre reassurance that one is, oneself, very much alive.

It has ever been thus.

You will be familiar with the notion of a ballad; verse set to music, popular at least since mediaeval times, the staple of folk music in the UK and much, much farther afield.

There is said to be a sub-genre of this tried and tested favourite. It is called The Murder Ballad.

It’s a set of verses about a murder, dealing with weapons and perpetrators and victims and motives in colourful rhyme, and often sung in those places where the clientele could not write, though they could listen and join in.

Think Child Owlet, latterly immortalised by folk group Steeleye Span, an ancient yarn involving a noblewoman who, unable to seduce her nephew, stabs herself with a little penknife and tells her noble Lord the young man did it. The irate Lord conjures a spectacular end for the wrongly accused, and those of you with strong stomachs may read about it here.

Or listen to Mary Hamilton: a song about the four Marys chosen by the Queen of Scot’s mother to be her companions. In reality there was never a Mary Hamilton; their names were Marys Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston.

The song relates how Mary Hamilton cuckolds the Queen of Scots, producing a child which the queen drowns.

There are many more in the same vein: gruesome entertainment for the masses.

And one of the more modern made its debut in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, known as  “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”.

Roughly translated: Mack The Knife.

Brecht’s original lyrics are darker by far than the ones we know, more sinister; and the words of a master storyteller. Beside the tales of unspeakable atrocities are these words, translated by Hildegarde Knef:

“And some are in the darkness

And the others in the light

But you only see those in the light

Those in the darkness you don’t see…”

The opera, and this iconic Weimar Republic ballad, premiered in Berlin, in 1928, at the Theatre Am Schiffbauerdamm.

Three years later, a man walked into a Berlin bar.

“Today I’m here,” he announced jovially, “to celebrate a trick I pulled.”

This was Erich Mielke. He was a member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and its band of muscle – the Party Self Defence Unit. They were thugs. And they hated police.

In particular, a widower with three daughters: a police chief who was a thorn in the side of the KPD. Captain Paul Anlauf had the organisation’s headquarters on his patch. He had been nicknamed ‘Pig Face’ by the Defence Unit. Mielke was a journalist for the KPD paper: but he was prepared to carry out orders to shoot Anlauf.

It was outside the Babylon Cinema that someone shouted “Pig Face!” and,as the policeman turned to look, Mielke and a fellow Unit member opened fire at point-blank range, ending two lives.

Celebration in a bar was short-lived: he was ordered to flee to Moscow. A shadowy figure, he had just the right qualities to recommend himself to the Russian Military School and later the Secret Police. During World War II, his movements are not clear but he emerged, highly decorated, to be placed at the deputy head of Kommissariat 5: the first German secret police since the Nazis.

A murderer, hated and feared, he thrived in communist East Germany.

But all bad things come to an end.

Do you remember where you were when the Wall came down? I suspect this erstwhile Mack the Knife watched its bricks tumble with unease.

He resigned his position as a member of the Council of Ministers of the GDR on NOvember 7, 1989, along with the rest of the council. They could see the times were a-changing.

Six days later he tried to talk once more to Parliament. He addressed them as ‘Comrades.’

It was like a red rag to a bull after the years of cruelty and repression. Many onlookers objected strenuously. And rather than capitulate, he uttered words which have since become timeless, coming, as they were, from the mouth of a veritable Mack The Knife.

“But I love- I love all – all people,” he stammered.

The people’s chamber went crazy. Fear had lost its dominion: Mack’s power had crumbled in the same hands which had taken who knew how many lives.

He was subsequently tried and convicted of the murder of those two policemen, back in the laissez-faire days of the Weimar Republic.

For so long we couldn’t see him for the darkness, as Brecht would have said.

But he got his come uppance, did this Mack the Knife, in the end.


23 thoughts on “Mack The Knife

  1. Oh my, Kate! What great style with which you pull off this fascinating angle of a dreadfully cruel human being. Hard to imagine the number of years he was given such adulation. Thank God he was finally brought to justice.

    1. What gets me is all the years we all thought nothing would ever change in those cold countries, Amy. And eventually it did. In the coldest of times there is always the promise which arises from events like these.

    1. I think murder books and ballads are entertaining, IE, but I have always held that they have become notorious precisely because the events they describe are so incredibly rare.

      And yes: the East Germans waited for long cold years, thinking nothing would ever change and justice would never be done. But eventually a thaw came. The very fact that it happened is a promise of a pattern for future history.

  2. Leave it to me to have the down-market comment here. This is all I could think of with this post.

    I used to dance with my Mom and her little record, her telling me how bad the song was and not to listen to the words the whole time we shuffled around the room.

    1. Oh, Andra, I can just see you both now 🙂 Such a great song: and very similar melodically to the old Brecht original, just with a little Darin bzazz. Makes a great dance tune; and I am sure you shut those ears tight to those naughty, naughty lyrics. Thanks for a lovely comment.

  3. Not nearly as refined as the gruesome little ditties found in Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, but the same kind of appeal.

    Come-uppances seem to take far too long. When they do, it strikes me as a bitter irony because it is as if those who have made a pact with the devil finally discover that they, too, are going to be double-crossed. Well, that’s simply true to form.

    1. No; Gilbert does have a winning turn of phrase, doesn’t he?

      For every force on earth there is an equal and opposite force. It’s just the amount of time the force took to strike back.

      And now, I’m beginning to talk like Star Wars. Look at Vader….

  4. Oh, Kate. A dark and sombre tale of retribution and justice.

    Last night, we watched sharks circling around the reception room at the Florida Aquarium. It brought the words of Mack the Knife to mind:

    Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear. And it shows them … Ya know when that shark bites, with his teeth, babe … Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

    Later, I saw the title of your post and smiled.

  5. My Friday has run into my tomorrow. I will comment, however, even though it’s somewhat after the fact. 🙂

    When I read this much earlier, I thought, “the wheels of justice grind slow but they grind exceeding fine.” I realize that form of the quote is a bit of play on the actual translation, but the gist is the same. Today we’d just as likely say that what goes ’round comes around. Sometimes the seeds one sows take a long time to bear fruit, but eventually there will always be a price exacted for such evil!

  6. What a truly fascinating story, Kate. I would never have known of it, I’m sure. Whenever I hear of justice delayed I have a true curiosity about whether the perpetrator has peace in those between years, or is continually plagued by wondering if the “walls will come down” and reveal the truth. I suppose it depends on whether a person feels any guilt. And I used to read more of the forensic mysteries and then one day just found I couldn’t read them anymore without being too drawn into the darkness…which I then I couldn’t shake! Sometimes you make me miss them a little bit 🙂 Debra

  7. I remember being astonished when I learned that the Bobby Darin song MTK was actually from a Brecht play.

    I have loved Brecht since I was sixteen, when I saw The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Chester Gateway Theatre.

    It’s good to know that bad guys get their just desserts.

  8. Fascinating piece of writing:-) I have Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill’s version of the opera which is a fascinating reading, but for Mack The Knife I always loved Louis Armstrong! I love the words “Did our boy do something rash!” 😉

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