The perpetual temptation not to see

Dalrymple writes that in Max Frisch’s 1953 play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Firebugs or The Fire Raisers), a town is subject to a rash of arson attacks. Everyone is terrified by the prospect of more. The action takes place in the home of Herr Biedermann,

a rich bourgeois who makes his money from the manufacture and sale of fake hair restorative. Two dubious characters, Schmitz and Eisenring, take up residence in Herr Biedermann’s attic. He does not want them there, but is too cowardly and pusillanimous to evict them.


they make it clear to Herr Biedermann that they are the arsonists of whom the town is afraid. They move drums of petrol into the attic; they ask Herr Biedermann for help with the fuse with which they are going to light the fire; they even ask him, successfully, for the matches with which to start it. Throughout the preparation of the fire, Herr Biedermann—though he hates, fears and despises Schmitz and Eisenring, and again through cowardice and pusillanimity—refuses to accept the evidence before his eyes.

Eisenring explains Schmitz’s uncouth behaviour

by his unhappy childhood, and Herr Biedermann, through sentimentality rather than from real sympathy, feels unable to answer.

The compromise with evil

He invites the two interlopers to

a dinner of goose stuffed with chestnuts (before accepting the invitation, Eisenring makes sure there is to be red cabbage also), and though the two are complete ruffians, they insist that the best silver, including finger-bowls, be laid on a damask tablecloth.

After dinner,

they burn the house down, and the final scene takes place in Hell, where Herr Biedermann and his wife protest their innocence.


lived through the Nazi takeover of Germany, but saw it from the German-speaking fringe. He is writing not just about the Nazi era: his play is about the perpetual temptation not to see, and then to compromise with evil.

Eisenring tells Herr Biedermann the secret of his success (but still Herr Biedermann disguises the truth from himself):

  • Joking is the third best method of hoodwinking people.
  • The second best is sentimentality. The kind of stuff [Schmitz] goes in for—an orphanage, and so on.
  • But the best and safest method—in my opinion—is to tell the plain unvarnished truth. Oddly enough. No one believes it.

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  • James  On July 29, 2018 at 01:41

    This is chilling. Its applicability to modern life needs no underlining.

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