Central & Eastern Europe / History / / Literature

We Play World War: Karl Kraus and the end of Austria

Viennese satirist Karl Kraus was one of the few people who wrote against World War I from start to finish: not because he thought there was anything wrong in defending one’s flag, but because he saw how patriotism was hijacked by the mass media.

Kraus recognized that after the war European culture would never be the same again. “When the future arrives, it will be walking on a prosthetic leg” was one of his grimmer quips.

One of the striking things about August 1914 is that hardly anyone in the belligerent countries bothered to stand up and say that it might all be a terrible mistake. With the possible exception of Tsarist Russia, the countries that entered the war were not ideological states that controlled public opinion, they all had a more or less free press, and were all led by educated elites who took holidays in each other’s countries. When it came to fighting each other, however, defending one’s flag and country was simply a question of honour; it was not the kind of thing about which one had an opinion.

Honourable exceptions like George Bernard Shaw and Romain Rolland aside, Europe’s writers displayed a particular enthusiasm for war. Intellectuals everywhere convinced themselves that they were fighting for culture. The British and French were defending culture against German militarism. The Germans and Austrians were defending culture against French decadence and English mercantile greed.

One of the few people who wrote against the war almost from start to finish was the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. This was not because he thought there was anything wrong in defending one’s flag, but because he felt that patriotism had ceased to become a question of honour, and had instead been hijacked by new forces that manufactured mass hate and mass death on a hitherto unimagined scale.

Kraus’s anti-war texts were published in Die Fackel (The Torch), the trailblazing satirical journal he edited from 1899 until his death in 1936. Written entirely by Kraus himself from 1911 onwards, Die Fackel contained essays, poems, sketches and aphorisms, alongside fragments of other peoples’ writing to which Kraus added his own mischievous commentaries. Many of these fragments ended up in Kraus’s Last Days of Mankind (Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit), the intense, apocalyptic, but ultimately un-performable 200-scene play that painted a phantasmagorical panorama of wartime Viennese society.

Much of Kraus’s satire centred on the mass-circulation newspapers of his day and the way they had reduced the German language to a collection of clichés and banalities. Debasement of language leads to a debasement of sound judgment, argued Kraus, culminating in a culture of stupidity. Promising writers debased their talents by writing newspaper features and think-pieces, tailoring their opinions to suit whatever fashion their editors currently followed.

For the novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose 2013 book The Kraus Project helped reawaken interest in the waspish Viennese scribbler, Kraus is a useful ally in the campaign against bloggers, tweeters and the cacophony of comment for-its-own-sake unleashed by the Internet. For others, Kraus was himself a proto-blogger, seizing on the media absurdities of the age and subjecting them to a sophisticated form of satirical scrutiny.

The abominable lightness of the political system

Born to a Jewish factory-owning family in 1876, Kraus was more or less at the centre of everything that went on in a Vienna that seemed to be at the forefront of modernist innovation. In purely aesthetic terms, Kraus was a modernist himself, publishing works by the likes of Peter Altenberg, Arnold Shoenberg, Georg Trakl and Frank Wedekind. The crisp, uncluttered design of Die Fackel was overseen by Adolf Loos, the architect who famously declared that “ornament is crime”. Kraus was himself a writer of great gifts, fashioning long rhythmic sentences that lasted a page or more, each filled with arresting imagery and memorably jarring juxtapositions: he spoke of Austrian society bearing the “grimace of a cheerful long-term illness”; or of “the abominable lightness of the political system”. Indeed one of the obstacles to Kraus’s reception outside the German-speaking world has always been the sheer untranslatability of his best essays.

Easier to translate and with better punchlines, Kraus’s aphorisms are more widely remembered. He churned them out prolifically: “Life is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable”; “No one is more unfortunate than a fetishist who yearns for a woman’s shoe and has to settle for the whole woman”; and “Psychoanalysis is the disease that takes itself as a cure” are just three characteristically mordant observations.

Despite being highly sceptical of Freudianism as a movement, Kraus was at one with Freud in recognizing that Viennese society was a façade behind which lurked all manner of social and personal contradictions. He delighted in re-printing the small advertisements from the back pages of liberal newspaper Neue Freie Presse, under the sarcastic sub-heading ‘From a Major Family Newspaper’. Shedding sordid light on Vienna’s semi-respectable world of concubinage are excerpts like these: “Young French lady of charm and individuality seeks a stimulating exchange of ideas with a wealthy older man”; or “pretty, intelligent young lady with an unblemished past seeks rich adoptive father.”

It's amazing what you can find down at the local library

Indeed the Neue Freie Presse was the most frequent target of Kraus’s ridicule. Regarded by near-contemporary Stefan Zweig as a shining example of German-language journalism, complete with weekend cultural supplements and big-name feature writers, the Neue Freie Presse was considered by Kraus to embody the main threat to Central Europe’s cultural well-being – precisely because its pompous brand of self-righteousness was dressed up in such respectable middle-class clothes.

Like many Viennese newspapers Neue Freie Presse was predominantly edited and written by Jews, a fact that Kraus never tired in pointing out. Kraus was himself a typical Viennese contradiction, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism in 1899 (he left the church in 1923), and remained preoccupied with the cultural implications of Jewishness all his life. For Kraus, it was the essential Jewishness of modern journalism that made it so superficial, frivolous and cynically profit-seeking. Such attitudes were not necessarily in conflict with the cosmopolitan cultural circles in which he moved. One of the paradoxes of pre-World War I Vienna was that Anti-Semites, assimilated Jews and traditionalist Jews coexisted without creating real friction. Head of the Anti-Semitic Christian Social Party Karl Lueger actually served as mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, but business continued as usual for the city’s mixture of communities.

Franz Ferdinand and the Talents

The very mission of Die Fackel, as announced in the inaugural issue, was to shed light on what Kraus called “the Empire on which the sun never rises”. The idea that glittering Habsburg Vienna was also a culture in terminal decline - nowadays a commonplace of historiography because we know exactly how the story ended – was an original and subversive weapon when wielded satirically by Kraus.

Ultimately it’s Kraus’s wartime writings that speak most clearly to us today – or at least they would if they were more available to non-German readers. It’s not just the subject matter that echoes down the century with startling relevance, but also the sustained, hectoring style - which still seems as fresh and immediate as any contemporary European prose.

It was in his response to the Sarajevo assassination of June 28, Franz Ferdinand and the Talents (Franz Ferdinand und die Talente; published three weeks before the outbreak of war), that Kraus first seemed to express disgust for those who stood to profit from war. For Kraus, the mixture of sorrow and outrage with which the Austrian press greeted the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was simply a fake display of grief that provided them with the opportunity to write shrill headlines about how vile and uncivilized the Serbs were. Hawks in the Austrian military establishment like Conrad von Hötzendorf were portrayed by Kraus as little more than variety entertainers performing to a script written for them by newspaper editors. In characteristically contrary fashion, Kraus suggested that the arrogant, charmless and widely ridiculed Archduke Franz Ferdinand was in fact the only person who could have saved the Habsburg state. Not because he had any talents as a politician, but precisely because of the lack of them: “Franz Ferdinand’s essence was one in which the driving forces of Austrian decay – the carefree and the Jewish – were inconceivable.” Franz Ferdinand’s fear of progress and notoriously bad taste were at least sincere – which is more than you could say for his opponents.

In These Great Times

It is too much to say that Kraus was an out-and-out pacifist in the summer of 1914, but he was beginning to identify war as a civilizational horror that was in no way worth celebrating. It was a theme developed further in the essay In These Great Times (In Dieser Grossen Zeit), published in December 1914. The title was a sarcastic reference to the way in which the war was portrayed as a heroic venture by a press that continued to hide the true nature of the conflict. Kraus’s opposition to the war did not amount to opposition to the Austrian military, and certainly not the monarchy; it was instead directed against the newspapers that used the war as an excuse to create a shrill culture of patriotic stupidity. “The self-mutilation of humanity through its press” was as horrifying as life at the front.

Kraus lavished particular contempt on the writers had lowered their standards to write pro-war poems or fabricate good news from the front. Kraus published the patriotic poems of German writers like Richard Dehmel and Gerhard Hauptmann without comment, simply in order to show how low they had sunk.

In These Great Times was a subtle essay written to confuse the censor. Kraus’s writings became more direct as the war went on. In Silence in Word and Deed (Schweigen Wort und Tat; 1915) he dreamed provocatively of leading a commando raid on the Austrian home front “with the help of some borrowed Cossacks”, against the “those thieves’ dens and blood-dealers that go under the name of newspaper publishers”

We Play World War

Kraus recognized that European culture would never be the same again. “When the future arrives, it will be walking on a prosthetic leg” was one of his grimmer quips. In April 1917 Die Fackel reprinted the front cover of “We Play World War”, a children’s book published by the German Interior Ministry. Pictured were two little boys carrying toy rifles and a little girl waving a (red cross) flag – no wonder the book’s young readers would be playing World War again for real barely twenty years later.

Kraus’s essay The Techno-Romantic Adventure (Das Technoromantische Abenteuer), published in May 1918, pictured a war transformed into a grotesque form of scientific research, in which soldiers were reduced to guinea pigs on which the latest toxic gases could be tested. Western Civilization had been replaced by War Civilization. The nineteenth-century idea of progress, in which technical innovation brought improvements to peoples’ lives, had been replaced by a twentieth-century vision in which scientist sought ways of delivering more and more death. With so many technical innovations waiting to be invented and tested, war would become a permanent state of being until such time as there were no more people left to kill. For a 19th-century child of the Habsburg Empire like Kraus, the moral implications were even more worrying: if traditional patriotism no longer had anything to do with honour or courage, but was simply a matter of hoping for maximum deaths from a chemical weapons attack, then traditional values had been truly turned upside down.

Kraus’s definitive word on the war came in Necrologue (Nachruf) published in January 1919, a 125-page tour-de-force of almost narcotic prose that painted a grotesque picture of the Austria-Hungary’s final years. Kraus still held back from criticizing the front-line troops and their officers – as far as Kraus was concerned, they had been betrayed by the Austrian civilian establishment. Once again, the Jewish businessmen and newspaper publishers – the “Trade-Jews, the Court-Suppliers of Human Flesh” - were Kraus’s key culprits. Indeed there is much in Kraus’s writing that seems to foreshadow the right-wing mythology of the Twenties and Thirties – namely that German and Austrian armies never really lost the First World War, but were “stabbed in the back” by Socialists, Liberals, or just Jews in general.

Kraus himself was both appalled and bemused by Nazism, which he saw as the ultimate lowering of social, linguistic and civilizational standards. He spent much of the 1920s as a declared socialist, before reluctantly switching his support to the Austro-Fascism of Engelbert Dollfuss; the last hope, as he saw it, of keeping the Nazis out of Austria.

The question of Kraus’s anti-Jewishness remains something of a tangle. During Kraus’s lifetime, his unrelenting attacks on “Jewish” journalism were regarded by the Viennese intelligentsia (Jewish members included) as something that could be sensibly discussed among themselves. It was the Anti-Semitic Right rather than the Left that made an issue of Kraus’s identity, and tried to provoke him into making a stand on his own Jewishness. It was a question he himself addressed (or rather skillfully avoided) in the October 1913 essay But he’s Still a Jew (Er ist doch ä Jud), in which he devoted eight pages of meticulously fashioned prose to stating that he didn’t have to explain himself to anybody, no matter how unintelligible he might be. Like many intellectuals who suspect that they are far cleverer than the majority of their critics, Kraus thought that labels and categories were in themselves a product of debased journalism and declining cultural standards, and that such generalizations were for other people, not for him.

© Jonathan Bousfield