Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a hotbed of genius, and the arch-journalist, poet, and playwright Karl Kraus (1874-1936) presided over this efflorescence of art and thought, knowing everything and everybody, making all the right friends and all the right enemies. From 1899 until his death, Kraus edited Die Fackel (the Torch) and for many years was the sole contributor to this landmark journal, which appeared whenever some gross fatuity in public life or telling grotesquerie in the daily press inflamed him—and which, on an especially inauspicious occasion, might run to some 300 pages of closely argued and eviscerating animadversion.
His admirers were legion, as one learns from Edward Timms’s recent masterly intellectual biography. Freud wrote him fan letters in praise of his enlightened attitude toward sexuality; Kraus, in turn, congratulated Freud for recognizing that homosexuality ought not to be considered criminal or insane. (In due course Kraus soured on Freudian theory, and his most famous aphorism declares that “psychoanalysis is the mental illness for which it claims to be a cure.”)
The modernist architect Adolf Loos, who disdained ornament and was bemused by the way Kraus excavated elemental truths buried in everyday palaver, designed the starkly elegant covers for Kraus’s books. The Expressionist artist Oscar Kokoschka illustrated an apocalyptic Kraus essay with a lithograph of subhuman hordes poised to descend upon an overripe Europe. For Frank Wedekind, author of the scarifying Lulu plays, Kraus produced (and played a small role in) Pandora’s Box, and the two friends took turns with the beautiful actress who starred in the show.
Alban Berg, whose opera Lulu was based on Wedekind’s plays, wrote to Anton Webern: “Oh the Fackel! I know it off by heart! I worship every line by this man Kraus—even if it’s printed on the cover!” Webern applied Kraus’s theory of language to his own prescriptions for musical composition, and the atonal crowd was unanimous in its appreciation, as Arnold Schoenberg pronounced Kraus “a truly great man.” Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin spent hours in their student days discussing the origins of Kraus’s manner of multilayered commentary in medieval Hebrew writings; Scholem continued his subscription to Die Fackel when he emigrated to Palestine, and Benjamin wrote a celebrated essay on Kraus.
Elias Canetti, who couldn’t understand the fuss at first, soon became a Kraus devotee, “filled with him as with a Bible. I did not doubt a single word he said. . . . It was only in him that you find justice—no, you didn’t find justice, he was justice.”
Of Kraus’s monumental play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind), Canetti recalls hearing, when he first arrived in Vienna, that it “contain[ed] everything that had happened in the war.” To contain the entire Great War took Kraus some 600 pages and over 500 characters. He started work in 1915 and wrote most of it during the war, but could not begin publication in Die Fackel until the war was lost and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had fallen. The play appeared as a book in 1922. In 2015 the entire play—The Last Days of Mankind, translated by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms (Yale, 672 pp., $40)—was published in English, a signal event in the literary history of the First World War.
The Last Days of Mankind was intended to be the last word on the “war to end all wars”—a phrase and concept Kraus subjects to a thorough mauling. As Kraus states in his preface, “The performance of this drama, which would take some 10 evenings in terrestrial time, is intended for a theatre on Mars. Theatre-goers on planet earth would find it unendurable.” For Martians, presumably, the spectacle would be a lesson in primitive zoology, describing the vilest creature the universe has brought forth; human beings could only be disgusted with the sight of themselves.
The opening scene recalls War and Peace: As in an aristocratic St. Petersburg drawing room in 1805, with Napoleon greedily eyeing Russia, so on a busy Vienna streetcorner in 1914, with newsboys proclaiming the outbreak of war, the eternal and inevitable chatter about momentous events is interspersed with chatter about matters of no consequence—in Kraus’s rendering, the clamor for a passing operetta star’s autograph, and a ruffian trying to snatch a prostitute’s handbag. All the talk is pointedly uncomprehending: The inadequacy of understanding, the failure to see what is being done in the name of imperial honor and glory but is actually perpetrated in the service of avarice—that will be Kraus’s major theme.
In this age of grandeur, Austria-Hungary and Germany stand shoulder to shoulder, fighting a defensive war forced upon them to uphold true culture against the predations of rapacious shopkeeper-nations. Kraus presents the drivel of mindless speech and writing, as everyone reaches for the ready-made phrase nearest at hand. The populace is stupefied by official and semi-official discourse, reducing matters of life and death to formulaic nonsense.
Morally, the worst of the war is on the home front. Kraus contrasts the horror of soldiers’ suffering with the whining of prosperous civilians who see war as their main chance to make a killing. The ironies are obvious, and formulaic: For example, a Big Eater and a Normal Eater commiserating about the lack of really good restaurant chow, ignoring the starving beggar who pleads for a crust.
The fact that Kraus flays noncombatants for their greed and lack of compassion, however, does not mean that he spares the fighting men. The officer class comprises psychopathic morons and moronic psychopaths; martinets pitched to frenzy at the failings of common soldiers consign clueless offenders to suicidal frontline duty. At a ceremonial banquet at corps headquarters, before a colossal painting of the emperor and his chiefs of staff on some imaginary battlefield, an Austrian general’s malapropisms, slips of the tongue, and fractured logic betray a military mind bursting with stupidity:
At this time we think fondly of our loved ones back home—who are far away and thinking of us with faithful devotion. Especially the mothers who have set us an example—joyfully sacrificing their sons on the altar of the Fatherland, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. . . . Victory, gentlemen—do you know what that means? It is the choice a soldier has—if he doesn’t want to die covered with glory!
Much of The Last Days of Mankind is drawn straight from life; Kraus witnessed some of these scenes, read or heard these unspeakable words: Antic, astringent, icy, overheated, on the edge of tears, on the verge of hysteria, he tells the unendurable truth. At the play’s end, the factual truth is stretched a bit so that Kraus’s version of the moral truth might emerge: After the editor of the premier Vienna newspaper announces himself to be Lord of the Hyenas and the Antichrist, a Martian ray annihilates all mankind, as the Voice of God protests, “THIS IS NOT WHAT I INTENDED.”
Kraus’s lethal vision puts The Last Days of Mankind on the shelf of Great War classics among All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye to All That, A Farewell to Arms, The Good Soldier Švejk, and the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But what does that distinction amount to? These are the books that shaped the thinking and feeling of civilized men between the two world wars. And in so doing, they constitute a canon of the ineffectual.
In 1933, Kraus wrote an anti-Hitler essay entitled Die dritte Walpurgisnacht (“The Third Walpurgis Night”), but he never published it. Did he fear for his life—or like his alter-ego, the Grumbler in Last Days, was he afraid that his words would prove useless? After Engelbert Dollfuss, the Austrian chancellor who was his country’s surest stay against absorption by Germany, was assassinated in 1934, Karl Kraus gave up writing about politics. Die Fackel was devoted henceforth to studies of Shakespeare and Offenbach. And Kraus died in 1936, before he could see the worst.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.