Comments by Bob Corbett
This book of readings of Karl Kraus’ work is in three parts. First there is a series of essays, then a number of poems and more than half the book is a set of excerpts from his long ”drama” The Last Days of Mankind, a satirical condemnation of World War I.
While the selection from play The Last Days of Mankind is the last part of the book (pages 159-259) this 100 pages were my favorite part of this book readings, thus I will discuss it first.
It is simply brilliant and bitter satire, an attack on World War I, especially on Austria’s role in it and what the war has done to Austrian society.
Ostensibly it is a play, but in the prologue Kraus tells us that the “play” would take ten evenings to stage and was meant to be performed on Mars, not on Earth.
Like much satire a great deal of the power and humor of it comes in exaggeration. But it is in the exaggeration itself in which lots of clarity and questions arise. The very fact of the exaggeration points a finger back at the (lesser) reality, and via the exaggeration the events and practices of the war come into question.
In their book Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Janik and Toulmin comment that The Last Days of Mankind reminds them of the 1960s theater piece, Oh What A Lovely War. I think that comparison is quite unfair to Kraus. The two do share the feature of being vehemently anti-war, but there the similarity ends. The play presents its message with powerful emotion and much less of the exaggeration or humor. Kraus’s “play” is a matter of the head. The satire doesn’t challenge us at the emotive level, but at the intellectual level and does so with great power.
Throughout the play are numerous little dialogues between the “optimist” and “the grumbler.” I don’t know what German terms are translated there, but in the context of the play, the dialogues are between a pro-government patriot and an anti-war cynic and dissenter. Kraus rather clearly identifies himself as the “grumbler.” The dialogues are marvelous, but not really “dialogues” in the polite sense. Rather, they are tools for Kraus to attack and reveal the hypocrisy and foolishness in the “optimist’s” views.
One particularly contemporary piece concerned measures the Austrian Habsburg government was using to control people and take away their freedoms. This reminded me greatly of the controversy in the United States today over the impact of the so-called Patriot’s Act.
Scene: A factory placed under war emergency administration.
MILITARY SUPERVISOR: Chains, whipping, arrest, and -well – reclassification. That's all we can do to make 'em work. Not much, but that's all we've got.
FACTORY OWNER (a dog whip dangling from his arm): I try kindness as long as possible. (Points to the dog whip.) But what can you do if those union swine keep stirring up trouble - negotiations about working conditions, complaints about food ? How can we keep the plant going with all their legal claims, demands for better terms, insistence on workers' rights in wartime ...
SUPERVISOR: Yes, I know. My remedy is to reclassify 'em-including, if possible, the union representatives. We've milked the War Production Law for what it's worth. We've done pretty well by it. Take the story of the blacksmiths and mechanics last August 14. In the morning they still earned six kronen for piece work; at noon we transferred 'em to military authority and told 'em they were soldiers now; and in the afternoon they did the same work at the same place for soldier's pay. Not one let out a peep.
OWNER: Good for you.
SUPERVISOR: They complained about rough treatment only once. I had 'em report to me and asked 'em who had given 'em ideas. This bastard answers: "We're organized workers and asked our unions for advice, and they sent us a couple of representatives." "All right," I say, "I'll send for these gentlemen; they'll be at your side and work instead of making trouble." So the bastard says: "We are organized workers doing our duty for the Fatherland, but we also seek protection through our union . . ."
OWNER: The dog whip-that's the only answer. What did you ... ?
SUPERVISOR: What did I do? "You're criminals," I told 'em, "it's high treason, and to learn you not to complain again, thirty days in the barracks. That's final! Curtains!"
OWNER: I'm amazed at your leniency. For high treason! SUPERVISOR: Well, you know, one mustn't overdo it. The sad part of it is that the civilian courts support them bastards.
OWNER: I've heard of such a case. It happened to that man Lenz, in Traisen; he was paying the bastards twenty-five kronen a week. Two of them sued because they used to get forty-four. The local court decided against Lenz. When the two left the courthouse, in high spirits ...
SUPERVISOR: I know the case. Two policemen picked 'em up and led 'em back to the factory. The military supervisor there, my buddy, stuck 'em with ten days in the clink, and then back to work. Those judges are nothing but a bunch of bureaucrats! Luckily Lenz is mayor, so he can throw people in the clink himself. That's what he did with some women workers. On Christmas Day he had 'em picked up at home by military patrols - to work, and then the clink.
OWNER: Once they complained about me, with their union, because of "ill-treatment" and not enough pay. I sent for one of their ringleaders and said: "Look here. You complained; you know what this dog whip is for?" And I shook it at him. So the bastard said: "We're not dogs." I pointed at my gun holster and told him: "For you, I also have a gun." He babbled something about "human dignity." But you know, the bastard really got the grievance committee to decide that his pay was not enough!
SUPERVISOR: Well, I'm sure the man was immediately ...
OWNER: Of course he was called up. Your predecessor was very cooperative in this respect. Once I whipped a man when he complained about low pay, and your predecessor sent him to the clink for three weeks for it.
SUPERVISOR: You'll find me just as cooperative. Between you and me, the bastards are lucky they don't work in a mine.
OWNER: The military headquarters in Leitmeritz make it easy on the mine owners. The mine workers are told that since they took their oath on the statutes of war, complaining may be mutiny, in which case the ringleaders can be court-martialed and executed.
SUPERVISOR: In the Eibiswald coal mine they have to work Sundays. No inn stays open after H P.M. Out of every five days in jail, three are fast days. They take arrested men directly from the mine to jail, a long walk. In Ostrau, everybody who gets arrested gets whipped, systematically. They've done this since the war began: on a bench at the police station, held by two soldiers. One bastard told his union representative about it and got whipped a second time. Those who complain get called up. That's the way!
OWNER (sighing): Yes, the mine owners, they got it made!
SUPERVISOR: Well, you other employers are not exactly unprotected either. The foremen see to that. They're pretty good at slapping. I myself order handcuffs for jail, six hours every day. And workers are led from the factory through the streets, between fixed bayonets - that sets an example 1 No washing up, and the head shaved as soon as they arrive in the clink, even if they draw only twenty-four hours. We take the cost of food off their wages, and of course no pay while they're in jail-then, to top it off (but only in severe cases), they're called up for military service. No, employers have nothing to complain about l
OWNER: You're quite right, I didn't mean it that way. And I don't bother the military authorities except in emergencies. I'd rather rely on self-help. I always say, as long as kindness will do ... (He points to the dog whip.)
I was delighted with Kraus's attack on how the press works in the selection below to force the unwilling actress to say things she never meant, wanted to say, nor even said:
The apartment of the actress Elfried Ritter, returned from Russia just before Russia’s entry into the war. Her suitcases are partly unpacked. Reporters Cub, Feigl, and Halberstam are grabbing at her arms, crowding her.
REPORTERS (all at once) : Do you still show welts from the Cossack whips? Show us. We need details. How were the Muscovites? What were your impressions? You must have suffered frightfully, really you must have!
CUB: Tell us how they treated you like a prisoner.
FEIGL: Give us your impressions of your visit, for our late edition.
HALBERSTAM: Give us your thoughts on returning, for our morning edition.
ELFRIEDE RITTER (smiling): Thank you, gentlemen, for your warm interest. It's touching how my dear Viennese have kept a warm spot in their hearts for me. I really appreciate your coming here in person. I was quite willing to put off unpacking my bags, but for the life of me, gentlemen, much as I'd like to oblige, I can't think of anything else to say except that it was very, very interesting, that I experienced no inconvenience at all, that the return trip was tedious, but in no way troublesome, and (roguishly) I am deeelighted to be again in my beloved Vienna.
HALBERSTAM: Interesting - a tedious journey, this much she admits.
FEIGL: "Troublesome," she said.
CUB: Hold it. I wrote the lead at the office. Now, to continue (he writes) "Relieved of the tortures of Russia's police-state atmosphere, after a tedious and troublesome journey, the star wept tears of sheer joy to be back in her beloved Vienna . . ."
RITTER (wagging her forefinger): I did not say that, dahling. On the contrary, I said that I have no complaints, none whatever.
CUB: Aha! (Writing.) "Our star looks back on her suffering with ironic composure."
RITTER: Well, I never ... I must say ... no, darling, I'm outraged.
CUB (writing): "However, when the visitor prods her memory, she is still outraged. In moving terms she describes how she was deprived of any chance to complain about her treatment."
RITTER: But Mr. Cub, what are you trying to do ? How can I say ...
CUB (writing): "She cannot say . . ."
RITTER: Now really! I cannot possibly say ...
HALBERSTAM: Aw, come on, you gave no idea what you can say! Look, dear lady, the public wants to read. Let me tell you, there's a lot you can say. In this country you can. Maybe not in Russia, but here - thank God - we have freedom of speech. Here you can say anything you like about conditions in Russia. Did any newspaper in Russia concern itself with you as we are doing ? Well, there you are.
FEIGL: Miss Ritter, be sensible. A little publicity won't hurt you, now that you are about to appear on the stage again in Vienna. See ?
RITTER: But, gentlemen, how can I ... you're dragging things in ... If you had seen ... in the streets, in the public offices ... If I had reason for the slightest complaint, say, about some harassment, do you think I would be silent?
CUB (writing) : "Shaking with agitation, Miss Ritter describes how the street mob dragged her about; how, upon the slightest complaint, she was harassed by public officials, and how she was forced to keep silent about all her experiences."
RITTER: You're joking! The police officers accepted me with open arms. They were most obliging. I was allowed to come and go where I pleased. I assure you if I had felt like a prisoner even for a moment ...
CUB (writing): "Our star reports that one day she wished to go out, and police officers dragged her home by her arms so that she literally felt like a prisoner."
RITTER: This really makes me furious. I protest ...
CUB (writing): "She gets furious when she remembers these experiences, her fruitless protests . . ."
RITTER: That's not true, gentlemen!
CUB (looking up from his writing pad) : Not true ? How can you say it's not true when I write down every word you say ?
FEIGL: And when we want to publish it, you say it's not true.
HALBERSTAM: I have never seen anything like it.
FEIGL: It wouldn't be beyond you to write a correction to the paper.
CUB: You'd better make no trouble. It just might hurt you.
FEIGL: Don't do anything you may regret.
HALBERSTAM (diabolically) : Isn't she soon due for the part of Gretchen ?
CUB: If I tell the producer about this, the part will go to Susi Berger, you can bet on it.
FEIGL: Hasn't Fox always treated you with kid gloves in his reviews ? But you don't know Fox! When he hears about this he'll tear you to pieces at your next premiere.
HALBERSTAM: Let me tell you, Wolf didn't like the way you played the lead in his play. He hates the Russians, and if he hears that you have no complaints about them, he'll chew you to bits in his next review.
CUB: I'll say! And Lyon ? Better not tangle with Lyon. An actress cannot afford to antagonize the press.
FEIGL: On the other hand, it would do you a world of good with the public and the press if you let it be known that you were mistreated in Russia.
HALBERSTAM: Think it over. You came from Berlin, and Vienna rolled out the red carpet.
CUB: Returning from Russia with no tales of suffering - ridiculous! And a first-rate actress at that! Let me tell you, your career is at stake.
RITTER (wringing her hands) : But ... gentlemen ... I thought ... darling, please ... I only wanted to tell the truth. Forgive me, please.
FEIGL (furious) : The truth you call this ? So it's we who are lying ?
RITTER: No ... that is to say ... I thought it was the truth. But if you gentlemen believe ... you are newsmen, after all, you know better. Please understand ... I as a woman don't quite have the right perspective, you see ? Please try to understand ... This is a war, we are so easily intimidated ... One is glad to return safely from a country with which we are now at war.
HALBERSTAM: See, your memory's coming back.
RITTER: But dahling, of course. You know, the first emotional wave of joy to be back again in your beloved Vienna ... Everything I went through seemed so much rosier ... only for a moment, of course ... but then, one is once more overcome by anger and bitterness.
HALBERSTAM: There you are. We knew it all along.
CUB (writing): "Anger and bitterness overcome the actress even today, when she remembers the tortures she endured. Now, after the first joyful wave of her return to our metropolis has receded and given way to her terrible recollection . . ." (He turns to her.) Well, is it true now?
RITTER: Yes, gentlemen, it's the truth. You know, I was still so much under the influence o£ ... One is so intimidated ... so ...
CUB: Wait. (He writes.) "She is still too intimidated to dare speak about it. Now, back in the land of the free, she sometimes still has the nightmare o£ being in Russia where she had to go through the humiliating experience of being deprived of her civil rights, of free expression of opinion, and of free speech." (He turns to her.) Well, it is true now ?
RITTER: Really, dahling, what a gift you have for interpreting the most secret emotions
CUB: That's better.
HALBERSTAM: Finally, she admits that she suffered ...
FEIGL: She endured ...
CUB: What do you mean, "endured"! She lived through hell.
HALBERSTAM: We got our story. Let's go. We aren't here for the fun of it.
CUB: I'll write the last paragaph in the office. We won't worry about your sending in a correction, right ? That would be all we need.
RITTER: But. dahling! Delighted you came. Come again soon ... Adieu, adieu I
FEIGL: That's a sensible girl. So long, honey. (To the others while leaving.) Here she has survived a nightmare, and doesn't have the courage even to talk about it, poor kid I Elfriede Ritter slumps into a chair.
Another fascinating theme which comes up for significant discussion in the play is the use of chemical weapons, especially gas. Krause is just brutal in attacking the unhumanness of this weapon. Many of the questions he raises in this theme are also quite relevant to our modern weapons on the part of nation states, especially the United States, and also raises questions to and about the tactic of terror in war.
As part of his theme of the dehumanization is a phenomenal short piece is does on a particular rosary that was made on the Italian front. The scene takes place in a Roman Catholic Church.
SEXTON (speaking to tourists): Here you see an interesting devotional gift presented to our holy shrine by two soldiers who fought at Col di Lana: a rosary whose beads are shrapnel bullets. The chain is fashioned from barbed wire. The cross is cut from a burst Italian grenade and has three Italian rifle bullets as pendants. The figure of Christ has been shaped from shrapnel. The cross carries on its back the engraved inscription: "In gratitude. In memory of the war in Italy, Cima d'Oro, July 25, 1917," and the initials of the donor. For prolonged praying it requires a strong hand. Would one of you gentlemen care to lift it ?
VISITOR (trying): Ugh! Damned heavy! (A church bell is ringing.)
SEXTON: Listen! It's ringing for the last time. Today it'll be taken down. We make rosaries from shrapnel, and cannons from church bells. We render unto God what is Caesar's, and unto Caesar what is God's. Everybody does his share.
The very last two paragraphs of the play reveal Kraus’s fundamental purpose in writing this “play.”
I have exposed the heroics of your murderers for the empty shadows they are; I have stripped them of their flesh. But I have given body to their stupidities, their malice, their worthlessness, and have brought all these to life here on the stage. Time washes away the essence of events and would grant amnesty even to the most heinous crime ever committed under the stars; but I have preserved this essence. My ear has recorded the sounds of the deed, my eye the gestures of the talks, and my voice, by merely quoting, has preserved the base chord of this era forever. This is world war.
This is my manifesto to mankind.
The satirical essays are quite revealing of Kraus’s interests and his style. Two of my favorites are one on an exploration to the North Pole and Kraus’s skepticism of the value of such plans. This is reminiscent of our current issues concerning further attempts toward human exploration of Mars. Another very devastating satire is one concerning tourist trips to some of the battle fields of WWI.
After a series of essays there is a section of poetry. The poetry interested me for two different reasons. First, I was interested in the poems themselves. However, since they are presented with the German and English on facing pages, I was able to get some strong sense of Kraus’s famous style. While my German is not strong enough to have read these poems on my own in the original German, it is good enough that with an English translation given, I could then go back and forth from the German to the translation and get some serious sense of the power of Kraus’s German style.
Among these are four I wish to quote since I think they reveal a great deal about Kraus himself and, particularly, the claim of some critics that Kraus’s views are universal and not limited to his own time. (He himself has a proverb to that effect.)
The poem “Your Flaw” reveals how Kraus is suspicious of anything which is too ideal or too perfect, even in a lover.
That flaw of yours, that vent - I love it, dear;
it’s part of you
and ranks with me among your finest features.
When I find out that others have it too,
I look for it and almost see you near
and love all similarly wanting creatures.
If I, for want of you, that want should miss - were we to part –
where would I better find my consolation.
than in that flaw I love with all my heart?
And when you're gone, with such a want as this
the homeliest would win my admiration.
Yet if there came the fairest of the fair,
and flawless she,
my thoughts of you would linger and keep haunting.
No matter what her charms and virtues be,
her fault would be the flaw that wasn't there –
I would not want her if your want were wanting.
There is a certain bitter hopelessness in his poem Here In This Land.
HERE IN THIS LAND
Here in this land no one gets ridicule
but he who tells the truth. He then must stand
defenseless and attract some smirking, cool
disdain. Nothing dishonors in this land.
Here in this land a person's wickedness,
which elsewhere would lead straight to prison's door,
mints him pure gold, brings glory and success,
and garners honor for him evermore.
Here in this land a gauntlet you must run
of petty thieves with deep contempt for you,
who wish to steal your purse and, when it's done,
will try to win, besides, your handshake too.
Here in this land you never will find rest
when fleeing from contaminated schemes,
for to your house the post comes like the pest
and mercilessly kills your pleasant dreams.
Here in this land you strike an idle blow
if you attempt to hit this wily band,
and every knave will grin and let you know
you're his compatriot here in this land.
With a Stopwatch in Hand is a powerful attack on the technology of modern warfare.
WITH STOPWATCH IN HAND
Berlin, 22 September 1916.
On 17 September one of our
submarines sank a fully
loaded enemy troop transport
in the Mediterranean. The
ship went down in 43 seconds.
This is how Death confronts Technology.
Can bravery contribute still to might?
The clock has stopped. The days have turned to night.
0 spare us, god of war, this agony!
That was a sacrifice to the machine
and not to you who hurtled from its hole.
Here stood an instrument without a soul –
your proud accomplice - with victorious mien.
There stands a mortar. He who built that gun
seeks shelter in a trench, a wretched coward.
While giants fall, by midgets overpowered,
the clockwork fights with time to stop its run.
Take heed, and lake it easy. Otherwise
you'll see a cripple sit behind a desk
and push a button with a grin grotesque –
and London disappears. Surprise, surprise!
The storm clouds gather with destructive power.
What was the time when all this came to pass?
The eye sees dimly in the poison gas -
but hark the striking of the zero hour.
With pranks like that to blow our world apart,
keep God that god from picking up the pieces
as Progress stalks with warhead and prosthesis,
stopwatch in hand, and glory in its heart.
A last poem which especially attracted me was Unification. It speaks not only to Kraus’s radical individualism, but so underscores issues that were so alive and important in Austria long before the Anschluss of March 12, 1938.
This talk of merger gets me upset –
I care for no Austro-German reunion.
With Germany I have no communion –
I have not even joined Austria yet.
This is a marvelous volume to give a reader a sense of Karl Kraus’s powerful and challenging body of work. I recommend it to any who wish to develop a better understanding of Vienna at the turn of the last century, and to anyone wishing to better understand Kraus’s important place in that world of great intellectual ferment.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com