The unmasking of the propaganda lies and barbarities of war
Apl. Prof. Dr. Gabriele Sander on the play "The Last Days of Mankind" by Karl Kraus, which is topical again
Ms. Sander, Karl Kraus published his play "The Last Days of Mankind" in 1922, which was considered unplayable, as a reaction to the First World War, in which the absurdity of war is depicted. How does he do that?
Sander: Kraus wanted his tragedy to explore "the deeper truth about war." In its dimensions, the play goes beyond all limits of performability and, with its 220 scenes, is as incomprehensible and monstrous as its subject matter: the First World War. The editor and main author of the magazine "Die Fackel" (The Torch), founded in Vienna in 1899, had made a name for himself as a clear-sighted, sharp-tongued and eloquent critic of the times, who above all had a virtuoso command of the satirical tone. Kraus also worked with the means of satire in his drama "Die letzten Tage der Menschheit" (The Last Days of Mankind) in order to demonstrate the horror and senselessness of the world war and to portray it as a grotesque masquerade of dehumanized figures. In the preface to the first edition of the book, published in May 1922, he remarked: "[...] the content is from the content of the unreal, unthinkable [...] and only in bloody dream preserved years, when operetta figures played the tragedy of mankind. The plot, leading into a hundred scenes and hells, is impossible, jagged, heroless [...]."
Although the drama is seemingly conventionally divided into five acts, each dealing with a year of the war, it only loosely strings together the mostly short scenes, so that it must rather be spoken of as an open drama. In addition, it constantly changes both the location and the characters. By dispensing with central characters in favor of a multiplicity of voices, the play offers an extremely broad spectrum of perspectives and reactions to this first 'total' war in world history. Kraus thus attempts to illuminate both the abysses of barbarism and the absurdities of the supposedly 'great time' in as many facets as possible and to make clear the apocalyptic dimension of the war. Thus, in the epilogue "The Last Night," he stages a kind of dance of death and lets the world go down in a shower of blood, ashes, and meteors.
Contemporaries described Karl Kraus thus: "This is the strictest and greatest man living in Vienna today. No one finds mercy before his eyes. In his lectures he attacked everything that was bad and corrupt. [...] Every word, every syllable in the Torch is from him. It is like a court of law. He himself accuses and he himself judges. There is no defense counsel, that is superfluous, he is so just that no one is accused who does not deserve it. He is never wrong, he cannot be wrong at all. (...)." Already after the outbreak of the First World War, Kraus turned decisively against this war. How did he do that?
Sander: At first, Kraus reacted to the outbreak of war with stunned silence. He fell silent for several months in the face of the enthusiasm for war that also gripped many prominent intellectuals and artists. In early October 1914, he wrote to his friend Sidonie Nádherný: "I think the spirits of the nations are still spiritually deep under the sergeant." It was not until December 1914 that a new issue of the "Torch" appeared again after a five-month hiatus. It contained the speech he had given in November, "In this great time," in which - it says at the beginning - "precisely what one could not have imagined happens." Kraus goes on to speak of a "noisy time, droning with the ghastly symphony of deeds." His text, which is as prophetic as it is critical of civilization, is also a pamphlet against the contemporary press and the "misused language" that is instrumentalized for euphemistic or untruthful war reporting: "The dispatch is a means of war like the grenade." He justified his initial silence in December 1915 with "revulsion against the other word, against that which accompanies the deed, causes it, and follows it, against the great word muck of the world." During the war, Kraus made no secret of his pacifist stance. Because of his comments critical of the government and the war, some issues were confiscated, i.e. they fell victim to censorship.
The special thing about this tragedy is the collage-like compilation of text material. What did he use?
Sander: In his self-image as a chronicler of his time, Kraus began in the summer of 1915 to collect materials for the planned piece, e.g. editorials from daily newspapers as well as extra sheets, which during the war were often published several times a day with the time, also documents such as daily military orders, transport tags for the severely wounded, court rulings, advertising slips, and so on. He clipped articles, photographs, and illustrations from newspapers and magazines and archived wartime postcards, such as one with the warmongering slogans "Every shot a Russ'," "Every thrust a Franzos'," and "Every kick a Britt'." Some of the first scenes Kraus wrote for his tragedy "Die letzten Tage der Menschheit" (The Last Days of Mankind), beginning in 1915, he had printed in advance in the "Fackel".
How he dealt with the collected text material can be seen in a contrasting parallel print from October 1915: Alongside the reprint of the "Pope's (Benedict XV) Call for Peace to the Belligerents" from the "Osservatore Romano" appeared "Benedict's Prayer" in the left-hand column and "Benedict's Dictation" in the right-hand column under the heading "Two Voices" - a sarcastic commentary on the war carnage in the Adriatic written by Moritz Benedict, the editor of the "Neue Freie Presse." Kraus thus combines documentary and satirical text elements. He also adopted the principle of collage and montage for his drama, more than a third of which consists of quotations. The preface says: "The most improbable conversations that are held here have been spoken verbatim; the most lurid inventions are quotations. (...) Phrases stand on two legs - people kept only one."
Particularly drastic is the photo of the execution of former Reich deputy Cesare Battisti in Trento in 1916 in the first issue. Did the reader also need to be reminded pictorially of the horrors of war?
Sander: As a writer and media critic, Kraus naturally knew about the suggestive power of images. For the frontispiece of the first edition of the book, for example, he chose the official photograph - distributed as a postcard during the war - of the execution of Cesare Battisti, a member of the Austrian parliament from Trentino, by the Viennese executioner Josef Lang on July 12, 1916. Battisti was a representative of irredentism, a nationalist movement that had taken up the cause of liberating Italian-populated areas such as Trentino and Istria. The accusation against him was that he had "defected" to his Italian compatriots during the war. After a short trial, he was executed for high treason in Trento. Kraus has the character of Nörglers comment on this event in his play as an expression of Austrian chauvinism:
"The Austrian countenance is every countenance. (...) It smiles and grins depending on the weather. (...) But especially it is that of the executioner. The Viennese executioner who, on a picture postcard showing the dead Battisti, holds his paws over the head of the executed man, a triumphant oil idol of satisfied comfort called 'Mir-san-mir'. Grinning faces of civilians and those whose last possession is honor crowd tightly around the corpse, just so they can all get on the picture postcard. (...) Today it is a group picture of the imperial and royal people in the shop windows. Today, it is displayed in the shop windows of all hostile cities as a group picture of imperial and royal mankind, a monument to the gallows humor of our executioners, re-evaluated as a scalp of Austrian culture.
Let us take a look at the characters. Kraus has incorporated almost all social classes and also notable real people into this tragedy. Which ones are particularly striking?
Sander: In the creation of the far more than 1,000 characters, it is noticeable that they are mostly strongly typified and de-individualized or even seem like caricatures. Some of them are real people, others are fictitious figures, some of which have meaningful names, such as Major Metzler, Captain de Massacré, Bambula von Feldsturm, Fettköter or the Durchhalter family. In addition to individual animal and symbolic figures (e.g. "Chor der Hyänen"), Kraus mainly has representatives of the most diverse social classes appear, from political, ecclesiastical and military dignitaries to petty bourgeois and beggars, from the German and Austrian emperors to generals, factory owners and professors to soldiers, invalids, waiters, prostitutes and pushers. He unmasks them all through their use of language typical of their class and milieu by putting characteristic phrases into their mouths, in which, for example, martial war propaganda is echoed or xenophobic, racist prejudices are expressed. Most of the characters do not have identification potential, nor are they supposed to have it, but rather to push the reading or theater audience into a distanced attitude. In this respect, his strategy resembles the concept of "epic theater" later developed by Bertolt Brecht, an admirer of Kraus.
Among the characters present in all the acts is the Austrian travel and war correspondent Alice Schalek, who claims of herself: "The 208 photographs of corpses legitimize me well enough before posterity; it will not doubt that I was in the midst of the heroic experience." Her patriotic eyewitness reports from the battlefields - partly reproduced in authentic, partly in fictitious form - make Kraus the target of his media criticism. In contrast, the figure of the Nörglers can be seen as his alter ego - a parade role for Helmut Qualtinger, by the way. In conversations with the optimist, the Nörgler comments on the events of the war with biting irony, often also with sarcasm and cynicism. He polemicizes particularly sharply against the slogans of perseverance and the hollow patriotic phrases of sacrifice and heroic death, and drastically demonstrates to his uncritically affirmative dialogue partner the devastating effects of the material battles and especially the use of poison gas. The grumbler not only attacks those politically and militarily responsible as well as the crowd of fellow travelers and war profiteers, but also exposes the writing guild, including prominent Austrian authors such as Hofmannsthal, Werfel and others. He reacts with hateful derision above all to the writers of war poetry: "The contemporary beast, as it comfortably reaches for the death-dealing machine, also reaches for verse to glorify it. What has been smeared together in this most de-spiritualized time - it would add up to a million tons of sunk spirit every day (...)."
The work was considered unplayable, according to Kraus' own account. Until 1964, the rights administrators adhered to this as well. Since then, there have been repeated attempts, but there is still no complete staging. Why do directors take on this work again and again to this day?
Sander: According to Kraus, the tragedy, which "according to earthly time measures comprises about ten evenings," was intended for "a Martian theater," i.e., it was conceived less as a stage drama than as a drama for reading. Nevertheless, Kraus not only recited from the play himself but, despite his misgivings, also participated in the performance of the epilogue at the Neue Wiener Bühne in 1923 and adapted the text for the theater in 1929/30 through massive cuts and other interventions. This stage version, reduced to 74 scenes, made it possible to perform it on a single, albeit rather long, evening of theater. After initial productions in the 1960s and 1970s, more and more new performances have followed in recent decades - right up to the recent present. Despite its enormous dimensions, abundance of material and complexity, the anti-war play has evidently lost none of its fascination and continues to pose a special challenge today in bringing the collective madness of war to the stage. Contemporary directors treat the monumental drama text as a kind of quarry from which they make an individual selection of scenes. This is true, for example, of Paulus Manker's production, which lasts more than seven hours (including intermissions). According to his own statement, his selection criterion was the "sensuality" of the scenes. The first performance took place in 2018 in the so-called Serbenhalle in Wiener Neustadt, and in 2021 this production was then seen in Berlin, in the industrial monument known as the Belgium Hall in Siemensstadt. The spectacular 'theater event' can be witnessed there again from June to September 2022.
After 77 years, there is once again a war in Europe with the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians. Are "The Last Days of Mankind" more topical today than ever?
Sander: Karl Kraus' play is about exposing the propaganda lies and barbarities of the First World War, about revealing the causes and consequences of this break with civilization. Historians such as George F. Kennan have called this war the "primordial catastrophe of the 20th century," which divided the world into a before and after. Today, too, there is talk of a turning point in the light of the war unleashed by Putin in Ukraine, which has shaken not only the European but also the international power structure to its foundations and gives rise to the worst fears. In Germany, too, we can see how the outbreak of war has led to a change of course in foreign, security, economic and energy policy virtually overnight. As a relentless critic of language, Kraus would certainly have taken aim at Putin's equally specious and cynical justification for the military invasion, which the Kremlin leader has declared to be a "special operation to protect the Russian population in Ukraine." His propagandistic tactics include the systematic disinformation of the population by the state-owned media and the perversion of language. In recent weeks, for example, we have witnessed Putin's speeches in which he refers to his soldiers as "peacekeepers" and denounces the democratically elected Ukrainian government as fascist. Meanwhile, in Russia, it has become life-threatening to use the vocabulary "war" to describe the invasion of Ukraine in public.
Uwe Blass (interview from 11.03.2022)
Gabriele Sander studied German language and literature, general linguistics, and Indo-Germanic studies at the Westphalian Wilhelms University in Münster, earning her doctorate in 1987. She then worked on various literary exhibitions and linguistic and literary projects (including critical editions of works by Kafka, Döblin, and Böll). Until 2020, she was a research assistant and lecturer at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal.