Reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s book The Kraus Project, the German poet Michael Hoffmann argues that people call the Austrian satirist, Karl Kraus, brilliant, “though it’s sometimes said with a there-now-go-away-please undertone.” By that Hoffman implies that people all too freely bestow the title of genius on the fin-de-siècle Viennese journalist, because they do not fully comprehend what he is trying to say with his intricate, quotation-drenched, and aphorism-dominated prose. After all, partial comprehension is often a prerequisite for mantled brilliance. If we could comprehend Kraus in his entirety, the title of genius might become superfluous. To many, therefore, to this day, Karl Kraus remains a distant mystery.
To read Karl Kraus is to wander a vast labyrinth. He himself stated, “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” With his magnum opus, The Last Days of Mankind, he appears to be fulfilling this declaration. Described as a “faulted masterpiece” by the historian Edward Timms, this documentary play—written between 1915 and 1922, and dealing with the First World War from Austria-Hungary’s perspective—is filled with bizarre apothegms, outdated vernacular, vitriol, and obscure references to contemporaries often only familiar to diehard historians of the Habsburg Empire. It starts off as a realistic satire observing the reaction of average Viennese to the outbreak of the war and ends expressionistically with talking gas masks, flames, dead horses and a murmuring ‘dead forest.’
Nevertheless, with the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War just around the corner, Kraus’s critique of the mass media and its partial responsibility for prolonging a conflict that ended up claiming more than twenty million lives is probably the most revolutionary insight of the play, albeit not a new one. In 1909, German chancellor Bernhard von Buelow asserted: “Most of the conflicts the world has seen in the past ten decades have not been called forth by princely ambition or ministerial conspiracy but through the passionate agitation of public opinion, which through the press and parliament has swept along the executive.” The surreptitious role that his government played in inciting the press is of course left unmentioned by Buelow.
Consequently, during the war, Kraus saw his principal literary and political task in unveiling the Masken des tragischen Karnevals (the masks of the tragic carnival) of war as he states in the introduction of the The Last Days of Mankind. Kraus attempted to unmask the manipulative doublethink nature of the liberal press that had unreflectively embraced jingoism and military romanticism—despite its proclaimed humanistic and liberal values—and which he considered more dangerous in swaying public opinion towards war because of the media’s alleged use of verhuellte Worte (veiled words). In comparison, Kraus viewed overtly right or leftwing radical publications, those that plainly stated their true agenda, as less malignant.
Already in 1899, in the first issue of his magazine, Die Fackel (the Torch), Kraus established his goal of eine Trockenlegung des Phrasensumpfes (the draining of the swamp of rhetoric). He vehemently rejected the flowery and subjective style of turn of the century journalism and the omnipotence of the feuilleton in the Viennese Neue Freie Presse, the most influential newspaper in Central Europe prior to the First World War. Various scenes and acts of The Last Days of Mankind would also be first published in Die Fackel after the end of the war.
The ornamental style of reporting and its obsession with Genrebilder (genre art or ‘colour stuff’ according to Evelyn Waugh in his satirical Scoop) instead of facts was especially problematic to Kraus. According to him, during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, “Austria was represented on the Balkans by impressionists” consumed with their own subjective feelings and callous to the true horrors of war unfolding around them. In a 1909 essay entitled “The Trial Friedjung,” Kraus also unmasked the secret press campaign launched by the Austrian Foreign Ministry in the Neue Freie Presse, which tried to steer the Austrian public towards a preemptive war against Serbia (or at least the threat thereof) by planting jingoistic essays of the historian Heinrich Friedjung in Austria’s leading liberal newspaper.
The co-option of the liberal media by the reactionary government (as revealed during the Friedjung affair in conjunction with the gaudy reporting during the Balkan Wars) was to Kraus emblematic of the duplicity and frivolity of the liberal elite within the monarchy who were preoccupied with style rather than content. The blind vainglory of this era indicated to Kraus what was to come in August 1914.
Moritz Benedikt and the Neue Freie Presse
One of Kraus’ principal targets in The Last Days of Mankind was Moritz Benedikt, editor-in-chief and owner of the Neue Freie Presse, one of the richest men of the Habsburg Empire and a powerful supporter of the war. Benedikt was the leading example of the surreptitious alliance between the Austrian press and the government. “Whatever is considered to be the ‘public opinion’ in Austria is either dictated or suggested by [Moritz Benedikt] of the Neue Freie Presse.” observed the British correspondent, Wickham Steed, after a ten-year stint as a reporter in Vienna in 1913.
It was partly due to the corrupting influence of men such as Benedikt that the press in the Habsburg Empire was unable to develop a tradition of editorial independence or genuine investigative reporting. The powerful press departments of the K.uK. Ministerium des K.u.K. Hauses und des Auesseren and Kriegsministerium (the foreign and war ministries) supplied Benedikt and his ilk with selective information and furtively dictated “die Blattlinie” (editorial policy). There were of course some exceptions such as the journalist Egon Erwin Kisch who, before the war in 1913, helped uncover the infamous attempts by the government to cover up the espionage activities of Colonel Redl, a spy who revealed secrets to various foreign governments. Nevertheless, censorship and the fear thereof was widespread and the dependence of the press on the goodwill of the government total.
The Ultimate Destroyer of Civilization
To the government’s delight, Moritz Benedikt’s attitude towards the war, or at least Kraus’s depiction of it, was not dissimilar to Lord Copper’s coldhearted declaration in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop: “We think it a very promising little war…We propose to give it fullest publicity.” Kraus thought the malign influence of Benedikt to be so great that he depicted him in the expressionistic grand epilogue of the The Last Days of Mankind as the antichrist or Lord of the Hyenas—the ultimate destroyer of civilization:
Unconquered rage brought aid
To this holiest crusade,
And my pen was its good and faithful sword.
Spite took love by the throat
With every word I wrote,
Now might is life’s true purpose and reward!
Next to Benedikt, Kraus singled out Alice Schalek as a special target for his vitriol. Schalek, the empire’s only female war correspondent, wrote regularly for the Neue Freie Presse from various frontlines and displayed the usual ornamental style obsessed with Genrebilder. She had a singular obsession with heroism and the bravery of the einfacher Mann (common man) and appears regularly in The Last Days of Mankind. In comparison to other correspondents, she did not blatantly fabricate stories, yet her singular obsession with valor often blinded her to the propaganda of the military. For example, Schalek interpreted the loss of Gorizia in 1916—a heavy defeat for Austria on the Southwestern Front against Italy—as “one of the greatest examples of heroism on the Isonzo.”
Nevertheless, she was also able to write critically of the war effort. For example, during the tenth Isonzo battle, she angrily penned that, “Those who stoke this war should—at least once—run through machinegun fire to a hilltop defensive position.” Alice Schalek was eventually dismissed on September 1, 1917 from the War Press Office, presumably for reporting the panicky state of the Austrian-Hungarian Army in Galicia, which was facing the Russians, and because of the tightening of military censorship in the last two years of the war. To Kraus, however, she and the rest of the media had already done enough harm with their embellished dispatches, and he chose her as the symbol of an entire profession, which he judged to be guilty of Gleichgueltigkeit (indifference).
Kraus often took direct passages out of Schalek’s reports and included it in the play illustrating her fact-deficient prose: “He sits as if painted, if he showed no signs of life the work of Defregger, his gorgeous Tyrolean peasants, his antique battle scenes; or Egger-Lienz painting broad-shouldered warriors now! As he lives and breathes, the Common Man! Brave soldiers, what we went through to reach you!”
Repeatedly Kraus also tries to illustrate the one-sided absurdity of Schalek’s reporting style by having her continuously ask the same question in various scenes: “What did you feel?” In one of the most memorable scenes of the play, Schalek visits a seaplane division somewhere on the Austrian Adriatic Coast and talks to a young officer who just returned from a bombing run on Venice. Kraus captures the seductiveness of the war, illustrating Schalek’s complicity in whitewashing false heroics and the horrors of war:
Schalek: And what did you feel at that moment?
Lieutenant: What did I feel at that moment?
Lieutenant: It is strange—like a king who suddenly becomes a beggar. Like a king floating unattainably high above an enemy city, while they’re all lying below, defenceless—unprotected. No one can run, no one can save himself. There is total power. And there’s something majestic about that, everything else recedes into the background; it’s how Nero must have felt.
Schalek: I empathise with you. Have you bombed Venice? Did you have doubts?
Lieutenant: In peacetime I used to go to Venice, I loved it. But since I’ve dropped bombs on it—no trace of false sentimentality. In fact bombing Venice was a special treat for us. We loved it. We went home very chuffed!
Both Benedikt and Schalek serve as the personifications of the voyeuristic lust for slaughter in the The Last Days of Mankind. Yet, Kraus also deals harshly with other war correspondents, such as the famous Alexander Roda-Roda, and almost every other nationality and profession of the Dual Monarchy. Singling out the press and its textual millieu for attack is a testimony to his obsession with language and his quest to expose propaganda.
The principal device for unmasking motives and actions in the play are the détournement of quotations and, more importantly, the schauerliche Kontrasthaftigkeit (eerie contrasts) of articles, statements, and speeches, abridged or—in the spirit of creative license—expanded by Kraus. For example, Pope Benedict XV is seen earnestly praying for peace in one scene while editor-in-chief Benedikt praises the outbreak of war. The juxtaposed common names of the individuals illustrate the ambiguity of both actions and suggest hypocrisy.
The Dark Side of Kraus
Despite what The Last Days of Mankind may insinuate, Kraus was not opposed to the Habsburg Regime per se. At the outbreak of the Great War, he was still a conservative and a monarchist and only gradually discarded his worldview. In 1919, after the dissolution of the monarchy, he emerged as a radical democrat and socialist, as the historian Edward Timms has shown in his biography, Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist, Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna. Despite Die Fackel being the only German-speaking paper hostile to the war from its beginning, Kraus was not a pacifist and often cozied up to military officers and the aristocracy, which is confirmed by his private correspondence. In contrast, in August of 1914 alone, more than fifty thousand jingoist poems per day were sent to German newspapers.
Kraus also had a somewhat dubious relationship with Viennese censorship authorities during the war. In order to clear the nineteen war issues of Die Fackel with the censors, Kraus handed over every single galley proof to the authorities without protest. This is significant because, comparing the issues of Die Fackel and the final version of The Last Days of Mankind, it is obvious that Kraus made substantial revisions to those acts of the play written during the war in order to accommodate his new democratic, antimilitaristic outlook after the breakup of the empire. Had the empire survived, one can speculate that his critique of the empire and the monarchy might have been less severe.
When it came to prioritizing his targets, Kraus may have resorted more to pettiness than defending moral principals. For example, Kraus was especially appalled that Alice Schalek was a woman reporting from the frontlines. He was not alone in this prejudice. In 1917 a misogynous politician in the Reichsrat tried to attribute Schalek’s desire to cover the war as “a lust for adventure driven by the most primitive instincts of an insane female.” Kraus’s depiction of Schalek tellingly reflects this animosity. Also, The Last Days of Mankind is permeated with anti-Semitic remarks when portraying Schalek and Benedict, both of whom were Jewish—as was Kraus. Yet, as Edward Timms has shown in his biography, these attacks do not diminish the validity of Kraus’s attack on a complacent and collaborative press during the war.
Kraus and Orwell
Despite Kraus’s personal shortcomings, The Last Days of Mankind is a prescient play in the sense that Kraus foresaw the dangers of ideologically driven language and the destructive power of a hijacked media abetted by mass hysteria and societal warmongering.
Kraus can be compared with George Orwell, whose influential essay “Politics and the English Language” displays a similar outrage in attacking the misuse and decay of language during war. Orwell’s dictum on political rhetoric could have appeared verbatim in a pre-war issue of Die Fackel, “Political Language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Kraus’s perplexing aphorisms and linguistic legerdemain and Orwell’s sparse prose are two sides of the same argument against political euphemism employed to dehumanize and enslave a population for the sake of a ‘higher good’ or grosse Zeit (extraordinary times). As the more than eight-hundred-page play illustrates, Karl Kraus possessed a rare faculty to dissect complex political and social phenomena with surgical precision and to expose the Masken (masks) of propaganda despite a fatal European euphoria for war. Kraus was passionately resigned, in Swift’s words, “to vex rogues, though it will not amend them.”
This article was originally posted in The National Interest.