Experience Austria through Literature - Part IV:
Written Words between WWI and WWII

Naturalism, impressionism, expressionism and other modern styles were continued and to a varying extent developed after 1918. The period between 1918 and the Anschluss in 1938 was dominated by the shock of losing an empire, severe economic problems, the bloodshed of WWI and tensions between conservatives, socialists and later nationalist fascists.

Important Austrian writers of that period were Karl Kraus (a Jewish writer that was the editor of the "Fackel", a literature journal), Robert Musil, Johannes Freumbichler, Joseph Roth, Franz Werfel, Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig (as mentioned above), Jura Soyfer, Ödön von Horvath, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Karl Heinrich Waggerl, Hermann Broch and the - arguably "Austrian" - Franz Kafka and Elias Canetti. As one can see from this long list, these few years were productive ones for Austrian literature. Here some short outlines of the writers I haven't mentioned before:

Robert Musil

Robert Musil (1880 to 1942) studied engineering and had a PhD in philosophy. Then he decided to become a writer and almost starved to death due to bad reviews and a lack of sales. His work is typical for his time insofar as it reflects on the death of the Habsburg empire, the social changes concerned with it and the struggle of an individual with life in this World of change. Only after his death Musil received positive reviews, and his opus magnum "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften" ("The Man without Qualities") is considered to be one of the most important Austrian novels of the 20th century. Musil died in a very humble environment in exile in Switzerland.

Johannes Freumbichler

Johannes Freumbichler (1881 to 1949) was the grandfather of Thomas Bernhard (see below) and lived for a long time in Seekirchen and Henndorf (the village where I grew up, by the way). He wrote novels with traditional, rural settings, but with a non-idealised, strictly ethical approach that contradicted the romanticising view of conservatives and Austro-fascists. His most significant novel is "Philomena Ellenhub" from 1937.

Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth (1894 to 1939) was a Galician Jew who said about influences on his work: "Mein stärkstes Erlebnis war der Krieg und der Untergang meines Heimatlandes, des einzigen, das ich je besessen: der Österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie." ("My most intense experience was the war and the end of my motherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austrian-Hungarian Empire." Roth had a difficult family background, quit his studies in Vienna in 1916 to become a soldier and worked as a journalist after WWI.

He turned somewhat socialist, but later, impressed by a journey to Russia, got disillusioned by socialism and turned Catholic. He suffered from depressions and was an alcoholic (a Jewish, monarchist, Catholic, alcoholic intellectual - it doesn't get more Austrian than this). He anticipated the disaster of WWII and the Holocaust, emigrated to Paris in 1933, hoped for a restitution of the monarchy.

His epic novels deal with the fate of individuals and families, often over several generations, during the fall and destruction of the Empire. His most important works, "Radetzkymarsch" ("The Radetzky March") and "Die Kapuzinergruft" ("The Emperor's Tomb") glorify the Austrian past. Nevertheless, they are interesting testimonies of Austria's past and the way many Austrians felt and still feel about it.

Franz Werfel

Franz Werfel (1890 to 1945) was another secular Austrian of Jewish descent with Catholic affiliation that started as an expressionist poet and later wrote mostly drama and novels. His works deal with psychoanalysis (being a good Viennese), human behaviour, historical events and the way people deal with values and ethical norms. On a pilgrimage to Lourdes he promised to write down the story of Bernadette Soubirous in case he could escape from the Nazis - which he did. Altogether, Werfel wrote 15 plays, many novellas and essays and eleven novels . He died in California and remains popular, though controversial in Austria.

Jura Soyfer

Jura Soyfer (1912 to 1939) took the tradition of the "Wiener Volkstheater" as it was known from Raimund or Nestroy. Similar to the original play, he used them to get around censorship and thereby, revived the satirical tradition of Viennese drama. This influenced the cabaret scene of Vienna. Being Jewish, Soyfer was deported and killed in the concentration camp Buchenwald. He is also known for his contribution to the "Dachaulied".

Ödön von Horvath

Ödön von Horvath (1901 to 1938) was the son of Hungarian diplomats and a true child of the Empire. His most important novella is "Jugend ohne Gott" (translated, same title in English), in which he describes the way in which school kids get corrupted by a cold and calculating regime. One student kills another on a paramilitary training camp and commits suicide when a teacher uncovers the culprit.

It is a testimony of the social environment through which adolescence was shaped by a fascist regime. It was written on the premises of the German writer Carl Zuckmayer in Henndorf (where Johannes Freumbichler lived and I grew up, as stated above). The coolest thing about von Horvath is the way he died: he was killed on a walk by a branch that fell off a tree on the Champs Elyssee in Paris in 1938 (the one Austrian writer that didn't commit suicide or get killed in a concentration camp).

Hugo von Hoffmannsthal

Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874 to 1929) was of Jewish descent and started with symbolist poetry, later he continued with a career as novelist and dramatist. Culturally productive beyond writing, he and his friend Max Reinhardt were the key figures in founding the Salzburg Festival and shaping it in the 1920ies.

Karl Heinrich Waggerl

Karl Heinrich Waggerl (1897 to 1973) wrote stories, novellas and essays set in a romanticised, rural environment. Much of his work is at least partly autobiographical and deeply rooted in his alpine home in the south of the Salzburg province. Respected as a preserver and re-newer of folk culture and traditions, he is also still remembered for is public support of the Anschluss to Nazi-Germany.

Hermann Broch

Hermann Broch (1886 to 1951) wrote mostly epic novels dealing with the loss of values and moral in the German bourgeoisie and the role of art in situations of crisis. Broch is also regarded to be one of the most important Austrian writers of "exile literature", consisting of writers that fled central Europe and the Nazi reign.

His last novel "Der Tod des Vergil" ("The Death of Virgil") is a historical novel dealing with the last hours in the life of Vergil. The dying poet lost faith in the society of his days and tells the reader through inner monologues about his intentions to destroy his opus magnum, the "Aeneas". In the end, he engages in a conversation with Emperor Augustus and hands the manuscript over before he dies.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 to 1926), born in Prague, writes in a strictly counter-naturalist tradition, to him a writer is isolated from society which cannot provide a home or identity for a true artist. Rilke travelled extensively, worked as a secretary for Rodin, remains politically neutral - some might say ignorant - and combines elements of symbolism (ideals, metaphors, attention to details) with elements of impressionism (collages of images and experiences) and created poetry, novels and essays.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka (1883 to 1924) was a German-speaking (thus "Austrian"?) Jew from Prague and deeply rooted in this city. Austrians were a minority of only 7 percent, but typically in high positions. Being Jewish Austrian isolated Kafka, who became a lawyer and worked for an insurance company, even more. He had very difficult relationships to his job, father and women - all reflected in his writings, that deal with nightmarish loss of power, oppression, inferiority and guilt. Kafka suffered not only from emotional problems, but also from tuberculosis and died in a sanatorium near Vienna.

Elias Canetti

For making Elias Canetti (1904 to 1994) an Austrian, you have to be even more generous; born in the Empire to Sephardi Jews in a region that belongs to Bulgaria today, he was a native speaker of Ladino. Later, he wrote in German, lived in Manchester, Zurich and Vienna, where he studied chemistry. After earning a PhD, he worked as a translator and journalist and was in touch with many of the Viennese intellectuals of his days, including some of the writers mentioned above.

In 1938, he emigrated via Paris to London, where he stayed for the rest of his life, writing and studying the role of the individual in totalitarian masses. In 1981, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature. For Austrian relevance in his work, I recommend "Die Blendung" ("Auto-da-Fe" or "The Tower of Babel"), the story of bibliophile sinologist who loses his mind and commits suicide by burning himself and his library.

The loss of rationale is one important motive of the novel, but also the way in which language locks individuals into the outline of their own experience. This scepticism about the "functionality" of language is a typical feature of Austrian literature, as mentioned before.

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Further Reading

A detailed History of Austria in 10 parts

Reading Austria: Which books to choose

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