Experience Austria through Literature - Part V:
Writing under Nazi rule & post-war Literature

Literature of the Nazi Era (1938 to 1945)

During the Nazi reign in Austria, all forms of written text were tightly controlled and censored. Prose, drama, poetry and any kind of journalistic essays were constrained or shaped by Nazi ideology. Common motives were the moral development of individuals in "Germanic" (often rural) setting, romanticised views on the life of farmers, soldiers and labourers and national pathos.

Literature from this period should not be read without a prone interest in the circumstances under which it was produced and I think that it requires a specialist interest in the subject that I don't have. In any case, the Nazi cultural policy prevented a free development of the arts; therefore, by 1945, a new chapter in German literature started.

In Germany, this is called the "Stunde Null" ("hour zero"). In Austria, there were tendencies to continue traditions from the time before the war and the "gap" between pre- and post-war literature is less pronounced.

Austrian Literature just after 1945

Immediately after the war, there are several different branches or groups of writers active in Austria. The old generation is divided into those that have collaborated with or adapted to the Nazi reign (like Heimito von Doderer or the mentioned Karl Heinrich Waggerl) and those that have left and returned, survived the camps or managed to survive otherwise (like Hans Weigel or Theodor Kramer). But there is also a group of young writers, a critical, new generation.

It is these in particular who will contribute to German literature beyond Austria; the most important writers of this time are Paul Celan, Erich Fried, Ilse Aichinger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Hans Carl Artmann, Helmut Qualtinger. Their work is often concerned with the crimes of the Nazi period and the crimes committed by their parental generation. Later authors from Austria include Peter Handke, Barbara Frischmuth, Elfriede Jelinek, Ernst Jandl, Thomas Bernhard, Franz Innerhofer, Christoph Ransmayer and Michael Köhlmeier.

Paul Celan

Paul Celan (1920 to 1970) was born in Czernowitz (in today's Ukraine) to Austrian (German-speaking) Jews. His parents and most of his family is murdered in the Holocaust. Celan lived in Bukarest and Vienna until 1948, when he emigrated to Paris where he worked as a writer and lector. His poetry is concerned with esoteric, dark, symbolist ideas and influenced by surrealism and early expressionism.

His language gets increasingly "dense" in the course of a poem, he destroys words, arranges syllables and sounds to poems. In one of his most famous poems, "Die Todesfuge" ("Fugue of Death"), Celan deals with the death camp Auschwitz. Celan committed suicide in Paris in 1970.

Erich Fried

Erich Fried (1921 to 1988) has a similar story; he, too, is of Jewish descent and most of Fried's family died in concentration camps. Fried emigrated to London, where he lived and wrote, in clear and concise language, poetry with political intentions. A left-wing pacifist, Fried responds to the 1968 student movement and the Vietnam war in his collection of poems "und Vietnam und".

Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann (1926 to 1973) wrote poetry that dealt with love, death and departure, insecurity, vulnerability and danger. Her own experiences witnessing the Anschluss and World War II are considered to be crucial for her work, which was hyped by critiques in the 1950ies. In 1973, she burns to death in her bed in Rome - the cause of the fire remain unknown, but nourished the fame and legend of Bachmann. A collection of her poems was published as "Anrufung des großen Bären" (couldn't find an English translation).

Helmut Qualtinger

Helmut Qualtinger (1928 to 1987) was an actor, comedian and writer. He is still known and loved by a wide part of the Austrian society for his character "Herr Karl" (Mister Karl), a satirical figure, a bourgeois opportunist that adapted to the Nazi rule and later, after the War, portrays himself as a harmless victim of the circumstances.

The Herr Karl texts are often seen in the tradition of the Wiener Volkstheater, von Horvath's and Kraus' writings. You might remember the last public role of Qualtinger: He played a fat monk drowning in a barrel of blood in "The Name of the Rose" in 1987.

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Further Reading

A detailed History of Austria in 10 parts

Reading Austria: Which books to choose

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