Karl Kraus, the Press, and War

The great Austrian satirist's biting critique of a liberal press that embraced militarism during the First World War.

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and 1922, and dealing with the First World War from Austria-Hungary’s perspective—is filled with bizarre apothegms, outdated vernacular, vitriol, and obscure references to contemporaries often only familiar to diehard historians of the Habsburg Empire.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