Karl Kraus, the Press, and War

March 27, 2014 Topic: MediaSociety Region: Austria

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.

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.”

Franz-Stefan Gady is a senior fellow at the EastWest Institute, where he was a program associate and founding member of the Worldwide Cybersecurity Initiative. Follow him on Twitter (@HoansSolo).

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Miloš Šejn by drawing Oskar Kokoschka / Matěj Baťha (photo). CC BY-SA 3.0.