By Richard J. Evans Nov. 25, 2015 4:55 p.m. ET
The epic play “The Last Days of Mankind,” now available in a comprehensive new translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms, is widely regarded as the masterpiece of Karl Kraus (1874-1936), a writer who is still relatively little known outside his native Austria. Kraus was a loner, allergic to any kind of community, and his collaborative projects seldom lasted very long. His journalistic attacks on a variety of targets elicited numerous lawsuits and led on one occasion to his being physically assaulted in the street. Thanks to family wealth, he was able in 1899 to found his own magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch), for which he recruited contributors such as Oskar Kokoschka, Heinrich Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind. Even this level of collaboration was too much for him, however, and from 1911 Die Fackel with rare exceptions published only his own work.
Kraus’s specialty was satire and polemic. Fearless and feared, owing allegiance to no political party or tendency, he was above all else a moralist. He directed his invective against pretentious newspapers, lazy journalists, corrupt politicians and intolerant nationalists. His targets included Zionism, the creation of Theodor Herzl (Kraus publicly renounced his Judaism at the turn of the century); psychoanalysis, newly invented by Sigmund Freud; and sexual hypocrisy and repressiveness, demonstrated in the crusade of his erstwhile mentor, the German magazine editor Maximilian Harden, against the homosexual entourage of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Kraus became famous not only through Die Fackel, which he continued to publish into the 1920s and early 1930s and which had a circulation of 40,000 at the height of its fame, but also through hundreds of public readings and dramatic one-man shows, which attracted audiences of thousands. He faced his greatest challenge when Austria declared war on Serbia following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, leading to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914.
While fellow writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal hurried to place their talents in the services of the Austro-Hungarian cause, Kraus fell into silence for a number of months before starting to publish critical articles on the representation of the war in the press, provoking intervention by the official censors on numerous occasions. What angered him in particular was the heroic language used by reporters, columnists and propagandists, a language that concealed the brutal realities of the war on the eastern and Italian fronts and, increasingly, as the Allied blockade of the Central Powers took effect, on the home front as well.
While Die Fackel was getting into repeated difficulties, Kraus began to draft “The Last Days of Mankind,” writing most of it before the war finished. As he wrote, his growing disillusion with the war pushed him to a more left-wing political stance, so that the anti-Semitic tone of the earlier parts gradually vanished and his antiwar, anti-Habsburg rhetoric grew shriller. Unable to publish the play during the war itself, he brought it out in four special issues of Die Fackel in 1918-19, then published an expanded version in 1922. By this time it had grown to monstrous *proportions, extending, in Messrs. Bridgham and Timms’s translation, to over 600 pages and losing any structure or coherence it might originally have possessed.
Kraus’s prime target in the play was the Austrian press. The war, indeed, was for him a kind of media event, in which irresponsible and hypocritical journalists whipped up mindless patriotism and xenophobia in the unthinking crowd and drove the war on in a red haze of unrealism. Early on in the play, a mob storms and trashes a hairdressing salon because the owner’s name is Serbian. The crowd is egged on by the historian Heinrich Friedjung, a real figure who in a famous court case a few years before had been shown to have used forged documents in accusing prominent Austrian politicians of being in the pay of the Serbian government. “Unless I’m very much mistaken,” Kraus has him telling the crowd, “documents relating to the Slovensky Jug plot for a Greater Serbia will be found in this hairdresser’s—the plot I started to uncover back in 1908.” The whole passage relentlessly pillories the unscrupulous use of conspiracy theories by rabid Austrian nationalists to further their own ends.
Kraus was equally biting in his contempt for the impersonal language in which death, destruction and human misery were coldly described in official documents—“human raw material,” “holding on to the bitter end,” “doing one’s bit” and so on. He ridiculed the sermons with which priests justified the war and pilloried the moral irresponsibility of officers who talked of war as if it was a kind of hunting party. “Universal conscription has turned mankind into a passive noun,” one of the play’s characters notes. Austrians had been reduced to “cogs in the machine.”
As the war went on, Austria-Hungary came more and more under the thumb of its German ally. Kraus’s play portrayed the Germans as rabid militarists and annexationists: “The moment has now arrived,” he has a German liberal politician saying, “when the result of the war can only be a peace based on the expansion of our borders to the east, to the west, and overseas, with Germany as a world power setting the agenda.” While the aged Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph (“that formidable nonentity”) talks, sings and signs documents in his sleep (“Can’t stand the Prussians—they tricked me into it!” he mutters somnambulistically), Kaiser Wilhelm II rants and raves in a militaristic frenzy, declaring that the collapse of the Russian armies in 1917 is due to divine intervention. In a withering parody of the flattery that constantly surrounded the Kaiser, Kraus has his generals declare: “When we make our breakthrough, with the help of God and poison gas, we owe it exclusively to Your Majesty’s brilliant strategic planning.”
In recurrent dialogues between two anonymous characters, the “Optimist” and the “Grumbler” (a partial version of Kraus himself), the pretensions of the craven press and the falsehoods of the government are mercilessly punctured. The war, says the Grumbler, is “a daily lie out of which printers ink flowed like blood, the one feeding the other, pouring out like a delta into the great ocean of insanity.” Horrifically injured soldiers lurk in the background while journalists prattle on about deadlines and column inches. Much of the effect of “The Last Days of Mankind” comes from juxtapositions of propaganda with realities such as these.
Kraus’s play was perhaps the first docudrama, in which genuine documents were combined with a fictional representation of real events. Could it ever work onstage? The play has nothing resembling a plot or even a progression of events; perhaps it is best regarded as a verbal and dramatic mine from which chunks can be quarried and rearranged to deliver something more coherent, more intelligible and more polished.
Kraus himself thought the play “would take some ten evenings” to perform but recognized that it did not really lend itself to the theater, remarking that it was “intended for a theater on Mars.” The modern reader has to agree. Kraus himself thought “The Last Days of Mankind” unperformable because “theatregoers on planet earth would find it unendurable.” But in fact the main reasons were, and remain, practical. Quite apart from its inordinate length, the play has a vast number of scene changes that would be impossible to manage. In Act III, just to take one example, we move from Scene 24 to Scene 31 in fewer than three pages: beginning with a conversation between two followers of a conservative newspaper to “In front of the War Ministry” (a mere six lines) to a crowd of 50 draft dodgers on Vienna’s Ringstrasse (one line), back to “In front of the War Ministry” (six lines again), to inside the Ministry, then to “Innsbruck: a restaurant” (four lines), “Market square in Grodno, Belarus” (another crowd), and finally “a German front unit.” This would be impossible to manage in a live theatrical performance.
In contrast to these very brief scenes, the collage technique used by Kraus leads to the inclusion of some very long documents that would lull an audience to sleep if they were read out in the theater in full. Act V, Scene 54, for example, has the Grumbler reading a document that goes on for more than six pages. The speech by an Austrian general at a ceremonial banquet that constitutes the next scene is four pages long. And even if these scenes could be adapted, as they might be in the 21st century, for film or television, the 50-odd “apparitions” that conclude the play are completely impossible to stage in any medium, moving as they do from a mountain path with “thousands of carts” and “an enormous mass of humanity” to the dining car of the Balkan Express, a winter scene in the Carpathians, “a turnip field in Bohemia,” a bomb falling on a school, and a procession of gas masks. Another scene has the instruction: “Twelve hundred horses emerge from the sea, come ashore, and set off at a trot,” all speaking in unison.
As these elaborate directions indicate, “The Last Days of Mankind” demands a cast of thousands. Most of the characters are unidentified in the dialogue, so that a theater audience would with rare exceptions find it impossible to guess who they were unless the management supplied surtitles as opera houses do, distracting the audience from the action. The characters in any case are not real characters at all. They are merely the mouthpieces for documents reprinted by Kraus: “The document takes human shape; reports come alive as characters and characters expire as editorials,” he wrote in his preface to the play: “the newspaper column has acquired a mouth that spouts monologues; platitudes stand on two legs, unlike men left with only one.”
Kraus himself cut the play by three-quarters to make a performance version, put on the stage in 1928. He rearranged some scenes to give it more chronological coherence and deleted many others, including all the discussions between the Optimist and the Grumbler. An English version of this edition appeared in 1974. In 1982 there was a production by the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, repeated the next year at the Edinburgh Festival, of scenes specially translated by Robert MacDonald, later broadcast by the BBC. It had a huge effect on the historian Niall Ferguson, who saw it as a college student and rated it “certainly the most powerful theatrical experience I have ever had. . . . As I left the theater that night,” he later wrote, “I resolved that I must teach myself German, read Kraus’s play in the original and try to write something about him and about the war.” A college friend of mine who attended the same production told me: “Really long, chaotic, loud, hugely energetic. Didn’t really have much of a clue what was going on but just carried away by the momentum of it all. . . . Immense sense of relief when it was over.”
Kraus’s original German presents many challenges to the translator, especially perhaps its incorporation of Viennese slang and its rendering in prose of a variety of accents. Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms opt to put these colloquialisms into present-day American, as if the action was set not in Vienna but in the Bronx. “Look,” says one character in the prologue, “d’ya recognize those broads there?” In a rival translation currently in progress, by Michael Russell, available online, this is simply rendered as “Look! Do you recognize those two over there?” In Act II Scene I an untranslatable derogatory term for Italians, “Katzelmacher,” is translated by Mr. Russell as “Greaseballs” and by Messrs. Bridgham and Timms as “dagoes,” which is just as serviceable, except that the latter translation has “them dagoes” and omits the final phrase, “Also natürlich!,” which appears in Mr. Russell’s version as “That’s their nature, isn’t it?” One can’t help feeling that the attempt to use modern English colloquialisms to express the Austrian everyday language of a century ago is misguided, and the plainer version is likely to last longer. And if the intention is to produce a text for performing, surely it’s better to leave matters such as pronunciation to the actors rather than prescribing the accents they should use.
These problems of translation stem from the play’s deep anchoring in the street life of Vienna and the multinational cacophony of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was born in 1917 and grew up in Vienna in the 1920s, wrote in one of his last essays: “For Viennese of my age, ‘The Last Days,’ despite all allusions to forgotten figures and forgotten events of the day, is comprehensible, even taken for granted. But this is hardly the case for others, particularly for non-Austrian readers.” This is certainly true. Even Hobsbawm’s phenomenal memory must have struggled at times to identify figures from a time when he was under 2 years of age. Messrs. Bridgham and Timms provide a combined glossary and index, but uninitiated readers will find themselves constantly turning to the back of the book to try and figure out who’s who, and the notes could often have done with some amplification. A full, page-by-page list of Kraus’s sources would have been even more helpful.
Among students and practitioners of modern Austrian and German history and literature, “The Last Days of Mankind” has for many years enjoyed cult status, helped immeasurably by Edward Timms’s lifelong advocacy and in particular by his magnificent two-volume study “Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist.” Kraus and his work have influenced a wide variety of writers, from Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti to Thomas Szasz and Jonathan Franzen. On hearing of his death in 1936, Bertolt Brecht’s verdict was: “As the epoch raised its hand to end its own life, he was the hand.” One of Kraus’s own last works was a bitter satire on Nazism, whose opening words, famously, were: “Nothing occurs to me about Hitler.”
But satire is perhaps the least durable of all art forms. It can only transcend its own time and reach a wider audience if it frees itself from the shackles of contemporaneity and addresses universal topics in universal terms, like Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” or, in a more savage mode, his “Modest Proposal.” Even George Orwell’s two masterpieces, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” still assigned reading in English schools, now require elaborate explanations of the history of the Russian Revolution and the nature of Stalinist and Nazi rule before children can understand them.
Judged in the court of literary immortality, “The Last Days of Mankind” ultimately fails these tests of universality and durability. As an indictment of the misery and futility of war and the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of its advocates, there is more power in the 28 lines of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” than in the hundreds of pages of Kraus’s magnum opus. For all its sophistication and its flashes of bitter humor, “The Last Days of Mankind” remains in the end a provincial work, unlikely ever to enter the central canon of world literature.
—Mr. Evans, a former Regius professor of history at Cambridge, is the author of “The Third Reich in History and Memory.”