Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Avant-Garde in a Different Key: Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind




Marjorie Perloff


My business is to pin down the Age between quotation marks.

What has been proposed here is nothing less than a drainage system for the huge swamps of phraseology.[1]


Act 1, scene 1. The stage directions read, “Vienna. The Ringstrasse promenade at Sirk Corner. Flags wave from the buildings. Soldiers marching by are cheered by the onlookers. General excitement. The crowd breaks up into small groups.”[2] The newsboys with their “Extra Extra,” announcing the outbreak of war, are interrupted by a drunk demonstrator who shouts “Down with Serbia! Hurrah for the Hapsburgs! Hurrah! For S-e-r-bia!” and is immediately kicked in the pants for his mistake (LTM, p. 69). A crook and a prostitute exchange insults, even as two army contractors, talking of possible bribes the rich will use to avoid the draft, cite Bismarck’s words, in Neue Freie Presse (Vienna’s major newspaper at the time of the assassination of the archduke in Serbia), to the effect that the Austrians deserve kissing. One officer tells another that war is “unanwendbar” (of no use) when he really means, as his friend points out, “unabwendbar” (unavoidable) (LTM, pp. 70–71). A patriotic citizen praises the coming conflict as a holy war of defense against “encirclement” by hostile forces, and the crowd responds by making up rhymes (in Viennese dialect) denigrating the enemy (LTM, p. 72).

If this dialogue, written in 1915, strikes us as cleverly mimetic of street slang, think again; for the rhymed insults to the Russians, French, and British were actually taken from a German cartoon picture postcard (25 August 1914), in which two soldiers wearing spiked helmets (here designated as Willi and Karl) are attacking the enemy.[3]

Reframed, the verses appear in what is probably the first—and perhaps the greatest—documentary drama written: Karl Kraus’s devastating Die Letzen Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind). Kraus’s dialogue, as in the scene above, sounds colloquial and nothing if not “natural,” representing as it does a variety of linguistic registers based on social class, ethnicity, geographical origin, and profession. But a large part of the play is drawn from actual documents, whether newspaper dispatches, editorials, public proclamations, the minutes of political meetings, or manifestos, letters, picture postcards, and interviews—indeed, whatever constituted the written record of the World War I years. “The unkindest actions reported here,” writes Kraus in his preface, “really happened; the unlikeliest conversations are reported here word for word; the most glaring inventions are quotations” (LTM, p. 9). Citations from Shakespeare and Goethe are interspersed, using the technique of montage, with cabaret song, patriotic ode, tableau vivant, vaudeville, puppet play, and, in the later acts, even photomontage so as to create a strange hybrid—part tragedy, part operetta, part carnival, part political tract—in which “high” and “low” come together in a strange new blend. “A document,” as Kraus puts it, “is figural; reports come to life as characters; characters breathe their last as editorials” (LTM, p. 9). And, throughout, the comic, the hilarious, the grotesque, the surreal dominate. “Here in Austria,” as Kraus had famously quipped, “there are unpunctual trains that cannot get the hang of their scheduled delays.”[4]

In its analysis of the role the media plays in disseminating the case for war, Kraus’s work is startlingly contemporary; turn on CNN at this moment and you will find yourself witnessing the spin familiar to readers of Kraus’s devastating exposures of mediaspeak in his own famous paper Die Fackel as well as in The Last Days of Mankind—a spin made possible, as Kraus knew only too well, by the simple fact that journalists are never held responsible for the accuracy of their reports, much less their predictions (see M, pp. 37–38).

When, for example, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was covering the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, he couldn’t say enough about the marvels of the Arab Spring with its “Facebook Revolution” and ostensible thirst for democracy. Two years later, with Egypt in chaos, the economy in shambles, and the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, placed under house arrest, Cooper’s evening dispatches either ignore the situation (there’s always Syria!) or report on specific incidents, as if the CNN anchor had always known the revolution couldn’t work. How information is disseminated in a world where truth is subject to the daily news cycle is a tremendous social problem—a problem Kraus tackled with uncanny prescience.

Discussions of the early twentieth-century avant-garde rarely refer to the writings of Kraus or Wittgenstein, of Joseph Roth and Elias Canetti, and, in the next generation, of Paul Celan or Ingeborg Bachmann. In part, this neglect has to do with the subordinate status of post-World War I Austria, whose literature has been treated, at least in the English-speaking world, as if it were merely part of the larger body of “German” writing. In this context, the emphasis on the Marxist literature of the Weimar Republic, from Bertolt Brecht to the great critical theorists Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, has eclipsed its very different Austrian counterpart.

 It is also the case that Austrian writers like Kraus, Canetti, or, for that matter, Franz Kafka were not, strictly speaking, formal innovators. True, The Last Days of Mankind can be called a collage text. But, unlike the zaum (beyond-sense) poetry of the Russian avant-garde, unlike the parole in libertà and “destruction of syntax” of Italian futurism, or the fragmentation, hyperbolic “non-sense,” and elaborate verbal play of dada, both in its French and German incarnations,[5] the Austro-modernists in question opted for the seeming transparency of coherent sentences and “normal” paragraphs. They neither wrote manifestos like F. T. Marinetti or Tristan Tzara nor announced that they were making it new (Ezra Pound), nor did they produce readymades (Marcel Duchamp) or abstract verbal portraits that avoided nouns and adjectives in favor of articles and function words (Gertrude Stein).[6] Indeed, in the case of poetry, lyric continued to prevail. However complex their language, Celan’s minimalist poems, for example, adhere to lyric norms and rely on lineation and even stanzaic structure.

But suppose we go back to the original meaning of avant-garde. In its inception in the sixteenth century, the term referred to the front flank of the army, the forerunners, those ahead of their time whose work cannot yet be understood. In this sense, the Austrian modernists can now be seen to have produced a poetics of rupture perhaps as profound as that of their more formally radical counterparts in Italy, France, or Russia. Theirs was a world that Karl Kraus called the unimaginable—a world of a war whose purpose was never really defined and yet literally shattered their lives. Rupture, for the citizens of the Dual Monarchy was much more extreme than for Germany, which did not, after all, forfeit its basic identity; its geographic and ethnic pre-war contours, like those of France and Great Britain, remained essentially intact.

But for the Austro-Hungarian empire, it meant exactly that—a total loss of identity. Consider the following maps.

Before 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a multinational, multiethnic, and polyglot entity covering 116,000 square miles. Its thirty million inhabitants included what are now Hungarians, Czechs, Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Romanians, as well as the Poles of Galicia, the Russians of western Ukraine, and the Italians of the southern Tyrol and Trieste.[7] Even in the supposedly Austrian part of the Dual Empire, as Edward Timms reminds us, the “dominant German speakers were actually outnumbered by the supposed ethnic minorities.”[8]

A scant five years later, Vienna had become the capital of a small and fragile republic of six million German-speaking inhabitants and a territory of 32,000 square miles. The change was especially dramatic for the writers who came from the distant frontiers of the now-dismembered empire—writers, mostly Jewish, who had received a classical German education authorized by the centralized K & K” (kaiserlich und königlich) government and woke up in 1919 to find themselves citizens of other nations newly cobbled together. Celan—born in 1920, just two years after his birthplace, Czernowitz in Bukovina, had been absorbed into the former Kingdom of Romania—is a case in point. Kraus’s birthplace—Jičín in the Czech Republic, some forty miles from the Polish border—was until 1918 part of the province of Bohemia.

The unimaginable had been anticipated by Kraus soon after the war broke out in August 1914. In Die Fackel for 5 December 1914, the lead article was called “In dieser Großen Zeit” and begins as follows:

                                In This Great Time

which I still remember when it was so small; which will become small again if there is enough time, and which, because in the realm of organic growth no such transformation is possible, we prefer to address as a fat time and also a hard time; in this time where the very thing happens that one could not imagine, and in which that must happen which one can no longer imagine, and could one imagine it, it wouldn’t happen—; in this serious time which died laughing at the possibility that it could become serious: which, surprised by its tragedy, longed for distraction, and which, catching itself engaging in some new action, searches for words; in this loud time, which threatens to disclose the horrible symphony of deeds, to bring forward reports—reports that lead to action: in this time you should not expect a single word from me. . . . Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent.[9]

The unimaginable war is not mentioned once in this antimanifesto, which generates mutations on the word time (Zeit), repeated here seven times—a time that from Kraus’s particular perspective was entirely out of joint. His, it should be noted, was a wholly atypical reaction to the Great War; from Rainer Maria Rilke’s patriotic “Fünf Gesänge” (Five Songs), which begins with the words “zum ersten Mal seh ich dich aufstehn / hörengesagter fernster unglaublicher Krieger-Gott” (for the first time I see you stand up / you legendary most distant unbelievable Warrior-God),[10] to Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s “Österreich’s Antwort” (Austria’s Reply), the initial response of Austrian writers to the outbreak of war was enthusiastic support. Even Robert Musil, later to take such a different stance, wrote in 1914 that

A new feeling was born. . . . A stunning sense of belonging tore our hearts from our hands. . . . Now we feel gathered into a ball, fused together by an inexpressible humility, in which the individual suddenly counts for nothing besides his elementary task of defending the tribe. This feeling must always have been present: it has now awakened . . . a bliss; and over and above its earnestness, a huge security and joy.[11]

Here and elsewhere Austrian writers echoed their German counterparts, the most famous (or perhaps infamous) example being Thomas Mann, whose 1914 essay “Thoughts in Wartime” (Gedanken im Kriege) argued that war was entirely justified. It was, he thought, a tremendous creative event that would bring about national unity, moral elevation, and the values of genuine culture, as represented by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wagner vis-à-vis the shallow civilization of a corrupt France and England.[12]

When, in the late war years, artists and writers began to understand the very real horror of the Great War, they turned their attention from politics and culture to the ordeal of those who had actually fought in the trenches. Here the most striking German work was Ernst Jünger’s The Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) of 1920, with its graphic account of frontline combat. By the time Erich Maria Remarque’s pacifist All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen Nichts Neues) was published in 1928, the mood had shifted completely. “This book,” says Remarque in a headnote to what was to become an international best seller and later a celebrated film, “is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."[13]

 But—and here things get complicated—Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind has no more in common with All Quiet on the Western Front than with the odes in praise of war of 1914–1918. For whereas Jünger or Remarque or, for that matter, the English war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen wrote highly subjective and graphic accounts of warfare, bearing sympathetic witness to the ostensibly innocent young soldiers who were its victims, Kraus’s documentary drama uses every device in its poetic arsenal to dramatize the complicity, cravenness, and often inadvertent cruelty, not only of those who make war, but also of those who carry it out or remain behind. From the first shrill cry of the newsboy announcing the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to the petty controversies between waiters and diners in the local cafes, to the dispatches from the Ballhausplatz (the ministry) and the sermons preached in Vienna’s churches, few, if any, are seen as exempt from the fevers and follies of war. What often begins as accident rapidly turns into status quo, revealing a latent viciousness that seems to permeate, not only the public discourse, but also the entire social fabric. High culture versus mere “civilization”: the dichotomy counts for little to the hungry children in the schoolroom forced to recite patriotic pieties or to the new recruits at military headquarters trying to bribe the petty bureaucrats in charge to give them a few hours of leave.

Kraus’s cruel apocalyptic vision may well have struck modernist readers as excessive; unlike, say, Brecht, he saw no political alternative to the capitalist competition that drove the war engine. If anyone was to blame for the cult of war, it was, in Kraus’s view, the press corps of which he was himself a member. Such obsession with the media will strike many readers as misconceived or at least excessive. Walter Benjamin, a great admirer of Kraus’s, reminded readers that “the newspaper is an instrument of power. It can derive its value only from the character of the power it serves.”[14] This was in 1931, shortly before the Nazis came to power. But by 1939, Benjamin is less sure about the dichotomy:

If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate events from the realm in which they could affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (newness, brevity, clarity, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as the layout of the pages and the style of writing. (Karl Kraus never tired of demonstrating the extent to which the linguistic habitus of newspapers paralyzes the imagination of their readers.)[15]

This assumes, of course, that there is in fact an individual imagination to undergo paralysis. But what happens when the media takes on a life of its own as it has today, when the “imagination” is itself the product of mediation? The Last Days of Mankind is extraordinarily prescient about this situation, but, until recently, critics have been slow to give the drama its due. Stanley Corngold’s acute survey of World War I German literature, for example, mentions the play only in passing in discussing the theme of war profiteering as dramatized in some of its nasty satirical scenes. And, even here, Corngold distances himself from Kraus (indeed he cites him from a secondary source), referring to the author as a “Jewish anti-Semite.”[16] The designation is not incorrect, but it simplifies the Austrian situation at the turn of the twentieth century. Freedom of religion, granted in Catholic Austria by the constitution of 1867, provided its Jews, many of them newcomers from the Eastern provinces of the empire, with the most seductive opportunities, professional and social, provided they could, as the emperor’s urged them, assimilate as fully as possible. But the success of assimilation went hand in hand with the renunciation of one’s Jewish identity, too often leading to a new form of anti-Semitism on the part of the assimilated. In this climate, Austrian artists and intellectuals, the bulk of whom, unlike their counterparts in Germany, were of Jewish origin, adopted an ethos of self-deprecating irony, quite unlike the lyric intensity of a Jünger, the nationalist pride of a Mann, or the didacticism of a Brecht. From Freud to Wittgenstein, Gustav Mahler to Arnold Schoenberg, Kraus to Kafka, Austro-Jewish writers, composers, and artists—and even such of their non-Jewish compatriots as Musil, born and brought up in Bohemia, and Gregor von Rezzori—a native, like Celan, of the Bukovina, regarded themselves as outsiders, maintaining what we might call a loving aloofness toward their native land.

 In a diary entry of October 1914, for example, Wittgenstein wrote, “I feel . . . more than ever the tragedy of our—the German race’s—situation! For that we cannot defeat England seems to me as good as certain. The English—the best race in the world—cannot lose! We, however, can lose and will lose, if not this year then the next!”[17] It is hard to imagine a German making this assessment. The Wittgenstein who wrote these words in his diary had just enlisted in the Austrian army—he was convinced it was his duty to defend his country—but he felt no solidarity for his fellow soldiers, dismissing them, in a neighboring entry, as little more than “a bunch of rogues” (ein Gaunerpack).[18] And Wittgenstein was to spend the second half of his life based in Cambridge—a place, ironically, which also remained alien to him.

Exile—whether actual or, as in Kraus’s case, psychological—allows for aesthetic and historical distance. Modern warfare, Kraus wrote in Die Fackel, is no longer a matter of “the crossbow and the tyrant”—he is alluding to Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell—but rather of “technology and bureaucracy.”[19] As such, its “principle of ghastly contrast” (schauerliche Kontrasthaftigkeit) demands a poetry characterized, not by “mathematical,” but rather by what Kraus calls “apocalyptic exactitude” [20]— the exactitude, we might say, of hyperbolic hyperdetail. It is a principle all too familiar to us in the age of information glut and social networking. Peili Gritzer, contemplating current conceptualist writing, recently remarked, “what literature can’t do to our modern satisfaction by describing or evoking the things of our world, it can do by taking into itself a large part of the stuff that’s actually in that world: tax forms, chats, indexes, letters, daily speech, radio jabber, e-mails, everything that’s ever been on the internet, even literature itself.”[21]        

A century after its production, Kraus’s hypertextual The Last Days of Mankind can thus be seen as what I have called elsewhere a “differential text”—a text, neither single nor autonomous, that is best understood as a set of variants.[22] Begun in 1915, read from by its author on numerous occasions throughout the war and excerpted in Die Fackel, heavily revised in 1918 but not completed until 1922, and then not published in its complete form until 1926, Kraus’s play has posed endless challenges for those—editors and translators as well as theatre directors—who have wanted to reproduce it exactly as its author wrote it.[23] Kraus himself knew this was impossible. “A performance of this play,” he announced in the preface to the 1926 edition, “which would, if computed in terrestrial terms, last for ten evenings, is meant for a theatre on Mars [Marstheater]. Earthly theatergoers could not stand it, for it is blood of their blood, and its material comes from those unreal, unthinkable years, inaccessible to any memory, any waking consciousness, preserved only in a dream of blood in which the tragedy of mankind was played out by figures in an operetta” (LTM, p. 9). Kraus’s unperformable drama in five acts, plus prologue and epilogue, runs to eight hundred pages. An abridged “Bühnenfassung (220 pages) made by Kraus himself was produced in Vienna in 1928; this version eliminates prologue and epilogue, as well as the long debates between the Optimist and the Grumbler, and reorders the sequence of scenes in the interest of narrative coherence and dramatic immediacy. The result, to my mind, is that the multiplicity of registers that makes the original so striking is largely lost.[24]

Not surprisingly, then, there is not yet a full English translation of Die Letzen Tage, although there is an admirable French one.[25] With the advent of digital reproduction and YouTube, however, we are beginning to see a spate of performances and adaptations. From the recordings of Kraus’s own readings from Die Letzen Tage and related texts (for example, his performance of the astonishing “Schlachtfelder-Rundfahrt im Auto” [Roundtrip of the Battlefields by Motorcar]) (video 1) [26] to Mario Hellinger’s brilliant reading of “Die Gerüchte” (The Rumors), to be considered below, we can now witness the extraordinary theatricality of Kraus’s play.

In 2004, for example, the La Mama Theatre in New York produced an hour-long “operetta” version of The Last Days of Mankind, featuring the Austrian actor Justus Neumann, playing dozens of different roles.[27] And recent years have witnessed numerous films, videos, and readings from the Free Theatre adaptation at Christ Church, New Zealand in 2008 (video 2) to the 2012 Viennese production at Amtshaus Wahring,[28] all of them emphasizing the biting satire and black humor of this most devastating of antiwar plays. I have already mentioned Batchelor’s production for the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, aired at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999 and recorded for the BBC in December 1999—a four-hour cabaret version set in a Viennese café (audio 1). MacDonald’s translation was used again in John Retallack’s production for the Bristol Old Vic in June 2013.

1. The Metaphysic of Sharks

How then does Krausian theatre actually work? My examples here will be mostly from act 1. (The prologue is rarely performed.) The first act begins with a great crowd scene on the eve of war and moves from weighty discussions among titled diplomats on to the hilarious scene in the Vienna suburbs (act 1, scene 8) in which a young construction crew is busying itself removing shop and restaurant signs bearing “foreign” names; the Café Westminster (evidently frequented, until the breakout of war, by many British tourists, including lords of the realm!) is saved only by becoming the Café Westmünster, and the French adieu, then—along with the Latin servus! (your servant), the common Viennese idiom for goodbye—must be expunged from the vocabulary. The scene ends with the following speech by the first man: “Apropos, im Fall einer protestiert, legitimierts euch einfach als interimistische Volontäre der provisorischen Zentralkommission des Exekutivkomitees der Liga zum Generanlboycott für Fremdwörter. Adio! [Apropos, in case someone protests, identify yourselves simply as interim-type volunteers of the provisional Central Commission of the Executive Committee of the League for the General Boycott of Foreign Words. Adio!]” (LTM, p. 101). The joke here is that this cautionary speech is itself a tissue of foreign phrases: apropos (French) is followed by the Latinate protestiert and legimitiert, and then the mongrel-Latin interimistische (interim type), which also contains the paragram mist (trash). The final salutation, “Adio!” is of course the Spanish counterpart of adieu. But Kraus’s greatest irony is reserved for the compound Generalboykott, found in the absurdly pretentious title of the provisional Central Commission of the Executive Committee. Boycott: the English word was coined during the Irish Land War (1880) in response to the edict of Captain Charles C. Boycott (1832–1897), an English land agent in County Mayo who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. So “the General Boycott of Foreign Words” is itself a foreign word—indeed a name derived from Austria’s most powerful enemy, England. And just as boycott originated in one war, so it is now a practice in another one.

Kraus did not invent such absurdities. The Neue Freie Presse and other mainstream Viennese papers were full of them. In the next scene, an absurdist dialogue between teacher and pupils in a typical schoolroom, the word Fremdenverkehr—literally “traffic with foreigners,” more broadly, “foreign exchange,” “foreign relations,” but also “tourism”—metamorphoses to take on the term’s opposite connotations—Verkehr (traffic) with foreigners in the form of war. Thus the first stanza of the concluding Alphabet Song (five stanzas for A, E, I, O, U), sung by schoolboys and accompanied on the violin by their teacher, begins:

                  A a a, der Fremde der ist da

                  Die stieren Zeiten sind vergangen,

                  Der Fremdenverkehr hat angefangen,

                  A a a, der Fremde der ist da.

                 [A a a, the foreigner has come.

                 The vacant times have passed,

                 The foreign traffic has begun,

                 A a a, the foreigner has come.]

                 [LTM, p. 105]

In the context of the little ballad, that which is foreign—studied just a week earlier in the history, geography, and language classrooms of Vienna—has turned overnight into the enemy. And the rest of the song celebrates Wiener Blut.[29]

The transformation of language and the defeat of “normal” expectation are carried out at every level in the play. The brief scene 12, for example, contains an exchange between a giant in civilian dress and a dwarf in uniform. The giant has been rejected for military service; he declares that he has slipped through the cracks—a delicious absurdity for a giant—whereas the dwarf is proud to have been called up:

THE DWARF: Well, I am satisfied. Given a higher purpose, man grows. At first, I feared I wouldn’t fit into this Great Time and to be capable of fighting, shoulder to shoulder. But to wear civilian clothes is to be made fun of whereas now that I’m in the army, I’ll return as a hero, one over whose head many a cannon ball has flown. When the others throw themselves on the ground—I’ll remain standing.

THE GIANT: You lucky one!

D: Cheer up. It’s not your fault. It all depends on the commission.

G: I’ve slid through.

D: The doctor noticed me!

G: Let’s go eat. I have a gigantic appetite.

D: Yes, I’ll eat a little bit. [LTM, p. 131]

Indeed, the lucky dwarf, chosen for his ability to disappear into the crowd, has won the right to die. War, the great equalizer, allows for such shifts in status.

But the most dramatic of the early scenes is based on the actual case of a leading Viennese actress,[30] who, according to newspaper dispatches in 1916, happened to be performing in Riga when war broke out, and she was put under surveillance for possible spying by the Russian police. According to the Fremdenblatt, the police were suspicious because they found in the actress’s possession a postcard from her brother, a young soldier, who expressed how enthusiastic he was to be going to war against Serbia.[31] Kraus evidently found this whole story suspect. In his version, the actress Elfriede Ritter is in the midst of unpacking in her Vienna apartment, when three aggressive reporters—absurdly named Füchsl (little fox), Feigl (little coward or little fig), and Halberstam (half a root or stem),[32] turn up to interview her:

ELFRIEDE RITTER: (Smiling) Gentlemen, I am most grateful for your concern and attention; it is really touching that such sympathy is still felt for me by my beloved Viennese:. . . . I shall be glad to put off my unpacking but, with the best will in the world, gentlemen, I can only say that it was very, very interesting, that nothing at all happened to me—let me see, what else?—that the return journey was certainly tedious [langwierig], but in no way uncomfortable [nicht im mindesten beschwerlich] and (coyly) that I am delighted to be back in my beloved Vienna. [LTM, p. 133][33]

Immediately, the reporters pounce on this account, and Füchsl, who had already written the article’s lead paragraph before the interview, announces, “freed from the horrors of Russian imprisonment and finally at the end of a tedious and uncomfortable journey, one of Vienna’s best-loved actresses wept tears of joy at the knowledge of being once more in her beloved city” (LTM, p. 133). When the actress protests, smiling and wagging her finger, the reporters insist she tell the “truth” so as to make clear that, unlike in Russia, there is freedom of speech in Vienna. When Ritter counters that she is telling the truth, that she was allowed to go everywhere and do whatever she liked, the reporters shift to a new strategy, mentioning—seemingly quite casually—that her theatre’s director, Fuchs, has a special animus toward Russia and reminding Fräulein Ritter how well she had always been treated in the Vienna theater world. In the future, they suggest pointedly, choice parts may not so readily be offered to her. “Your whole career could be at stake” (LTM, p. 137). Before we know it, the actress is backing down and telling her “dear” reporter friends (liebe Doktorchen!) that she can’t quite remember what happened and that perhaps she is just blocking out certain painful memories. When Füchsl now notes down that the actress is too intimidated to talk about what really happened to her, Ritter plays along.

Having gotten their “story” of the abuse Ritter supposedly suffered, Füchsl, Feigl, and Halberstam prepare for their speedy departure. And now it is the actress who flatters them: “It was so lovely of you to come see me. Come again soon!” (LTM, p. 137). As the three reporters go out the door, Feigl tells his friends, “see, she went through all those terrible things and didn’t have the courage to tell anyone—nebbish!” (LTM, p. 137). In the end, the journalists believe—or at least claim to believe—their own story. Ritter did, after all, refer to her “most secret feelings” (geheimsten Empfindungen) (LTM, p. 137).

All the truth that’s fit to print. Kraus’s vicious little story, perhaps based on the scene of Queen Anne’s transformation in Shakespeare’s Richard III, has become paradigmatic. We never see Elfriede Ritter again, but the metonymic structure of The Last Days of Mankind generates variation after variation on the power-of-the-press theme. In act 1, scene 24, for example, we witness Fieldmarshall Conrad von Hötzendorf summoning a court photographer to take his picture, studying the map of the Italian war theatre, only to reveal to photographer and audience that he is confusing that map with that of the Balkans where—ten years earlier, in another war—von Hötzendorf knew a military triumph (see LTM, pp. 174–77, 825).[34]

Or again, in act 1, scene 26, the well-known superpatriotic war correspondent Alice Schalek, called in the play by her real name, delivers her first eyewitness report from the front. “Up on the ridge,” she declares, “I felt for the very first time, something like satisfaction when I saw a hotel in the Dolomites, transformed into military quarters. Where are they now, those painted signorinas, fluttering with lace, where is the Italian hotelkeeper? Not a trace of them left!” (LTM, p. 188). And in act 1, scene 28, the editor of the Neue Freie Presse, Moriz Benedikt (Kraus’s worst enemy), is seen dictating an article about Austria’s naval success in the Adriatic (see LTM, p. 828):

And the fishes, lobsters, and sea spiders of the Adriatic have not known such good times for a long time. In the southern Adriatic they helped themselves to the crew of the Leon Gambetta almost to the last man. The dwellers in the mid-Adriatic dined on those Italians whom we could not rescue from the vessel Turbine. In the northern Adriatic the creatures of the sea are feasting at an ever more abundant table. [LTM, p. 191]                      

No folly, no mendacity is exempt from Kraus’s gaze; consider act 5, scene 34—the short scene in which a woman from the village of Postabitz is writing a letter to her husband at the front. I cite this scene because a superb reading of it by Peter J. Gnad has been filmed. Gnad takes the perspective of the soldier husband, reading his wife’s letter at the front (video 3). Here is MacDonald’s English translation:

Dearly loved husband:

I write to tell you that I’ve gone wrong. I can’t do nothing about it dearest husband. You must forgive me everything I’m writing to tell you. I am expecting—and by someone else. I know though you are a good man and will forgive me everything. He talked me into it and I said you would not be coming back from the Front, and that’s why I had a weak moment. You know women’s weakness and there’s nothing to be done except forgive me: it’s already happened. I thought to myself too something must have happened to you when you hadn’t written to me in three months already. I was frightened off my feet when I got your letter and you were still alive. I’m glad you are but, forgive me, dear Franz, maybe the kid will die and then everything will be alright again. I don’t like the chap any more because I know you are still alive. Here everything is very dear, it is good you are away. At the Front at least you get your food for nothing. The money you sent me will come in very handy. Greetings again, your to you unforgettable wife, Anna.[35] [BBC, II, part 2, 12.32]

This, Kraus shows us (and Gnad’s video accentuates the case, juxtaposing Anna’s words to a sequence of “lovely” images of seemingly virtuous Victorian maidens), is what the unnatural separation of war does to ordinary people; the final turn, with its hope that the baby might die and its choice of Franz’s money over the other man’s “love” makes for painful reading. The individual is at the mercy of a chain of events, whose import, thanks to the daily news, is fueled by nothing so much as hearsay, false alarm, and especially rumor. One of the great moments in The Last Days of Mankind is scene 17 in act 5, based on Kraus’s own piece for Die Fackel and reprinted in his Weltgericht (1919) called “Die Gerüchte” (The Rumors).[36] Here—and Mario Heller’s performance of it for Dada TV (video 4) underscores the technique—Kraus takes a simple plural noun and repeats it with the subtlest variations so that the rumor of rumored rumors takes on a surreal quality (see M, p. 206). In the play, the dialogue is between the Subscriber and the Patriot:

          SUBSCRIBER: What about the rumors?

          PATRIOT: I’m worried.

S: The rumor going around in Vienna is that there are rumors going around in Austria.

P: Nobody knows anything specific, but there must be something to it if even the government announces that there are rumors.

S: The government specifically warns against believing rumors or spreading them. Well, I do what I can, everywhere I go, I say, “Who pays any attention to rumors, hmm?

P: Well, it wouldn’t be so bad if it was just rumors about rumors being rumors. But the government is announcing it for a fact.

S: Well, then there must be something to it. But who pays any attention to rumor?

P: Precisely. The government is saying that the rumors are part of an enemy attempt to shake our loyalty and sow the seed of confusion among us.

S: Well, of course. But that’s only a rumor. . . . Where is my train?[37] [LTM, p. 588]

And so it goes, modulating through some thirty repetitions of the word Gerüchte. The power of rumor becomes stronger and stronger the more each character denies their validity or even their very existence. In the scene that follows “Die Gerüchte,” the Optimist and the Grumbler, Kraus’s two choric characters, pick up the thread, the former asking the latter: “What do you say about the rumors, then?” (LTM, p 588). Retrospectively, the entire play has dramatized the work of rumor, hearsay, tip-off, and exposé until there is nothing left outside it.

I have left till last a consideration of the two play’s central characters, the Optimist and the Grumbler. Most readers have taken the Grumbler to be Kraus’s mouthpiece, the source of the drama’s key ideas about politics, history, culture, and war. But in his 1928 stage version, Kraus eliminated the two completely, evidently sensing that their dialogues, however interesting ideologically, were not sufficiently theatrical. Edward Timms contends that we must be cautious to equate the Grumbler with Kraus, given that the latter’s politics evolved, as he was writing the play, from an early allegiance to the monarchy to a later radical socialism. “The Grumbler,” Timms argues, “may be defined as a simplified version of Kraus’s satirical self. He is most significant as a character in the play, not as a mirror-image of the author.” [38] By the same token, the Optimist is less an allegorical figure than the naïve interlocutor of Platonic dialogue, the interlocutor who feeds Socrates his cues—a type made familiar by Denis Diderot in Rameau’s Nephew.

That said, it is hard to deny that many of the long scenes between the Optimist and the Grumbler become tiresome and undercut the dramatic momentum of Kraus’s play. True, the Grumbler’s speeches contain some of Kraus’s best aphorisms. In response to the Optimist’s early hope that the war has inspired a spirit of self-sacrifice, for example, in act 1, scene 22, the Grumbler quips:

If you have to set fire to a house just to find out whether two decent tenants will come to the rescue of ten tenants, while eighty-eight shady tenants seize the opportunity to do something underhanded, then it would be a mistake to delay the work of the fire brigade and police with eulogies on the goodness of human nature. [LTM, p. 160]

And further along in the same scene, when the Optimist proposes that modern medicine “has succeeded in preventing the spread of typhus, cholera, and the plague,” the Grumbler responds:

Is it an argument in favor of war that war has provided the opportunity of making some small progress in coping with its attendant phenomena? Shame on a science that takes pride in its ingenuity in making artificial arms and legs but lacks instead the power to prevent altogether and as a matter of principle the splintering of bones. [LTM, p. 161]

Embedded as so many are in long speeches, Kraus’s aphorisms sometimes lose their punch. Indeed, in its eight-hundred-page version, The Last Days of Mankind inevitably has its tedious moments. But as diagnosis of the role journalism played in the evolution of World War I—and by implication in later wars—Kraus’s dramatic satire is unique. “Journalism,” wrote Benjamin in his essay on Kraus, “is betrayal of the literary life, of mind, of the demon. Idle chatter is its true substance, and every feuilleton poses anew the insoluble question of the relationship between the forces of stupidity and malice, whose expression is gossip” (“KK,” p. 446). The twins Gossip and Rumor (see M, p. 206), animating Kraus’s world, are ones we of the twenty-first century know only too well. Say it on Twitter and it must be so, at least for ten seconds till the next message comes in.

“If human beings had no clichés,” Kraus remarked in his 1921 essay “On the Theory of Language,” “they wouldn’t need any weapons” (“Wenn die Menschheit keine Phrasen hätte, brauchte sie keine Waffen”).[39] Let me conclude with a remarkable dialogue that illustrates this point nicely. In act 1, scene 25, we meet two soldiers, one German and one Austrian (video 5). The German is Wachmeister (Master Sentinel) Wagenknecht (a typical Prussian surname meaning “driver”); the Austrian is Feldwebel (Sergeant) Sedlatschek (diminutive of Sedlak, Czech for “peasant”).[40] Wagenknecht tells Sedlatschek that they have orders from above (from the Oberbombenwerfer) to release some bombs. Sedlatschek, reluctant to get involved in any actual fighting, voices his confusion about the prefix “Ober” (above), remarking that since bombs fall not up but down (“Herab”), not above but below, the person in charge should be called Herabbombenwerfer (LTM, p. 181). The German responds that this is ridiculous because the word Oberbombenwerfer is formed on the analogy of Oberkellner (head waiter), whom one often calls Ober for short, everyone recognizing that the reference is to the waiter in charge. A bit of bickering about the use of Ober, ensues and, before we know it, the Austrian asks if it’s OK for him to drop a few bombs now? Wagenknecht, having won the verbal victory with his absurd analogies, responds, “Na meinswegen, wenn’s dir Spaß macht” (Sure, for all I care, if you enjoy it) (LTM, pp. 181–82). And he quickly exits from the plane, leaving the Austrian peasant-soldier, who seems to have no inkling of what’s at stake, to do the job. The reluctant recruit, whose main concern, at the start of the scene, was to keep the overbearing German from pressing against his shoulder, is now claiming the title.

And that title contains a further irony: Obenbombenwerfer, Pistorius tells us, was the epithet given in the press to the German crown prince, William.[41] Kraus is here playing once again on newspaper dispatches so as to demonstrate that truth—at least certain local truths—can be stranger than fiction. “Even the newspaper,” Benjamin says of Kraus’s art, is “quotable” (“KK,” p. 453). And Benjamin continues:

The quotation . . . summons the word by its name, wrenches it destructively from its context, but precisely thereby calls it back to its origin. . . . As rhyme, it gathers the similar into its aura; as name, it stands alone and expressionless. In citation the two realms—of origin and destruction—justify themselves before language. [“KK,” p. 454]

And as language goes, Kraus was convinced, so goes the nation. The satiric thrust of The Last Days of Mankind is less dependent on plot or character—indeed, scenes can easily be reordered and even reconfigured—than on its unmasking of the particular language games emerging from the war archive. The everyday dispatches from the city or the battlefield are always mediated and rechanneled. In this great timeor is it a small time?—it was the weaponry of cliché that ruled.

2. Der Oberbomber

Kraus, as Timms notes, was especially sensitive to the dehumanizing effect of such World War I compounds as Menschenmaterial (human material), Verteidigungskrieg (defensive warfare), Schutzhaft (protective custody), and Schicksalgemeinschaft (communal destiny)—compounds that intentionally obscure the horrors of war.[42] And his greatest animus, in the immediate postwar period, was reserved for the word Hakenkreuz (hooked cross), the symbol adopted as an emblem by Hitler’s fledgling Nazi party as early as 1920. How, Kraus asks, could the Christian cross, emblem of religious contemplation, coexist with the hook, an implement for cutting and hacking?[43] When words transmit such contradictory messages simultaneously, there is sure to be something suspicious, even sinister.[44]

Language, for Kraus, thus has a strong ethical component. He would have approved of Pound’s dictum that “good writers are those who keep the language efficient. . . . If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.”[45] In Kraus’s later years, the cleansing of language becomes something of an obsession; in “Die Sprache,” for example, he declares that “to confront the riddles of [language’s] rules, the scenes of its dangers, is a mania more admirable than the madness that thinks it can control language.”[46] And in his fascination with linguistic puzzles like the famed duck/rabbit example, Kraus has been said to anticipate the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, whose propositions were gradually being formulated in the early 1930s.

In 1932, the year Kraus published “Die Sprache,” Wittgenstein was lecturing at Cambridge on what he calls the “puzzles of language.”[47] But unlike Kraus, Wittgenstein takes language as he finds it, without making the slightest value judgment as to the ethical component of this or that word or phrase. The aim, on the contrary, is to describe and understand what is, to understand what a given proposition might mean in a given context. “There are no gaps in grammar; grammar is always complete” (WL, p. 16). And, again, “grammatical rules are arbitrary, but their application is not”; “all explanations take place inside language (WL, pp. 58, 62). Accordingly—and here we come to the cornerstone of the Philosophical Investigations—“the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”[48] And to accept this axiom is also to accept its corollary that “ordinary language is all right.”[49]

Kraus’s own language theory, coming as it did out of an earlier epoch, could not allow for such Gelassenheit. “Ordinary language,” for him, was certainly revelatory, but that didn’t mean it was “all right.” For him, words are still viewed as the carriers of specific cultural/political import; it is words, especially coinages like Hakenkreuz and Oberbomber, that measure a culture’s values. But what makes Kraus so modernif not postmodern—is his understanding, in a work like Die Letzen Tage der Menschheit, of the role that found text could play in the new world of media—a world he had so thoroughly mastered. One may, as one reads Kraus’s apocalyptic superdrama, with its wild mix of genres and visual/sonic hyperbole, disagree with any number of statements that his characters—even the Optimist and the Nörgler—make. Again, one may find the play’s author too pessimistic, too cynical. But the sense of immediacy and accuracy, in scenes that put the reader/viewer in the position of both witness and accessory, make The Last Days of Mankind a docudrama whose time, a century later, has surely come.


FIGURE 1. Karl Kraus, Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit: Tragödie in fünf Akten mit Vorspiel und Epilogue (1926; Frankfurt, 1986), p. 72.

FIGURE 2. German cartoon picture postcard to the Hunter Karl Braun from his sister Maria (25 August 1914).

FIGURE 3. Cover of first issue of Die Fackel, Vienna, early April 1899.

FIGURE 4. The Austro-Hungarian Empire 1914.

FIGURE 5. Europe after Treaty of Versailles, 1919.

FIGURE 6. Reklamenfarte zur Hölle, Advertisement for Automobile Trip through Hell, 1921.

FIGURE 7. Flyer for BBC production (1999) of The Last Days of Mankind.

FIGURE 8. Source of scene 1, act 24. Chief of Staff General Conrad Von Hotzendorf, 1912.


FIGURE 10. Rudolf Herrmann, “Das Gerücht” (The Rumor).

AUDIO 1. Giles Havergal, prologue, The Last Days of Mankind. BBC Radio.

VIDEO 1. Krauss, reading Journey to Hell.

VIDEO 2. Christ Church, NZ2000.

VIDEO 3. Lieber Gatte.

VIDEO 4. DadaTV, Die Gerüchte.mp4

VIDEO 5. Reading from act 1, scene 25, Letzen Tage der Menschheit by Peter J. Gnad.


Marjorie Perloff is the author of many books on modernist and contemporary poetry and poetics, including The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981), The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986; 2003), Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1996), and Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2010).  Her cultural memoir, The Vienna Paradox (2004), has just been translated into German.

She has coedited, with Craig Dworkin, The Sound of Poetry, the Poetry of Sound (2008).  Perloff is professor emerita of humanities at Stanford University and professor emerita of English at the University of Southern California.

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. All audio and video material is available online.

[1] Karl Kraus, untitled editorial statement, Die Fackel 1 (Apr. 1899): 1, 2.  A facsimile edition of the entire Die Fackel from 1898 to 1936 is now available online, thanks to the Austrian Academy of Wissenschaft; see Fackel Gate,

[2] Kraus, Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit: Tragödie in fünf Akten mit Vorspiel und Epilogue, ed. Christian Wagenknecht (Frankfurt, 1986), p. 72; hereafter abbreviated LTM. An excellent English version, unfortunately only of selected scenes and then not always in literal translation, is available on a set of CDs made available to me by its producer, David Batchelor. I refer to the Robert MacDonald translation made for the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre production, directed by Giles Havergal, aired at the Edinburgh Festival in 1983, and then produced, sixteen years later, by Batchelor for the BBC (11 and 12 December 1999) in a four-hour version, again directed by Havergal, who also stars as Giles the Grumbler. Paul Scofield played God, and Anna Ford played the radio announcer. See Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind (dir. Giles Havergal, 1999), program no. 99BG1915LBO; final tape no. OLN949/99BG1915. The performance received rave reviews, but it has not been broadcast again; see, for example, Alan Brownjohn, “The End of the World of the Drama,” Times Literary Supplement, 17 Dec. 1999, p. 17. The CDs are cited here as BBC (I–IV), followed by the number where the speech in question begins.

The only published English translation cuts Kraus’s play by almost two thirds, and even the scenes that are included are often markedly cut; see Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind: A Tragedy in Five Acts, trans. Alexander Gode and Sue E. Wright, ed. Frederick Ungar (New York, 1974). The translation is rather clumsy. I have preferred to use MacDonald’s, which captures Kraus’s Viennese and Tyrolean dialect in Cockney and other dialect representations. I hope it will soon be published, as it urgently should be.

[3] See Friedrich Pfäfflin and Eva Dambacher, Karl Kraus, Eine Ausstellung des Deutschen Literaturarchivs im Schiller Nationalmuseum Marbach, May 8, 1899–October 31, 1999 and November 21, 1999–January 9, 2000, ed. Ulrich Ott and Pfäfflin (Marbach, 1999), pp. 210–11, figure 129; hereafter abbreviated M.

[4] Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta, trans. Jonathan McVity (Urbana, Ill., 2001), p. 103.

[5] I have written extensively on these avant-garde movements in Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986; Chicago, 2003) and Perloff, Twenty-First Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Malden, Mass., 2002); for a summary, see Perloff, “Avant-Garde Poetics,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Roland Greene et al. (Princeton, N.J., 2012), pp. 110–13.

[6] For a recent essay on the Duchamp-Stein relationship, see Perloff, “‘A Cessation of Resemblances’: Stein / Picasso / Duchamp,”

[7] See figure 4.

[8] Edward Timms, Culture and Catastrophe in Hapsburg Vienna, vol. 1 of Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist (New Haven, Conn., 1986), p. 10. See also Timms, The Postwar Crisis and the Rise of the Swastika, vol. 2 of Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist (New Haven, Conn., 2005. I am indebted to Timms’s monumental two-volume study throughout.

[9] “In dieser großen Zeit,” Die Fackel 404 (5 Dec. 1914): 1; my emphasis. The article has been frequently translated; see, for example, Kraus, “In These Great Times,” in“In These Great Times”: A Karl Kraus Reader, trans. Joseph Fabry et al., ed. Harry Zohn (Montreal, 1976), pp. 70–83.

[10] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Fünf Gesänge” (1914),

[11] Quoted in Stanley Corngold, “The Great War and Modern German Memory,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War, ed. Vincent Sherry (New York, 2005), p. 192.

[12] See Thomas Mann, “Gedanken im Kriege,” in Friedrich und die gross Koalition (1914; Berlin, 1916), pp. 7–31. This thesis was argued more fully in Mann’s long essay Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Reflections of an Unpolitical Man) (1918; Frankfurt, 2001). I have discussed the prowar mood of the French, Italian, and Russian avant-garde in Perloff, “The Great War and the European Avant-Garde,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War, pp. 141–65; and compare Perloff, The Futurist Moment, esp. chap. 1. Mann’s brother, the novelist Heinrich Mann, took the opposite position, siding with the French pacifist Romain Rolland; see Corngold, “The Great War and Modern German Memory,” p. 194.

[13] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, trans. A. W. Wheen (1928; New York, 1982), n.p. The Academy Award-winning American film (1930) was directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; Maxwell Anderson wrote the screenplay and the actors included Lew Ayres. There have been various remakes; the latest is scheduled for 2014.

[14] Walter Benjamin, “Karl Kraus,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, trans. Jephcott et al., ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 4 vols. (1931; Cambridge, Mass., 2005), 2:440; hereafter abbreviated “KK.”

[15] Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” trans. Zohn, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 4:315–16.

[16] Corngold, “The Great War and Modern German Memory,” p. 213. And see p. 216 n. 49; the reference is to Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 1995).

[17] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Geheime Tagebücher 1914–1916, ed. Wilhelm Baum (Vienna, 1991), p. 33; compare Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago, 1996), pp. 26, 248 n. 4.

[18] Wittgenstein, Geheime Tagebücher 1914–1916, p. 17.

[19] Kraus, Die Fackel 1 (10 Sept. 1917): 171.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Peli Grietzer, “The Aesthetics of Sufficiency: On Conceptual Writing,” review of Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, ed. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith,  Los Angeles Review of Books, 12 Oct. 2012,

[22] See Perloff, “‘Vocable Scriptsigns’: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget and John Kinsella’s Kangaroo Virus,” in Poetry, Value, and Contemporary Culture, ed. Andrew Michael Roberts and Jonathan Allison (Edinburgh, 2002), pp. 21–43. Compare Perloff, “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), pp. 143–64.

[23] For the complicated publishing history of the play, see LTM, pp. 775–86.

[24] See Kraus, Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit: Bühnenfassung des Autors, ed. Eckart Früh

 (Frankfurt, 2005). The Nachwort gives a complete table of the transposition of scenes from the original to the stage version; see pp. 230–31. Act 1, for example, contains scenes formerly in 2 and 3 as well, making for a very different play.

[25] See Kraus, Les Derniers Jours de l’humanité, trans. Jean-Lous Besson and Henri Christophe (Paris, 2005). Interestingly, the Ungar edition, which has only about a third of the original, doesn’t reproduce the same third as Kraus’s own Bühnenfassung, and the Edinburgh production of 1982 (the MacDonald translation) includes and omits a still different set of scenes.

[26] Figure 6 (see M, pp. 288-89) reproduces a parodic postwar radio advertisement (1921) for a round-trip train and automobile journey to the battlefields, recommended especially for autumn sightseeing. The advertised tour, which included first-class hotels and gourmet dinners in Verdun and Metz, eerily looks ahead to the commercialization of current tours of concentration camps.

[27] For an excellent commentary see Alison Croggon, review of The Last Days of Mankind, by Kraus, dir. Hanspeter Horner, La Mama Theatre, Theatre Notes, 19 Sept. 2004,

[28] See freetheatre, “'Last Days of Mankind' Performed by Free Theatre Christchurch, 2000,” For the poster for the Viennese production, see

[29] For Kraus’s sources for the uses of Fremdenverkehr, see Agnes Pistorius, “Kolossal montiert”: Ein Lexikon zu Karl Kraus, Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit (Vienna, 2011), pp. 148–49. This reference book, at once a register of names and elucidation of concepts, is extremely useful.

[30] Her real name was Gretl Horn. For the newspaper accounts used by Kraus, see Pistorius, “Kolossal montiert,” p. 203. In Die Letzen Tage, the actress is named Elfriede Ritter—an irony in light of the fact that the Ritter of Thomas Bernhard’s later darkly sardonic play Ritter Dene Voss (1984) is the Viennese actress Ilse Ritter, famous at the Burgtheater in the World War II years.

[31] For the newspaper accounts, see Pistorius “Kolossal montiert,” p. 203.

[32] All three are Jewish names, and Kraus has been accused here and elsewhere of anti-Semitism, but the fact is that he makes equal fun of non-Jewish names—say, ones that are typically Tyrolean, and so on.

[33] Compare BBC, Programme 1, 26”35’.

[34] For the background of the Hötzendorf story, see Pistorius, “Kolossal montiert,” pp. 87–88.

[35] In the BBC version, the letter is read by the woman herself in a broad Irish brogue that corresponds nicely to the Austrian country dialect. Compare LTM, p. 627.

[36] See Kraus, Die Gerüchte,” Die Fackel 20 (15 Oct. 1918): 188–94.

[37] Compare BBC II, part 2, 9.18 

[38] Timms, Culture and Catastrophe in Hapsburg Vienna, p. 391.

[39] Kraus, “Zur Sprachlehre,” Die Fackel 23 (June 1921): 12.

[40] See Pistorius, “Kolossal montiert,” pp. 546, 447.

[41] Ibid., p. 353.

[42] See Timms, The Postwar Crisis and the Rise of the Swastika, p. 140.

[43] See ibid.

[44] Ironically, the English word for Hakenkreuz (swastika) has a very different etymology and set of connotations. The word swastika designates an equilateral cross with four arms bent at ninety degrees. It dates back to ancient civilization, both in the Mediterranean world as well as in China and India. It comes from the Sanskrit svastika, sv meaning "good" or "auspicious," asti meaning "to be," and ka as a suffix. The swastika literally means "to be good" (“Swastika,” Wikipedia,

[45] Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York, 1960), p. 32.

[46] Kraus, “Die Sprache,” Die Fackel 34 (Dec. 1932): 3. Compare Timms, “Language,” The Postwar Crisis and the Rise of the Swastika, pp. 137–56.

[47] Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein’s Lectures: Cambridge, 1930–1932, ed. Desmond Lee (Chicago, 1980), p. 1; hereafter abbreviated WL.

[48] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, ed. Hacker and Schulte (Malden, Mass., 2009), §43, p. 25.

[49] Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations” (New York, 1965), p. 28.

  • Karl Kraus in Vienna, 1928