Karl Kraus: This is world war. This is my manifesto to mankind.
From The Last Days of Mankind (1918-1922)
Translated by Max Knight and Joseph Fabry
This play, which by earthly standards would take ten evenings to perform, is meant for a theater on Mars. Earthly audiences could not bear it. For it is blood of their blood, and its contents are the contents of those unreal, incomprehensible years beyond the reach of conscious memory, which live on only in nightmares where clowns act out the tragedy of man. The action, running through a hundred scenes and a hundred hells, is improbable, disjointed, and heroless. The events shown in this play, no matter how unlikely, actually took place; the words spoken in this play, no matter how unlikely, are true quotations. News reports stand up as people, and people wither into editorials. Clichés walk around on two legs while men are having theirs shot off. Anyone with weak nerves – even if you were strong enough to live through the period – had better leave the theater. War is a disgrace, but the greater disgrace is that some refuse to hear about it. They can bear the fact that wars exist but not the facts of war. Nevertheless, I am placing these facts on record: this play, my unqualified confession of guilt, the guilt of being a part of mankind, is bound to be welcome somewhere and of some use at some time. And “while men’s minds are wild,” let the high court held among the ruins hear Horatio’s message to the future:
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so you shall hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of death put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads. All this can I
The final scene
The answer has come. It is the echo of my own bloodstained madness, the only sound reverberating from the smashed creation – the cry of ten million dying human beings accusing me of still being alive, of having had the vision to see the world in such a way that it became as I saw it. If this destruction is heaven’s idea of justice, it was unjust of heaven not to destroy me first! Did I deserve to see come true my deadly fear of still being alive? I am the custodian of documents for a future that will not comprehend them, an era so far removed from today that it will say that I was a liar. But no: there will be no future to say that. I have written a tragedy whose doomed hero is mankind. And, alas, because this drama has no hero other than mankind, it has no audience.
May I speak to you from this lecture hall of Europe? You will be forced to go on dying for something you call honor, and you don’t know what it is. What did you die for? Had your minds grasped the contradictions, your bodies would have been saved. Contempt for death? Nonsense. You should have contempt for something you don’t know? It’s true you may have contempt for the life you have never known, the life you only just tested for the first time when some accidental shrapnel nearly killed you or when the beast in command, his mouth foaming, formerly a man like yourself, pounced on you – and you became aware that you stood on the threshold. And then the beast in command dared to say of you that you held death in contempt? And you did not use the occasion to shout at your commander that he was not the commander of God, that he had no business ordering Him to uncreate creation? No, you let him bully you, along with God, across that threshold where the secret begins that no traitor can sell to any earthly government! The secret after which every country sends it heroes but none sends it spies! Had you only known, at the instant of your sacrifice, about the war profits piling up in spite of – no, because of your sacrifice, and feeding on it! For never before, not until this war of machines, had there ever been such ungodly war profits; and you – both victors and victims – lost the war which your murderers won. Your cowardly, technically efficient murderers who killed and lived far from the scene of their crimes.
And that’s why you lay for four years in mud and filth, that’s why you had to wait so long for letters from home, that’s why they delayed the books that were sent to comfort you. They wanted to keep you alive awhile because they had not yet stolen enough on the stock market, or published enough lies in their newspapers, or beaten enough men into submission, or strangled enough people in their red tape. They were not quite finished dancing at that tragic carnival at which dying men became newspaper copy for lady reporters, in which butchers received honorary degrees in philosophy. You on the front, and we at home, are expected to keep staring into the graves that the higher-ups have ordered us to dig for ourselves – as they ordered the old men in Serbia for no other reason than that they were Serbians and still alive, and therefore suspect.
Oh, if we, the survivors of this nightmare – drained of tears, impoverished, and aged – could by some magic of ultimate justice receive the power to make the ringleaders of this world-wide atrocity answer individually for their crimes, if we could lock them into their churches and, as they did to the old men in Serbia, force every tenth man to draw his death sentence from a hat! But then not to kill them – merely to slap their faces! And to ask them: So, you irresponsible fools, you who were unable to see that among the millions of unspeakable consequences of a declaration of war would be children without milk, horses without oats, and people gone blind, even far behind the front, from methyl alcohol, if it suited the plans of the war profiteers? Did you ever fathom the agony of one empty hour suffered by a man held prisoner for years? The torment of one sigh welled up from a love torn apart, defiled, and murdered? Could you ever for a moment imagine the hells of one tortured minute suffered by a mother waiting day and night to hear the news of her son’s “hero’s death”? Help me, you victims of murderers! Help me so that I don’t have to live among people who, out of ambition or to save their skins, gave the orders that made hearts stop and mothers’ hair turn white! As surely as God lives, only a miracle can answer me.
Come back to life, and ask them what they did to you. Ask them what they did while you were struggling under their orders – before you died under their orders. Ask them what they did while you spent your winters on the eastern front. What they did that night when the officers’ phone call to your forward position received no answer. Everything was quiet on the front. You had followed orders, as they later learned, standing fast, man to man, rifles ready to shoot. You were not among those who surrendered, deserted, or had to be warmed up – because they were freezing – with the machine-gun fire of their commanders. You held your positions and did not retreat into the murderous clutches of your Fatherland. Before you the enemy, behind you the Fatherland, and above you the eternal stars. Wake up from your cold graves! Step out, and demand that they give you back your lives! Where are you – you who died in hospital? My last letter was returned to me, stamped: “Shipped out. Address unknown.” Step out, and tell me where you are and what it’s like, and tell them that you will never again let them use you as they have. And you there, you with the face to which you were condemned in your last moment when the beast in command rushed into your trench – step out! Not that you had to die – no, but that you had to live through that nightmare – makes all our future sleep and all our dying in bed a sin. I long for vengeance – not for your death, but for the agony of what you had to live through.
I have exposed the heroics of your murderers for the empty shadow they are; I have stripped them of their flesh. But I have given body to their stupidities, their malice, their worthlessness, and have brought all these to life here on the stage. Time washes away the essence of events and would grant amnesty even to the most heinous crime ever committed under the stars; but I have preserved this essence. My ear has recorded the sounds of the dead, my eye the gestures of the talks, and my voice, by merely quoting, has preserved the base chord of this era forever.
This is world war. This is my manifesto to mankind.