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Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

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Karl Kraus: Selections on war

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Karl Kraus
From The Last Days of Mankind (Die letzten Tage der Menschheit) (1918)
Translated by Max Knight and Joseph Fabry

Optimist: In war, one cannot avoid having subordinates overreact when it comes to law and order. That’s unfortunate, but in times such as these every consideration must be given to the single thought of winning the war.

Militarism means more power for the government, and this leads to….

Grumbler: …military dictatorship. In war, everyone pulls rank on everyone else. The military outranks the government, and the government sees no other way out of its humiliation than to turn corrupt. When the government official takes orders from the military man, he accepts the schoolbook myth of heroes whose time is long past, and which, in our time, cannot be allowed to rule over life and death. Military governments make the goat the gardener and the gardener the scapegoat for the resulting destruction.

Optimist: I don’t know how you justify such gloom. You generalize just as you did in peacetime. You let a few unavoidable incidents stand for the total picture. You mistake occasional annoyances for serious symptoms. These are great times and you quibble about minor troubles.

Grumbler: The troubles will grow with the times.

Optimist: We live in a soul-stirring age that lifts even the humblest man beyond himself.

Grumbler: The little thieves who haven’t yet been caught will become the big thieves beyond anyone’s reach.

Optimist: Even the little man will gain from the war…

Grumbler: …his cut. He will hold out his hand and point to the scars he doesn’t have.

Optimist: Just as his government accepts this unavoidable, defensive war for the sake of honor, so also does the individual citizen. Because of the blood that is shed now, the world will one day be covered with…

Grumbler: …filth.

Optimist: Which you always suspect behind everything. Don’t you see that you are behind the times? Stay in your corner, if you wish, grumbling. The rest of us are marching forward into an era of reawakened spirit. A great new era has dawned!

Grumbler: I knew it when it was this small, and it will become so again.

Optimist: How can you still deny greatness? Don’t you hear the cheering? Don’t you see the enthusiasm? Can any feeling heart remain unmoved? Yours is the only one. Can you really believe that this emotional upsurge of the masses won’t bear fruit, that this exciting prelude will have no sequel. Those rejoicing today…

Grumbler: …will be weeping tomorrow.

Optimist: The suffering of the individual means little. As little as his individual life. The sights of mankind are raised. Man no longer lives only for material gain but also…

Grumbler: …for medals.

Optimist: Man does not live by bread alone.

Grumbler: He must also wage war to have it rationed.

Optimist: There will always be bread. But we also live by hope in the final victory, which is never in doubt, and for which we…

Grumbler: …will all starve to death.

Optimist: What lack of faith! How ashamed you will be someday! Don’t stand aside when triumphs are celebrated! The gates of the soul are wide open. The memory of the days when we on the homefront were privileged to take part in the feats and sufferings of our glorious army, even if only by reading the daily front reports, will leave in your soul…

Grumbler: …no scars.

Optimist: The nations will learn from this war…

Grumbler: …how to wage more wars in the future.

Optimist: The bullet has left the barrel, and mankind will feel…

Grumbler: …it go in one ear and out the other.

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