Ezri Carlebach

To resist war

100 days
100 lives
100 words

To resist war requires more than the avoidance of trenches. It demands trenchancy, such as few can possess.


“The War’s lessons were used to create the ‘trauma industry’ and the means of ‘treating’ trauma such that its sufferers – military and civilian alike – might be enlisted in the next war.”

Ezri Carlebach, Author

Creating the Centena

“In marking its centenary, Europe sees the First World War pass into history. The sombre commemorations may inadvertently have encouraged its people to believe that ‘never again’ was an accomplished fact instead of a commitment requiring constant renewal.”
François Matarasso, Mirror Images: Cultural Cooperation and Civil Society.

It is possible that Karl Kraus would be pleased and horrified by this remark. Pleased, because it offers some hope of vigilance against war and atrocity. Horrified, because that vigilance has failed time and again since the Armistice. Perhaps this is less to do with H.G. Wells’ oft-paraphrased The War That Will End War, and more with the doubtless well-intentioned Charles Meyers’ coinage, ‘shell shock’. Wells at least believed war might be brought to an end. Instead, the War’s lessons were used to create the ‘trauma industry’ and the means of ‘treating’ trauma such that its sufferers – military and civilian alike – might be enlisted in the next war.

Joanna Bourke, writing about the Tate Britain exhibition Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One, notes that while ‘shell shock’ was used to indicate its victims’ loss of reason, the opposite was true. “It was insane not to be driven mad by the sights, smells and sounds of war between 1914 and 1918.” Those driven most mad remained sanest. The fragmentary obscurantism of Dada is a more human response than the psychologising of the trauma industry. This is the ethical space in which we find Kraus, particularly in Die Letzten Tage Der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind), a vast and famously unstageable play built on contemporary speeches, newspaper reports and other documentary sources. A character called The Grumbler captures Kraus’ despair as he witnesses the War’s cruelty and hypocrisy from his home among Vienna’s oh-so-civilised café society. “If heaven was just in letting this come about,” says The Grumbler, “then it was unjust in not having annihilated me.”

I first encountered Kraus in 1978, via my father’s copy of Thomas Szasz’s Karl Kraus and the Soul-Doctors. After my initial interest in The Soul-Doctors as a name for my erstwhile teenage post-punk band had waned (we opted instead for The Plague), I grew curious about the man depicted with characteristic ungainliness by Oscar Kokoschka on the cover of Szasz’s book.
Ezri Carlebach

I was thrilled by Kraus’ implacable opposition to psychoanalysis, and awed by his sparkling aphorisms, despite Szasz’s description of the difficulties in translating them. Some years later, the first volume of Edward Timms’ comprehensive biography Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist appeared, and I was fortunate enough to attend the launch event for the second volume in 2005. These works, and others by Harry Zohn (Karl Kraus and the Critics), Kari Grimstad (Masks of the Prophet: The Theatrical World of Karl Kraus) and Paul Reitter (The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe) formed the core of my research, along with Frederick Ungar’s abridged and edited 1974 translation of Die Letzten Tage… and Zohn’s translation of selected Kraus aphorisms, Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths.

Portrait of Karl Kraus. Photographer unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia

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Ezri Carlebach

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