A retired civil servant, Section Councillor Georg von Geyrenhoff keeps a chronicle for a group called “Our Crowd,” which has come together in Vienna during the fall of 1926 and the spring of 1927. As narrator, Geyrenhoff commissions the novelist Kajetan von Schlaggenberg and the historian Rene von Stangeler to assist him in writing this diary, while numerous lesser characters become unwitting collaborators, spies, and reporters of unwitnessed events. The final report on the people and events is not issued until twenty-eight years later, in 1955.
There are 142 characters, of which more than thirty are main characters, while about three dozen play not insignificant roles in the development of the novel. Additionally, another two dozen or more appear as nameless and minor or auxiliary characters in this 1,330-page novel. It is not possible to speak of a plot of The Demons in the traditional sense; one simply observes the development of various characters, some events, and several documents as they are presented by the chroniclers.
With the benefit of hindsight, Geyrenhoff is “preparing to summarize and revise the whole story” now, in 1955:Terrible things took place in my native land and in this, my native city, at a time long after the grave and lighthearted stories I wish to relate here had come to an end. And one thing that lay curled amorphous and germinal within the events that I must recount, emerged dripping blood, took on a name, became visible to the eye which had been almost blinded by the vortex of events, shot forth, and was, even in its beginnings, recognizable—gruesomely inconspicuous and yet distinctly recognizable for what it was.
The historical events that Heimito von Doderer describes in great detail, although they are almost totally peripheral to the development of the main characters, are those which led to the burning of the Palace of Justice in Vienna on July 15, 1927. By the mid-1920’s, there had been many confrontations in Austria between right-wing Fascist and left-wing Socialist paramilitary groups. Often these clashes occurred in the countryside adjoining the Hungarian border, in the Burgenland province. It was in the village of Schattendorf on January 30, 1927, that members of the Socialist Republican Protective Association staged a march. In the novel, they are met by supporters of the right-wing Veterans of the Front, who fatally wound a war veteran, Mathias Csmarits, and a young boy, Pepi Grossing. Although two men were charged with the murders, when they came to trial on July 14, 1927, they were acquitted. This was the fifth time that crimes of violence committed by right-wing organizations had gone unpunished. The Socialists saw this as another example of injustice to the proletariat and resolved to stage a peaceful strike and a workers’ march in Vienna on the next day. The peaceful protest march turned to violence, and the marchers set fire to the Palace of Justice. Doderer notes that the destruction of this great symbol of justice “signified the Cannae of Austrian freedom. But no one knew that at the time,” least of all the characters of the novel.
Historically, it can be seen that the open fights between the Republican Protective Association (the Socialists who comprised about 40 percent of the population) and the Austrian Fascist Party (the Home Defense Front, which was a very small political entity) led to the internal weakening of Austria at a time just shortly after the collapse of the six-hundred-year-old Habsburg monarchy. This internal crisis in the mid-1920’s made it possible for Fascist Germany to annex Austria in 1938 and led to destruction and defeat in 1945. Doderer recognized this as an important moment in history, when his native land began the pursuit of an ideology—he calls it a “second reality”—that could only lead to destruction. The chronicler Geyrenhoff had to experience the totality of that “second reality” before he could tell the whole story from the perspective of twenty-eight years later.
Geyrenhoff does not write about each main character in diary fashion. If one can speak at all...
(The entire section is 1690 words.)