The post-World War I novel
World War I represented a watershed, marring Zweig’s wonderful dream with a horrible reality. By 1920, the social and political security so necessary for equilibrium and progress had disappeared. For some, the new era was to prove exhilarating, a time for new beginnings, but for many others, the chaos resulting from the war caused severe trauma and would lead to a later and greater catastrophe in the ensuing search for stability.
The loss of tradition and continuity was felt in all areas of life and thus in the world of literature, which mirrored these social tremors. Some writers accepted the challenge of revaluing cultural traditions in quest of a new future, while others bemoaned the irretrievable loss of “the good old days.” This dichotomy, conspicuous in their works, is responsible for a remarkable variety and vitality of expressions—the hallmark of German fiction since 1920.
With the resounding defeat of the Central Powers in 1918, long-standing problems emerged to confront the German-speaking nations. Within fifty years, Germany had developed from a predominantly agrarian society to a modern, industrialized nation. Traditional middle-class values of an earlier age were no longer sufficient in an era of metropolitan anonymity, of mass conformity and blind obedience to emperor and state. The change was so drastic and so sudden that Hermann Hesse was to write in his Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929) of one individual’s reaction: “Now there are times when a whole generation is caughtbetween two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence.” The many strikes, revolutions, mutinies, putsches, and related forms of chaos during the 1920’s were merely reactions to external events that had become unfathomable. In the German-speaking countries, the shame of defeat was compounded by the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany and Austria saw long-standing monarchical rule replaced by republican forms of government. All colonies were surrendered, territories were ceded or occupied, and the army was limited to 100,000 soldiers. In addition to the loss of a generation of men, the Central Powers had to accept sole responsibility for the war and then make reparation payments to reimburse the victors.
Within a period of five years, Germany and its allies had gone from world powers to shrunken remnants of once-great nations. The shock, humiliation, and confusion could not have been greater. Since all were treading a foreboding terra incognita, it became the task of the writers to understand and clarify their situation, to create new values by which all could live.
Aside from the many problems of modernity, dealing with the immediate past was a necessity. War novels abounded, the most popular being Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern: Aus dem Tagebuch eines Strosstruppführers von Ernst Jünger (1920; The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Trooper Officer, 1929), Ludwig Renn’s Krieg (1928; War, 1929), Walter Flex’s Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten (1917; the wanderer between two worlds), Arnold Zweig’s Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa (1927; The Case of Sergeant Grischa, 1928), and Ernst Glaeser’s Jahrgang 1902 (1928; Class of 1902, 1929). Yet only Erich Maria Remarque, in his controversial Im Westen nichts Neues (1928, serial; 1929, book; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), was able to capture the boredom and horror, the naïve enthusiasm and ultimate despair of World War I. Translations immediately communicated the experience to other participants around the globe, and a motion picture with the same title proved equally popular on an international scale. Even for Remarque, a journalist by trade, the gestation of the book took some time—it appeared in 1929, fully ten years after the conclusion of the war. In Austria, Joseph Roth required even more time to contemplate the loss of his beloved Habsburg monarchy. His novel Radetzkymarsch (1932; The Radetzky March, 1933) and its sequel Die Kapuzinergruft (1938; The Emperor’s Tomb, 1984) trace the ascent and demise of Emperor Franz Joseph through parallel developments in three generations of one Austrian family. For Roth, the death of Franz Joseph is synonymous with the irreplaceable loss of...
(The entire section is 1837 words.)