First World War 1914: Literature during wartime

Exhibition “August 1914. Literature and War“; © Literaturarchiv Marbach
Exhibition “August 1914. Literature and War“ | Photo (detail): © Literaturarchiv Marbach

Notes, diaries, poems – seldom has so much been written as in the year 1914. How the First World War shaped a whole generation of authors.

Two of the 20th century’s great novels, Ulysses by James Joyce and The Trial (Der Prozess) by Franz Kafka, one of the principle philosophical texts of modernism, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus, and one of modernism’s most famous poem cycles, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien) all have something in common: they were written, begun or continued during the First World War. They are texts of that war, even though their date of origin may not be as evident at first sight as it is in the more than 50,000 war poems written in the German Reich in August 1914 alone.

“It is my battle for self-preservation”

For the 31-year-old Kafka, who bought himself military boots at the outbreak of the war and was almost conscripted in summer 1915, the war is the counterpart to a battle he was fighting with and for himself. On 31 June 1914, on his return from a holiday at the Baltic Sea and two weeks before starting work on The Trial, he wrote in his diary: “I have no time. There’s general mobilisation. … But I will write nevertheless, definitely, it is my battle for self-preservation.” What Kafka heard and saw of the war crops up repeatedly in his writings. The first time his brother-in-law was on home leave in November, he talked about an experience in the trenches: when he heard a mole digging, he took this as an omen and immediately left the trench; not long afterwards it was hit by a shell. A short time later Kafka wrote a short story called The Giant Mole (Der Riesenmaulwurf). Ten years after the outbreak of war, in The Burrow (Der Bau), he had an animal dig a ramified tunnel system under the ground and entrench itself in it.

The outbreak of war took the 39-year-old Rilke by surprise while he was travelling in Germany and he was subsequently unable to return to his adopted home, Paris. For him, like for many other authors, the war was initially a poetic primal event. In early August, in a volume of Hölderlin poems, he drafted his Five Cantos (Fünf Gesänge) in which he conjured up a world that is both stunning and violent: “Finally a God”. When he got to know the artist Lou Albert-Lasard in September, he filled a little book with poems for her, including drafts of the Elegies project he had begun in January 1912. In a strange way, Rilke’s poems are informed by the First World War and the reports about the battlefields on which the dead lay unburied: “Exposed on the mountains of the heart. Rocky earth / under their hands. Something is flowering here / out of the mute abyss / an unknowing herb in song.” („Ausgesetzt auf den Bergen des Herzens. Steingrund / unter den Händen. Hier blüht wohl / einiges auf; aus stummem Absturz / blüht ein unwissendes Kraut singend hervor.”)

Cubism and Expressionism as Precursors

Many of the texts written during the First World War, be that at home or at the front, are against war. They wish neither to depict nor glorify, nor repress. They juxtapose the reality of language and its capacity to produce and also destroy worlds alongside the reality of war. They place one world alongside the other. They differ from those texts that are generally linked with the First World War, although most of them were written after it: Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (Stahlgewitter, 1920), for example, and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues, 1929). But the period prior to 1914 is also of significance. Expressionism and Cubism, with their “battling forms”, anticipate a mode of depiction not just in the fine arts, which the war unexpectedly filled with truth. In late 1913 Ernst Stadler, who would be killed by a grenade near Ypres in Belgium on 30 October 1914, published a volume of poetry called The Departure (Der Aufbruch), in which a new life begins with the battle and the war. Georg Heym had already conjured up his War (Krieg) in 1911: “He has arisen, who slept so long / Arisen from the deep vaults. / He stands tall and unknown in the twilight / And crushes the moon in his black hand.” („Aufgestanden ist er, welcher lange schlief, / Aufgestanden unten aus Gewölben tief. / In der Dämmrung steht er, groß und unerkannt, / Und den Mond zerdrückt er in der schwarzen Hand.“)

The war as literature’s giver of meaning, as its mobilizer. During the First World War amazing quantities of letters and diaries were written at the front. Poetry, above all, helped to capture in words what was impossible to comprehend. It was capable of forming a whole out of fragments, out of perceptions that were dazed, destroyed. From November 1914 onward, August Stramm, who died in Russia in 1915 aged 41, published poems from the eastern front in the journal Der Sturm (The Storm): “The earth bleeds under the helmet / Stars fall / cosmic space gropes. / Shivers roar / Vortexes / Solitudes. / Fog / Weeping / Distance / Your gaze.” (“Die Erde blutet unterm Helmkopf / Sterne fallen / Der Weltraum tastet. / Schauder brausen / Wirbeln / Einsamkeiten. / Nebel / Weinen / Ferne / Deinen Blick.”)