Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Last Austrians" in "Turn of the Century" works by Franz Grillparzer, Joseph Roth, and Alfred Kolleritsch

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Last Austrians" in "Turn of the Century" works by Franz Grillparzer, Joseph Roth, and Alfred Kolleritsch

Article excerpt

Radical shifts in a nation's ontological and/or sociopolitical landscape, whether actual or merely perceived, often roughly coincide with the turn of the century. This is certainly true of Austria in the past two hundred years. With the death of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II in 1792, Austria's fifty year flirtation with the Enlightenment came to an end. When Franz II succeeded to the throne in that year, the era of at least modestly progressive reforms that began with the reign of Maria Theresa in 1740 gave way to an age marked by repression, reaction, and stultified monarchic absolutism. With the exception of a few brief periods characterized by halfhearted accommodations to outbreaks of revolution and nationalism, this long period of corrupt imperial rule in Austria dominated the nineteenth century. Its demise was reflected in the work of the nation's literary intelligentsia at the outset of the twentieth, though the official year of its death was 1918. As the twentieth century came to a close, the very notion of Austria's identity-what it means to be an "Austrian"came into question.

These shifts over the course of three fins de siecle are reflected in works by three authors-Franz Grillparzer, Joseph Roth, and Alfred Kolleritsch-who experienced them. The transition from the mildly reformist Josephinian era to the recalcitrant suppression characteristic of the age of Metternich marked Grillparzer's youth and finds highly refracted symbolic expression in his dramaLibussa (completed 1848, first published 1872). The 1848 revolution brought Franz Joseph I to the throne, and while Libussa subtly bemoans his accession, Roth's Radetzkymarsch (1932) nostalgically mourns the demise of his rule, a nostalgia generated by Roth's witnessing of the birth of a new, far more horrific form of government. In Der letzte Osterreicher (1995), Kolleritsch brings into being a protagonist born in the twilight of the dual monarchy, an artist whose supranational, antimodernist tendency and highly developed personal subjectivity condemn him to be, as the novel's title indicates, the last true representative of his generation. As the twentieth century came to a close Kolleritsch created not so much a last Austrian, but a last Austro-Hungarian, whose vitriol, not unlike that of some of Roth's protagonists, is largely directed at his nation's German nationalists.

The double set of quotation marks in my essay's title reflects a twofold proviso. Grillparzer's Libussa, Roth's Carl Joseph von Trotta, and Kolleritsch's unnamed artist are not literally "last Austrians," but rather final instances of a specific mode of Dasein in their country made possible through their imbibing of political, ontological, and aesthetic values that come to a close with the conclusion of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Indeed, in the narrowest sense of the term, neither Libussa nor Carl Joseph are "Austrians" at all; the former is the mythological Bohemian duchess credited with founding the city of Prague, and the latter is the Slovenian progeny of Franz Joseph's fictional savior at the battle of Solferino in 1859. Only Kolleritsch's Der letzte Osterreicher was written at the turn of a century. However, Grillparzer's drama and Roth's novel both evoke and articulate epochs of sociopolitical disruption roughly coincident with a fin de siecle, albeit with two contrasting levels of explicitness.

Grillparzer's tale of Bohemia's supernaturally endowed pre-Christian leader is one of a number of German-language works inspired by the Libussa legend. Others include a poem by Hans Sachs (1537), a fairy tale by Johann Karl August Musaus (one of his Volksmarchen der Deutschen [1782-1787]), and Clemens Brentano's well-known drama Die Griindung Prags (1815).' Though different in tone, purport, and structure, the overall plot of these tales is similar; at the outset, Libussa is shown living in harmony with her sisters Tetka and Kascha. Because their father Krokus has just died, the Bohemians require one of the three young women to become their leader, and Libussa is chosen. …

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