Outbreak of the war
End of the war

‘The Flight Without End’? – The Warrior’s Homecoming

Five years after the war the Austrian writer Joseph Roth depicted the conditions and mechanisms needed to restore soldierly masculinity.

The novel Das Spinnennetz (The Spider’s Web) (1923) shows a disillusioned soldier returning home from the First World War. In Berlin he becomes involved in the activities of radical right-wing organisations and secret societies and gains more and more power. Roth’s novel Rechts und Links (Right and Left) (1929) also depicts the return to Germany and identification with an anti-Semitic and nationalist paramilitary organisation. The critical stance of these books reveals the oppressive situation of the officers returning home and how they spread a narrative of a crisis of masculinity and massively politicize the experience of homecoming. The mental insults and wounds suffered during the war, from which many former soldiers cannot free themselves, are depressingly prolonged into the civilian post-war world in Roth’s novels. In Zipper und sein Vater (Zipper and his Father) (1928) the father may find a job for his son, but the former soldier ‘is not fit’ to work in a civilian career and soon has to hand in his notice. His attempts to help his wife further her career similarly fail, and he leads a marginal existence as a musical clown in a variety theatre. And a glance back into the wartime past leads to the following thought: ‘The army was also senseless. But you could see your superior, he was instead of sense. You were punished, rewarded, every day and every hour. You had an order, this was instead of an aim. But in an office you do not see where the file has come from, why it is being dealt with, for whom.’ Franz Ferdinand Trotta in Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb) (1938) is, however, afraid of an office, a notary, a postmaster. Theodor Lohse in Das Spinnennetz and Brandeis in Rechts und Links suffer from a lack of the security, comradeship and everyday routine they had known in the army. The interrupted military careers and the loss of symbolic capital result in a feeling of disappointment, of being without roots and without a home. The situation of the generation which lived in the hope of arrival is summed up in Roth’s Die Flucht ohne Ende (The Flight Without End) (1927): ‘But now Franz Tunda was a young man without name, without meaning, without rank, without title, without money and without profession, with no home and no rights.’

The difficulties of integration into post-war life lead not infrequently to tragic complications – as in Andreas Latzko’s story Heimkehr (Homecoming) (1918). It depicts a maimed veteran’s homecoming to his bride – albeit with a different face, disfigured and having undergone several operations. The invalid’s neighbours do not recognize him any more and he anxiously asks himself how his wife will react. She has been unfaithful to him and, being confronted with this, he stabs his rival to death, whereupon the woman kills him. The veteran coming home in Ernst Weiss’s story Franta Zlin (1919) feels that he been robbed of his masculinity. His inability to make love is the result of a wound he sustained in one of those battles of equipment and materials – while in a trench he had had his sexual organs lacerated by shrapnel. Thus ‘unmanned’ and a permanent invalid, he does not want to see his beautiful young wife again. Although she is very obliging and takes care of Franta, he eventually drives her to suicide. He tries to ‘make a man’ of himself with a prostitute and commits a criminal act. A man who was originally ‘gentle’ and a passionate lover has become violent, a ruthless murderer of women.

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Heering, Cornelia: Die Kultur des Kriminellen. Literarische Diskurse zwischen 1918 und 1933. Ernst Weiß, Berlin 2009

Klaß-Meenken, Petra: Die Figur des schwachen Helden in den Romanen Josephs Roths, Aachen 2000

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    War and art

    Many artists, intellectuals and writers welcomed the outbreak of the First World War. They saw it not as an apocalypse but as the opportunity for a change for the better. As such they joined in the patriotic fervour of the first weeks and months of the war. What motivated them not only to devote their artistic energies to the fatherland but also to take an active part in the fighting? How were anti-war sentiments articulated by artists? What other forms of relationship were there between art and warfare during and after the First World War?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Person

    Joseph Roth

    Roth was a major Austrian journalist and novelist. He grew up in the east Galician town of Brody, moved to Vienna after finishing school and began studying German in 1914. In May 1916, he volunteered for military service. He served in Galicia, where he was probably allocated to the Press Service up to the end of the war. Even during the war and in the years after, Roth worked for a number of newspapers in Austria and Germany to make his living, before emigrating to France in 1933. A central element of his work as a novelist is the collapse of Austria-Hungary.

  • Object


    All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 1930. It was the film of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name about the experiences of a soldier during the First World War. Remarque’s book and the film adaptation are classic anti-war statements. Alongside the patriotic, glorified heroic epics and “authentic” documentation of service for the fatherland, this was just one way in which the First World War was portrayed in literature and films – a medium that had come into being only twenty years before the outbreak of war.

  • Object


    In November 1920 a report appeared in Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt about the happy return of all seven brothers in the Baumgartner family. Six had returned unharmed from the front directly after the end of the war, while Otto arrived in Vienna in 1920 after five years as a prisoner of war. Whether wounded or intact, released from captivity or not, returnees faced difficulties in reintegrating in the post-war civilian world.

  • Object

    War invalids

    No other war left such an army of invalids and men with diseases and life-long psychological scars. Mechanical aids such as this writing aid were designed to restore functions to those wounded in the war and in this way to help them to reintegrate into the labour market. Even several years after the end of the war, it was impossible to determine the number of people who had returned injured or diseased from the front. In 1922 there were around 143,000 war invalids living in Austria.


  • Development

    Gender roles: change/no change?

    It is a widely held view that the First World War revolutionised the traditional roles of men and women in society. Photos of tram conductresses, female coach drivers and postwomen would appear to confirm this, as does the assumption by women of the traditional male role as providers for the family. But did things change that much, and what was left of the supposed changes after 1918?