Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Melancholy Men in Uniform – How Masculinity Becomes a Problem

In his novel Die Kapuzinergruft (The Capuchins’ Crypt, published in English as The Emperor’s Tomb) (1938) Joseph Roth formulates a literary diagnosis of the superficial and foolish profile of soldiers from Vienna, the city of the waltz: ‘They were all too spoiled in Vienna, this city fed incessantly by the crown lands of the Monarchy, these harmless, almost ridiculously harmless, children of the capital and imperial residence, pampered and sung about much too often.’

In Austrian literature on the First World War there are frequent representations of such a fragile, vulnerable, gentle manliness in officers and soldiers who have an ambivalent attitude towards power, domination and violence and who do not feel at ease in their military existence. Often are they the losers in a game in which they really should have been the winners. They suffer and mourn for the world, but it cannot be denied that they gain a certain amount of pleasure from these feelings.

Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzkymarsch (Radetzky March) (1932) shows a lonely, weak, melancholy officer for whom women represent an alternative to military discipline and the monotony of life in the barracks. In this he is not really different from the other officers; they are weak, immoral, sociable types who move between the mess, the café and the brothel and give the impression of being ‘merely the careless wearers of their uniforms’. Taking part in the Great War is presented as a declaration of bankruptcy for military manliness. Carl Joseph von Trotta, the grandson of the hero of Solferino, is a weak, resigned, strongly emotional character who dies an unheroic death – ‘peacefully’, ‘not with a weapon in his hand’, as it were, but with two buckets with water in them which he wants to take to his soldiers. Such questionable male images are also characteristic of other novels by Joseph Roth, for instance Tarabas (1934), whose protagonist, one of the bravest officers in his regiment, gradually loses his military manner. The tough masculinity of the officer who behaves like a war god turns out to be a fictitious ‘substance’, a kind of masquerade, a lie: ‘In reality he was never a hero.’

A metamorphosis undergone by a soldier who is proud of being fit to serve is also shown in a novel by another Austrian writer, Ein Kind unserer Zeit (A Child of Our Time) (1928) by Ödön von Horváth. The transformation is triggered by being wounded and leads to the realisation that soldiers are simply ‘liars’, ‘wretched robbers’ and ‘cowardly murderers’: ‘What a liar I was! For sure! A cowardly liar – because after all it’s an easy way out to have the fatherland cover up the atrocities you’ve committed, as if that provided a white coat of innocence.’ Rudolf Jeremias Kreutz’s novel Die grosse Phrase (The Great Phrase) (1932), which shows the development of the protagonist and was composed in the immediate context of the war, presents the growing resistance of a man who was initially infected with enthusiasm for the war. The supposedly ‘beautiful’ and ‘adventurous’ war turns out to be a school of horror and of unbearable stress and strain which the officer with his tendency towards sentimentality and tenderness is simply not up to. He starts to dream, brood and fantasize, and thus it is shown that turning dreamers into heroes is an undertaking without any chance of success. After being wounded the protagonist develops into a passionate pacifist.

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Forster, Edgar J.: Unmännliche Männlichkeit. Melancholie – „Geschlecht“ – Verausgabung, Wien/Köln/Weimar 1998

Margetts, John: Die Vorstellung von Männlichkeit in Joseph Roths Radetzkymarsch, in: Stillmark, Alexander (Hrsg.): Joseph Roth. Der Sieg über die Zeit. Londoner Symposium, Stuttgart 1996, 79-93

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.


  • 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?