Outbreak of the war
End of the war

‘Rabble of words’ – Writers in the War

The beginning of the First World War released a wave of enthusiasm throughout Europe, especially among intellectuals and the middle classes, the like of which it is utterly impossible for us to understand nowadays. It was the writers who led the way in propaganda, their verbal attacks making an essential contribution in preparing the ground for the general mood of unthinking nationalism.

In February 1909 the Italian lawyer and writer Filippo Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro. In it he called in a provocatively radical manner for the destruction of all traditions and saw war as a suitable way of doing this: ‘We want to glorify war – the one and only way to cleanse the world, militarism, patriotism, the anarchists’ act of destruction, the beautiful ideas that kill, and contempt for women.’ Many artists – and writers too – were enthusiastic about the futurists’ credo, and some of them died for ‘the beautiful ideas’ on the battlefields of the First World War.

The literary mobilization began even before the war began. In 1910 the German writer Georg Heym noted in his diary: ‘It’s always the same, so boring, boring, boring. … Would that for once something would happen. .. Even if the only way were to start a war, it can be an unjust one. This peace is so rotten, oily and greasy like the sticky polish on old furniture.’

However, enthusiasm for the war did not reached its productive climax until shortly after the war had broken out. Eloquent combatants on all sides directed their national stereotypes against their respective opponents. The most popular German poem in the early stages of the war, Ernst Lissauer’s Hassgesang gegen England (Song of Hatred for England), became the epitome of the way poetry treated the war: ‘We love as one, we hate as one, we all have just one foe: England.’ At patriotic war evenings held in the Konzerthaus hall in Vienna Egon Friedell defamed, among others, the Italians as notorious traitors, the French as the barbarians of the West, and declaimed: ‘Japan is a plague of moths, peoples like the Serbs and the Montenegrins come straight from the zoo and are beyond the pale.’

In an outpouring of poetry vast quantities of poems were sent to newspapers, with the total for Germany being estimated at between 50,000 per day and 1.5 million just in August 1914. It was the intellectual élite who led the way, and the writers who were the most eloquent. The list of those who succumbed to the euphoric mood – in their writing and also in some cases as volunteers in war service, reads like a who’s who of the authors of the time, including Hermann Bahr, Alfred Döblin, Hermann Hesse, Gerhard Hauptmann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Thomas Mann, Richard von Schaukal, Georg Trakl and Anton Wildgans.  Alexander Roda Roda und Felix Salten worked as war reporters, while Robert Musil edited a newspaper for soldiers, and Stefan Zweig, Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Polgar, Felix Salten, Rudolf Hans Bartsch, Franz Karl Ginzkey and Franz Theodor Csokor did periods of service in the war archive, where they wrote propaganda, which Rilke ironically described as ‘doing the hair of heroes’.

On the opposing side the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, exploited the stereotype of the ‘strong, deep Germany of old, the Germany of music and philosophy, against this monstrous modern aberration, the Germany of blood and iron’, while Rudyard Kipling, the author of the Jungle Book stories, already saw ‘the Huns’ standing at the gates.

Rarely – but there were such cases – a different tone was to be heard – like Anatol France or Romain Rolland, whose Au-dessus de la mêlée (Above the Melee) resulted in him being boycotted by bookshops  and regarded with contempt by his fellow writers. Many opponents of the war fled to Switzerland, including Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin. Arthur Schnitzler remained silent, for which he deserves credit in view of the contemporary mood.

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Heinemann, Julia et al.: Die Autoren und Bücher der deutschsprachigen Literatur zum 1. Weltkrieg 1914-1939. Ein bio-bibliographisches Handbuch, Göttingen 2008

Sauermann, Eberhard: Literarische Kriegsfürsorge. Österreichische Dichter und Publizisten im Ersten Weltkrieg [Literaturgeschichte in Studien und Quellen 4], Wien/Köln/Weimar 2000

Traub, Rainer: Der Krieg der Geister, in: Spiegel special (2004), 1, 26-30. Unter: (19.06.2014)

Weigel, Hans/Lukan, Walter/Peyfuss, Max D.: Jeder Schuss ein Russ. Jeder Stoss ein Franzos. Literarische und graphische Kriegspropaganda in Deutschland und Österreich 1914-1918, Wien 1983



„Rabble of words“: Zweig, Stefan: Briefe 1914-1918, Frankfurt am Main 1998, 110 (Translation)

„It’s always the same ...“: Heym, Georg: Dichtungen und Schriften. 3 Bände, Hamburg/München 1960, Bd. 3, 138f. (Translation)

Number of poems (estimate): quoted from: Hirschfeld, Gerhard/Krumeich, Gerd/Renz, Irina (Hrsg.): Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg, Paderborn 2004, 190 (Fußnote 14) (Translation)

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?

  • Aspect

    Guiding the masses

    Guiding the mood of the masses was an important aspect of warfare during the First World War. Considerable information and communication work was carried out to persuade the population of the “true facts”. All areas of life were influenced by propaganda in a way that had not been seen hitherto: reports in the newspapers, posters on the walls, even teaching material in schools now communicated controlled information. What methods and media were used? How did the various warring nations attempt to influence public opinion? What was communicated and how effective was the propaganda?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    The role of the intellectual in the war

    The year 1914 brought about an incisive change in their private and professional lives of many intellectuals. Formerly international intellectual and artist circles collapsed, many intellectuals entered the war, voluntarily or not, and many of them failed to return.

  • Development

    War as solution?

    Intellectual circles, writers, artists, academics, philosophers and scientists in particular saw the war as a solution to many of the problems confronting the Monarchy. They regarded the call to arms as a catharsis, a purifying force, and an opportunity to escape from the despised and weary pre-war world with its seemingly insoluble social and national conflicts.

  • Object

    War enthusiasm

    This brass kitchen mortar was exchanged as part of a metal collection for an iron mortar as an example of the possible ways of participating actively in the war and showing enthusiasm for it. When the First World War broke out, large sections of the Austro-Hungarian population were gripped by veritable euphoria. This enthusiasm was not shared by all sectors of society, however. It was strong in urban, bourgeois and intellectual circles, less so in the rural and working population.

  • Object

    The foreigner, the adversary, the enemy!

    To popularise the greeting “Gott strafe England” [“May God punish England”] and the response “Er strafe es” [“May He do so”] it was printed on posters, badges and postcards. The idea was to promote patriotism and hatred of England. Right after the start of the war, animosity and mutual attributions of blame by the two sides were manifest. Xenophobia was officially encouraged as a sign of patriotism. This singling out and denigration of the enemy was designed to strengthen solidarity and justify the country’s own war policy.