Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The war after the war – reflection, homecoming and review

The topics writers dealt with were many and varied. They ranged from enthusiasm for the war and wartime propaganda to descriptions of battles with individual experiences and feelings. The types of text that were used were just as varied – including diary entries, essays, poems, dramas and novels.

The descriptions came from authors who fought at the front and from authors who remained behind the lines. Some were written immediately while the war was in progress, others only after the war, the latter in many cases a way of mentally processing what was actually beyond comprehension. This is how the First World War became the topic that dominated literature after 1918. Ernst Jünger’s book In Stahlgewittern (In Storms of Steel) is based on diary entries he made on the western front between 1915 and 1918 and then published in various versions from 1920 on. Jünger depicted the war as a natural phenomenon governed by fate; he did not judge and he did not recognisably express an opinion either. But what he remembered was reading Karl May, and he described himself as an adventurous Old Shatterhand at the front: ‘My fourth-form memories of Karl May came back to me as I was sliding on my belly through the grass wet with dew and the undergrowth of thistles … ‘Heiner Müller has commented: ‘Jünger’s problem is a problem of the twentieth century, namely that for him the experience of war came before the experience of women.’

Escape, desertion and the motives for them and their consequences are themes frequently found in the literature of the war. Thus Stefan Zweig’s short story Episode am Genfer See (Episode on Lake Geneva) from 1926 tells the story of the Russian soldier Boris, who after a bullet wound flees from the sick bay and is pulled from Lake Geneva in a state of exhaustion. Zweig makes opposing worlds confront each other, the world of fighting and the world of an idyllic holiday resort, and depicts the fate of masses by means of the story of one individual. At the end only resignation and capitulation are left: Boris drowns himself in the lake; he is buried and a wooden cross is placed on his grave, ‘one of those small wooden crosses above a nameless fate with which our Europe is now covered from one end to the other’.

The situation of those returning home provided further material for many literary productions. These dealt with the trauma of the war in the backpack of memories, the estrangement from those who had remained at home, but also from the homeland itself, disorientation after the disintegration of the old orders, especially in Austria, where nothing was as it had been before. In his novel Die Flucht ohne Ende (The Flight Without End) (1927) – the subtitle describes it as a ‘Report’, Joseph Roth presented the wanderings of Franz Tunda, a soldier returning from the war, who, fleeing from captivity by the Russians, gets mixed up with the Russian revolution, then arrives in Austria after its collapse, later goes via Germany to Paris and is finally lost to the world in an existence marked by alienation and the absence of relationships, because ‘nobody in the world was as superfluous as he was.’

Shortly before the beginning of the first year of peace Kurt Tucholksy looked back on the war years in his poem Silvester (New Year’s Eve) (1918) and summed them up as follows:

"Four long years. 
Time and again we again had to keep our heads down
and say nothing and just swallow.
Humans were military material and army supplies."

Tucholksky put an end to the war idyll, the courage of heroes and the spirit of comradeship; in his works the individual, the lyrical ‘I’ sits alone in front of a glass of wine and the picture of the abandoned Emperor, naming those responsible, settling accounts and warning: ‘Forget that, Always think of what the ancients sang!’

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Jünger, Ernst: In Stahlgewittern. Unter: (19.06.2014)

Roth, Joseph: Die Flucht ohne Ende. Unter: (19.06.2014)

Zweig, Stefan: Episode am Genfer See. Unter: (19.06.2014)

Tucholsky, Kurt: Silvester. Unter: (19.06.2014)



"My fourth-form memories of Karl May ...": Jünger, Ernst: In Stahlgewittern. Unter: (19.06.2014) (Translation)

"Jünger’s problem is a problem ...“: Müller, Heiner: Krieg ohne Schlacht. Leben in zwei Diktaturen, Köln 1992,  282 (Translation)

"one of those small wooden ...": Zweig, Stefan: Episode am Genfer See. Unter: (19.06.2014) (Translation)

"nobody in the world ...": Roth, Joseph: Die Flucht ohne Ende. Unter: (19.06.2014) (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?

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.

  • 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

    Experiences of violence

    While some of the front soldiers experienced the “storm of steel” as the apotheosis of their own masculinity, most soldiers suffered on account of their physical and/or mental injuries. The destructiveness of modern mechanical warfare and the mental strain caused by the days and weeks in the trenches, the constant noise of the artillery and the sight of seriously wounded and mutilated comrades produced not only an army of war wounded but also masses of soldiers suffering from war neurosis.

  • Object

    Flight and deportation

    Millions of people fled during the war from the fighting and the marauding soldiers. The situation was particularly dramatic in ethnically heterogeneous regions on the eastern front. Apart from the invaders, local soldiers also attacked minorities. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were deported far away from the front and behind the lines, in some cases because they were seen as untrustworthy “internal enemies” and in others to exploit them as forced labourers.

  • 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


    Desertion was a phenomenon that all of the armies – including the multinational Habsburg army – had to deal with throughout the four years of the war. This official proclamation from 1915 in three languages (Hungarian, German and Serbian) relates cases of desertion by prisoners of war and their ‘deliberate’ support by the local civilian population. It is described as a ‘crime against military supply’, which is subject to ‘merciless’ punishment.

  • Person

    Stefan Zweig

    Like many of his contemporaries, Stefan Zweig was euphoristic at the start of the war, but this attitude changed radically from 1915 on. After working in the War Archives, he used the opportunity of a lecture series in neutral Switzerland to become an exile.