Overcoming antisemitism

One of the most famous of Hermann Bahr’s considerable contributions to early modernism is the 1891 essay ‘Die Überwindung des Naturalismus’ (Overcoming Naturalism), in which the Austrian writer and critic proposed ways in which European literature could advance beyond what was then its dominant movement. But Bahr never lost sight of wider society beyond the cultural sphere, maintaining a keen interest in politics, although his views underwent substantial transformation, especially in his early adult years.

Hermann Bahr, 1893 (drawing by Ferry Bératon).png

As the Afterword to our forthcoming translation of his 1894 book Antisemitism reveals, the young Bahr was given to rowdy student provocations, including antisemitic insults. Within a decade he was a spokesman for the ‘Young Vienna’ group of writers and its numerous Jewish members, and would soon marry a Jewish actress. This unusual trajectory gave him a highly valuable insight into the rise of a new, virulent, politicised form of racial antisemitism whipped up by extremists both elected and unelected who together present a prototype for today’s breed of populism.

This extract from the Afterword takes us through the stages in Bahr’s early life that led up to the landmark study. In it we discover not only a key figure of European modernism who deserves far greater recognition in the English-speaking world, but also someone who was ideally suited to produce a pan-European study of the most contentious issue of his time.

Born in solidly middle-class, typically Catholic circumstances in Linz in 1863, Hermann Bahr early on exhibited a sharp mind and a rebellious spirit; graduating from secondary school as a star pupil in 1881, he was allowed to address his fellow students and caused a stir by using his talk to champion socialism. At university in Vienna, where he studied classical philology and philosophy, Bahr became an associate member of Albia, a Burschenschaft (a student association comparable to a fraternity) which was aligned with the pan-German movement. It was here that he came into contact with two figures who dramatically exemplified the range of responses to the ‘Jewish question’ at the time. On the one hand there was Theodor Herzl, the first modern Zionist, one of a number of Jews at the time who, with no previous cause to regard themselves as significantly other, responded to anti-Jewish agitation with increased identification with Judaism. On the other was Georg von Schönerer, the early instigator of racial antisemitism who would exert an enormous ideological influence on Nazism. Here, Bahr had personal links with the respective godfathers of modern Israel and the Holocaust.

To Bahr’s later shame, it was Schönerer who loomed largest in his thinking at the time. The passionate young pan-Germanist could see at close quarters those qualities he admired from afar in Otto von Bismarck, Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. Adopting Schönerer’s views as his own, Bahr saw the Austro- Hungarian Empire as an ‘over-Slavified’ relic of the past. One of Bahr’s first published articles reflected his antisemitic beliefs, which found even cruder expression in slogans that he pasted up around Vienna, leading to his arrest.

In 1883 Bahr aired his outspoken pan-German views at a ceremony to mark the death of Richard Wagner and was dismissed from Vienna University for ‘treasonous activities’; he then moved to Graz, where he was arrested for insulting Jewish patrons in a café. It was an ignominious nadir. The worldly man of letters was yet to emerge, and in the meantime Bahr pursued sociology and economics, a combination of disciplines he regarded as the ‘alchemy of the future’. So when he moved to Berlin in 1884 it was as much the presence of famed economists Adolph Wagner and Gustav Schmoller as his Germanophilia that attracted him. Hermann Bahr arrived in Berlin with a highly quixotic blend of political beliefs, favouring a Hohenzollern monarchy ruling over Germany and Austria (but not the rest of Austria’s empire), free of Jewish influence and somehow also socialist. His admiration for Bismarck led Bahr to join a torchlight procession for the Iron Chancellor’s 70th birthday in 1885. He endeavoured to meet the man himself but was directed instead to an advisor, Franz Johannes von Rottenburg, who inspired an unexpected turning point. Rottenburg managed to convince the committed pan-Germanist of the necessity of Austrian sovereignty; Bahr became an Austrian patriot on the spot – and would remain so for the rest of his life – even as his antisemitic and socialist views receded.

From this transitional phase a writer was emerging. Die neuen Menschen (The New People), from 1887, was emblematic of Bahr’s shifting focus. Thematically it illustrated his gradual alienation from socialism but its form – drama – would increasingly come to preoccupy him as both a critic and a creator. The following year he met the foremost living practitioner of the art, Henrik Ibsen, and moved to Paris where he could satisfy his hunger for new literary forms.

Bahr dwelt among bohemians and came into contact with Decadent literature, with the key text of the movement, Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours, inspiring his first novel, Die gute Schule (The Good School, 1890). He was one of the first German-speaking writers to regard the radical individualism and recherché perversity of Decadence as a way forward, as reflected in one of his most renowned essays, ‘Die Überwindung des Naturalismus’ (Overcoming Naturalism) in 1891.

As well as travelling to Spain, Morocco and Russia, Bahr returned to Berlin, where he was repelled by the advance of materialism, and in marked contrast to his younger years came to regard Jews as guardians of German culture (although he also complained that Germans were ‘two hundred years behind’ when he worked on the journal Freie Bühne für modernes Leben, or Free Stage for Modern Life). Through his literary criticism Bahr became closely identified in German-speaking Europe with die Moderne and he played a crucial role in the advancement of new forms.

Amid an intense period of publishing activity, Bahr issued a collection of stories entitled Fin de Siècle, helping to popularise a French borrowing that would come to be used as an umbrella term in German-speaking countries for Decadence, Symbolism and other inter-connected literary strains at the close of the 19th century. However, six of the book’s tales were judged obscene by Prussian authorities for depicting ‘abnormal and aberrant gratification of the sex drive’, and Bahr was fined 150 marks.

In 1891 Bahr returned to Vienna, with no little reluctance initially, although he soon became an essential part of the city’s literary life at one of its most exciting periods. Again, Bahr was pivotal, the ringleader of the ‘Young Vienna’ group which included the likes of Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, as well as Karl Kraus, with whom Bahr conducted a long-running feud. In 1892 Bahr met Emil Auspitzer, the Jewish editor of Vienna’s Deutsche Zeitung, a newspaper that went through a number of ideological shifts. Auspitzer took Bahr on with a handsome salary and a generous brief that encompassed theatre as well as wider cultural phenomena, and Bahr made the most of it. In October of that year he ran a series of interviews with notable figures in Vienna’s theatre scene. This was a highly novel concept in German-language letters; the authoritative Duden dictionary locates the first instance of the loan word das Interview in 1887. Toward the end of that year Bahr returned to Paris to cover the Panama Scandal, interviewing Émile Zola among others, and also met up with Theodor Herzl again, who was there covering the same story as the foreign correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse, competitor to the Deutsche Zeitung.

In 1893 Bahr marshalled these elements for a far more extensive undertaking – a series of interviews with prominent international figures on the subject of antisemitism.

Antisemitism by Hermann Bahr (tr. James J. Conway) will be published on 21 October 2019. You can find more information here.