Novels of the Great War: "Men in War" by Andreas Latzko

In the galaxy of the First World War literary production the anti-war novels represent a special subcategory in which also many classics may be included, starting with the masterpieces of Ernest Hemingway or Erich Maria Remarque. Yet it is interesting to note that this genre includes also novels which enjoyed an astonishing fortune during the conflict or in the post-war period, were although then quickly forgotten at the point that today they are almost unknown to the common public. Maybe one of the most interesting example is represented by Andreas Latzko’s Men in War (Menschen im Krieg), a collection of six stories set during the WWI. The book condemns the madness of the war from different point of views; it describes in a realistic way the atrocity of the front line and exasperates the cruelty of the events with an expressionistic prose, providing so still today one of the most poignant “scream that silences [all] aesthetic doubts” concerning the Great War, as Karl Kraus described the work in Die Fackel.

Andreas Latzko personifies in some way the geographical, cultural and religious melting-pot of the old Austrian Hungarian Empire at the eve of the WWI: son of a Magyar father and a Viennese mother, he grew up as a baptized Catholic of Jewish origins. At the start of the conflict, in autumn 1914, Latzko served at the Isonzo front, where he contracted malaria and suffered various nervous disorders. His experience at the “Hell on the Isonzo” reached his climax, as referred by his friend the French pacifist Romain Rolland, when the young Latzko witnessed the death of a group of soldier blown in smithereens by a grenade. This occurrence struck him deeply: although initially he seemed to be involved nor physically neither psychologically, only few days later he had a sort of psychical collapse when a rare steak was served to lunch. He started to refuse all food and was finally temporarily discharged from the army in 1916. Latzko tried to recover in Davos, where he underwent psychiatric treatment. Here he wrote his book Men in war. Refusing then in December 1917 to return in service in Northern Hungary, Andreas Latzko settled down in Switzerland where he corresponded with other exiles and pacifists such as Stefan Zweig and Romain Rolland.

The six stories collected in Menschen im Krieg first appeared anonymous between 1916 and 1917 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and in other newspapers, were then published as a book in Zürich by Max Rascher in October 1917. Even if it was banned in Germany and Austria – where it nevertheless circulated illegally – Men in War was immediately translated in French and English. The Italian version dates back instead to the 1920s. During the last years of the conflict and in the post-war period the book enjoyed an enormous success.

Some of the stories describe the life at the front from different point of views. The first one, for example, entitled Der Abmarsch (Off to War), is set in a small Austrian village in autumn 1915 and reports the psychological breakdown and insanity of an unnamed lieutenant, who gives voice to the first criticism not only against the war and those who made it happen, from politicians to generals, but also against the insanity of the civil society, here symbolized by the women who applaud their men into battle only to support a patriotic demagogy. It is not hard to see in this pages of Latzko the same disenchanted sentiment of Wilfred Owen’s poem The Send-Off. Another sort of insanity is that of an old military commander, protagonist of the 3rd story Der Sieger (The Victor): he enjoys his safe comfort behind the front line while simple soldiers fell in the carnage he has ordered. Madness and disillusion are intersected also in Heimkehr (Homecoming), reporting the returning from the Russian front of the Hungarian soldier Johann Bogdán, disfigured and embittered during the war and abandoned by his lover. Other two stories - Heldentod (A Hero’s Death) and Feuertaufe (Baptism of Fire) – focus the lens on the trench experience as a death-space and record the last hours of simple soldiers, disclosing how each one feels and judges his death for a senseless war in a personal way. It is however Der Kamerad (The Comrade), the 4th story in the book to represent vividly the author’s own experience at the front. The chapter offers in fact a monologue of an officer hospitalized in Gorizia, where also Latzko spent some time before leaving for Davos. This alter-ego of the author describes in his insanity the psychical collapse under the atrocity endured on the Isonzo front and presents his madness as the only and most reasonable, most human reaction to the war.

Although today almost disappeared from the list of the WWI literature, this six stories collected in Latzko’s Men in war offer a choral description of the foolishness of the Great War, disassembling it as a prim in disparate - sometimes surreal, sometimes grotesque - images and demolishing so every “aesthetics” of propaganda and nationalism, to recall Kraus’ judgment. In reading this pages we feel as disarmed witness in front of the voices of the protagonists, in front of their suffering which eschew any rational or historical explanation. Madness becomes therefore the desperate response of the human being against the war, the ultimate denunciation of the reason in its abdication. And this is at the end the legacy of this work, the reason why it deserves to be revaluated and to be read and listened: Latzko and his work raise a madness-scream, which remember us how not to be driven insane by violence, death and injustice, pretending to feel good and still be reasonable are the real insanity of the Great War and of all the conflicts that we witness also today.