The Apocalypse in Germany
It is true that the 'fin de siecle resignation' formed the basis of their mood toward life; complaints about 'life without meaning,' about 'the emptiness of things,' and 'bad times' in Zech and Heym betray this; antipathy to the all too 'gentle world' in Heymel and Lichtenstein betrays this as well; but sharper and sharper overtones lay above this keynote. Disgust at 'business, gossip, and playing around,' at 'illusion, idle talk, and luxury,' as Gundolf expressed to George in letters, was not only an aesthetic attitude, but also desperate repugnance that was transformed into an apocalyptic mood, in which the 'end of the world,' the actual end of the old world, was hoped for. Georg Trakl saw his existential conflict in dire connection with the decay and corruption of the world: 'I am looking forward to the day when the soul will not longer desire nor be able to live in this unhappy body contaminated with melancholy; when it will leave its travesty of excrement and rottenness, which is an all-too-true image of a godless, cursed century.'
In his diaries between 1909 and 1911, Georg Heym expressed in moving words the entire range of motivating perceptions—from emotional paralysis brought on by the emptiness of the daily hustle and bustle to gnawing despair at the lack of existential meaning. He passionately laments 'the listlessness, the despair,' that festers in him like a 'sickness,' and 'this empty existence': 'I believe no time was so empty as this one.' 'It is always the same, so boring, boring, boring. Nothing, nothing, nothing happens. If something would happen once, that would not leave behind this pale taste of ordinariness.' 'Hunger for a deed' seizes him. 'If barricades were built, I would be the first to place myself on them, I would feel the intoxication of enthusiasm even with a bullet in the heart. Or if it were only that one began a war, even if it were unjust. This peace is so idle, oily and greasy like varnish on old furniture.' Looking back in his autobiography, Arnolt Bronnen describes this mood in a very similar fashion: 'But I felt in my heart that war had to come. It had to come because I wanted it. It had to come because I saw no other way out. I felt this on that July 31st as clearly as I feel it today—and feel it as a fault: never has a war been so wished for by countless young people, by sons of the bourgeois world who had become confused in their world. They all wanted what I wanted; an end. An end of this era. An end of their lives in this era. A life-form had used itself up.'
But they wanted not only an end, but also a new beginning. A war, they hoped, would bring about—like an apocalyptic event—a radical structural change in the world and in human existence. Not everyone maintained such hopes; Trakl was doubtless no optimistic apocalypticist, and van Hoddis's and Ehrenstein's visions of destruction also do not open the prospect of a renewed existence after the end of the world. But most devoted themselves, full of enthusiasm, to apocalyptic expectations. Their apocalyptic mood was not turned backward and did not remain passive in aesthetic sublimation; they had become weary of mere playing and were on the point of leaving the dream world of the decadence.
Loftily we wait for a dominating signThey desired apocalyptic action. But in no way did they think in categories of power politics. For them it was not a matter of enlarging political and economic spheres of influence or even of gaining land: they desired the destruction of the old bourgeois world. From the act of destruction, so they hoped, a new, better, perhaps even perfect world would arise. After the wish that a war came, Gustav Sack had his lazy student express the hope: 'Oh, for something higher—.' After the Second World War, Johannes R. Becher remembered with enthusiastic words the apocalyptic euphoria that van Hoddis's 'Weltende' had kindled in his generation, even though this poem conjures up only destruction and does not promise a new world: 'These two verses, oh these eight lines appeared to have transformed us into other people, to have lifted us out of the world of blunted middle-class mentality, which we despised but did not know how to escape. These eight lines abducted us....We felt like new men, like men on the first day of creation, a new world should begin with us, and we swore to ourselves to create a restlessness that the bourgeois would be totally stunned and should view it as a grace to be sent to hell.'
That would lead us from dreams to actions.
When the war broke out in August 1914 many believed that the desired apocalyptic event had arrived. Friedrich Gundolf, for example, abandoned himself completely to the 'great feeling of a decision about being or nonbeing of the contemporary world as well as the counter-world.' With a view to the literary visions of the past he wrote to George: 'What was merely play and illusion for years looks different as a reality,' and he meant this in a positive sense: the 'shudder at the monstrous' appeared to him to outstrip even the vision. But after the initial enthusiasm in whose wake one could easily fall in August 1914, most young writers were quickly sobered by the reality of war, especially when they had to experience this reality at the front.