1. First, I have to apologize to all English readers: Apparently there is currently no English edition of the book available. (The available ones are old editions from 1939 and start at 79 $.) This is really a shame. So, dear English readers, please consider reading “Jugend ohne Gott” (“Youth without God”) instead.
2. Stefan Zweig called this book “one of the most important German documents of our time”. It was published in 1938 in Amsterdam, so the time the title alludes to is the time in between the two world wars, right before the second.
3. Our protagonist is a soldier, who loves being a soldier. Before that he was unemployed and depended on welfare. The book is written from the perspective of a first person narrator. The term “Vaterland” (home country), a typical term of the Nazi propaganda, is used 8 times just in the first few pages. He uses other terms too to describe his world, like “Führer”, “Reich” and “Volk”. So, the first chapter makes it pretty clear that we are in the mind of a brainwashed young Nazi. And we are forced to see the world through his eyes.
4. The style of the book oftentimes resembles poetry. Horváth uses short sentences and lots of punctuation. Also, pay attention to the rhythm of the text.
5. The annotations to the novel are just as interesting as the novel itself. So, German readers, when you buy the book, make sure to get the annotated version. (There is one by Suhrkamp Taschenbuch.) A lot of the metaphors and the terminology used by Horváth are explained in there, and this enriches the reading enormously.
6. Horváth uses the term “Linien” (lines) as a metaphor for love. When the young soldier falls in love with the girl from the fun fair, he talks about the “lines” that led him there. “Our lines were our souls.”, Horváth writes in another draft of the novel. Fellow author Franz Theodor Csokor called the women in Horváths life “Tangentenerlebnisse” (tangent experiences): “They touch at one point and lose themselves in infinity…”
7. The worldview of our soldier begins to change when he realizes that his captain who didn’t believe in the current ideologies and committed suicide by walking into gunfire, is considered a hero because he died in combat, while our soldier-protagonist, a firm believer in Nazi doctrine, who tried to safe his captain’s life and got wounded in the process, only gets a small disability pension. That’s the first time he starts to suspect that something might be wrong with the current system. Fittingly, the next chapter is called “the thinking animal”. Thinking is one of the themes that you will find again and again throughout the book. First, our soldier doesn’t want to think; it even hurts him. Then, slowly, his attitude towards thinking changes. “Keep thinking. Don’t be a coward.”, our protagonist says to himself by the end of the book.
8. In the end of the novel the author forces us to see the parallels between war and business. For both the individual doesn’t matter. For both the end justifies the means. War and business are not only alike, but the same. They follow the same rules and spread the same propaganda. If we read war as a metaphor for business, we see how these old ideologies are still alive and well today, in companies everywhere.
“As if a misdeed wasn’t a crime, in service of the homeland or any other enterprise – crime is crime, and before a fair judge every enterprise crumbles into nothing.”
9. One other theme that repeats itself again and again in the book, is the conflict of the individual versus the masses. “The individual doesn’t matter.”, according to war propaganda. That means that we as humans don’t matter, only the role we play in society does. Horváth portrays the inhumane worldview of war and corporations: they only see a number, where they should see a person.
[SPOILER ALERT – Skip the next few sentences if you haven’t read the book yet. I mean it.]
This conflict is symbolized at the end of the book, which Horváth hints at right at the beginning with the phrase “It is cold”. In the end, the soldier turns into a snowman, which is a perfect metaphor for his coldness and indifference towards himself and (formerly) others.
10. Horváth was killed in 1938 by a falling branch of a tree in Paris, as he was walking along the Champs Élysées. He was 36 years old. Horváth is said to have been told by a soothsayer that the most thrilling experience of his life was awaiting him in Paris. Ironically, his work is characterized by a mixture of the humorous and the horrible.
Being a child of ones time is, obviously, always a current issue. But in times like these, where nationalism is rising in many countries and many people are looking for refuge, we have to remember books like this one, that remind us where the choice of hatred over kindness has led us in the past.
We all are shaped by the prevalent thoughts and the general mindset of our time. Nobody is immune to the values our parents taught us. But, for all of us comes a point in life where we question the prevalent ideas of our time, and where we begin to suspect that a lot of this stuff might actually be pretty wrong, considering the current circumstances.
As generations we all have our blind spots. This is what we have to keep in mind when judging previous generations. This is what we have to be aware of when living in our own.
Ich bin Soldat.
Und ich bin gerne Soldat.
Jetzt hat mein Dasein plötzlich wieder Sinn!
I am a soldier.
And I love being a soldier.
Now my existence makes sense again!
Wir schauen der Wirklichkeit ins Auge. Wie weichen ihr nicht aus, wir machen uns nichts vor –
We look reality in the eye. We do not yield, we do not delude ourselves –
“Es ist kalt”, das ist meine erste Erinnerung. Mein erstes Gefühl, das mir blieb.
“It’s cold.”, that’s my first memory. The first feeling that stayed with me.
Einst, wenn die Zeit, in der wir leben, vorbei sein wird, wird es die Welt erst ermessen können, wie gewaltig sie gewesen ist.
When the time in which we live has passed, the world will begin to realize how huge it was.
Du bist eben leider ein Kriegskind, die haben alle nichts Ordentliches gelernt, immer nur alles versäumt, entweder warens zu früh dran oder zu spät.
Unfortunately, you are a war child, they didn’t learn anything to make a decent living, they just missed out on everything; either they were too early or they were too late.
Für einen Menschen muss man immer Zeit haben – der Mensch kommt an erster Stelle und dann kommt erst alles andere!
For a person you always have to have time – the person comes first and everything else comes second!