Faith, Hope And Charity: The Plays Of Ödön von Horváth

‘It just has so often a yearning within – 
but then you go back with broken wings 
and life goes on, 
as if you’d never been there.’

– Karoline in Kasimir und Karoline by Ödön von Horváth (1932)

Born in Fiume in Hungary (now Croatia and known as Rijeka since 1945) on 9th December 1901, Edmund Josef Horvát was the son of Dr Edmund Josef Horvát, a Hungarian diplomat, and his Hungarian-German wife, Mary Hermione Prehnal. The following year, the family moved to Belgrade and another son, Lajos, arrived in 1903. In 1908, they moved again to Budapest, where Edmund and Lajos were schooled in Hungarian. As a reward for his diplomatic service, Dr Horvát was ennobled and sent to Munich. The Horvát children remained at school in Hungary, but changed their name to reflect their father’s new-found status; this meant the addition of ‘von’ in German and another ‘h’ added to their surname in Hungarian.

A year before the outbreak of the First World War, Edmund and his brother moved to Munich, before going to live in Bratislava, and then with an uncle in Vienna. The frequent relocations of his childhood would leave von Horváth without a fixed sense of national identity as he later revealed, ‘If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Pressburg, Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria-Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary; my mother tongue is German.’ In fact, von Horváth only learnt his ‘mother tongue’  during his teens in Munich, but it was the only language he wrote in thereafter.

Enrolling as a student at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich in 1919, von Horváth studied German literature and drama, which prompted him to begin writing his own plays; early titles included Das Buch der Tänze (1920). After abandoning his studies in 1922, he divided his time between Berlin and Salzburg and began calling himself Ödön, the Hungarian spelling of his name. From 1924, he was also a frequent visitor to his parents’ new home in Murnau, Upper Bavaria.

Die Bergbahn, originally entitled Revolte auf Côte 3018 was von Horváth’s first success in 1926, and drawing upon his interest in German folk culture, it set the precedent for future plays such as Rund um den Kongreß (1929) and Italienische Nacht (1930). A novel, Der ewige Spießer was published in 1930 and in 1931, von Horváth was awarded the highly esteemed Kleist Prize for his play, Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald. Amongst his notable admirers were the writer and playwright Carl Zuckmayer, and the Marxist poet, Bertolt Brecht.

However, his criticism of National Socialism, as expounded in plays like Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald, Kasimir und Karoline (1932) and Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung (1932), brought von Horváth to the attention of the Nazis, and he left Berlin for Vienna after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. In Austria, he produced several of his most revered offerings, for instance Die Unbekannte aus der Seine (1933), Don Juan kommt aus dem Krieg (1936) and Figaro läßt sich scheiden (1936).

Returning regularly to see his parents in Murnau, by 1935, von Horváth had been labelled a ‘nationally seditious fugitive’ in Germany, and his play banned. Staying in Murnau in 1936, von Horváth was ordered to leave the country within the next 24 hours, it was to be the last day he would ever spend in Germany, and he returned to Vienna. Despite writing to a friend, ‘I am not so afraid of the Nazis…There are worse things one can be afraid of, namely things one is afraid of without knowing why. For instance, I am afraid of streets. Roads can be hostile to one, can destroy one. Streets scare me;’ when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938, von Horváth had little choice but to escape to Budapest.

Travelling to Fiume, Prague, Milan, Zurich, Brussels and Amsterdam, von Horváth finally settled in Paris in May 1938. In the French capital, he began working on two novels, Jugend ohne Gott and Ein Kind unserer Zeit. On 1st June 1938, von Horváth walked along the Champs-Élysées to attend a meeting with Robert Siodmak a German director who was interested in filming Jugend ohne Gott. A summer storm was brewing and the wind picked up dramatically; as von Horváth took shelter under a tree opposite the Théâtre Marigny, a large branch broke off, landing on top of the playwright and killing him instantly. Originally buried in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen in Paris, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death, von Horváth’s body was exhumed and moved to the family plot in Heiligenstädter Friedhof, Vienna.

The novels von Horváth had completed in Paris were both published after his death, with Jugend ohne Gott, which savagely condemned the Hitler Youth, added to the Gestapo’s list of harmful and undesirable writings.’ Largely forgotten until the 1960s, von Horváth’s palys experienced a revival in Germany, receiving praise and recognition from contemporary dramatists such as Franz Xaver Kroetz and Botho Strauß; several were turned into films and today, they are frequently performed in some of the most prestigious theatres in Europe. The enduring popularity of his work, regardless of the uneasy political and social changes it echoes, is an accolade von Horváth would have appreciated. In a 1932 interview, he claimed that he was accused of being ‘too rough, too disgusting, too scary, too cynical’ and admitted that this was indeed true, for he had ‘no other desire than to describe the world as it is.’