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Authors: Odon Von Horvath

Youth Without God

BOOK: Youth Without God

“Horváth had turned his back on the mournful realism of the émigrés, with their passion for easy caricature and their desire for revenge. He had realized with extraordinary acuteness that to meet the horror of reality with a horror literature was no longer possible or useful; that the reality of Fascism was in fact so overwhelming and catastrophic that no realism, particularly the agonized naturalism of the twentieth century, could do it justice.”


“Ödön von Horváth was a brilliant German writer.… He makes the truth irresistible.”


“The most gifted writer of his generation.”


“Horváth is better than Brecht.”


“One of the best Austrian writers … In every line of his prose there is an unmistakable hatred for the kind of German philistinism that made the German murder, the Third Reich, possible.”



(1901–1939) was born near Trieste, the son of a Hungarian diplomat who moved the family constantly. Horváth would subsequently say of himself, “I am a mélange of Old Austria; Hungarian, Croat, Czech, German; alas, nothing Semitic.” Although his first language was Hungarian, he went to high school in Vienna and college in Munich, and began writing plays in German. Leaving school, he settled in Berlin, where in 1931 his play
Italian Night
debuted to rave reviews—except from the Nazi press, which reviled him. His next play,
Tales from the Vienna Woods
, starring Peter Lorre, drew an even stronger, equally divided response. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Horváth relocated to Vienna, but on the day of the Anschluss—March 13, 1938—he fled to Budapest, and soon after, to Paris. On June 1, 1938, Horváth was caught in a storm after leaving a theater on the Champs-Élysées. He took shelter under a tree that was struck by lightning; a falling limb killed him instantly. He was 36 years old and had published 21 plays and three novels—
Youth Without God
A Child of Our Time
, and
The Eternal Philistine

is a critic and translator whose work has appeared in
The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic
, and
The Washington Post
. She is the translator of
Every Day, Every Hour
by Nataša Dragnić and the forthcoming
, by Alexandre Dumas.

translations from French and German include Ödön von Horváth’s
A Child of Our Time


I was by no means the only reader of books on board the
Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book-stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubtless contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much



Originally published in German as
Jugend ohne Gott
by Ödön von Horváth

Originally published in the United States by The Dial Press under the title
The Age of the Fish
in 1939

This edition © Melville House 2012

Translated by R. Wills Thomas

Introduction © Liesl Schillinger

Design by Christopher King

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

eISBN: 978-1-61219-120-1

        Library of Congress Control Number: 2012936545




Ödön von Horváth’s
Youth Without God,
and the devilry of ungodly times

What does it mean, and why does it matter, to find yourself in godless times—particularly if you yourself are not what you would call “religious,” at least, not in fair weather?

In 1933 in Vienna, five years before Germany annexed Austria into the Third Reich, a Viennese author, critic, actor, and boulevardier named Egon Friedell (born Friedmann, in 1878, when Vienna was capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) denounced the Nazi regime as: “the Reich of the Antichrist,” and wrote vehemently, “Every trace of nobility, piety, education, reason is persecuted in the most hateful and base manner by a rabble of depraved bootblacks.” Three days into the Anschluss, on March 16, 1938, Friedell jumped to his death from the window of his townhouse on the Gentzgasse when the SA came knocking. Three days before, Friedell’s good friend Ödön von Horváth, the prolific playwright and novelist (born in 1901 in the Austro-Hungarian port city of Fiume, which today is called Rijeka, and lies in Croatia), had prudently packed his belongings and left Vienna, ending up in Paris after a brief sojourn in Budapest. For decades, Vienna had been
an enlightened, secular haven for culture and café society. No longer.

Von Horváth, unlike Friedell, was not Jewish; nor was he much of a churchgoer. He was a sophisticated Hungarian—a diplomat’s son—and had been schooled in Budapest, Vienna and Munich before moving to Berlin in his twenties to participate in the theater scene. His writing was irreverent, original and hostile to euphemism, and his two-dozen-odd plays and handful of novels mirrored his thoughts on the social, sexual and political hypocrisies of his era—a dangerous transparency in the anti-intellectual times that accompanied Hitler’s rise. His 1931 comic drama
Italian Night
, in which two different parties are accidentally booked in a Bavarian pub on the same date—one a crowd of vociferous Fascists marking “German Day,” the other a group of left-wingers celebrating “Italian Night”—infuriated German authorities. Light-hearted as the play’s jabs may have seemed to Berlin theatergoers who didn’t pick up on its subtext, von Horváth’s rubber bullets made him vulnerable to return fire of a more serious kind. In 1933, after Hitler became Chancellor, the playwright’s work was banned in Germany, and he fled for safety to Vienna. There in 1938, as a man of wit and conscience and something of a visionary as well, he could not help but perceive the existential threat that brown-shirted thugs posed to Viennese café society. A man does not need to be a fervent believer to sense the absence of God, or to detect the presence of darker agency.

The year before he left Vienna, von Horváth wrote the novel
Youth Without God
, which you now hold in your hands. It was published in Amsterdam in 1937, and in 1939, came out in English. Rich in parable, urgent in tone, and
unusually earnest for the sly and mischievous von Horváth, the book takes the form of the diary of an unnamed teacher at a boys’ school, who gets in trouble when he refuses to endorse the Aryan worldview. One of his students, “N” (the teacher identifies his pupils by initial letter only) turns in an essay in which he has written that: “All niggers are dirty, cunning, and contemptible.” [
this page
] Although this sort of racial propaganda was ubiquitous during the corrupting epoch in which the book is set (the teacher recalls having heard similar slurs broadcast from loudspeakers in public places) he refuses to let it pass unreproved. “You shouldn’t have said that it doesn’t matter whether the negroes live or die,” he scolds the boy, as he hands back the essay. “They’re human too, you know.” [
this page

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