Ödön von Horváth, Youth without God
Published by Diogenes, 2009
What happens in a society that has lost the eternal values? Where the law of might is right and the weak is being tyrannized? What does civic courage mean in such a society? In a totalitarian system, how can the individual uphold his or her humanity? Ödön von Horváth’s novel “Jugend ohne Gott” (“The Age of the Fish”) is an examination of the Nazi regime at a time when it could be perilous to critically deal with this government. It is the rousing vindication of all those who need time to gather their courage to stand up and protest.
The novel builds on the author’s own experiences. This celebrated intellectual of the period between the World Wars was too critical of society to be popular with the National Socialist rulers. On the other hand, von Horváth would have liked to have concluded peace with the regime if it had been willing to do so. Horváth became a member of the Union of National Writers. He tried to join the Reich Association of German Writers. He would have overlooked the inhumanities of the German government if that had gained him the privilege of continuing to publish and thus earn money. The Nazis, however, did not do him this favor. In 1936 von Horváth was expelled from Germany. The following year he was removed from the membership list of the Reich Literature Chamber which was a de facto publication ban in Germany.
That was the exact year when the novel “Jugend ohne Gott” was released. It is a novel with a key in which the author lets his main character paradigmatically tread the path from opportunism to civic courage. Ödön von Horváth tells the story of a teacher who tries to teach his students humanity. His fear of losing his position leads to a situation in which his own comparatively harmless actions result in the most serious injustice: because he is too great a coward to confess to having read the diary of one of the pupils, another person is murdered. An innocent person has to be threatened with execution before the teacher finally decides to do what is morally right: to tell the truth and, through his confession, assign guilt to the one responsible. And so, life can go on. For the teacher, however, there is no room in such a country after he made his confession. He emigrates, goes to Africa in order to make a fresh start.
In his book, Ödön von Horváth attacks the National Socialist efforts to discredit any kind of superhuman authority, any moral authority and train a youth which solely believes in the orders of a (human) leader. According to the novel, a “youth without God”, as the literal translation reads, is terrible and capable of any dreadful act. This is a surprising conclusion for somebody like Ödön von Horváth, who himself had already left the Church rather early in his life.
Faced with a world he could no longer see as his own, the disillusioned author would certainly have agreed with what Voltaire said: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” For man needs ideals and hopes for something greater than the here and now. As a matter of fact, the novel “Jugend ohne Gott” is a lesson for the consequence of pure materialism and thus ought to become compulsory reading at times like this.
Translated by Annika Backe