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The Last Days of Mankind

Karl Kraus—


The Final Night

Battlefield. Craters. Smoke clouds. Starless night. The horizon is a wall of flames.

Corpses. Dying soldiers. Men and women in gas masks appear.

A DYING SOLDIER (crying out)

Captain, call out the firing squad!
No one can make me shed my blood
for King and Country. Go ahead, shoot!
Once I’m dead, you can’t make me salute!

When I’m up there with the Lord on High,
Kings and Emperors I’ll defy
and scorn their Orders of the Day!
Where is my home? Is my son at play?

While in the arms of our Lord I sleep,
a letter scribbled on paper cheap
will be read by a woman who starts to weep,
aware of a love so deep, so deep!

Captain, you must have lost your mind,
you’ve sent me to face a dreadful end
and turned my heart to a firebrand.
I’ll not fight for any Fatherland!

What you’ve destroyed with your iron rod
are the bonds that kept me from my God.
It’s Death that should face the firing squad!
Not for no Kaiser I’ll shed my blood!

FEMALE GAS MASK (approaches)

This man, I guess, has died at God’s behest,
but on this battlefield there is no rest,
for duty calls us all in this momentous age,
both men and women dressed for some mad masquerade.
Blood, sweat, and toil and tears all claim an equal right,
seeking new honours when both genders fight.

MALE GAS MASK (prepares to join her)

If only your face
got accustomed to mine,
we then might embrace,
for your mask is so fine.

But no features are shown
when such horrors appal.
We must stay unknown
and obey duty’s call.

While we shoulder our rifle,
we dread a reprisal
from fumes that could stifle
our will for survival.

But while flames fill the air
we still feel hale and hearty,
so let’s form a pair
and be off to the party.

Distant gunfire.


Distinguishing features
we have to surrender,
for we’re merely creatures
without face or gender.

Our life is a fight
between spectres and drones,
so we revel at night
to the sound of trombones.

BOTH (arm in arm)

Distinguishing features
we have to surrender,
for we’re merely creatures
without face or gender.

(They vanish.)

(Two generals, fleeing in a motorcar.)

GENERAL (Speech-song)

Our transport can’t save us,
the earth’s full of shell holes,
barbed wire, and barriers
plus deeper hell holes.

The fortunes of war
mean we’re facing defeat.
So we’ve begun our
strategic retreat.

Men of our years
soon run out of breath,
and nightmarish fears
scare us to death.

The troops give no quarter
while we do a bunk.
Drive on through the slaughter,
or else we are sunk!

There’s a corpse dead as mutton
and a man moans he’s hurt.
Goddammit, a button
has come off his shirt!

I’m such a stickler,
this makes me see red.
“Sew it on quick, there!
Else you are dead!”

Don’t dare make me frown,
or I’ll blow a fuse,
won’t take things lying down!
The war’s no excuse!

“Stand to attention!
Report to the Sarge!
Even if deaf and dumb,
you’re on a charge!”

It’s a scandal, such squaddies
mean all hope is lost!
Drive over the bodies
and don’t count the cost!

The generals drive off. Dawn is breaking.

From The Last Days of Mankind: The Complete Text by Karl Kraus, translated by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

The Austrian Jewish author Karl Kraus (1874–1936) was the foremost German-language satirist of the twentieth century. As editor of the journal Die Fackel (The Torch) he conducted a sustained critique of propaganda and the press, expressed through polemical essays, witty aphorisms, and resonant poems. Edward Timms, founding director of the University of Sussex Centre for German-Jewish Studies, is best known for his two-volume study Karl Kraus—Apocalyptic Satirist. The title of his memoirs, Taking Up the Torch, reflects his long-standing interest in Kraus’s journal. Fred Bridgham is the author of wide-ranging studies in German literature, history, and the history of ideas. His translations of lieder and opera include Hans Werner Henze’s The Prince of Homburg for performance by English National Opera.

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