Great European of the Week: Ödön von Horváth

Ödön von Horváth, also known as Edmund Josef von Horváth (born 9 December 1901 in Fiume, died 1 June 1938 in Paris) was a novelist and playwright most famous for his Youth without God, Tales from the Vienna Woods and Italian Night. His works are notable for their dire warnings of the dangers of growing fascist movements.

Horváth was born in Fiume (then Austria-Hungary, today located in Croatia) to an Austro-Hungarian diplomat. He was no stranger to living abroad during his youth: he attended elementary school in Budapest, while his high school years were spent in Bratislava and Vienna. In 1919, he began studying at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. He relocated from Germany to Vienna in 1933 when the Nazi regime came to power, and then to Paris in 1938 following Austria’s Anschluss with Germany. He never felt particularly attached to any country. When asked about his nationality, he once replied: “I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Pressburg [Bratislava], Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland.”

Ödön von Horváth.

Ödön von Horváth.

Horváth’s writings centered on topics of popular culture, politics, and history while exploring ideas of dehumanization and identity. Horváth grew increasingly disturbed by the growth of fascist ideology throughout his adulthood, which is a dominant theme in his works. His novel Youth without God is told from the point of view of a helpless teacher who views the growth of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi propaganda his students are exposed to. His play Italian Night, which premiered in Berlin in 1931, scrutinized the social and psychological components of fascist behaviour. The play grew popular overnight, allegedly due to the ire it drew from Nazi officials. Later that year he wrote his most prolific work, Tales from the Vienna Woods, which won him the prestigious Kleist prize. This play described the complacency of townsfolk in a fictional village as the Nazis rose to power.

For years Horváth sought to warn Parisians of the growing influence of fascism around them, which he predicted would eventually take over the country. Many of Horváth’s writings center around the dangers of fascism and the complacency of society that allows such dangers to grow through indifference and inaction. He never lived to see the fulfillment of his predictions: his life was cut short when a tree branch fell on him during a thunderstorm in Paris in 1938. Though only 36 at the time of his death, he had produced 21 plays and four prose works garnering a significant amount of respect and attention from his colleagues and the public.

Ödön von Horváth’s works today serve as a reminder that the greatest tool fascist ideologies have at their disposal is the complacency of society. As we today witness the growth of extreme right-wing movements throughout the European Union, we should keep in mind the important works of this week’s Great European.

Image: “Austrian-Hungarian author Ödön von Horváth (1901–1938) in 1919” courtesy of Dieter Hildebrandt: Ödön von Horváth. Reinbek: Rowohlt 1975. S. 25. Published under Creative Commons licence 3.0. share alike.

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