Letter from Europe

The darker side of verse

Issue no. 2017/24

Picture above: photo © Teeraporn Tirakul / dreamstime.com


It is eighty years ago this autumn that the Jewish-German poet and polemicist Ernst Lissauer died in Vienna. His sad life was a roller coaster of rant and prejudice. He was best known for his hate verse deployed against England in the First World War. We explore a lesser-known side of war poetry.

Dear fellow travellers

It is eighty years ago this autumn that the Jewish-German poet and polemicist Ernst Lissauer died in Vienna. His sad life was a roller coaster of rant and prejudice. On the face of it his work might seem to have little to do with culture and community or with travel - all issues upon which we normally focus in our Letter from Europe.

But 100 years ago, Lissauer's tribalistic poetry powerfully shaped German perceptions of England. Before the days of broadcast media, children in Bavarian villages knew little of England beyond that it was Germany's adversary in the war. But there was one poem which they all knew by heart and could recite with the same fluency as the Our Father or Hail Mary. It was Lissauer's Hassgesang gegen England (Hymn of Hate against England) which mocked the English and all they stood for. The poem was published in September 1914. It may be nice to imagine that German troops marched off to war with the words of Schiller and Rilke on their lips. The reality is that the one poem every soldier knew was Lissauer's hate verse.

Interestingly, the English took it in good spirit and choirs up and down the land often rather enjoyed spitting out the words of Lissauer's abominable hymn. It has certainly never entered the canon of great World War I poetry but actually it's far from unique. Germany's wartime enemies were pretty good at spewing out inflammatory verse too. The Belgian Émile Cammaerts, who was based in London, wrote an ironic poem cursing the Germans: Voeux de nouvel an á L’Armée Allemande (New Year's Greetings to the German Army).

Cammaerts stepped beyond violent rhetoric and went on to a distinguished career at the University of London. Lissauer was less successful. His two great loves - some would say manias - were Germany (and particularly the virtue of Prussia) and Jewishness. Curiously, he was let down by both camps. In the years after the First World War, the Jewish community distanced itself from his extreme views.

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who knew Lissauer well, described him as "the most Prussian Jew I know," thus highlighting the ambiguities surrounding Lissauer's identity. Ultimately, Lissauer failed to secure any recognition from the Germany he so aggressively promoted in his nationalistic poetry. He moved to Vienna from where he listened with horror to the anti-Jewish polemics of the Nazis. In November 1933, he was expelled from an Austrian writers' guild (the Vienna PEN Club) for supposedly anti-German views. Lissauer died in 1937.

Images of space and place, as well as perceptions of nations, are nowadays shaped through all manner of media. Trump's views on North Korea and some British newspapers' antagonistic views of Europe are communicated through twitter and other social media channels. But there was a time when poetry was critical in forging fates. Topographical and pastoral poetry of the Romantic period coloured our views of the Lake District, the Quantock Hills, the Rhine Valley and the Alps. Poets such as John Clare, Edward Thomas and TS Eliot have been outstanding in evoking a spirit of place. But even such a virtuous medium as verse can be deployed to perverse ends. Ernst Lissauer is a case in point.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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