Fascism as Tragedy

How to Use Reason: Sovereign Signs

Fascism as Tragedy

In the evening before the "" (Türkenbefreiungsfeier), which took place on Sunday, May 14, 1933, in the , the drama Hundert Tage (in English Hundred Days) was performed at Vienna's .

At a cursory glance, there seems to be no relation between the political rally and the theatrical production. A closer examination of the two events, however, reveals a dense web of personal and thematic connections, mainly linked by Benito Mussolini, the founder of Fascism who had been Italy's prime minister since 1922. Mussolini was not only the financial backer of the "Turks Deliverance Celebration" and a patron of its initiator,
but also the coauthor of the play, which had premiered in Rome in 1930 under the title Campo di maggio and covers Napoleon's rule during the Hundred Days between his exile on the islands of first Elba and then Saint Helena. 

The German author Emil Ludwig,  who achieved international fame in the 1920s with historical biographies, was told by Mussolini that his book on Napoleon had inspired him to sketch out a drama, which he then had Giovacchino Forzano finalize. 

Forzano, an established dramatist and librettist in Italy at the time, corroborated this portrayal of events and later published the following letter:

According to the actor Werner Krauss, who played the lead in the Vienna production, the "paper" to which Mussolini refers in his letter to Forzano was in fact "twelve or fourteen letters written in large handwriting, merely declarations by a statesman on what it is actually about." 

Forzano transformed these drafts into a tragedy about the fall of Napoleon, though it does not contain the "four acts" outlined by Mussolini, but merely three acts with nine scenes, or rather "pictures." 
In Italy, Mussolini was cited as coauthor neither at the play's premiere nor in its print edition. 
He only allowed his name to be used for the performances abroad: in Budapest and Paris in 1931, in Weimar and London in 1932, in Vienna in 1933, and in Berlin in 1934. 
On the cover of the German translation by Géza Herczeg, Mussolini is even named first as the lead author, going against alphabetical order. 

Whereas in Italy Mussolini presumably wanted to wait and see whether the play would prove popular, abroad—above all in Germany and Austria—his name was vital to its enormous box-office success. After the German premiere on January 30, 1932, at the Nationaltheater in Weimar,  attended by Adolf Hitler, 

Hundred Days was performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna in spring 1933.  The Vienna premiere on April 22, 1933, developed into a major diplomatic event,  at which Education Minister Anton Rintelen, Italian Ambassador Gabriele Preziosi, and Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg, among others, were present. 
After the second act, Rintelen sent a congratulatory telegram to Mussolini, and the third act was broadcast internationally on the radio. 
The launch party, to which not only the actors and politicians but also the translator Géza Herczeg were invited, was hosted by the Italian embassy in Vienna. 
The play was performed at the Burgtheater a further thirty-five times before late June 1933, including nineteen times in May, and seen by some 54,000 theatergoers. 
In Vienna Hundred Days remained in the repertoire until 1937; in Berlin the drama was performed at the Staatstheater in 1934, likewise with Werner Krauss as Napoleon, who also played the lead in the German screen adaptation in 1935. 

The play's success arrived at a very opportune moment at the Burgtheater, though this was no accident. Founded in the eighteenth century, the traditional Viennese stage had run into serious financial trouble, to the extent that in the early 1930s there was talk of a "Burgtheater crisis" and even the threat of its closure. In order to gain control of the situation, the Ministry of Education, which was responsible for the federal theaters, searched for a new manager for the Burgtheater who would have not only artistic skill but also financial experience. The man they chose was Hermann Röbbeling, who had successfully run the Schauspielhaus and the Thalia Theater in Hamburg as private companies.  Röbbeling assumed the management of the Burgtheater in December 1931 and soon lived up to his reputation for restoring theaters to profitability: he invited the press to dress rehearsals, had performances broadcast live on the radio, negotiated reduced federal rail tickets for theatergoers, expanded the season ticket system, and introduced weekly performances for school students. However, this financial success was accompanied by vehement criticism of the alleged commercialization of the Burgtheater. Ideologically, Röbbeling was guided primarily by the conservative and increasingly authoritarian notions of his most important financier, the Austrian federal government. 

A good example of the artistic and economic orientation of the Burgtheater under Hermann Röbbeling is the festival cycle "Voices of the Peoples in Drama" (Stimmen der Völker im Drama), which he retrospectively declared his "greatest success." 

At the very beginning of his tenure, in February 1932, he had given a talk at the Österreichische Völkerbundliga (Austrian Alliance of the League of Nations) emphasizing that theater furthered the association of nations: he argued that plays from antiquity to the present day made one aware that though people may have cultural differences, at heart they are all connected. 
In the Almanach der österreichischen Bundestheater for the 1932/33 season, Röbbeling then explained the meaning of this particular series of works at the Burgtheater: "a representative piece of literature is intended to bring to the stage a specific national character and create understanding for another type of people and a peculiar artistic expression." 
Having launched in October 1932 with Franz Grillparzer's "Austrian tragedy" Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg (Fraternal Strife among the Habsburgs), the cycle was intended to continue with a series of fifteen foreign works, 
but by 1938 only twelve productions had been realized. The play that was originally planned for Italy was La Gioconda by Gabriele D'Annunzio, but the Italian "national character" was ultimately represented by two other dramas, which were not initially conceived as part of the cycle but were retrospectively ascribed to it, namely Campo di maggio by Forzano and Mussolini and Carlo Goldoni's comedy Il bugiardo

Röbbeling's management and his cycle "Voices of the Peoples in Drama" unfolded against a backdrop of a public debate about the Austrian "national theater," which dated back to the eighteenth century and underwent a marked resurgence in the First Republic. The question when exactly the Burgtheater itself was founded cannot be answered with just one year. 

Emperor Leopold I had already opened a large court theater in Vienna's Hofburg Palace around 1700, where later the Redoutensäle ballrooms were constructed. Subsequently, Maria Theresa had the vacant Hofballhaus, where court tennis had been played, on (what is now) Michaelerplatz converted into the Theater nächst der Burg (Theater by the Palace) from the 1740s and run by leaseholders.  Predominantly French dramas and Italian operas were performed there, in accordance with the language customs of the nobility, while in the popular Theater nächst dem Kärntnerthor comedies were improvised in German or Viennese dialect, plays in which the character of the Hanswurst buffoon always made an appearance. 

Under the aegis of Joseph von Sonnenfels, the views of literary figures who advocated a German "national theater" like Johann Christoph Gottsched and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing spread through the Viennese bourgeoisie from the 1760s. However, this expression certainly did not imply popularity (Volkstümlichkeit) in the sense of the Theater nächst dem Kärntnerthor, but rather a "regular" stage with unvarying, High German, moralizing texts. Maria Theresa's son, Emperor Joseph II, who was not averse to the ideas of the Enlightenment, ultimately decreed in a letter from March 23, 1776, that the Theater nächst der Burg, which his mother had had constructed, be run in future as "the German National Theater [das teutsche National Theater]."  Nevertheless, the purely German-language repertoire barely lasted two months, and even the title National Theater was soon changed to Die Kaiserlich-Königlichen National-Hofschauspieler (The Imperial-Royal National Court Players), until in the nineteenth century the name K.K. Hofburgtheater (Imperial-Royal Hofburg Palace Theater) became established,  which was also adopted for the new building on Vienna's Ringstrasse when it was opened in 1888. 

In 1934 Rudolph Lothar published an updated and augmented edition of his Burgtheater history from 1899. Following a foreword by the then Education Minister Kurt Schuschnigg, who played a major role in the establishment of the authoritarian "corporative state" (Ständestaat), the journalist and dramatist analyzed the question of the national theater in his introduction and emphasized that in artistic matters Austria actually meant Vienna. The Vienna court—unlike that in Paris, for example—had, however, never been "national," he continued, but rather a colorful medley of European noble families. "The truly national art of Vienna and thus Austria lay somewhere else entirely," Lothar explained, "it could be found on the squares of the inner city and the suburbs, in shacks and sports halls and sprouted its funny flowers in the improvised farce and in the extemporized burlesque." The Hofburgtheater had emerged as a "protest against this elemental art"; it had wanted to "dethrone and kill the national Hanswurst." 

The most important task of Hermann Röbbeling, the new manager, was to run the Burgtheater as the truly "national theater of Austria," it says at the end of the book, and to cultivate Austrian drama as the "strongest expression of down-to-earth patriotism." 

Five years later, when the "corporative state" was already history and the "Eastern March" (Ostmark) had become part of the Greater German Reich, another book on the Burgtheater was published, this time by the German philologist Heinz Kindermann, who was promoted to head of the newly founded Department of Theater Studies at the University of Vienna in 1943. While Lothar had wanted to derive Austrian national theater from the folk art of Vienna, Kindermann immediately stressed in his foreword that his subtitle "Legacy and Mission of a National Theater" (Erbe und Sendung eines Nationaltheaters) did not imply a "merely Viennese or merely German-Austrian affair," but rather a Greater German cultural institution. 

He elaborated that the Burgtheater's selection of works first and foremost had to revolve around the "bountiful dramatic legacy of the Germans," while also incorporating the most important pieces from foreign nations in the interests of a "fruitful encounter with their otherness," though "Shakespeare, whom we perceive to be almost German," was excluded from this strict selection. "As today we think in racially definable national units," Kindermann wrote, "our choice of the drama representing the individual peoples of world literature (in Goethe's sense) will surely look different from that offered by the liberal viewpoint, that is, also different from how Röbbeling's 'Voices of the Peoples in Drama' presented these nations." 

Röbbeling's declarations that the cycle was aimed at bringing peoples together may at times have been at odds with the plays that were actually performed, as can be demonstrated by the example of Hundred Days. However, the selection of works, in which Grillparzer's Ein Bruderzwist in Habsburg was followed in February 1933 by the drama Florian Geyer by Gerhart Hauptmann, shows that nations were understood to mean internationally recognized states, in this case Austria and Germany, and not "racially definable national units"

in the National Socialist sense. 
In his conversations with Emil Ludwig, Mussolini went even further and said that nations were the result of neither systems of government nor biological or linguistic communities. "Race" was "not a reality" but "an illusion of the spirit, a feeling," which one could choose and develop. 
On this question of what constitutes a nation, there is a similar answer in Mussolini's essay La dottrina del fascismo from 1932, which was translated into German and English, among other languages, in the years that followed:

Consequently, for Mussolini, a nation is neither a biologically definable people nor a group of individuals who merely speak the same language or live on a delimited territory. Rather, the citizens of the Fascist state are united in the "conscious membership of a spiritual society," 

which has genuine "personality," namely in the form of the Duce, who personally embodies and exemplifies Fascism. This superhuman leader adopts a literally sovereign position: he overarches the nation like Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and represents the collective will of his subordinate people.  However, in contrast to the monarchical, the Fascist sovereign possesses no dynastic legitimacy. That means that he is not respected because of his noble birth but has to create his own heroic genealogy. Coming from a lower-middle-class family, Mussolini therefore attempted to portray himself as the spiritual descendent of the Roman emperors, while also gladly referring to the Corsican social climber who had crowned himself the "Emperor of the French" in the early nineteenth century.

Napoleon is certainly described as an exemplary self-made man in Emil Ludwig's historical biography 

that inspired the drama Campo di maggio. Yet entirely contrary to this account of a democratic hero, Mussolini blames democracy itself for his idol's downfall, or more precisely, "the course of events on the Champ de Mars in spring 1815." 
Here he is referring to the so-called Champ de Mai, which Napoleon announced on the march to Paris after having fled his exile on Elba in late February 1815.  Reminiscent of the Frankish-Carolingian "Mayfield" (Italian campo di maggio), the event was intended to serve on the one hand as a constituent assembly and on the other as a coronation ceremony for the empress.  However, as Marie Louise remained in Vienna with their son, Napoleon Francis Bonaparte, and her father, the Austrian Emperor Francis I, and as the constitution drafted initially by a commission, then by Benjamin Constant, had already been published in April, the planned National Constituent Assembly dwindled to a mere ceremonial act, which was held somewhat belatedly on June 1, 1815, on the Champ de Mars,  the Parisian field where the Fête de la Fédération had taken place in 1790. 

The first act of the play by Forzano and Mussolini is set in the evening and night before the Champ de Mai. In two scenes, the protagonists of the tragedy are introduced: Joseph Fouché and Napoleon Bonaparte.  Minister of Police Fouché assures the freshly elected representatives that Napoleon now wanted to rule constitutionally, cajoles first a Count of Orléans, whose duke is talked about as the future monarch, then a lady-in-waiting under Louis XVIII, the now exiled king, and finally bribes the publisher of an opposition newspaper. That night, Napoleon is less concerned by Fouché's intrigues and the impending war than by his son's return. When the emissary finally arrives from Vienna, the emperor believes he can also hear his beloved child in the anteroom but is soon bitterly disappointed. Napoleon had planned to ride on the Champ de Mars in the "Austerlitz uniform" alongside his son in the carriage. Now, as his wife has forsaken him, he appears "dressed up" in the coronation robes before the assembled representatives and soldiers in order to hold an "empty ceremony." 

The second act begins three weeks later: Napoleon's army suffered a catastrophic defeat at Waterloo at the hands of the British and Prussian troops under the command of Field Marshals Wellington and Blücher. After Fouché has induced the ministers and representatives to decide that the emperor has to abdicate, Napoleon arrives in Paris thoroughly exhausted.  In his view, he had been betrayed on the battlefield and to "save the fatherland" needed a political mandate from the cabinet and parliament, namely the power to rule temporarily as a military dictator. Yet in the name of the representatives, General Lafayette insists on Napoleon's resignation, who had himself become the greatest barrier to peace. Reluctantly, but to prevent a civil war, the emperor abdicates in favor of his son. The representatives' expectations that they would be able to negotiate a ceasefire with the victorious powers are revealed in the third act to be a naïve illusion. Instead, the enemy generals dictate humiliating peace terms to the conquered French: Louis XVIII will be brought back as king, Fouché appointed his prime minister, France subjected to military occupation, and Napoleon exiled to a distant island, probably Saint Helena. The drama ends in Château de Malmaison,  where Napoleon bids farewell to his family. 

The plot of the drama makes plain why the original title was Campo di maggio. According to Forzano and Mussolini's portrayal, Napoleon, the great hero of this historical tragedy, is unsuccessful not because of the superiority of his military opponents or because of his personal failures, but because of democracy in the form of parliamentarianism: In a state of emergency, when France is surrounded by enemies, the very same liberal constitution that was declared on the Mayfield prevents the emperor from defending his country. Instead of coming together patriotically behind Napoleon, the elected representatives of the people allow themselves to be blinded by Fouché, a conniving, lying, extorting, cajoling career politician who is concerned only for his own self-interest.  In contrast, Napoleon appears in the play as a brave soldier and loving family man, as a man of the people and charismatic genius who makes but a single—though grave—mistake in his hundred-day reign, namely not wanting to rule as a military dictator but as a constitutional monarch. 

This fundamental conflict—Napoleon/people vs. Fouché/parliament—is the clear leitmotif of Campo di maggio and the German translation Hundert Tage, but the Burgtheater production intensifies this even further. 

The text of the performance as documented in the promptbook was written by the dramatist and journalist Hanns Sassmann, whom Lothar calls an "arch Austrian" in his history of the Burgtheater from 1934, 
in collaboration with Manager Röbbeling, who also directed the play. Their reworking cuts out the second scene of the third act, where an envoy of Fouché encounters Wellington, changes some of the speaking roles, and makes revisions throughout the text. Sassmann and Röbbeling's most consequential changes are made to Fouché, who in the promptbook's parliament scene says:

Although the minister of police expresses this remark as a complaint in front of the representatives, in fact he is skillfully capitalizing on the irrationality of the masses: in the play he possesses a masterful ability to direct their emotions and passions. Napoleon, by contrast, is the embodiment of the reason that the emotional parliamentarians lack. Far from despotically exploiting his imperial power, he always appears composed and under control; and when he does lose his poise, he regains his composure immediately. Despite his sovereign detachment, Napoleon represents the will of the common people, the artisans and farmers, the laborers and soldiers, who are betrayed by the advocates in parliament. "The house should not stand between me and the people," Napoleon warns his cabinet: "Let the French people come to me again, I will know how to lead them." 

These scenes depicting a reasonable leader, whose truthful representation of the people is thwarted by their elected representatives, unfolded at the Burgtheater while the Austrian parliament on the other side of Vienna's Ringstrasse had been neutralized. Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who had been ruling by emergency decree since March 1933, said at the "Turks Deliverance Celebration" in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace on May 14, 1933: "This form of parliament and parliamentarianism, which has died, will not return." 

What his government was now attempting to establish in Austria as a "corporative state" was not only politically and financially supported by the coauthor of Hundred Days but was also ideologically based on Mussolini's Fascism as an "organised, centralised, authoritarian democracy," 
which was supposed to bundle the will of the people in a sovereign leader. 

Staging of Hundred Days
N 48.210275° | E 16.361378°
1932 a 132 d 19 h 30 min p. Chr.

How to Use Reason:
Sovereign Signs
How to Capture Life:
Examining Gazes
How to Speak Up:
Governed Transmissions

Campus Medius does not run anymore on Internet Explorer. Please use the website in one of the following web browsers: Google Chrome (recommended), Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge.

Campus Medius läuft nicht mehr im Internet Explorer. Bitte nutzen Sie die Website in einem der folgenden Webbrowser: Google Chrome (empfohlen), Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge.