Youth Without God by Ödön von Horváth, translated by R. Wills Thomas (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2012; originally published in 1939. 224 pp)
Ödön von Horváth was a playwright and novelist born to an Austro-Hungarian diplomat. He studied at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and spent most of his career in Germany. When the Nazis came to power, Horváth moved to Vienna. He died in 1938 when a falling tree branch struck him.
R. Wills Thomas’ (1908-1955) translations from French and German include Ödön von Horváth’s A Child of Our Time.
One of my favorite aspects of reading is the way it scoops you up and envelopes you in a new culture, setting, or era. I’m a white male. I live in Seattle. My experience is pretty limited. But there’s a small way in which reading fiction from around the globe and from different eras gives me a little bit of perspective from outside myself.
Ödön von Horváth’s Youth Without God offers such a perspective when he excoriates fascism from the inside out.
Touching Touchy Subjects
Youth Without God touches on some touchy subjects. It begins with an unnamed narrator, a schoolteacher charged with shaping the young minds of the next generation. Having graded recent papers, the teacher feels called to admonish a student for using racist remarks. In all honesty, our narrator was pretty nice about it.
“’You’ve said in your essay,’ I told him, ‘that we white peoples are far in advance of the negroes in civilization and culture, and you’re quite right. But you shouldn’t have said that it doesn’t matter whether the negroes live or die. They’re human too, you know’” (20).
This item does not go over well. Facing pressure from the child’s parents, the school administration, and his students for sabotaging the Fatherland, the teacher must back down or lose his comfortable pension.
After this ordeal, the group of students goes on a trip for nationalism training — a good mind needs to know how to fire a gun, so they say. With a neutered authority, the teacher faces a difficult task when a murder occurs. What was his role in the crime? What is he willing to give up for the sake of truth?
Horrors of History
What’s interesting about this tale is its connection to the horrors of history. Horváth wrote Youth Without God while in exile from Nazi-ruled Germany. While in many ways allegorical, Youth Without God offers some insights into fascist rule and the indoctrination of the young.
All of these horrors circle around a rather negative existential viewpoint. Horváth often repeats the phrase:
“God is the most terrible thing in the world” (88).
In essence, the reader perceives the crushing weight of a system in which God honors the worst in us. We were born sinful and we continue to sin. God’s role in allowing it makes him terrible.
Youth Without God sheds light on a horrifying time in our history. Horváth had the opportunity to view fascism up close and his allegorical take on the indoctrination of the young is terrifying and valuable from a perspective basis.
Youth Without God isn’t the best book I’ve ever read from a literary perspective, but it’s certainly worth reading and celebrating as a milepost in world history.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5