The play Voluntary Service, by Leo Feld, which is currently playing in the Deutschen Volkstheater, has just appeared as a book. It is dedicated to Conrad v. Hötzendorf with the following words, »This play grew out of the great impressions of this last year. Out of the grateful and amazed emotion with which we followed the unconquerable heroic spirit of sacrifice of our army. Out of a feeling of humility and pride previously unknown to us. Out of the conviction that the ultimate reconciliation of these terrible days must be a reformation of our internal lives. That is our hope and expectation. Just as regular training preserves and increases physical strength, the tenacity of this hard year must have collected and deepened the moral forces of sacrifice and devotion to duty. It has redeemed individuals from solitary contemplation or poverty, and let them experience the greatest happiness which is granted to us: self-sacrifice in the service of something greater than one’s own life. Our army embodies this spirit for us, you, your Excellency, symbolize for us the noble example of this glorious army. I know that by dedicating this modest work, which wants to do nothing more than to express the current public emotion in words, humbly to you, your Excellency, that I am also here only expressing the feelings with which every Austrian has today. In your Excellency we love the simple, smiling heroism of our officers.«
In this global turning point, in which the »Csardasfürstin« is sold out for months in advance, and all the signs are that the Fenriswolf will also be a huge success, things are happening all the time in reality that had previously not even found their way from being unimaginable into the world of feverish haf-dreams. If you draw all the worm food in the world in the darkness of a bedroom, it becomes Hippocrene. But if you look at the journals, the posters, the passers-by, see them with eyes and hear them with ears, you could believe that in the face of such fulfillment of the unfulfillable, the witch’s dance of contrasts, the headstand of the values, such holiness of injustice and the inconceivable bowing down under the tyranny of nothingness, that soon, no, now, certainly, a sign must appear in the heavens, indicating the end of time, the unmistakable rejection by the universe of a compromised planet, which has failed the blood test so badly. What hope keeps us going? Who can say, »My God, it can’t get any worse?« It’s worse now than ever. And it can get worse; it is not yet the worst as long as one can say this is the worst. Whoever still has a distant memory of human dignity, whoever does not think that aerial bombs and poison gas is not the real meaning of creation, who thought that there are fox-holes, water ditches and machine-gun fire that now, by rights must roar through the world every hour with the last beat of a thousand innocent hearts, he could at least hope that as long as this situation lasts, he would at least not run into Leo Feld. How one hoped to avoid at least this last otherwise inescapable association of life at the front. One was not prepared for the fact that this field, whose only connection to the warlike patriotic idea was the sacrifice of his name, and its corruption to a nom de guerre, so that a Hirschfeld could be revealed as a battlefield. One would have thought that such an implacable presence, if it is powerful enough to create military suppliers out of the naked earth, must have at least the energy to prevent the appearance of writers and to scare them off so thoroughly that they withdraw from a transparent pseudonym into the darkest incognito. The opposite came to pass and the great times were too small to express the horrors of war in words. But one was not ready for Leo Feld! A merciless sub-humanity had tolerated that he earn his blood money. That, under the auspices of the starry sky, an operetta with the name, »I Gave Gold for Iron« was able to play, this fact will give subsequent generations more food for thought about the world war that we fought at the same time than all history books of all the Friedjungs who will appear. That on the day on which forty thousand mother’s sons died on electrified wire, this was read out to evening-suited chests in the interval by Gerda Walde, and that Viktor Leon was applauded loudly for it, will, in future eons, when a human heart is born, tell him more about us than the deeds themselves that our spirit of invention made possible. Future humanity will think back with the revulsion of the intuition of a premundane slurry from which, once upon a time, human bodies, machines and printed works were created as required, as though they still felt the slime and scum on their hands, on the concrete period in which armoured frailty took God for a fool. I hope confidently that Leo Feld’s drama, if it survives the war, will also make contact with that distant opportunity which may arise somehow, to show our moral and intellectual bankruptcy. I don’t know the work personally, the times are gone in which I drew my life from the fresh spring of a Volkstheater première, and not yet looked with tired gaze in the papers of the night. I talk about this matter like a blind man about a colour which dazzled him. But because I know that there are now so many people who have had to sacrifice their sight in the interests of a fate in the service of export interests, and will no longer be able to see what is performed in the Deutsche Volkstheater, so I hold back, but when I also hear that it is a work whose author gets commission on an assault, while a Polish Jew appears in it for free, and spies on Russia out of pure idealism, I do get a certain impression, and say to myself that blood is thicker than lard, that Russia ought to know why they don’t let the Jews participate in civilization, and that they are only selfless while they are still spying, and not yet literarily active. The »Freie Dienst« from the front only needs its preface, a solemn address which an officer who was exempt from service at the front was so bold as to hold before the Chief of the General Staff, to represent it to posterity. Such a demonstration, which the state can only qualify as a simple offence against the armed forces, goes beyond the limits of the bloody carnival which humanity has been dancing for two seasons, and is not yet bored with. It could not have been foreseen that an army order of Herr Leo Feld, in which he includes himself among those who followed not the army itself, but its invincible spirit of sacrifice, would become known. But now it has appeared, and published in the theatre column. And, as a matter of fact, the facts which the others have to deal, as long as the army is invincible, a theatre scribbler can hope for the »final, reconciling victory of these terrible days«. The optimism of such a citizen is justifiably steadfast, because he can not just recommend the »willingness to sacrifice for a higher good than your own life«, he can have it carried out. And his »modest work only wants to express the general spirit of these days in words«. But as the general feeling these days is the wish, apart from all the systematic terror and suffering that there is, but exploiting it, to make a last and conciliatory killing, bearing in mind that the risk of peace is considerable, and the immediacy of the goods and materials involved can become a liability any day, the Volkstheater repertoire corresponds well with world events. And as the language tells the truth even when it is lying, and the residue of the sentence describes the desolation of the soul, so the declaration which a soldier made before the Chief of the General Staff, this war has »released the people from reclusive contemplation or poverty«, respectively, shocks us like a last expression of our earthly suffering. Indeed, wordsmiths were Trappists before it started, and stockbrokers were beggars! People are dying everywhere, at sea, on land and in the air, for the prosperity of those who don’t just want to save their own skins, they also want it paid for. Foreign mercenaries who ungrudgingly pay back the fees which they are paid for obituaries, by acknowledging the heroes. The talent sits at home and the »simple, smiling heroism« is at the front, that’s how simply the gifts and responsibilities are distributed. How those who are actually under fire feel about someone who has turned it into a dirty little seasonal play, attributes simple, smiling heroism to them, I don’t know, but I do wish that heroism would no longer smile at those who get to see or smell it. Don’t break out in laughter. Don’t scold, don’t curse. It should, to not go mad from the pain for these survivors, go home, gather all the weapons together which the ingenuity of the times taught it, and start the holy war! Following this movement, this retribution with thankful, amazed emotion, I would like to dedicate my work to the Chief of the General Staff. Or be him myself!