Hans Weigel: "Ich war einmal…" Eine Biographie by Wolff A. Greinert
Those familiar with Austrian literary culture after 1945 will have encountered the name Hans Weigel (1908–1991) primarily in the context of his work as a mentor of young writers such as Ilse Aichinger, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Milo Dor; as a Cold Warrior who, with Friedrich Torberg and others, advocated a boycott of plays by Bertolt Brecht on Viennese stages for roughly a decade beginning in 1953; or as a cultural critic, especially in the areas of theater and music. There was, however, much more to his creative endeavors, as he was also a writer of novels, plays, poetry, libretti, song texts, and cabaret skits as well as a prolific translator from the French, including most of Molière's plays and a radio personality. Sadly, scholarship on Hans Weigel has been spotty at best, especially since his death in 1991. A scholarly conference organized by Dr. Wolfgang Straub in Vienna and Krems in 2013 and the resulting book, Hans Weigel: Kabarettist, Kritiker, Romancier, Literaturmanager (2014), did much to correct this but still left many areas untouched. With the appearance in late 2015 of Wolff Greinert's biography of Hans Weigel, however, scholars, cultural historians, and even a general public interested in Austrian history and culture now have a more comprehensive picture of one of the most influential and dynamic figures of Austrian culture in the mid-twentieth century.
As an authorized biography with a foreword by Weigel's third wife, Elfriede Ott, and a chapter about their professional and personal relationship, this book has in some parts a rather congratulatory tone, especially in the final chapter, which goes through the praise he received on the occasion of his round-numbered birthdays. The reader might thus expect to find here a rather stilted portrayal of Weigel and the controversies in which he was often embroiled. That is, happily, not the case. This volume strikes an admirable balance between sympathy and criticism, not overlooking Weigel's many flaws in his personal and professional undertakings but convincingly pointing out that his contribution to Austrian culture since the 1930s was much more than just his Cold War polemics or his support of young writers.
Greinert explores in some detail why Weigel was viewed in many circles as a polarizing figure in Austrian literary culture after 1945. Certainly, he never shied away from a good polemic or blunt criticism in his many writings on political and cultural topics. And his "erzählende Biographie" of the actor [End Page 180] Werner Krauß, of Jud Süß infamy, which was published in 1958, as well as his numerous campaigns against the Austrian PEN Club and other organizations only served to reinforced his image as the "Gott-sei-bei-uns" of Austrian culture of the time. Similarly, his advocacy for the Brecht boycott cemented his image for some as Austria's Cold Warrior par excellence. As Greinert points out, however, Weigel greatly admired Brecht's poetry and short dramatic sketches and appeared himself—in a non-speaking role—in a 1932 staging of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in the Raimund Theater in Vienna.
Among the more fascinating chapters of Weigel's life was his extensive effort to convince both Jewish and non-Jewish émigrés to return to Austria after the war, arguing, unconvincingly for the former group for the most part, that anti-Semitism had been swept away with the NS regime. During his trip to the United States in 1948 to visit his parents, who had emigrated to New York before the war, Weigel met with many of them as part of this effort. Insightful, too, are his long letters from the US to his friends back in Vienna about his experiences in that country in which he strongly criticized, among other things, the American "Herrschaft der Dilettanten" where "Analphabeten bestimmen, was Kunst ist."
Weigel's strained perception of his Jewish identity is examined in its own chapter ("Jude oder Österreicher") and offers some interesting insights into the connection between his self-identity and his political leanings, such as when he notes that calling the Jews a "race" is tantamount to accepting Nazi terminology. In the portrayal of Weigel's childhood, his ambivalent relationship to this identity and his rejection of its religious component make clear that his reflections on Jewishness after 1945 had their roots much earlier in his life.
Weigel's love for theater and music as a young man came together in his work for the Viennese cabaret in the 1930s, for which he coauthored skits with Jura Soyfer, among others. That this work had a lasting influence on him is evident in the acerbic and witty style of his later cultural criticism, as seen in his proposal for two new organizations: the Verein zur Abwehr der Überschätzung des Autors Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Internationale Gilde zur Beschleunigung der Abwertung des Dramatikers G. B. Shaw. While he was active in the cabaret scene, Weigel also tried to implement an ambitious plan to reverse the demise of the operetta form by translating popular French musicals into German, a plan interrupted by the Anschluss. Such grandiose plans continued during his years of exile in Switzerland, however, where he proposed nothing [End Page 181] less than a complete reorganization of Austrian literature after the war, emphasizing assistance for young authors, something he actually implemented after his return to Austria in July of 1945.
Although he relies greatly on Weigel's own statements about his life and work, Greinert also productively utilizes the great mass of unpublished materials in Weigel's Nachlass at the Wienbibliothek. However, his citations from the Nachlass are often given without box or folder number, making the references less than useful for research. As with any biography there are often lacunae both great and small that confront the reader, and this book is no exception. For example, the author almost entirely ignores Weigel's years as a radio personality with the Rot-Weiß-Rot network, where his shows Apropos Musik and In den Wind gesprochen (commentary on current issues) were among the most popular series between 1951 and 1954. And when discussing Weigel's political views in the early Cold War years, the book only peripherally touches on his extensive cooperation with the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 1950s, such as his co-founding of the Gesellschaftfür die Freiheit der Kultur in 1951. Despite these flaws, however, this volume serves as a valuable primer on the phenomenon that was Hans Weigel.