Besprechung: Ein nationalsozialistisch-katholisches Syndrom


Josef P. Mautner, Ein nationalsozialistisch-katholisches Syndrom: Zugänge zum Werk von „Thomas Bernhard. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2021. 135 pp.

Samuel J. Kessler


University of Nebraska Press

Volume 56, Number 1, Spring 2023, pp. 102-105.

In this compact yet powerful book, literary scholar and Catholic theologian Josef Mautner reveals the many ways that the novels of Thomas Bernhard revolve around the themes of National Socialism and Austrian Catholicism. For Mautner, the “National-Socialist-Catholic-Syndrome” is a way of describing the submerged, semi-subconscious, yet deeply powerful interplay of two totalizing ideologies on the formation and individual identities of mid twentieth-century Austrians. As has been noted in numerous books and reviews of Bernhard’s writings, National Socialism, though almost never overtly mentioned, saturates the very atmosphere of his works, while Austrian Catholicism, especially in its more provincial or parochial varieties, forms both the foundation of his assumptions and receives the harshest of his ire. What Mautner adds to this story is an argument concerning the ways the two ideologies become inextricably tied up once National Socialism develops and takes hold in Austria, and what that union looks and feels like on the bodies, minds, and souls of Austrian youth. As Mautner writes, “Nationalsozialismus wie Katholizismus sind für [Bernhard] Ideologien, die den Menschen in seiner Individualität nicht gelten lassen, ihn vielmehr ‘eingemeinden’, zum ‘nützlichen’ Teil eines Kollektivs machen wollen” (8). Mautner continues: “In diesem Sinne möchte ich versuchen, die Verknüpfung von Katholizismus und Nationalsozialismus in Thomas Bernhards Werk als die krank machende Verbindung von zwei Symptomkomplexen darzulegen” (9–10).

Mautner then spends much of the introduction discussing the relationship between author and reader, specifically the way that Bernhard plays with the uncertainty of narrative and the relation of fictive elements in the text: “Immer wieder werden die LeserInnen bezüglich der Subjekt-Objekt-Beziehungen im Text verunsichert” (16). But he ends the introduction on a personal note. Mautner writes about how, earlier in his life (he was born in 1955), he had kept a distance between himself and Bernhard, mainly on religious grounds, but then slowly came to realize both the biographical and intellectual similarities between their two lives, and that they shared a consternation at some of the more worrisome elements undergirding Austrian society. Bernhard, born in the Netherlands in 1931, lived in both Austria and Germany during the Nazi years before spending the remainder of his life in and around Salzburg. Mautner, two decades his junior, was likewise born into a family with a Nazi past and spent his youth in Catholic boarding schools in Salzburg. In reflecting on these shared boyhood experiences, Mautner came to recognize Bernhard’s distinctive agglomeration of Catholicism and National Socialism. “Ich verbrachte meine Kindheit in einer nationalsozialistisch geprägten Familie und anschließend acht Jahre in einem katholischen Internat. [. . .] Im Wechselspiel zwischen Familie und Internat musste ich erfahren, wie gerade im Bereich der Erziehung und Schulbildung diese beiden—scheinbar gegensätzlichen Welten—dieselben Muster und Strukturen ausbildeten” (22). It isn’t an easy biography to have. But it does provide Mautner with the kind of empathetic insight that makes him a uniquely thoughtful and interesting reader of Bernhard. Following the introduction, Mautner’s work is divided into three main chapters.

Chapter One focuses on Bernhard’s early writings, including his first poems and his debut novel, Frost (1963). In these pages, Mautner argues that what began for Bernhard as “Gottesverzweiflung”—but was, Mautner believes, in many ways a deep, meaningful religiosity—can be seen as already afflicted by and critical toward the “syndrome.” Though Bernhard’s early poetry was received positively and understood as Christian, Mautner senses a break in the early 1960s, between an often-overlooked collection of Bernhard’s poems entitled “Frost” and the debut novel a few years later of the same name. Mautner argues that Bernhard’s decision to transform his prose style in that period—from one that imitated or derived from biblical and ecclesiastic liturgy to the modernist narratives with which we are all more familiar—marks a decisive shift in Bernhard’s feelings about his place in the larger superstructure of Austrian Catholicism.

Chapter Two takes readers into Bernhard’s autobiographical texts through the lens of Mautner’s “syndrome.” In this chapter, Mautner writes: “Der Fokus des Interesses liegt vielmehr [. . .] auf Bernhards spezifischer literarischer Perspektive: auf seiner hohen ästhetischen Sensibilität für die existentielle Situation der mit Leiden und Tod konfrontierten Menschen. Erst diese Sensibilität führt ihn zu einer Kritik an den seelischen Verheerungen, die Katholizismus wie Nationalsozialismus in analoger Weise den Menschen vor allem in ihrer Kindheit und Jugend zugefügt haben” (51). Mautner uses the first of these pages to unpack the aesthetics of Bernhard’s autobiographical writings, commenting specifically on the way Bernhard balances the everpresent tension of fiction with nonfiction. Likewise, Mautner is interested in the way Bernhard conveys the impacts of the “syndrome” on young Austrians, not just the generation that grew up under Nazi rule but subsequent ones as well, all of whom were raised in a matrix where, whether at school or church, Catholicism and National Socialism could be impossible to disentangle. The end of the chapter examines Bernhard’s writings on hospitals and hospital clergy. It is here, Mautner argues, that we see Bernhard fully identifying a unique type of “Catholic-National-Socialism,” in the reflection of which Bernhard takes his clearest literary and intellectual steps away from Catholicism. If there is still so much toxic ideology at the final existential moments of suffering and death, then art must be allowed to find truth outside “alle Antworten und Sicherheiten einer katholisch ausformulierten Religion” (82).

Chapter three is a thoughtful reading of Auslöschung (1986), Bernhard’s final novel. Auslöschung is clearly about National Socialism and its enduring effects in Austria. As Mautner nicely expresses it, “Geschichte ist für Bernhard nur durch diese mehrfache ästhetische Brechung hindurch wahrnehmbar— und somit keinesfalls als abgeschlossene, distanziert und neutral zu betrachtende ‘Historie’” (88). National Socialism, then, is clearly a symptom in the maladies affecting postwar Austria. But the question for this chapter is about where Mautner sees the place of Catholicism, the symptom of National Socialism conjoining with the malady of provincial Catholicism to become an all-afflicting “syndrome.” Here, the answer lies in the way Bernhard makes use of religious language and concepts throughout the novel, including his adaptations of “hell” and his meditations on time, utopia, and redemption. Mautner ends with a discussion of the novel’s title, Auslöschung, the word itself being a disturbing palimpsest that emanates both a deeply mechanical and modern “extinction” to the metaphysical “obliteration,” an elision that, as Mautner points out, perfectly straddles the mytho-politico-theological line of Nazism’s war against the Jews.

Mautner concludes the book with a summary timeline of his main theme: the evolution in Bernard’s writings of the “National-Socialist-CatholicSyndrome.” For anyone seeking something like an annotated bibliography that outlines Mautner’s thesis, this is the place to begin. In the end, this little volume nicely accomplishes what it set out to do. For readers of Bernhard who sense a critique of Catholicism but do not have the historical or theological background to understand it themselves or for literature professors looking to highlight this angle of Bernhard’s work in a broader graduate seminar, this book is an excellent introduction to the subject and demonstrates the importance in critical interpretation for combining close reading, literary reconstruction, and biographical context.

Samuel J. Kessler Gustavus Adolphus College

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