Sermon On the Western Front

The timely reprint of Ödön von Horváth’s novel Youth Without God reconfigures the debates around religion that we are inundated with today in the news, in books and most pertinently, in the classroom. Rather than get lost in the now trite, overly simplified dichotomies of religion versus science, cold atheism versus blind fanaticism or us versus them, Horváth brings us back to a period when the public question of Christianity was a fundamentally existentialist one and when humanism could provide a centering answer that aimed to unite rather than divide.

Published three years before Albert Camus’ canonical The Stranger, Youth Without God addresses the similar, weighty issue of finding meaning in a world devoid of moral clarity, but Horváth’s tale, unlike Camus’, is redemptive. It reminds us of the value of conscientious individualism in a society that relies on the power of coerced conformity. Instead of finding freedom by embracing the “gentle indifference of the universe,” as The Stranger‘s Meursault does, we are urged to find truth by being the difference, a mantra that has become clichéd by the late 20th century but was still subversive at the time of the McCarthy-esque regimes that the narrator lives in.

Captured in plain prose and short chapters and pulsed out through a deceptively subdued plot, the unnamed narrator’s simple observations and surfacing thoughts understate the dramatic conflict and resolution of the stark moral dilemmas he faces. The narrator is a teacher in an unnamed country whose job has become a platform for promoting propaganda and keeping the peace by upholding the status quo of the imperialist regime that employs him. In exchange for a comfortable job and pension, which he relies on to support himself and his parents, he must keep his moral objections to himself, for as he states early on in the book, “it is not for a schoolmaster to question the opinions stated on the radio.”

The novel’s opening sequence forces us to abandon our romantic notions of an idealistic, revolutionary teacher who inspires students yearning for truth and justice. The young students are presented as already hardened, victims of their society and yet active upholders of it. The teacher has long accepted their lack of humanity and no longer sees the point in even attempting to inspire feelings of compassion in them, much less revolutionary thoughts of any kind. Best to keep quiet, collect your check at the end of the week and keep your objections to yourself. Besides, he realizes that he cannot challenge the same structure that supports him. And the pacifists of the previous generation have silenced themselves in order to keep the peace of the new regime, brutal as it may be, under the auspices of maintaining a sense of reality.

Youth Without God‘s teachers are a passive breed; they are no Kantoreks of All Quiet on the Western Front, riling up students and directing them toward patriotic loyalty and warfare but neither are they John T. Scopes in Inherit the Wind, who are willing to go down with their sinking soapbox, passionately defending an educator’s right to provoke his students to think for themselves. Instead, their fight is of quiet acquiescence. The narrator makes one small comment on a student’s paper that affirms the humanity of black people when he objects to the student’s statement that they should all be killed. This is subversive enough to condemn him in the eyes of his students and their parents but it’s quickly rectified, brushed under the table and promised to never be spoken of again. And life goes on as before, at least for a while.

The book increases its pace and moral urgency when the narrator fails to prevent the murder of an innocent student during a military camp the school participates in. At this point, religious symbolism replaces the historical allusions to Ancient Rome that pepper the first half. Religious authorities prove unhelpful to the searching narrator, as his conversation with a priest confirms for him that the Church is often just as implicit in maintaining the status quo as the schools and the military, all too ready to look the other way in the name of pragmatism. The priest’s surprising insight however, that “God is the most terrible thing in the world,” first shocks and then provokes the narrator to confront the immorality of his own defeatist attitude.

The teacher has lost his faith long ago because he refused to believe in a God who allows so much suffering and oppression to continue, but comes to realize that regular people like him must do what they can when faced with injustice in order to remain human; the ability to do so is not dependent on either church or state, but one’s conscience, a commitment to truth that even the secular among us can understand and stand behind. Youth Without God is a reminder to remain centered on a higher purpose placed above the temporal realities of the society you live in or the unstable material conditions of your personal life. Horváth recognizes the danger of rebellion, even in its smallest manifestations but urges us to move past the paralyzing fear and the existential angst. He reminds us to not just think for ourselves, but to feel, and when necessary, to act.

 

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