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Egon Friedell (1878-1938)


Austrian essayist, cabaret performer, and amateur cultural historian, best known for his brilliant, playful, and stimulating magnum opus, A Cultural History of the Modern Age (1927-31), written under the influence of Oswald Spengler and Jacob Burckhardt. Friedell hoped for a rebirth of Western culture; the Moder Age, which was born from the Great Plague of the fourteenth century, has come to its end. At the eve of World War II, Friedell committed suicide by jumping from a window of his apartment. The German writer Thomas Mann ranked Friedell as one of the greatest stylists of the German language.

"The bioscope is killing human gesticulation, as sound film is killing the human voice  and the same is true of the radio; at the sometime, it is freeing us of the necessity of concentration, and we are now able to enjoy Mozart and sauerkraut, or the Sunday sermon and a game of cards, at one and the same time." (from A Cultural History of the Modern Age, vol. 3, 1931)

Egon Friedell was born Egon Friedmann in Vienna, the youngest son of Moriz Friedman, a Jewish cloth manufacturer and Karoline (Eisenberger) Friedmann. Friedell lost both of his parents in his childhood. Shortly after his birth, his mother deserted her family and ran away with a voice instructor. Formally his parents divorced in 1887. Moriz Friedmann died in 1891, after which Friedell's relatives took care of him, first his aunt, who lived in Frankfurt am Main. Friedell's mother reappeared in 1928, demanding support from him. She died in 1933. Friedell's brother Oskar Friedmann established in 1899 the first exclusively literary publisher in Vienna, the Wiener Verlag, which attracted writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, and Robert Musil. Later it was taken over by a businessman named Fritz Freund.

His studies Friedell did not take very seriously. In 1894 he was dismissed from a secondary  school in Frankfurt and it was not until 1899 when he passed his final school-leaving examination (Abitur) at the Gymnasium in Heidelberg. A few years earlier he had renounced the Jewish faith and converted to Protestantism. Before entering the University of Heidelberg, he studied philosophy at the university of Berlin.

From 1900 until his death, Friedell had the same third-floor residence in the Gentzgasse, sharing it with his housekeeper Hermine Schimann and her daughter Herma. Friedell never married and it was  rumored that he was homosexual or impotent and that Herma was his child. After she married a carpenter named Franz Kotab, the couple and later their two children continued to live in a small room in his barchelor apartment. Friedell named Hermine Schimann as his sole heir.

At the turn of the century, majority of the liberal, intellectual elite of Vienna was Jewish, and like Friedell, many of them changed their religion. However, in Vienna, as Arthur Schnitzler remarked, "it was impossible, especially not for a Jew in public life, to ignore the fact that he was a Jew." Sigmund Freud, whom Friedell criticized for bolstering irrationalism with tools of rationalism, never hid his strong Jewish identity. Friedell's attitude toward Freud was ambivalent.  Psychoanalysis had according to Friedell all the characteristics of a religious sect, but on the other hand Friedell acknowledged Freud's achievement in revealing the significance of the unconscious.

Friedell studied German literature and philosophy in Heidelberg under the philosopher and historian of philosophy Kuno Fischer, and completed his studies in Vienna, receiving his doctorate  in 1904. His dissertation about Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was rejected, but the following attempt, dealing with Novalis' universal science and dedicated to Kuno Fischer, was finally accepted although declared poor. Novalis als Philosoph was printed under the name Fri(e)dell, but officially Friedell changed his name in 1916.

Forced to abandon his hopes for an academic career, Friedell took a new turn in his life and became a cabaretist. He contributed to Karl Kraus's Die Fackel and then he was appointed artistic director of the Vienna cabaret Fledermaus, named after Johann Stauss' operetta. His plays, written in collaboration with Alfred Polgar, included Goethe (1908), in which he acted in the title role, Der Petroleumkönig; oder, Donauzauber (1908), and Soldatenleben im Freden (1910) . The first wife of the architecht Adolf  Loos, writer and actress Lina Loos  (Carolina Catherina Obertimpfler) was involved in the cabaret, too. Lina, to whom he unsuccessfully proposed marriage, was the great love of his life.  Arthur Schnitzler's based his play Das Wort (The Word) on a true love story between Lina and a young man, who  committed  suicide after being spurned by her.

Friedell, Peter Alternberg, and Polgár were the stars of the literary circle at Café Central. Friedell also wrote a study on Peter Altenberg, Ecce Poeta (1912), and edited a collection of writings, Das Altenbergbuch (1922). Viennese coffeehouses, the meeting places of intellectuals, were laboratories of new ideas. All epoch-making personalities knew each other in this unique world of grand cafés, where professors, writers, musicians, and artists freely argued at tables, enjoying at the same time a cup of coffee and perhaps a strudel. Friedell's other friends included nearly all the major authors of the period, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. To advertise his lectures 'Shaw oder die Ironic' and 'Besser als Shakespeare' Friedell used in posters Egon Schiele's face from Self-Portrait Nude, Facing Front (1910); this violently coloured watercolor portraying a figure convulsed in a spasm became one of the icons of the avant-garde circles of Vienna.

Due to his alcohol problems and depression, Friedell spent some time in a sanatorium near Munich. He also suffered from diabetes. In spite of his bohemian appearance, Friedell was reluctant to see any changes in his daily routines. The outbreak of WW I was greeted all over Europe with joy and celebration. Like a numbrer of writers, Friedell volunteered for military service. However, he was rejected for physical reasons. Later he defended Germany's role in the war in his Cultural History of the Modern Age by comparing it with the fate of the Nibelungs.

From 1924 Friedell cooperated with Max Reinhardt and acted in his productions at the Vienna Burgtheater and in Berlin at the Deutschen Theater. In Vienna Friedell worked also as the codirector of Intimes Theater. In 1923 Friedell had a major role in Molière's Imaginary Invalid in Reinhardt's Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg. On stage spoke with a typical Viennese accent which was difficult to understand for the German theater audience. Die Judastragödie (1920), produced in the Vienna Burgtheater in 1923, portrayed Judas as a hero. It was followed by a prose work, Das Jesusproblem (1921). The play was performed only eight times.

Friedell's film, drama and literary criticism appeared in magazines and newspapers such as Schaubühne, published in Berlin, Fackel, establised by Karl Kraus, and Neuen Wiener Journal. Friedell also translated or edited works by Emerson, Hebbel, Lichtenberg, Carlyle, Hans Christian Andersen, Johann Nestroy, and Macaulay. In 1914 Friedell published a translation of Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic History, which emphasizes the role of the individual in history.

Die Reise mit der Zeitmaschine (1946, The Return of the Time Machine), written in the mid-1930s, was a homage to H.G. Wells's classic science-fiction novel The Time Machine (1895). It included a spoof corresponcence between Friedell and Wells's secretary. Friedell's main interest in his work, which pretends that Well's story was literary true and depicts later adventures of Wells's hero, is in the theory of the time machine. Friedell, who wrote self-assuredly about Einstein's relativity theory in A Cultural History of the Modern Age, develops a complex mathematical scheme to prove the ultimate futility of time travel, "the resistance of Earth time." In order to reach the past, one must first travel into the future. The novel was reissued in 1974 as The Return of the Time Machine (Die Rückkehr der Zeitmaschine). It was translated by Eddy C. Bertin for DAW books in 1972 and reprinted by Starmont House in 1987.

A Cultural History of the Modern Age, inspired by H.G. Well's The Outline of History (1920), was dedicated to Max Reinhardt. Its first volume dealt with Renaissance and Reformation, the second Baroque, Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and the third part Romanticism, Liberalism, Imperialism, and Impressionism. Friedell's view is subjective and intuitive – all history is saga and myth and it is nothing more than a difference in degree between historian and poet. "All the classifications man has ever devised are arbitrary, artificial, and false," Friedell wrote, "but simple reflection also shows that such classifications are useful, indispensable, and above all unavoidable since they accord with an innate aspect of our thinking." Following the Hegelian lines of though, Friedell sees his subject basically as a the process of spiritual history. Oswald Spengler's (The Decline of the West, 1918-1922) pessimism and atheism he rejects. From the English writer, historian, and critic Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) Friedell adopted the romantic "great man" theory of history, the hero-worship, totally ignoring its ominous connection with the political reality of his day. Every era and every generation has according to Friedell its own hero, a genius, who personifies the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Nietzsche was for Friedell the epitome of the pre-WW I era.

After finishing A Cultural History of the Modern Age Friedell started to work on the two-volume cultural history of antiquity, Kusturgeschichte des Altertums, which he did not complete. However, its first part came out  in Switzerland in 1936, after publishers in Germany refused to accept anything from Friedell.

The Nazis invaded Austria in March 1938 and the country was incorporated into Hitler's Reich. Anti-Semitism broke out in full force. Jewish apartments and synagogues were ransacked and men and women were beaten on the streets. Friedell's books were banned and his position was not only intolerable but he knew he could be arrested by Gestapo. On March 16, 1938, shortly after the "Anschluss" (annexation), Friedell leaped from a window to his death, as he heard storm troopers coming to his apartment. His last words, according to a dark anecdote, were: "Watch out, please!" Friedell was buried in Vienna's Central Cemetery.

For further reading: Egon Friedell. Abschiedsspielereien by Gernot Friedel (2003); Encyclopedia of World Literature on the 20th Century, vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Egon Friedell: Momente im Leben eines Ungewöhnlichen by Wolfgang Lorenz (1994); The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938 by Harold B. Segel (1993); Egon Friedell by R. Wiseman (1987); Schriftspieler, Schausteller: Die künstlerischen  Aktivitäten Egon Friedells by Heribert Illig (1987); The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848-1938 by William M. Johnston (1983); "Egon"; The Misunderstood Clown. Egon Friedell and His Vienna by G.M. Patterson (1980); Der Partylöwe, der nur Bücher frass by P. Haage (1971); Der junge Friedell by K.P. Denker (1970) - For further information:

Selected works:

  • Novalis als Philosoph, 1904
  • Goethe, 1908 (with A. Polgar)
  • Der Petroleumkönig; oder, Donauzauber, 1908 (with A. Polgar)
  • Soldatenleben im Freden, 1910 (with A. Polgar)
  • Ecce Poeta, 1912
  • Von Dante zu D'Annunzio, 1915
  • Die Judastragödie, 1920
  • Das Jesusproblem, 1921
  • Das Altenbergbuch, 1922
  • Steinbruch, 1922
  • Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, 1927-31 (3 vols.)
    - A Cultural History of the Modern Age (translated by Charles Francis Atkinson, 1930-1933) / A Cultural History of the Modern Age: Renaissance and Reformation (with a new introduction by Allan Janik, 2008)
    - Uuden ajan kulttuurihistoria (suom. Erik Ahlman, 1930-1933)
  • Kleine Philosophie, 1930
  • 'Ist die Erde bewohnt', 1931
    - 'Is the Earth Inhabitated' (translated by Mike Mitchell, in The Black Mirror and Other Stories: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Germany and Autria, 2008)
  • Ägypten und Vorderasien, 1936 (reissued in 1947 as Kulturgeschichte Ägyptens und des alten Orients)
  • Kulturgeschichte Griechenlands, 1940, 1949
  • Die Reise mit der Zeitmaschine, 1946 (repr. in 1974 as Die Rückkehr der Zeitmaschine)
    - The Return of the Time Machine (translated by Eddy C. Bertin, 1972; reprinted 1987)
  • Friedell-Brevier: Aus Schriften und Nachlass, 1947 (edited by Walter Schneider)
  • Das Altertum war nicht antik und andere Bemerkungen, 1950
  • Aphorismen zur Geschichte; aus dem Nachlass, 1950  (edited by Walther Schneider)
  • Kleine Portraitgalerie: Fünf Essays, 1953
  • Briefe, 1959 (ed. by Walther Schneider)
  • Ist die Erde bewohnt?, 1961 (edited by W. Schneider)
  • Aphorismen und Briefe, 1961
  • Wozu das Theater?, 1965 (edited by Peter Haage)
  • Egon Friedells Konversationslexicon, 1974 (edited by P. Haage)
  • Abschaffung des Genies. Essays bis 1918, 1982  (edited by Heribert Illig)
  • Selbstanzeige. Essays ab 1918, 1983  (edited by Heribert Illig)
  • Der verkleidete Dichter, 1983 (illustrated by Franz Zauleck)
  • Meine Doppelseele: Taktlose Bemerkungen zum Theater, 1985  (edited by Heribert Illig)
  • Ist die Erde bewohnt?: Essays von 1919 bis 1931, 1985 (edited by Heribert Illig)
  • Kultur ist Reichtum an Problemen, 1988  (edited by Heribert Illig)
  • Das Friedell-Lesebuch, 1988   (edited by Heribert Illig)
  • Steinbruch. Kleine Philosophie, 1991
  • Der Schriftspieler: Autobiographische Schriften, 2002
  • Vom Schaltwerk der Gedanken, 2007 (edited by Daniel Keel und Daniel Kampa)

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