Sartre in Austria

Boycott, Scandals, and the Fight for Peace

in Sartre Studies International


While the World Congress of People for Peace 1952 in Vienna is generally viewed as Soviet propaganda, Jean-Paul Sartre counted it among the most important experiences of his life. His participation marks a major turning point in his evolution, insofar as it publicly confirms his status as a fellow traveler of the Communist Party. In the weeks leading up to the Congress, which was met by an extensive press boycott, Sartre had already caused a stir in the Viennese media by calling off the premiere of Les Mains sales, one of several theater scandals connected to this controversial and allegedly anti-Communist play. By examining the news coverage of these events, this article reveals the impact of Sartre’s interventions and shows how they changed the reception of existentialism in Austria.

“It means a lot to me that in the Western European countries, namely in Germany, in Switzerland, and in Austria, attention is given and justice is done to my writings.”

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Die Presse, 12 July 1952

When Sartre first arrives in Vienna in December 1952, he finds “a beautiful dead city with abandoned streets.”1 The immediate postwar years of extreme hardship have now passed, Austria is in the process of being rebuilt. Caught between the Cold War powers, it is (from the American point of view) one the countries most threatened by Communism and thus figures among the most favored recipients of the Marshall Plan. From 1945 to 1955, the country remains divided into four zones, administered by Allied powers: a Western Zone (French), a Southern Zone (British), a Northwestern Zone (American), and a Northeastern (Soviet) Zone that surrounds interallied Vienna. In 1952, seven years into the Allied occupation, the level of Soviet forces far exceeds those of the other armies, even as the Communists find themselves more and more isolated, largely because of the quantity of Austrian prisoners of war still held in the Soviet Union. In this tense atmosphere, the Peace Congress takes place under Soviet patronage, against the will of the Austrian government.

The World Congress of People for Peace

Finding himself among 1880 guests from 85 countries attending the World Congress of People for Peace2 in the Viennese Konzerthaus from 12 December to 19 December 1952, Jean-Paul Sartre feels surrounded by “men of all walks of life and very different opinions.”3 His first impression is easy to verify: present are 326 workers; 160 employees; 157 academics and physicians; 94 teachers; 86 lawyers; 75 technicians; 65 clerics; 63 industrialists, traders, and landowners; 56 sculptors, architects, painters, and decorators; 55 farmers; 46 statesmen and parliamentarians; 20 actors and filmmakers; 19 musicians and composers; and 8 athletes. As many as 189 authors take part, among them Ilya Ehrenburg, Louis Aragon and Georg Lukács. The enormous variety of participants distinguishes the Vienna event from previous gatherings—the World Congress of Partisans for Peace in Paris and Prague (April 1949), and in Warsaw (November 1950). A secret NATO document from November 1952 sheds light on the new strategic “appeal to pacifists and neutralists of all possible shades”: The congress organizer, the Communist-dominated World Peace Council, “decided to expand the peace campaign, with a view to raking in all those who, for any reason whatsoever, were in favour, or thought they were in favour, of maintaining peace.”4 This strategy, aimed at emphasizing the nonpolitical nature of the Congress, is successful: approximately one quarter of the participants are said to have no close connection to Communism; Sartre, for his part, notices “only a few Communists.”5 Simone de Beauvoir’s recollections suggest only 20 percent.

As its name indicates, the Congress’s declared aim is to contribute to the end of the Cold War. Its most important resolution, an “Address to the Five Great Powers,” demands negotiations that will lead to a “Peace Pact.” Specifics (a concrete strategy of disarmament, the abolishment of nuclear weapons) are the exception, as are controversial debates throughout the weeklong meeting. Sartre’s opening speech on “international pacification” appears equally innocuous. In “simple, even primitive words,”6 he praises the dialogue between “concrete” citizens (in contrast to the “abstract” speeches of politicians who act as final arbiters in a war completely detached from the individual’s responsibility), and waxes enthusiastic about the feeling of togetherness in spite of all differences: “In the great hall of the Konzerthaus, where we were more or less the guests to start with, each of us felt at home, each one, together with his people, saw his own will in the final motions.”7 Back in Paris, he relates what happened in Vienna to a large audience in the Vélodrome d’Hiver on 23 December 1952, stating that, in its ability to foster hope, this experience was one of the three most important of his adult life (beside the Popular Front of 1936 and the Liberation of Paris in 1944).

The appearance of the “Enemy Number One for the Soviet Writers” in Vienna, four years after the Soviet writer Alexander Fadeyev famously vilified him as a “hyena with a pen”8 at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace in Wrocław, Poland, caused bafflement and consternation everywhere. Sartre’s seeming readiness to suddenly cooperate with the Communists is related to the failure of the troisième voie, Sartre’s endeavor to create a left-wing movement more democratic than the French Communist Party (PCF) and more revolutionary than the social democrats (SFIO). The outcome, the cofounded Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (1948–1949), was designed to represent “a constantly shifting middle ground … between the two blocs,”9 but it soon leaned toward the United States. Sartre’s decision to lean the other way and eventually become a fellow traveler of the Communist Party, was fueled by his support for some of the Communists’ political actions in 1951 and 1952, which reawakened, as he put it, “my interest in Marxism, instilling in me a sense of the class struggle which I still retain to this day.”10 In the year ending with the trip to Vienna, this desire led to a number of theoretical writings (especially the first two parts of “Les Communistes et la paix”), accompanied by arguments (most drastically the “public verbal attacks and insults”11 directed at Albert Camus) that cost him more than one friendship. The Viennese congress continued this trend: many distance themselves from Sartre, says Beauvoir, “with greater or lesser publicity, either by a profound and genuine disagreement, or because they found it compromising to be linked with him.”12 While Sartre’s rapprochement with the Communists spanned several years, the internationally visible Peace Congress officially made him a compagnon de route in the eyes of his biographer Annie Cohen-Solal. This turning point didn’t occur in the immediate postwar period, “when most intellectuals of 1945 were either one [Marxist] or the other [Communist],” but seven years later, when, after waves of Stalinist violence, “that very same generation of intellectuals was beginning to move away from it.”13 In addition, Sartre’s conviction that hostility toward the Soviet Union meant hostility toward the proletariat, or, according to Vincent von Wroblewsky, his way of linking together “the defense of peace, the working class, Communists and the Soviet Union”14 aroused deep opposition among left-wing intellectuals in France. Much to Sartre’s disappointment, they didn’t come to Vienna to represent their country: “That is exactly the importance of the congress: all these men were the image of millions of non-[C]ommunist Frenchmen who had like them come to an agreement with the [C]ommunists in order to preserve peace.”15 Sartre believed that, as a result of press manipulation, his confrères had become suspicious: “Personally, I know many good people who ought to be here with us and aren’t. Why? Well, out of pessimism, resignation, and then they’ve been made to fear that the Congress is a cooptation [une manœuvre].”16 Among the latter group, irritation and suspicion surrounding Sartre’s apparent conversion led to speculation: was he being bribed or coerced into abandoning his ideals? “He was no longer condemned to be free. And he had to choose no more. Others did that for him now,”17 concluded sections of the press. To engage in the fight for peace is to renounce freedom, according to the rules of a highly developed “war of words” between the allies: the Soviets take “freedom” as a synonym for imperialism and capitalism, while the Americans perceive “peace” as a discursive ploy of the Communists.

Sartre’s repeated assertions of independence—that he was being directed by no one and driven by nothing but his intent to defend “peaceful coexistence based on East-West exchanges, reunification of Germany without changing the economic regime of the two zones, peace in Indochina, and admission of China to the [United Nations]”18—convinced few. While most blame his naiveté, that is, having fallen for Soviet propaganda, others think “Sartre wasn’t as naïve as to believe that he … could speak in his own name.”19 Either way, Sartre tells Le Monde, non-Communist participants automatically figure as “suckers or accomplices”20. Even though he did not belong to the cadre of writers deemed opinion makers (such as the Soviet authors Simonov, Fadeyev and Ehrenburg; the Chinese politician Soong Ching-ling; the French politicians Yves Farge and Pierre Cot; and the French physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, presiding over the World Peace Council), his status was unique: “The Congress was well aware of the distinction granted by this remarkable encounter. The other delegates were applauded dutifully and moderately; Sartre was lionized.”21 These comments on the Congress, published in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, were featured solely in international periodicals. Although well represented among the 178 journalists from 30 countries in the Konzerthaus, the (non-Communist) Austrian reporters withheld all commentary from their readers.

The Press Boycott

Reviewing the news coverage of Sartre’s participation in the Congress, the Communist-oriented magazine Tagebuch identified a clear veil of silence: “Up to now, every utterance by Sartre—even the most insignificant— … has raised a storm of discussion. … For the first time, Jean-Paul Sartre is being hushed up” (8 November 1952). Sartre too was astonished, having assumed that “the most valued principle” of the bourgeois democracies whose forces occupied three quarters of Vienna (the United Sates, the United Kingom, and, from Sartre’s viewpoint, especially France) was the freedom of press:

There were dozens of scholars, politicians, artists, whom, on other occasions, Vienna would have been proud to welcome. There was this whole colorful mixture of costumes and languages. Not one word of it, not a single line in a newspaper. The modest employee, who reads a social democratic paper and lives in the suburbs, could have remained completely unaware of the Congress’s existence.22

The blanket ignorance is no coincidence but rather a carefully implemented dual-censorship strategy, combining systematic defamation and a total boycott. By means of a federal news service notice, the government—a grand coalition of the conservative Christian democratic ÖVP (Österreichische Volkspartei) and the social democratic SPÖ (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs), united in their anti-Communism—informed the media that the “propaganda event” was to be discredited in the run-up and deliberately overlooked thereafter. This approach turned out to be completely in line with the “United States View on Treating the Congress,” laid out in the aforementioned NATO document:

During the first phase American information facilities will be exerted to de-bunk the Congress as sterile, hypocritical, a typical Communist effort designed to advance Soviet imperialist aims. The Congress will be dubbed “schwindelfriedenskonferenz.” Great care will be taken not to overdo denunciation; the tone adopted will be cool and ironical. … During the sessions of the Congress American news facilities will completely ignore it. … Plans for action after the Congress are still fluid. If any of the Communist themes promoted at the Congress prove to have made any impression on the Austrian public, American information services will concentrate on exposing their falsity.23

The last step proves to be unnecessary, given how the Austrian media pride themselves on the success of their censorship efforts: The bourgeois liberal Die Presse, one of the first independent Austrian newspapers after World War II, announced on 21 December 1952 that the so-called Peace Congress, mounted with so much money and fanfare, was “completely ignored” by the public, while international journalists “inundated the world with a flood of reports.” The same day, readers of the New York Times were made aware of the narrowly averted danger. The Congress was meant to impress not only “the people of Soviet Russia and its satellites” but also “all those Western peoples—and their number is growing—who can be tempted by vanity, chauvinism, tender-mindedness or honest confusion.”24 People would have been interested, had they known—or so Sartre presumes, at least, blaming the lack of coverage for the modest numbers of the accompanying peace demonstration. The British journalist Mark Arnold-Forster has his doubts, observing the very orderly way, “with a sort of skeptical lethargy,” seven thousand people wander in a “sad procession” along the Ring Road that circles the inner city: “The Viennese … cannot be persuaded to demonstrate with vigour in favour of anything that seems to favour Russia, a country where, as far as they know, 1,900 Austrians are still held prisoner.”25 By 1952, the attitude of the Austrian public toward the Soviet Union had turned from merely negative to actively hostile. Unlike the situation in France, where the vogue of existentialism had coincided with an increase in popularity for the Communist Party (in the French legislative elections of October 1945, the PCF received 26.1 perccent of the vote, compared to 5.4 percent for the KPÖ in elections to the Austrian National Council in September 1945), the immediate postwar period in Austria witnessed the culmination of a tradition of anti-Communism, says historian Oliver Rathkolb: “The marauding, raping soldiers of the rearguard of the Red Army that freed Austria in 1945 finally provided a traumatic confirmation of many a prejudice.”26 This situation explains why an unrealistically high number of signatures for the upcoming Peace Congress caused a tumultuous debate in the Austrian National Council on 20 November 1952. The signatures must have been fraudulently obtained by the Communists, asserted the social democratic Minister of the Interior, Oskar Helmer, calling for vigorous protest. The Communist representative Ernst Fischer argued that, on the contrary, intellectuals, professors, and artists advocating freedom were exposed to “threats”27 by the parties in power. In fact, the lack of Austrian pro-Communist intellectuals at the Congress is striking; most of those willing to cooperate with the Communist Party, like Franz Theodor Csokor and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, had, under heavy pressure, already distanced themselves at the beginning of the decade.28 A poignant example of how Communist(-friendly) artists were handled is the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (who, in a letter to the Viennese Peace Congress, cautioned against the imminent war, “compared to which all past ones will seem like insignificant skirmishes”).29 Beginning in 1953, all the main theaters in Vienna boycotted his plays for more than ten years.

Theater Scandals

It was not his Communist but his anti-Communist image in Vienna that worried Sartre in the days before the Peace Congress. Knowing the theater to be one of the main “transfer sites” for his ideas, especially in countries where translations often lagged years behind the initial publications, he called off the first Viennese production of Les Mains sales to prevent the play being used as a propaganda tool. Its plot, set in the fictional country of Illyria, focuses on the confrontation between a revolutionary party’s pragmatic leader, Hoederer, and a young hotheaded idealist, Hugo. Hoederer’s willingness to compromise addresses the question of whether the ends justify the means—an issue that became crucial during the German occupation: must one fight only in the underground resistance movement, or can one compromise and work with collaborating publishers and theaters to get a hidden message of resistance out to a wider audience? Hoederer soon strips bare the insufficiencies of Hugo’s rigidly orthodox Marxism: “You don’t love men, Hugo. You love only principles.”30 Torn between word and deed and suffering from being “an intellectual, a fellow who doesn’t work with his hands,” Hugo eventually experiences “direct action”31 by killing Hoederer. The theme of political murder, seen “as a legitimate tactic within the Communist Party,”32 is a major reason why the play was misunderstood as anti-Communist, says Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir adds: “The play seemed anti-[C]ommunist because the audience was on Hugo’s side.”33 Sartre sees Hoederer as the positive hero, a hero he could identify with. He maintained however that Les Mains sales was not a political play but rather a play about politics. It asks, is it possible to be active politically without “getting one’s hands dirty”? If anything, the play qualifies as “a work by a fellow-traveler,”34 Sartre concedes, but he insisted he had stuck to his literary principle of “showing,” not explaining or convincing: “I do not take sides. A good play should raise problems, not solve them.”35 The reactions to Les Mains sales were a severe test of this ideal. They made Sartre realize how irrelevant his own intentions were and thus contributed to the self-censorship evident in Austria and elsewhere (Spain, Greece, Indochina). The ideological idiosyncrasies of the reception process became obvious, for instance, when Sartre’s future friend Ilya Ehrenburg judged that the play was written neither “by a puzzled philosopher nor by a rebellious utopian[;] it’s a well-thought-out anti-Communist and anti-Soviet pamphlet.”36 In the climate of mistrust prevailing at the time, everything not explicitly pro-Communist is deemed anti-Communist. Alternatively, as Sartre points out in What Is Literature?, “the word fascist means any European citizen who does not vote for the [C]ommunists.”37 The bourgeois press fomented the either/or logic and, according to Beauvoir, “immediately buried Sartre in bouquets”38 after the Communists’ negative verdict. Following its debut performance in Paris, at the Théâtre Antoine on 2 April 1948, the play’s anti-Communist reputation snowballed, especially in the United States, where the play, translated as Red Gloves, proved so tendentious that Sartre took legal steps to counter its “falsifying publicity.”39

The Austrian performance history of the play, Schmutzige Hände, is similarly “ill-fated” (Die Presse, 24 September 1954) from the very beginning, from the failure of the first production in the Volkstheater in December 1950, a “typical occurrence,” says Hans Weigel, then a key figure in the Austrian literary scene:

The Volkstheater had accepted, announced and cast the play, when, not unexpectedly, some of the actors received threatening letters. The actors turned to the board of directors in apparent protest, so as to be ordered to perform the play on the basis of their contracts . … The board of directors for their part consulted their superiors, the labor union, for encouragement. The labor union took fright at their own courage and cancelled the play, risking breach of contract. This is how, in the American sector of Vienna, Communist pressure triumphs over socialist officials and an anti-Communist play.40

The social democratic newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung (15 December 1950) seems less sure as to what exactly has happened:

Rumors emerged; this or that actor is said to have received a warning: If he takes part in this play … he’ll see … in Germany too … the Russians will … To cut a long, bad story short, using all kinds of detours, direct and indirect, most of the Volkstheater’s actors refused to participate in this production. That’s how far it has gone, the state of cultural freedom in Vienna!

By raising suspicions, the progressively anti-Communist Arbeiter-Zeitung engages in a verbal battle with Communist periodicals, primarily with the Marxist monthly Tagebuch and the official Soviet newspaper in Austria, Österreichische Zeitung. Both condemn the “redbaiting” (Tagebuch, 23 December 1950; Österreichische Zeitung, 16 December 1950) and speak of blackmail, but still drift back and forth between hope and the certainty that Les Mains sales won’t stand a chance of success with a progressive audience. When the first Austrian production of the play succeeds in 1951 in the Styrian capital, Graz, in the British zone, that success is attributed to “a submissive director” and to “bought or snobbish journalists” (Österreichische Zeitung, 30 November 1951). For the Arbeiter-Zeitung (23 January 1952), however, Graz serves as an example for Vienna, where “the humiliation of our theaters” is only alleviated by a public reading of the play, organized by the social democrats in January 1952. The small-scale event shows how “bravely” Sartre tackles “the urgent questions of our time”: “The issue at hand concerns everyone, because it is about the proud and solitary freedom of man. Whoever inveighs against this play arouses suspicion!”

As the Peace Congress drew near, Sartre felt that he needed to take action against the “problem play” (Arbeiter-Zeitung, 24 September 1954) that made him the “figurehead of militant anti-Communism” (Der Abend, 12 December 1952), and, conversely, from the Communist angle, one of the “most reactionary authors” with an “imperialistic ideology” (Österreichische Zeitung, 16 December 1950). While, in other circumstances, Sartre had placed the highest value on the reader’s or audience’s contribution to any literary or theatrical message, his ban on Les Mains sales, weeks before the premiere in the Theater am Parkring, revealed a preemptive concern, namely that the clichés created by the media might absolve the recipient from any responsibility to judge “in each concrete case.” In short, literature would no longer be “an appeal to the freedom of the reader.”41 The Congress confirmed what Sartre had suspected all along: an enormous press bias that would become the central focus of his satirical play Nekrassov (1955). The anti-Communist press seemed to have a habit of handling the truth rather carelessly, when not spreading “systematic, absurd, and shameless lies.”42 Le Monde, for instance, reported the absence of visibly present intellectuals from the Konzerthaus. The conservative Neue Wiener Tageszeitung followed with an article about Sartre, who, “as is well known, said he would be coming to the Communist Peace Congress, but then failed to show up” (Tagebuch, 14 March 1953). Accounts in this vein led the Communist-oriented journalists to believe that by planning a staging of Les Mains sales in December 1952, “reactionary forces wanted to start a heckling campaign against the World Peace Congress” (Österreichische Zeitung, 24 September 1954). Nor did Sartre consider the date a coincidence either; it

seems to fall under the framework of Cold War skirmishes. I disavow neither “Les Mains Sales” nor any other of my writings. But I don’t want it to be used for propaganda purposes … If people of all nations and, as I hope, of all political opinions make an effort to understand one another, the moment to take up old fights is badly chosen.

(Österreichische Zeitung, 19 November 1952)

The director of the affected theater, Erich Neuberg, was oblivious of any skirmishes; he had “acquired the stage rights for Sartre’s play in March 1952, at a point of time when nobody could have suspected that the author would ever attend a congress run by Communists. There’s no propaganda on my stage.”43 After time-consuming rehearsals, Neuberg insisted on maintaining the premiere, scheduled for 6 December 1952, to save his young theater (known to be the “best and liveliest stage in town,” featuring contemporary writers and not just the ubiquitous “prewar ware”)44 from financial ruin. Acknowledging the financial stake (forty thousand Austrian schillings, the equivalent of triple the average annual income in 1952), Sartre had the final say and offered Neuberg the rights to another play in exchange (Huis clos, which, in terms of overall productions in Austria, turned out twice as successful). To avert further problems, Sartre decided to authorize stagings of Les Mains sales worldwide from then on only with the consent of the respective country’s Communist Party.

Not taking the directive all too seriously, the publisher Europa-Verlag sold the German-language stage rights to the Viennese Volkstheater, which, after the failed attempt of 1950, tried again to stage the play in 1954. Sartre was informed of this production on short notice while in Salzburg, where he was recovering from exhaustion, having already been hospitalized during his stay in Moscow. Beauvoir recalls the moment in La Force des choses:

At Salzburg, in a hotel in the old town that mirrored all its age-old graces, Sartre began working again; he was finding himself. We revisited the surrounding countryside, the lakes and mountains, then after a week we headed for Vienna. As a consequence of contracts signed by Nagel without Sartre’s assent, a production of Les Mains sales was in rehearsal there; the Peace Movement warned Sartre of this; he protested, and explained his position to a press conference.45

When Sartre gave the press conference on 23 September 1954 in the Viennese Hotel Sacher, the dress rehearsal in the Volkstheater was already under way. Although no longer able to stop the performance, he “protest[ed] against it, because it could intensify tensions between East and West even more” (Weltpresse, 23 September 1954). This assessment of the play’s political impact does not appear out of proportion, given the “right-wing papers” that suddenly produced a “chorus of praise” (Neue Wiener Tageszeitung, 24 September 1954). In front of the journalists, Sartre explained that he didn’t want to see the play (“a political battlefield”) staged in Vienna, “one of two neuralgic points in the world today” and as such lacking “the calm atmosphere necessary for the reception of his play.” Die Presse cannot help but wonder: this is “an odd statement” for “the champion of politically committed literature” (24 September 1954). After four years of failures, the city’s first performance of Schmutzige Hände took place on 24 September 1954 and, being “one of the best we’ve seen in Vienna” (Die Presse, 2 October 1954), was met with “rapturous applause” (Neue Wiener Tageszeitung, 26 September 1954).

Changing Impressions

Together with Sartre’s controversial participation in the 1952 Peace Congress, can one view Sartre’s final trip to Vienna two years later as an attempt to compensate for former misjudgments? Beauvoir indicates as much, when, from the vantage point of 1954, she thinks back on two canceled trips to Vienna two decades earlier. The first came in early 1934 when the February Uprising caused them to break off their journey from Berlin to Vienna, as Beauvoir writes in her memoir, La Force de l’âge:

During my visit [to Berlin, where Sartre was studying Husserl at the time], the Austrian Socialists attempted to exploit proletarian discontent as a way of opposing the rise of Nazism. They triggered off a rising, which Dollfuss [the Austrian chancellor] crushed with much bloodshed. This setback disheartened us somewhat. We would not set our own shoulders to the wheel of history, but we wanted to believe that it was turning in the right direction; otherwise we would have had too many problems to rethink.46

A couple months later, the city again showed up their apolitical approach to life, when Beauvoir’s comment on how their second attempt to visit Vienna in July 1934 failed, when the Austrofascist leader Dollfuss was shot by Austrian National Socialists:

We were intending to visit Vienna; but as we came out of our hotel [in Prague] one morning, we saw crowds gathered in the streets, and people fighting for the latest papers, which carried banner headlines. We recognized the name of Dollfuss, and also a word beginning with M, the meaning of which we could guess. A German-speaking passer-by told Sartre the news: Dollfuss had been assassinated. Today I feel this was one more good reason for our going to Vienna at once. But we were so imbued with the characteristic optimism of the period that, for us, the true condition of the world had to be peace. Vienna in mourning, bereft of its airy graces, would be Vienna no longer. I hesitated to change my plans, out of pure indecision; but Sartre flatly refused to submit himself to the tedium of staying in any town that had been spoiled by so absurd a drama. We refused to consider the possibility that this attack upon Dollfuss might, on the contrary, show us the true face of Austria–and indeed of all Europe.47

So, before attending the Peace Congress, “a historic event“48 in his eyes, Sartre overlooked two historical events that foreshadowed World War II, which, as he mentions on several occasions, would cut his life in two and entirely politicize him. In 1954, Beauvoir sees how, in 1934, they were “refusing to face the catastrophe that was almost upon us, unable, even Sartre with his gift for envisaging disaster, to sense the enormity of what lay ahead.”49 Her tone resembles that of Sartre expressing remorse in What Is Literature? as he describes his generation of intellectuals not as “victims of the disaster of 1940” but accomplices of the impending catastrophe, insofar as they had considered themselves to be situated not “on the eve” but on “the day after the last disruption of history.”50 That this misjudgment prompted Sartre to overcompensate is a common explanation for many of his subsequent actions. For fear of missing another opportunity, he would, in the words of Austrian-born writer Jean Améry, adopt a “revolutionary stance that didn’t shrink from extremes,”51 and his standing up for and then breaking up with the Soviet Union is, as Alfred Betschart emphasizes, “of extraordinary radicality.”52 The Communist “idyll”53 only lasted for four years: already tainted by the disagreement with the PCF over the Algerian War (in 1954), it ended with the Soviet invasion in Hungary in 1956 (and, for any lingering remains, 1968 in Prague). Améry, one of the firmest champions of existentialism, sees Sartre’s grandeur precisely in his readiness to “destroy the former Sartre”54 and to consider his “errors” as the price of advancing, enabling him “to change a bit each time,”55 all the while denying himself “the gratification of being proved correct.”56

Overall, in Austria, the reactions to Sartre’s evolution were much less positive. After the Congress and the theater scandals, the attitudes of the Communist and the non-Communist press were interchanged. The Arbeiter-Zeitung finds it “distressing to see a man of high caliber like Sartre … overcome his—by now displeasing—shadow on command” (24 September 1954). Die Presse, although swept away by the play, thinks it’s “depressing” to listen to a man “who has put his overly refined intellect in chains, a revolutionary who voluntarily resorted to the deepest slavery of the human mind” (24 September 1954). While the liberal and social democratic media approve of Schmutzige Hände but respond harshly to Sartre as a homo politicus ever since the Peace Congress, the tone of the Communist-oriented papers now is very positive, as long as the play is left out. Before, their criticism was severe, no different than in the French or Soviet press: Sartre was usually described as an “enemy of all progressive thoughts” or a “hater of humankind” (Österreichische Zeitung, 30 November 1951). The Österreichische Tagebuch, which for years stuck to the opinion that existentialism was “unsurpassed in shallow abstruseness and frivolous antihumanitarianism” (3, 1948), is happy that an “old hand at despair” (8 November 1952) has finally found the right way, and has taken off “the straitjacket of unnatural snobbery and unfruitful philosophy” (3 January 1953). The Österreichische Zeitung too is relieved that Sartre has gotten over the “meagerness of his thoughts” (16 December 1950) and has overcome his mistakes: his disregard for the powers of progress, for the dependency of the individual on “the human community” and on “given social circumstances” (Österreichisches Tagebuch 3, 1948), and the arbitrariness of decisions taken without any universal definition of good and evil.

Meanwhile, the theoretical background of Sartre’s transition goes largely unnoticed. None of the articles pay attention to how, after recognizing Marxism as “the philosophy of our time,”57 Sartre tries to join its “sclerotic” theory to his view of freedom—or to the fact that he still objects to the “over-narrow adhesion to universal determinism” of the neo-Marxists in their belief “in a real human nature,”58 first expressed in 1946 in “Matérialisme et révolution.” In particular, his notion of “freedom” is noticeably absent. What, according to Sartre, makes him “Marxian” instead of “Marxist” is that he remains “true to the idea of freedom,” although no longer “the freedom of a classless man”59 (with facticity “as its own restriction,”60 as depicted in L’Être et le Néant), but a freedom “always situated historically.”61 While during the initial reception of Sartre, the only “comprehensive” philosophical text available in Austria is L’existentialisme est un humanisme (since 1947), which reinforces the (Communist and especially catholic) objections it meant to dispel, L’Être et le Néant isn’t translated into German until 1952, that is, when Sartre attends the Peace Congress. The delay in translation leads to a rather undifferentiated (and at times, contradictory) amalgamation of ideas. With most of the prewar material arriving in or after 1949–1950, the early phenomenological and existentialist phases coincide, barely preceding Sartre’s rapprochement with the Parti Communiste. However, it is the latter phase that creates the biggest impact. Not only do the events of 1952 and 1954 bring about an unparalleled presence in the Austrian media (even if most of the positive responses are due to the deliberate “misinterpretation” of Les Mains sales as an anti-Communist play), they also have a lasting effect on the reception of Sartre’s work. The “Communist” label proved to be durable, although over the years it was broadened to an image of Sartre generally “misusing” literature for political purposes: When, in 1962, there was a new production of the play at the Theater in der Josefstadt, Otto Basil, a well-known critic, was amused “to see how Sartre lets ideological banners pour out of the actors’ mouths,” and concludes that he simply “can’t change his ways” (Neues Österreich, 26 January 1962).


Epigraph: Jean-Paul Sartre, “Besuch bei Jean-Paul Sartre,” Die Presse, 12 July 1952, 6. For all other citations from Austrian periodicals, see the list below. All unattributed translations are mine.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Ce que j’ai vu à Vienne, c’est la Paix,” Les Lettres françaises, 1–8 January 1953, 5.


In this article, for the sake of brevity, I will also refer to this simply as the Peace Congress or the Congress.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Congress of Vienna,” in The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Vol. 1: A Bibliographical Life, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, trans. Richard C. McLearty (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 275–279 (276) (originally published as “Le Congrès de Vienne,” Le Monde, 1 January 1953). The data on the congress participants is taken from Völkerkongreß für den Frieden, Wien, vom 12. bis 20. Dezember 1952: Reden und Dokumente (Wien: Österreichischer Friedensrat, 1952), 56.


North Atlantic Council, The Peoples’ Peace Congress—Vienna, NATO Secret Document AC/24-D/16 (Paris: Palais de Chaillot, 1952), 3–4,


Simone de Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, trans. Richard Howard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 300.


Günther Steffen, “Pilgrim des ‘Friedens’: Sartres erster Schritt zur Selbstkritik,” Die Zeit, 25 December 1952, 5. Sartre’s speech (“Intervention de M. Jean-Paul Sartre”) originally appears in Congrès des Peuples pour la Paix, Service d’Information [Vienne], no. 2 (13 December 1952), 7. For a further analysis of its content, see David Lethbridge, “Constructing Peace by Freedom: Jean-Paul Sartre, Four Short Speeches on the Peace Movement, 1952–1955,” Sartre Studies International 18, no. 2 (2012): 1–18.


Sartre, “Congress of Vienna,” 278–279.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre by Himself, trans. Richard Seaver (New York: Urizen Books), 76.


Ibid., 71. See Jean-Paul Sartre et al., “Appel du comité pour le rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (R. D. R.),” Esprit 143 (1948): 464–466.


Sartre, Sartre by Himself, 87.


Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre: A Life, trans. Anna Cancogni (New York: Pantheon 1988), 331.


Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, 300.


Cohen-Solal, Sartre, 342.


Vincent von Wroblewsky, “Jean-Paul Sartres Engagement für den Frieden,” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 33, no. 9 (1985): 797–806 (800).


Sartre, “Congress of Vienna,” 276.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Remarks by M. Jean-Paul Sartre,” in Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, 272.


Steffen, “Pilgrim des ‘Friedens,’” 5.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Interview par Paule Boussinot,” in Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, 271 (originally published in Défense de la Paix, special issue [December 1952]: 12–14).


Steffen, “Pilgrim des ‘Friedens,’” 5.


Sartre, “Congress of Vienna,” 276.


Steffen, “Pilgrim des ‘Friedens,’” 5.


Sartre, “Ce que j’ai vu à Vienne,” 5.


North Atlantic Council, Peoples’ Peace Congress, 8.


John MacCormac, “Peace Congress in Vienna Runs True to Party Line,” New York Times, 21 December 1952.


Mark Arnold-Forster, “Peace Doves in Vienna,” Spectator, 19 December 1952, 6.


Oliver Rathkolb, The Paradoxical Republic: Austria, 1945–2005, trans. Otmar Binder (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014), 9.


103. Sitzung des Nationalrates der Republik Österreich, VI. Gesetzgebungsperiode, 20. November 1952, 4130, 4138,


Manfred Mugrauer, “Eine ‘rein kommunistische Angelegenheit’? Der Wiener‚ Völkerkongress für den Frieden‘ im Dezember 1952,” in Gegen üble Tradition, für revolutionär Neues: Festchrift für Gerhard Oberkofler, ed. Hans Mikosch and Anja Oberkofler (Innsbruck: Studienverlag, 2012), 131–156 (139).


Bertolt Brecht, “Zum Völkerkongreß für den Frieden,” in Schriften zur Politik und Gesellschaft 1919–1956 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), 322–323 (323) (originally published in Neues Deutschland, 29 November 1952).


Jean-Paul Sartre, Dirty Hands (Les Mains sales): A Play in Seven Acts, trans. Lionel Abel, in No Exit and Three Other Plays (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 125– 242 (219).


Ibid., 167, 171.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Conversation with Paolo Caruso about Dirty Hands (1964),” in Sartre on Theater, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, trans. Frank Jellinek (New York: Pantheon 1976), 213 (originally published as the postface to the Italian edition of the play Le mani sporche [Turin: Einaudi, 1964]).


Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, 161.


Sartre, “Conversation with Paolo Caruso,” 213.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Entretien avec René Guilly,” in Sartre on Theater, 208 (originally published in Combat, 31 March 1948).


Ilya Ehrenbourg, “Contre le mensonge politique: Faulkner et Sartre vus par un écrivain soviétique—Les Mains sales,” cited by Ingrid Galster and Sandra Teroni, “Dossier de reception,” in Théâtre complet, ed. Michel Contat (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), 1363–1390 (1390) (originally published in Les Lettres Françaises, 10 February 1949).


Jean-Paul Sartre, “What Is Literature?” and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 228; emphasis in original.


Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, 161.


R. G. C. [Robert Greer Cohn], “Jean-Paul Sartre: Scenes from Les Mains Sales,” Yale French Studies 1 (1948): 3–20 (3).


Hans Weigel, “Brief aus Wien: Zentrum am Rande,” Der Monat 44 (1952): 179–183 (181).


Sartre, “What Is Literature?” 234, 92.


Sartre, “Ce que j’ai vu à Vienne,” 5.


“Sartre: Schmutzige Hände,” Der Spiegel, 26 November 1952, 32.


Weigel, “Brief aus Wien,” 180.


Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, 324.


Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, trans. Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 180.


Ibid., 193. Instead, they visit tourist attractions in Germany and the Austrian states of Tyrol and Salzburg: “We liked Innsbruck, and completely fell in love with Salzburg—its eighteenth-century houses, its innumerable unshuttered diamond windows, the exquisite signs swinging above the street doors: bears, swans, eagles, or stags, all wrought in fine patinated copper. There was a tiny puppet-theatre where a group of charming marionettes were performing Mozart’s II Seraglio. After a bus trip through the Salzkammergut we returned to Munich.” Ibid., 194.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “What I Saw in Vienna Was Peace,” in Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, 255–256 (a translation of parts of Sartre, “Ce que j’ai vu à Vienne”).


Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, 323.


Sartre, “What Is Literature?” 164, 174; emphases in original.


Jean Améry, “Sartre: Größe und Scheitern (1974),” in Werke, Band 4: Charles Bovary, Landarzt—Aufsätze zu Flaubert und Sartre, ed. Hanjo Kesting (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2006), 238–265 (253) (originally published in Merkur 12 [1974]).


Alfred Betschart, “Sartre und die Sowjetunion: Ein Beispiel für Ethik in Situation,” in Carnets Jean-Paul Sartre: Reisende ohne Fahrschein, ed. Peter Knopp and Vincent von Wroblewsky (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012), 37–60 (56).


Cohen-Solal, Sartre, 336.


Améry, “Sartre: Größe und Scheitern,” 239.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Jean-Paul Sartre” (radio interview, 7 February 1973), in Jacques Chancel, Radioscopie, Vol. 3: Politique (Paris: Laffont, 1973), 215–244 (241).


Jean Améry, Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre (Stuttgart: Klett, 1971), 91.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Knopf, 1963), 30.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Materialism and Revolution,” in Literary and Philosophical Essays, trans. Annette Michelson (New York: Collier, 1962), 198–255 (248, 244); emphasis in original.


Jean-Paul Sartre, “Volksfront nicht besser als Gaullisten,” Der Spiegel, 12 February 1973, 92.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Pocket Books, 1978), 495.


Sartre, Sartre by Himself, 76.

Articles from Austrian Periodicals in Chronological Order

  • HollitscherWalter. “Ist der Existentialismus humanistisch?Österreichisches Tagebuch 3no. 12 (1948): 11.

  • P. O.‘Schmutzige Hände’ und feige Herzen.Arbeiter-Zeitung15 December 19501.

  • “Ein Anwalt der ‘Schmutzigen Hände.’” Österreichische Zeitung16 December 19503.

  • S. O.Die Dramatik Sartres: Eine Predigt des Menschenhasses.Österreichische Zeitung16 December 19503.

  • ParylaKarl. “Feig und frech.Tagebuch23 December 19502.

  • “Ein Theaterskandal.” Österreichische Zeitung30 November 19514.

  • KahlKurt. “Leseaufführung von Jean-Paul Sartres ‘Die schmutzigen Hände.’Arbeiter-Zeitung23 January 19525.

  • F. S.Besuch bei Jean-Paul Sartre.Die Presse12 July 19526.

  • “Sartre.” Tagebuch8 November 19521.

  • “Sartre besteht auf Zurückziehung seines Stückes.” Österreichische Zeitung19 November 19526.

  • “Jean Paul Sartre in Wien.” Der Abend12 December 1952.

  • “‘Völkerkongreß’ bleibt unter sich.” Die Presse21 December 19522.

  • BenedekKarl M.Zweimal Jean Paul Sartre.Tagebuch3 January 19534.

  • “Erschienen oder nicht erschienen?” Tagebuch14 March 19538.

  • SartreJean-Paul. “Sartre: ‘Ich protestiere, kann aber die Aufführung nicht verhindern.’Weltpresse23 September 1954.

  • “Herr Sartre protestiert.” Arbeiter-Zeitung24 September 19545.

  • S. H.Viel Wasser um ‘Schmutzige Hände.’Neue Wiener Tageszeitung24 September 19548.

  • “Jean-Paul Sartre: Ich desavouiere die Aufführung.” Österreichische Zeitung24 September 19546.

  • “Makabres Intermezzo.” Die Presse24 September 19543.

  • GrimmeKarl Maria. “Sartre kontra Sartre.Neue Wiener Tageszeitung26 September 195416.

  • RismondoPiero. “Der Mord als Selbstbestätigung.Die Presse2 October 19546.

  • BasilOtto. “Jean Paul Sartre, Die schmutzigen Hände, Theater in der Josefstadt.Neues Österreich26 January 1962.

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Contributor Notes

Juliane Werner is Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna, Austria. Her principle areas of research are concerned with cultural transfer in Franco-, Anglo-, and Germanophone literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, philosophical fiction, and intermediality. Her most recent publication is Thomas Bernhard und Jean-Paul Sartre (Weidler, 2016).

Sartre Studies International

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Existentialism and Contemporary Culture

  • HollitscherWalter. “Ist der Existentialismus humanistisch?Österreichisches Tagebuch 3no. 12 (1948): 11.

  • P. O.‘Schmutzige Hände’ und feige Herzen.Arbeiter-Zeitung15 December 19501.

  • “Ein Anwalt der ‘Schmutzigen Hände.’” Österreichische Zeitung16 December 19503.

  • S. O.Die Dramatik Sartres: Eine Predigt des Menschenhasses.Österreichische Zeitung16 December 19503.

  • ParylaKarl. “Feig und frech.Tagebuch23 December 19502.

  • “Ein Theaterskandal.” Österreichische Zeitung30 November 19514.

  • KahlKurt. “Leseaufführung von Jean-Paul Sartres ‘Die schmutzigen Hände.’Arbeiter-Zeitung23 January 19525.

  • F. S.Besuch bei Jean-Paul Sartre.Die Presse12 July 19526.

  • “Sartre.” Tagebuch8 November 19521.

  • “Sartre besteht auf Zurückziehung seines Stückes.” Österreichische Zeitung19 November 19526.

  • “Jean Paul Sartre in Wien.” Der Abend12 December 1952.

  • “‘Völkerkongreß’ bleibt unter sich.” Die Presse21 December 19522.

  • BenedekKarl M.Zweimal Jean Paul Sartre.Tagebuch3 January 19534.

  • “Erschienen oder nicht erschienen?” Tagebuch14 March 19538.

  • SartreJean-Paul. “Sartre: ‘Ich protestiere, kann aber die Aufführung nicht verhindern.’Weltpresse23 September 1954.

  • “Herr Sartre protestiert.” Arbeiter-Zeitung24 September 19545.

  • S. H.Viel Wasser um ‘Schmutzige Hände.’Neue Wiener Tageszeitung24 September 19548.

  • “Jean-Paul Sartre: Ich desavouiere die Aufführung.” Österreichische Zeitung24 September 19546.

  • “Makabres Intermezzo.” Die Presse24 September 19543.

  • GrimmeKarl Maria. “Sartre kontra Sartre.Neue Wiener Tageszeitung26 September 195416.

  • RismondoPiero. “Der Mord als Selbstbestätigung.Die Presse2 October 19546.

  • BasilOtto. “Jean Paul Sartre, Die schmutzigen Hände, Theater in der Josefstadt.Neues Österreich26 January 1962.