Alexander Lernet-Holenia


A short biography

Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897–1976)

Alexander Maria Norbert Lernet was born in Vienna on October 21, 1897. His mother, the widowed Sidonie Baroness von Boyneburgk-Stettfeld, a member of the Holenia mining family from the province of Carinthia, divorces the naval officer Alexander Lernet shortly after the birth of their son. The young Alexander is raised in Klagenfurt, St. Wolfgang, and Vienna, and completes his "Matura", or high school exit exam, at Waidhofen on the Ybbs in 1915. That same year, he registers as a "One Year-Volunteer" with the Imperial and Royal Dragoons (an elite horse regiment) and takes part in campaigns at the Eastern front of World War One from 1916-1918 , for instance in the Ukraine. Following his return to civilian life he moves to Klagenfurt and there takes part in the "Carinthian Defense Conflict" (1918-1919) which fought the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia) to retain the Klagenfurt region within the new borders of the post-imperial Austrian state. Adoption by his mother's family in 1920 results in his hyphenated surname, Lernet-Holenia.

Lernet-Holenia's first poetry collection, Pastorale (1921) appears with a small bibliophile company in Vienna. Encouraged by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Hermann Bahr, he publishes his second collection, Kanzonnair (1923) with the Insel publishing house in Leipzig, on recommendation by Rainer Maria Rilke.


However, he first made his name with his work as a playwright. He receives the prestigious Kleist Prize in 1926 for two stage comedies, Ollapotrida and Österreichische Komödie (Austrian Comedy), but returns it as a result of a plagiarism scandal regarding another play -- Attraktion (Attraction) written with Paul Frank. Already at this early stage, Lernet-Holenia expresses a specific awareness of himself as an author, which breaks with the overbearing image of artistic genius established in Goethe's time:

"I truly write only for the sake of earning royalties, and all those who also write for the sake of royalties should be ashamed of themselves that they do not admit it. Compared to real literature, "our" plays are nothing more than mere fabrications. The public has a right to be informed by experts about this, because the public rarely notices it." ["Das gestohlene Krokodil" (The Stolen Crocodile). In: Die Literatur 32 (1929/30), Pg. 679ff. Quote on pg. 680].

By 1926, Lernet-Holenia resides at his mother's villa on the Wolfgangsee. There he associates with writer-colleagues like Leo Perutz and Stefan Zweig and, following their emigration from Germany in 1933, Ödön von Horvath and Carl Zuckmayer, as well as the actors Werner Krauss and Emil Jannings. He pens another stage comedy, (Qui pro quo, 1928) with Zweig, who recommends him as a librettist to the composer Richard Strauss, but without success. Perutz provides him with the material for what will become his fifth novel, Jo und der Herr zu Pferde. The S. Fischer publishing house, which brought out Lernet-Holenia's first novel in 1930, remains his most important publisher until 1945. Its drama division also represents the author's stage works. Lernet-Holenia publishes fourteen novels and short story collections in rapid succession until 1938. Three of these novels receive film treatment: Die Abenteuer eines jungen Herrn in Polen, 1931 (Love and Alarum, Germany 1934), Ich war Jack Mortimer, 1933 (I Was Jack Mortimer, Germany 1935), and Die Standarte, 1934 (My Life for Maria Isabella, Germany 1935). Military themes dominate his prose from his earliest writings. In particular, the setting of the First World War and the Austrian officer-as-protagonist appear in his work until after 1945. Die Standarte and the novella, Der Baron Bagge (1936) are early examples of this thematic focus.

His status as a successful author secured, Lernet-Holenia and his then lover, Charlotte Sweceny of the Vienna-based Stein publishing family, embark on a cruise to the Caribbean shortly after the 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, which then takes them to New York via Central America. Poor financial and publishing possibilities alter Lernet-Holenia's thoughts on emigration and he returns to Vienna. There he presents Ein Traum in Rot (A Dream in Red), 1939, his new novel on the decline of governmental and social order, just prior to his conscription as Wehrmacht Lieutenant in the Polish campaign at the end of August 1939. Despite injuries sustained on the second day of battle, he does not return to Vienna for another two months.

Following the injury, Lernet-Holenia is able to prevent temporarily his redeployment with the assistance of his friends in the film industry, particularly Emil Jannings. His new work, a cryptic anti-Nazi military novel on the Polish invasion, Mars im Widder (Mars in Aries), finds serialization in the Berlin woman's magazine, Die Dame in 1940/41. A book edition is subsequently printed, but then banned from release by the propaganda ministry. The entire contents of the printer's storage halls burns in the raids on Leipzig in 1943-44. Only one single copy survives, which ultimately serves as the proofs for the postwar edition published by Bermann-Fischer.

In 1941, Lieutenant Lernet-Holenia becomes head of the development department of the military film office in Berlin and provides the idea for the plot of the immensely successful Zarah Leander film, Die Große Liebe (The Great Love) in 1942. He associates with Gottfried Benn and Alfred Kubin, and is able to find time to devote himself to a new novel. Beide Sizillien (The Dual Sicilies), arguably his finest work of prose, is published in 1942. He avoids renewed deployment with forged certificates in 1944/45 and endures the end of the war in St. Wolfgang, where he shortly afterwards marries the Berlin-born Eva Vollbach.

Lernet-Holenia's journalistic work increases in the postwar years. As early as 1945, in the Catholic-conservative culture publication Turm, he describes the role of literature in the wake of Austria's survival from catastrophe in the following manner:

"In reality, we only need to continue from where the dreams of a madman have interrupted our lives. Truly, we do not need to look forward – only backward. To say it more clearly, it is not necessary for us to flirt with the future and plan questionable projects; we are at our very best when we realize that we are in fact our very own past. We only need to reflect this phenomenon – and it will become our future." [Letter to Turm: "Gruß des Dichters" (Greetings from the Writer) In: Der Turm 1, 4/5 November/December 1945, Pg. 109]

In subsequent years, the ever-productive novelist would not only comment on Austrian literature, and on the state of theater, but would also participate intensely in postwar debates regarding exile and Inner Emigration (1), as well as campaign for the banning of the atomic bomb. (2)

Lernet-Holenia's publication in the leftist/intellectual Österreichische Tagebuch (Austrian Diary) and the Social-Democratic Arbeiter Zeitung (Worker's Newspaper) is followed by his role as an editor (with Friedrich Torberg) of the anti-Communist publication Forum in 1954. Although he is unable to revisit the early success of his stage works, new poetry collections emerge. Following a dispute regarding his novel Die Inseln unter dem Winde (The Islands in the Stream), the author ultimately parts from his longtime publisher S. Fischer and moves to the Paul Zsolnay firm.

Lernet-Holenia becomes one of the first authors to deal with the Third Reich in several texts just after 1945, for instance in the novels Der Graf von Saint Germain (The Count of Saint Germain), 1948 and Der Graf Luna (Count Luna), 1955, but also in the elegy Germanien (Germania), 1946, which explicitly addresses the question of guilt. Beginning in 1959, he also publishes literary collages and prose works that vary in genre between the historical novel and the popular history book. He provokes scandals into his late years with his texts as he does with his driving habits (and actual physical confrontation with other drivers). His military friends are offended by his accusations regarding their lack of wartime courage, and he maintains a private feud with the House of Habsburg in Die Geheimnisse des Hauses Österreichs (The Secrets of the Imperial House of Austria), 1971, as he does with the Austrian tax authorities in Das Finanzamt (The Inland Revenue Office), 1955 and Das Goldkabinett (The Gold Cabinet), 1957. He attacks the tourist boom at the Wolfgangsee which spoils his domicile there, and the "long-haired" academics of the nearby institute of Theater Studies hat disturb his residence at Vienna's Hofburg Palace, where he has lived since 1952 (a memorial plaque to the author is mounted in the palace's Michaeler-Tract). From the plagiarism scandal of the 1920s to commentary given near the end of his life, the author's public interventions seem motivated by the desire to provoke.


In 1969, Lernet-Holenia follows Theodor Csokor as elected president of the Austrian PEN Club. He has received the most important national awards from Austria (The Cross of Honor for Science and Arts of the Republic of Austria, 1957; Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature, 1961) and from the Federal Republic of Germany (Grand Cross of Merit, 1958), and had thus advanced to the rank of what might be called a "state author." Nevertheless, his tax scandals and his activities poised against the encouragement of tourism cloud his relationship with "official" Austria. His outrage over the awarding of the Nobel Prize of Literature to Heinrich Böll, a supposed RAF sympathizer, allows him a pretext to resign from PEN leadership in 1972.

Lernet-Holenia's final novel, Die Beschwörung (The Conjuration) is published in 1974. He dies two years later in Vienna, on July 3, 1976, and is buried in a Grave of Honor of the City of Vienna at the Hietzing District Cemetery.

Franziska Mayer

1)"Der Fall Thomas Mann" (The Case of Thomas Mann). In: Der Turm Vol. 1, 7 February 1946, pg. 172.
2)"Für die Aechtung der Atomwaffen" (Regarding the Banning of Atomic Weapons). In: Tagebuch (Vienna), Vol. 5, No. 9, 29 April, 1950, pg. 1; and "Nachruf auf einen Atom-Aufruf" (Obituary for an Atomic Appeal). In: Die Weltwoche, No. 1307, 28 November, 1958.