Robert Lucas (RL) was born Robert Ehrenzweig in Vienna on 8 May 1904 to Sigmund Ehrenzweig and Emma Ehrenzweig (née Robinsohn). Sigmund Ehrenzweig was a coal merchant who was born in 1864 in Bzenec in the Czech Republic (then Bisenz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and died in Vienna in 1935. Emma Ehrenzweig was born in 1877 in Jazowsko (now in Poland, but then also in Austro-Hungary) and died in London in 1960. His parents were married in 1900 and had two sons: RL and his brother Oskar, born in October 1906, who later became a textile designer.
RL attended Realgymnasium in Vienna from 1914-1918, and went on to study chemistry at Vienna’s Technische Hochschule in 1922 and chemistry and physics at the University of Vienna between 1923 and 1927, gaining his doctorate in 1927. From 1928 he worked at as industrial chemist and publicity manager at the Racine-Gesellschaft in Berlin in 1928, and from 1928 to 1930 as a chemist for its sister company, Rudolf Bauer and Co. in Vienna and Brünn. Whilst in Berlin RL began to develop a parallel career as a writer and journalist, gaining experience behind the scenes of Erwin Piscator’s theatre, the Neues Schauspielhaus, and meeting writers Ernst Toller and Leo Lania. After his return to Vienna he became involved in a variety of journalistic and creative writing projects, some in association with the Austrian Social Democratic Party (then the SDAPDÖ), which RL joined in 1929. In 1930 he began working for the SDAPDÖ’s Vorwärts Verlag as editor of Das kleine Blatt and a writer for Die Arbeiterzeitung, and in 1932-1933 he also published and was chief editor of the journal Politische Bühne. From 1928 until he left for the UK in 1934, he was a leading member and writer of the Sozialistische Veranstaltungsgruppe and the political cabaret group, the Politische Kabarett, both closely associated with the left wing of the SDAPDÖ. He also wrote a two-act play Das Jahr Achtundvierzig, which was performed at Vienna’s Grosser Konzerthaussaal in 1928 and a three-act play written jointly with Ernst Fischer, Die neue Büchse der Pandora (Vienna, 1931). He wrote the screenplay for the KIBA film Das Notizbuch des Mr Pim directed by Frank Ward Rossak, commissioned by the SDAPDÖ to be shown as part of the 1930 parliamentary election campaign. Jointly with Johann Hirsch he edited Ein Volk klagt an, an anthology of 50 letters by readers of Das Kleine Blatt on their WWI experiences, which was published by Hess Verlag in 1931 and later banned by the Nazis. Also in 1931 he wrote the festival play Das große Festspiel (The Great Pageant), a mass play for 4000 participants, which was directed by Stefan Hock and performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1931 International Workers' Olympiad at the Vienna Stadium, where it was seen by 260,000 spectators in four performances.
After the Austrian Civil War of February 1934 Das kleine Blatt was brought into line with the politics of the Austrofascist regime and RL was dismissed from his editing post. Being both socialist and Jewish, he was considered politically suspect and in April 1934 he left Austria for London, where he was appointed Assistant to the London Editor of the Viennese liberal daily, the Neue Freie Presse in November of that year. He remained with the paper, and had an office in its London headquarters in The Times building in Printing House Square, until the newspaper was nazified in 1938. He also contributed to the English press and for a time was diplomatic correspondent of The Times. It was in his office in The Times building that Alfred Barker of the BBC contacted him on 27 September 1938 in the middle of the Munich crisis and invited him to translate the Prime Minister’s speech, as it had been decided to broadcast a German version of the speech to Europe. Thus began the German Service of the BBC, an organisation with which RL was to spend the rest of his career, initially as translator but from 1940 until his retirement in 1967 as a scriptwriter (later chief scriptwriter and editor).
RL’s work for the BBC included writing features and sketches and he was eventually promoted to editor and chief scriptwriter. Of the many scripts he wrote during the war, his anti-Nazi satire of letters from Private Hirnschal to his wife in Germany were his best-known. Die Briefe des Gefreiten Hirnschal featured a common soldier who is forced to endure the vicissitudes of war and suffer from the mismanagement of his superiors. This was an update of a Schweyk-like figure RL originally conceived in the pre-war period and featured in the political cabaret scripts written at the time. The work enjoyed additional popularity in the immediate post-war period when it appeared in book form under the title Teure Amalia, vielgeliebtes Weib in Switzerland and Austria in 1946 and Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1948. Several German language editions have appeared since this post-war period and the letters remain in print (in 2016) under the title Die BBC gegen Hitler. Die Briefe des Gefreiten Adolf Hirnschal an seine Frau in Zwieselsdorf. After the war RL focused on a new aspect of German life with his anti-Stalinist satirical feature series Der verwunderte Zeitungsleser, written for the German East Zone Programme, which he continued to script as a freelance contributor even after his formal retirement in May 1967.
In addition to his employment with the BBC, RL continued to pursue a range of other journalistic, literary and theatrical projects after settling in the UK. His adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace was directed by Julius Gellner and performed at the Phoenix Theatre in London and in Blackpool and Manchester in 1943. After the war he wrote and translated an adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s Cards with Uncle Tom in 1958 and a play The Mohocks are coming (1976). He wrote features for radio stations in the Switzerland, Austria and West Germany, and for the left-liberal German weekly Die Zeit from 1959 to 1974, and for the Swiss magazine Sie und Er from 1951 to 1968. In 1969 he began work on his first biography, Frieda Lawrence, on the life of D.H. Lawrence’s wife, which was published in Germany in 1972 and translated and published in the UK, the US and Japan. After his retirement from the BBC he wrote book reviews for the German daily Die Welt, the last of which appeared in the week after his death in January 1984.
RL married Ida Klamka (born in 1909) in her home town of Bruck an der Leitha in Austria in May 1935, after which Ida (then Ehrenzweig) joined RL in London. After Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938 RL helped his brother Oskar Ehrenzweig, his widowed mother Emma and his parents-in-law Aron and Karoline Klamka to obtain UK visas from Austria. He later also organised the move of his sister-in-law Ilona Geschmay and her family to the UK from the Sudetenland. Robert and Ida gained British citizenship in 1946 and changed their name by deed poll from Ehrenzweig to Lucas in 1947. They had two sons: John, born in 1942 and David, born in 1947. RL was a member of the International PEN-Club and the Foreign Press Association. He was well established in British society and received the MBE in 1966. In 1981, three years before his death, with the award of the Goldene Medaille für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich he achieved recognition in his native country.