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Karl Kraus (1874-1936)


Austrian satirist, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and poet. Karl Kraus is considered the foremost satirists of the 20th century in German language. His most important play is the pacifist Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (1915-1919), which rose from his reaction to World War I. For his rarely performed magnum opus Kraus was three times nominated by French academicians for a Nobel Prize in Literature.

"In every situation, in joy or sadness, outwardly and inwardly, a woman needs the mirror." (tr. Jonathan McVity, in Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909)

Karl Kraus was born in Jicin (or Gitschin), Czechoslovaki (then a part of Austria-Hungary) into a Jewish family. His father, Jacob Kraus, was a prosperous paper manufacturer. When Karl was three, the family moved from Bohemia to Vienna. With Vienna Kraus had a long love-hate relationship. Kraus spent most of his life in this politically robust and culturally brilliant city, although he occasionally escaped to Switzerland, or traveled in Europe with Baroness Sidonie Nádherný.

Kraus attended the gymnasium and after graduating in 1893, he studied law at the University of Vienna without much enthusiasm. He attended only philosophical and literary lectures. Kraus's shoulders were slightly deformed, and due to his congenital abnormality, he did not serve in the army. At eighteen, Kraus started to publish book and theater reviews in Viennese and German newspapers and periodicals. Theatre had fascinated Kraus from his youth, but after failing miserably as an actor in Schiller's The Robbers, Kraus only gave public readings  between 1892 and 1936 he had about seven hundred one-man performances. He read among others from the dramas of Bertolt Brecht, Gerhart Hauptmann, Johann Nestroy, Goethe, and Shakespeare. He also performed Offenbach's operettas, accompanied by piano and singing himself all the roles.

Kraus's journalistic career began in 1892, when his review of Gerhart Hauptmann's play Die Weber (The Weavers) appeared in the Wiener Literatur-Zeitung. Kraus was a member of a bohemian group, which included such writers as Theodor Herzl, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, Adolf Loos, and Stefan Zweig. At the Café Griensteidl, and later Café Central, where literati and lower aristocrats converged, the group was known as Jung Wien. Kraus wrote there his articles and had his dinner a very sharp sausage. Demoleirte Litteratur (1897) marked Kraus's break with the group. But in this unique world of grand cafés, the meeting places of the city, all epoch-making personalities knew each other. New ideas were created at tables, where professors, writers, musicians and artists met and argued with each other, and at the same time enjoyed a cup of coffee and perhaps a strudel.

In 1899, at the age of 25, Kraus turned down a job offer from the Neue Freie Presse and founded his own journal, Die Fackel (The torch). In the beginning, it was published three times a month, later irregularly. Kraus accepted little advertising; the price covered production and the stipends of its collaborators. The first issue, a success, appeared on 1 April. Kraus edited the journal until his death. The last issue (No. 922) appeared in February 1936. In 1899 Kraus also converted to Catholicism, but renounced the faith in 1923. At the turn of the century, majority of the liberal, intellectual elite of Vienna was Jewish, and like Kraus, many of them changed their religion. Not all Sigmund Freud, whose theories Kraus opposed, never hid his background. Kraus's aphorism, that psychoanalysis is the disease whose cure it purports to be, was widely quoted. The psychoanalysts in turn ridiculed Kraus and his followers. Freud, who did not openly confront his witty adversary, denounced Kraus in private.

Kraus attacked the "ghetto-mentality" and urged all Jews to jettison their beliefs, rituals and manners for the assimilation to the dominant society. In Eine Krone für Zion (1898) Kraus mocked the views of Theodor Herzl, the propagandist and founder of the Zionist movement. As a result, Kraus was described as "an exquisitely Jewish anti-Semite". Kraus always coupled Jewishness and journalism, stating "Without Heine, no feuilleton". He provocatively played with his Jewish identity, by making fun of himself and manipulating antisemitic discourse and undermining its logic.

The early contributors of Die Fackel included Heinrich Mann, Georg Trakl, Frank Wedekind, and August Strindberg, but after 1911 Kraus wrote its entire content himself; the only exception was Strindberg whose misanthropic views he shared. "I no longer have collaborators," Kraus joked. "I used to be envious of them. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself." The young Ludwig Wittgenstein also read Die Fackel and his style in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) corresponds with Kraus's aphoristic way of expression. They both were also extremely sensitive to the imprecision and abuse of language, Wittgenstein in philosophy, Kraus in journalism. "The German language," he said, "is the profoundest of all languages, but German speech is the shallowest." His aphorisms Kraus collected in Sprüche und Widersprüche (1909), Pro Domo et Mundo (1912), and Nachts (1918). "An aphorism is never exactly truthful," Kraus said. "It is either a half-truth or a truth and a half."

Die Fackel was Kraus's vehicle for his crusade against hypocrisy, psychoanalysis, corruption of the Habsburg empire, nationalism of the pan-German movement, laissez-faire economic policies, and all kind of signs of times. Kraus himself summarized his themes as follows: "Sex and untruth, stupidity, abuses, cadences and clichés, printer's ink, technology, death, war and society, usury, politics, the insolence of office... art and nature, love and dreams." The "psychoanals" was one of his favorite targets, which he also satirized in his play Traumstück (1923). Most of Kraus's essays, poems and plays were published first in Die Fackel.

Kraus was also a much sought after lecturer. His public readings Kraus called "Theater der Dichtung" (literary theater). Because Kraus was a member of the Social Democrat Party, for a time his journal was regarded as a mouthpiece for socialist ideas. Some of his critics thought he was against all progress and change. Of his portrait from 1925, painted by Oskar Kokoschka, Kraus said: "It is quite possible that those who know me will not recognize me. But it is certain that those who do not know me will recognize me."

From 1904 onward, Kraus's satire became more moral than political, and eventually he whole-heartedly defended the unpolitical or "natural" man. "Politics," Kraus said, "is what a man does in order to conceal what he is and what he himself does not know." During World War I Kraus was one of the most fierce critics of the militaristic atmosphere, a decade before Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). From the earlier stages of the war, Kraus rejected the propaganda of the Central Powers. When Hofmannsthal had high hopes for victory, Kraus commented Hofmannsthal's patriotic writing sarcastically.

Part of Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) appeared in Die Fackel in 1919. Kraus drew analogies between life at the front and everyday absurdities in Vienna behind the lines. In this he utilized the German political cabaret tradition. The satirical tragedy had about five hundred historical and fictitious characters, from Kaiser Wilhelm to The Grumbler, Kraus's alter ego. When The Optimist says that the Chief Medical Officer of Army Group Albania was "well known for having fit soldiers", The Grumbler continues: "... shot without trial when they stole tinned foods." The performance of the play, according to producers, would require some ten nights on the stage. At the end mankind destroys itself. Last lines are put into the mouth of God: "I did not want it." The actor Peter Lorre, who was a member of Kraus's Stammtisch, cited The Last Days of Mankind as one of his favorite books. Lorre appeared also in Kraus's satire Die Unüberwindlichen (1929). It chronicled the Békessy Affair, in which the Hungarian-born press czar whitewashed the police chief of Vienna, Johannes Schober, whom Kraus held responsible for the death of ninety people during a police crackdown on a demonstration. The Volksbühne cancelled the play after only one performance.

Kraus called Vienna the "research laboratory for world destruction". His support of the Austrian political leader Engelbert Dollfuss (1892-1934) did not win him new friends. The Marxist critic Walter Benjamin saw in Kraus a new Timon of Athens, who "jeeringly distributes the acquisitions of his life among his false friends". Kraus held back his denunciation of Dolfuss's regime Dolfuss suspended parliamentary government in 1933. Eventually his pamphlet appeared in 1952 as Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, a prophetic vision of the Third Reich.

Kraus never married. From 1913 until his death, Kraus had a close relationship with the Baroness Sidonie Nádherný von Borutin (1885-1950). She inspired many of his poems and aphorisms, and he wrote her more than a thousand letters and postcards. Due to her travel desires, he also bough a car. A collection of their correspondence was published in 1974. Kraus's final work, not published until after World War II, was Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, which he completed in 1934. Kraus died in Vienna on 12 June, 1936. Walter Benjamin quoted in one of his essays what Brecht said about Kraus: "When the age died by its own hand, he was that hand". Benjamin's article on Kraus appeared in 1931 in the Frankfurter Zeitung. A two-volume edition of Kraus's essays, Schriften, introduced by Theodor Adorno, was published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 1955. Kraus's aphorism and poems have been translated into English, but he is still relatively unknown in English-speaking countries.

For further reading: Karl Kraus by L. Liegler (1921); Karl Kraus by R. von Schaukaul (1933); Karl Kraus in Sebstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten by P. Schick (1965); The Last Days of Mankind: Karl Kraus and His Vienna by Frank Field (1967); Karl Kraus by W.A. Iggers (1967); Karl Kraus by H. Zohn (1971); Wittgenstein's Vienna by A. Janik and S. Toulmin (1973); Karl Kraus and the Soul Doctors by T.S. Szasz (1976); Masks of the Prophet: The Theatrical World of Karl Kraus by Kari Grimstad (1981); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, Vol. 3, ed.  Stanley Hochman (1984); Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist by Edward Timms (1986); The Paper Ghetto: Karl Kraus and Anti-Semitism by John Theobald (1996); Karl Kraus and the Critics by Harry Zohn (1997); Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist by Edward Timms (2005); The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siecle Europe by Paul Reitter (2008) - For further information: Karl Kraus 

Selected works:

  • Die demolierte Literatur, 1896
  • Eine Krone für Zion, 1898
  • Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität, 1908
  • Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909 - Dicta and Contradicta (tr. Jonathan McVity, 2001)
  • Die Chinesische Mauer, 1910
  • Heine und die Folgen, 1910
  • Pro Domo et Mundo, 1912
  • Nestroy und die Nachtwelt, 1913
  • Nachts, 1918
  • Weltgericht, 1919
  • Ausgewählte Gedichte, 1920
  • Worte in Versen, 1916-1920 (5 vols.)
  • Literatur; oder, Man wird doch da sehn, 1921
  • Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, 1918-1922 - The Last Days of Mankind (abridged and edited by F. Ungar, translated by A. Gode and S.E. Wright, 1974; Max Spalter, in German Drama Between the Wars, 1974; Matthew Lillias, 2004; Justus Neumann, 2004)
  • Untergang der Welt durch schwarze Magie, 1922
  • Wolkenkuckucksheim, 1923 (adaptation of Aristophanes's The Birds)
  • Traumstück, 1923
  • Traumtheater, 1924
  • Epigramme, 1927
  • Die Unüberwindlichen, 1928
  • Literatur und Lüge, 1929
  • Worte in Versen, 1922-1930 (4 vols.)
  • Poems: Authorised English translation from the German, 1930 (tr. A. Bloch)
  • Zeitstrophen, 1931
  • Shakespeares Sonette, 1933 (translator)
  • Shakespeares Dramen, 1934-35 (2 vols., translator)
  • Die Sprache, 1937 (ed.  Philipp Berger)
  • Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, 1952  (ed. Heinrich Fischer)
  • Worte in Versen, 1959 (ed. Heinrich Fischer)
  • Weltgericht, 1965 (ed. Heinrich Fischer)
  • Dramen, 1967 (ed. Heinrich Fischer)
  • Die Fackel, 1968 (37 vols.)
  • Werke, 1952-70 (14 + 3 vols.)
  • Ausgewählte Werke, 1971 (3 vols., ed Dietrich Simon)
  • Briefe an Sidonie Nádherný von Borutin 1913-1936, 1974 (2 vols., ed.  H. Fischer et al.)
  • Aphorismen und Gedichte: Auswahl 1903-1933, 1975 (ed. Dietrich Simon)
  • In These Great Times, 1976 (tr.  Harry Zohn)
  • Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms, 1976 (edited and translated by  Harry Zohn)
  • No Compromise: Selected Writings, 1977 (ed.  Frederick Ungar)
  • Frühe Schriften 1892-1900, 1979 (ed.  J.J. Braakenburg)
  • Schriften, 1986-1995 (20 vols.)
  • Verehrte Fürstin: Karl Kraus und Mechtilde Lichnowsky. Briefe und Dokumente, 1916-1958, 2001 (ed. Friedrich Pfäfflin and Eva Dambacher et al.)
  • Feinde in Scharen, 2002 (ed. George C. Avery)
  • Wiese im Park: Gedichte an Sidonie Nádherný, 2004 (ed. Friedrich Pfäfflin)
  • Selected Short Writings, 2006 (ed. Dirck Linck, 2006)
  • Zwischen Jüngstem Tag und Weltgericht: Karl Kraus und Kurt Wolff, 2007 (ed. Friedrich Pfäfflin)

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