Open Letter

The Divining Rod: An Introduction to the Work of Karl Kraus

Thomas Scott Tucker

"Experiment Station for World Destruction"

"When the age died by its own hand, he was that hand." This underhanded tribute came from Bertolt Brecht, an aphoristic summary of the life and work of Karl Kraus (1874 - 1936), the Viennese poet, playwright and satirist. In a similar spirit, Walter Benjamin wrote of Kraus, "All the martial energies of this man are innate civic virtues, only in the melee did they take on their combative aspect. But already no one recognizes that any more, no one can grasp the necessity that compelled this great bourgeois character to become a comedian, this guardian of Goethean linguistic values a polemicist, or why this irreproachably honorable man went berserk. This, however, was bound to happen, since he thought fit to begin changing the world with his own class, in his own home, in Vienna..."


Karl Kraus by Oskar Kokoschka, 1925

Karl Kraus was born to a Jewish family on April 28, 1874 at Jičin in Bohemia. In 1877 his father, a paper manufacturer, moved the family to Vienna, where Kraus would spend the rest of his life. With the financial support of his father, he was able to publish his own periodical, Die Fackel (The Torch). He made good use of an independent income: he gave practical help to other writers he valued, and he owed no favors to the journalistic and literary establishment of Vienna. "My hatred of Vienna," Kraus once wrote, "is not love gone astray. It's just that I've discovered a completely new way of finding it unbearable."

Why didn't he get the hell out of there? The answer is compounded of Kraus' own conscience, curiosity, and love of his native language. The fascination of the abomination is a real factor in his life and work; he was watching closely as the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrated. The death throes of the old regime buried whole battalions in the trenches of World War I, and the larval forms of new regimes inspired both hope and dread. In Karl Kraus, his study of the writer (Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York, 1971), Harry Zohn wrote, "By virtue of its strategic position in Central Europe and the unique blend of its culture, Austria had long been regarded as Europe in nuce, as a proving ground for Europe and, indeed, the world. To this old insight Karl Kraus characteristically added a new satiric note by calling Austria a 'Versuchsstation für Weltuntergang,' an experiment station for world destruction."

Kraus' theatrical insistence upon his own individualism makes him a figure with a background. He can be viewed within a wide European tradition of romantic heroism, a tradition which makes much, of course, of classical antecedents. If we begin the tradition with the ancient Greeks we might follow its course on through the Italian Renaissance; and then, in the German romantic eras, the tradition takes still other turns from Schiller and Beethoven on through Wagner and Nietzsche. And from those relative heights the tradition might be traced even into the abyss of the Third Reich. Whatever common elements emerge from such comparisons, important distinctions must also be underscored.

The republican ideal of virtuous citizens stepping forward (and knowing when to step aside) has been realized historically, and not ideally. The relation between the one and the many was also theorized and practiced by modern Italian fascists who made their own use of the emblem of the ancient Roman regime--a bundle of rods tied together. (The same republican emblem, along with the motto "E pluribus unum," has been used in the United States.) The power of such words and emblems is plain. Their relation to historical truth and actual democracy is not. Into similar gaps between language and reality, Kraus stepped forward; and towards the end of his life he also stepped aside for a time into silence.

In the literary realm, Kraus made a career of public virtue, and yet -- or, as some of his critics suggest, therefore--he was a poor public citizen during certain critical moments of practical politics. As a writer, Kraus could always be counted on to choose words carefully when he wished to say, "Count me out;" but as a citizen who must bear responsibilities with others there were few occasions when he said explicitly, "Count me in." A man with similar theatrical and polemical gifts, Emile Zola, responded to the Dreyfus Case in France with consistent secular republicanism--and this proved good enough when many Jews throughout Europe, including Kraus, failed to challenge anti-Semitism with equal political conviction. (A notable exception, Bernard Lazare, understood what was at stake not only for the project of Jewish assimilation, but for the cause of democracy and socialism both within and beyond national borders.)

Decades after the Dreyfus Case, and shortly after the National Socialists ("the troglodytes," as Kraus called them) had gained power in Germany, Kraus deeply compromised himself in relation to the Austrian clerical-corporate regime of Chancellor Döllfus. With Hitler's gang at the very border, even the Döllfus regime seemed a dam against the deluge to Kraus. To his most hostile critics at that time, Kraus was nervous enough to register the tremors that would become an earthquake; but he was likewise too nervous to break with the Austrian regime when it massacred workers in the class struggles of the 1930s. It is true that Kraus sometimes played upon his own high-strung nerves like a harp; but not all of his critics took the risk of fighting fascism upfront or underground, since some had made safe escapes into exile. Kraus, meanwhile, remained an ambivalent Austrian--and on Austrian soil. Kraus had given one of the last issues of Die Fackel the title "Why Die Fackel Does Not Appear." Kraus also noted that "an understanding troglodyte" had scrawled a message across a public poster for this issue: "Because he values his own skin."

Kraus spent much of his talent deflating any number of pompous Austrian Social Democratic politicians, but not with any clear political and economic perspective to their left. Kraus' satirical skill--an essentially spiritual weapon, as he himself insisted--could make use of conventional parliamentary material, but the Döllfus regime strained his powers. Indeed, satire depends upon the power of persuasion, and persuasion is powerless against a fascist state. In this sense, Kraus confronted events both beyond satire and well beyond his powers as a bourgeois individual. Confronted finally with the armed power of the Nazis, Kraus was at first dumbstruck (as he freely confessed) and then could only stutter (with intermittent spirit) until his death in 1936. Even considering what millions suffered, it is still worth saying that this one person, Karl Kraus, was spared the sight and sound of cheering Viennese when Nazi troops made their triumphal procession into Austria in 1938.

The work of Kraus remains valuable not because he was a model citizen, much less a revolutionary theorist, but because he was a person crying out as though under torture. If he was prophetic, this was because he feared that linguistic barbarism (in advertisements, in journalism and even in diplomacy) was a twisted root that would bear fruit in literal barbarism. He believed that once the stream of language had been muddied a thirst for blood would follow. Thus he wrote, "How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print." Decades before actual torture became common in European police precincts and prison camps, Kraus aimed to document just how certain legal racks and social screws operated in his hometown of Vienna. When that much is understood, then one of his aphorisms will also be heard in its original broken voice: "Prussia: freedom of movement with a muzzle. Austria: an isolation cell in which screaming is allowed."

That these cries were often theatrical hardly means the man behind the mask was not in pain, or that the historical tragedy was less real. When taking the stage, Kraus did not always rise above mere egoism; but he was also taking a stance of combat. The dictum that that the pen is mightier than the sword sounds quaint when printing presses and machine guns are synchronized by the state. Kraus knew that torrents of printer's ink justified torrents of blood. Despite everything, a creature takes the next breath, and then the last; and a writer writes the next word, and then the last. The death of Kraus took a few years, including heart trouble and a bicycle accident, and the last word of the last issue of Die Fackel --namely, "idiot"--does not suggest religious composure near the end of life.