April 28, 1874, is the birthdate of the Viennese-Jewish journalist, satirist and social critic Karl Kraus. Although one of the most influential writers of his day, in Austria, and still studied today in Germany, because Kraus’ work was weighted down with contemporary cultural references and his language was so idiomatic, he has been only minimally translated into English.
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A small correction to that situation was rendered last year by the American novelist Jonathan Franzen, who translated and annotated a handful of works by Kraus, with the help of two scholars of German literature.
Karl Kraus was born in Gitschin, Bohemia - today Jicin, in the Czech Republic. His father, Jacob Kraus, was a prosperous paper manufacturer; his mother was the former Ernestine Kantor. When Karl was three, the family moved to Vienna, where he attended primary school and gymnasium.
In 1892, Kraus began law studies at the University of Vienna, switching after some time to philosophy and German literature. But he dropped out of school in 1896, without earning his degree. Instead, he began writing and also tried his hand as an actor.
Although he gave up the latter effort fairly quickly, Kraus did continue throughout his entire life to give public readings of his and others’ work and even did one-man presentations of operettas.
Kraus renounces Judaism
The year 1899 was a significant one for Kraus: It’s when he renounced his Judaism, and also when he established the journal Die Fackel (the Torch), which he published frequently but irregularly until just four months before the end of his life, in 1936. Using family money to get the journal started, and publishing minimal advertising, Kraus made Die Fackel a highly idiosyncratic sounding-board for what was on his mind, which was mainly what irritated him.
Although in its early years, it published such writers as Else Lasker-Schuller, Franz Werfel, Adolph Loos and Heinrich Mann, after 1911, Kraus wrote all of its content.
In 1911, Kraus underwent baptism as a Catholic (not uncommon among assimilated Viennese Jews), but he left the church too, in 1923. Because he was critical of so many Jews, he has been seen as “self-hating,” and he even spoke of himself, ironically, as anti-Semitic. But his real target was middle-brow Viennese culture, so much of which was dominated by Jews.
Kraus railed at great length against the degradation of the German language. He held the Neue Freie Presse, Vienna’s leading paper, up for special criticism, for what he saw as shallowness and kowtowing to special interests.
He was a pacifist, a campaigner for gender equality, and he despised the public invasion, on supposedly moral grounds, of the private lives of public figures.
Kraus was witness to the rise of the Nazis, but as a critic who identified the hidden messages in the movements or people he wrote about, he found that the crude directness of Hitler and his colleagues left him speechless. At the same time, he opened himself up to some criticism for supporting the coup d’etat in Austria in 1934 by the fascist politician Engelbert Dolfuss, whom he saw as powerful enough to resist Hitler, and thus the lesser of two evils. In any event, after the Anschluss, the Nazis burned Kraus’ books in bonfires.
Karl Kraus suffered an embolism shortly after being hit by a bicycle while crossing the street in Vienna. He died in that city on June 12, 1936.