Authors: Karl Kraus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Austrian satirist

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Drama:

Literatur: Oder, Man wird doch da sehn, pr., pb. 1921

Die letzen Tage der Menschheit, pb. 1922 (The Last Days of Mankind, 1974)

Traumstück, pb. 1923 (verse play)

Wolkenkuckucksheim, pb. 1923 (verse play)

Traumtheater, pb. 1924

Die Unüberwindlichen, pb. 1928

Dramen, pb. 1967

Poetry:

Worte in Versen, 1916-1930 (9 volumes)

Poems, 1930

Nonfiction:

Die demolirte Literatur, 1897

Eine Krone für Zion, 1898

Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität, 1902 (serial), 1908 (book)

Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909

Heine und die Folgen, 1910

Die chinesische Mauer, 1910

Nestroy und die Nachwelt, 1912

Pro domo et mundo, 1912

Nachts, 1918

Weltgericht, 1919, 1965 (2 volumes)

Untergang der Weltdurch schwarze Magie, 1922, 1960

Epigramme, 1927

Literatur und Lüge, 1929, 1958

Zeitstrophen, 1931

Die dritte Walpurgisnacht, wr. 1933, pb. 1952

Die Sprache, 1937, 1954

Widerschein der Fackel, 1956

Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms, 1976

Miscellaneous:

In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader, 1976

No Compromise: Selected Writings of Karl Kraus, 1977

Biography

Karl Kraus (krows) was primarily a satirist. His main target was a world where hypocrisy and inhumanity flourished. When Kraus was three years old, his prosperous Jewish family moved from the small Bohemian city of Gitschin (now Jičín) to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Vienna remained his home for the rest of his life. In 1892 Kraus enrolled at the University of Vienna, ostensibly to study law, as his father wished. He attended only classes in philosophy and literature, however, and eventually left the University in 1898 without a degree.{$I[A]Kraus, Karl}{$I[geo]AUSTRIA;Kraus, Karl}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Kraus, Karl}{$I[tim]1874;Kraus, Karl}

For a time, Kraus tried acting but–his talent for mimicry notwithstanding–was unsuccessful. However, he continued to love the theater and to enjoy the company of actors and actresses. More propitious was the world he encountered in cafés like the Caféé Griensteidl, frequented by such luminaries as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, and Hermann Bahr. These locales gave birth to Kraus’s writing career, which began with book reviews and essays in journals and newspaper columns. In these he soon displayed a marked gift for satire.

When he was just twenty-two, Kraus published Die demolirte Literatur (literature demolished), an assault on the mediocrity of the Viennese literary establishment. The work brought Kraus instant fame and signaled the beginning of his commitment to controversy. Two years later came Eine Krone für Zion (a crown for Zion), a polemic against Zionism and its founder, Theodor Herzl, on the grounds that Zionism was a nationalistic furtherance of the division of humankind into mutually exclusive enclaves.

In 1899, at the age of twenty-five, Kraus founded Die Fackel (the torch). He also functioned as its chief writer and editor. The small, red-bound periodical, which appeared more or less regularly three times a month, proposed to tell the truth about literary, ethical, philosophical, social, and political matters that Kraus believed were concocted by, distorted in, or actually lied about in the official and semiofficial press (in which he included virtually all the German-language newspapers of his day). At first, Die Fackel concentrated on Viennese and Austro-Hungarian affairs, but Kraus soon broadened its scope to include material of universal interest.

In independent publications as well, Kraus took on Hapsburg officialdom for interference in private sexual matters in the serial Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität (morality and criminality) and Sigmund Freud and Freudian analysis in other essays collected in book form as Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität and elsewhere.

Between 1909 and 1912, Kraus published two collections of aphorisms, an essay on what he believed was the adverse effect of the writings of the poet Heinrich Heine on German literature, a collection of satires on the differences between the Eastern and the Western worlds, and a defense of Johann Nestroy, a satirical Viennese playwright popular in the early nineteenth century who had fallen into disfavor. Many of these writings, in whole or in part, had appeared previously in Die Fackel.

Kraus had always been deeply concerned about the corruption of language, to which he attributed an increasing dehumanization of humankind. He located this corruption both in complacency which concealed unpleasant truth and in equally deceptive exaggeration or distortion of truth. “In dieser grossen Zeit” (1914, in this great time), his first great pacifist statement, identifies this corruption with loudmouthed false patriotism and bloodthirsty calls for revenge which accompanied the outbreak of World War I.

The Last Days of Mankind, written between 1915 and 1918, is Kraus’s best-known and most impressive work. This nearly eight-hundred-page-long antiwar polemic is in the form of a five-act drama with 209 scenes of ever-increasing horror depicting, together with the callousness and stupidity of the military establishment, the real effects of war on common soldiers and on civilian populations. The last scenes reveal a dead world, for which no resurrection can be expected. Kraus never meant this gigantic apocalyptic work to be staged; despite its power, intensity, and timeliness, its sheer length made the several attempts to produce it unsuccessful.

In the 1920’s and early 1930’s, in addition to Die Fackel, Kraus wrote theater pieces, produced the operettas of Jacques Offenbach, and presented radio broadcasts of operettas and works of William Shakespeare. As times darkened, Kraus once more turned to the specter of war. His Die dritte Walpurgisnacht (the third Saint Walpurga’s Night), a bitter antiwar satire alluding to scenes of the witches’ Sabbath in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808) as well as to the Third Reich, begins with an ironic admission that even the sharpest satire is powerless in the face of unspeakable evil: “Concerning Hitler I cannot think of anything to say.” The work continues Kraus’s prophetic warning of the disaster that Adolf Hitler and Nazism would visit on the world and its people.

The last issue of Die Fackel appeared in February, 1936. On June 12 of the same year, weakened by ill health and despondent because of the inroads Nazism had made in Austria, Kraus died of heart attack and stroke in Vienna. A satirist in prose and in drama, Kraus was also a poet of high rank, addressing, often epigrammatically but sometimes lyrically, the same themes found in his other writings. He was also a gifted lecturer who enthralled audiences at his public readings. His broad and deep sympathies with contemporary art embraced the drama of August Strindberg, the music of Arnold Schoenberg, the poetry of Georg Trakl, and the painting of Oskar Kokoschka.

Kraus was a complex man. His outspokenness made him many enemies, but he always had many defenders. Although he was fond of women, he never married. His religious fluctuations (he abandoned Judaism in 1898, embraced Catholicism in 1911, left Catholicism in 1923) were dictated not by self-interest but by conscientiousness. Throughout his life, Kraus attacked passionately and fearlessly everything he regarded as inimical to humanity. Some of his contemporaries grudgingly praised him as “a good hater.” Others regarded him as a prophet and lover of humankind. To some of his successors, however, he is the greatest satirist of the twentieth century and, together with Jonathan Swift, among the greatest satirists of all time.

BibliographyField, Frank. The Last Days of Humankind. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Study of Kraus’s Vienna.Grimstad, Kari. Masks of the Prophet: The Theatrical World of Karl Kraus. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1982. Presents critical analysis and interpretation of the plays of Kraus. Bibliography and index.Halliday, John D. Karl Kraus, Franz Pfemfert, and the First World War: A Comparative Study of “Die Fackel” and “Die Aktion” Between 1911 and 1928. Passau, Germany: Andreas-Haller-Verlag, 1986. An examination of the political viewpoints of Kraus and Pfemfert as they were expressed in their periodical writings. Bibliography.Iggers, Wilma Abeles. Karl Kraus. The Hague, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967. Detailed analysis of Kraus’s writings.Szasz, Thomas. Karl Kraus and the Soul Doctors. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976. Kraus’s criticism of psychiatry and psychoanalysis.Theobald, John. The Paper Ghetto: Karl Kraus and Anti-Semitism. New York: P. Lang, 1996. A study of Kraus’s relationship with his Jewish heritage. Includes bibliographical references and index.Timms, Edward. Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Kraus and his work in context.Zohn, Harry. Karl Kraus. New York: Twayne, 1971. Intelligent introduction to Kraus’s life and work.Zohn, Harry. Karl Kraus and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997. A history of the critical response to Kraus’s work. Includes bibliographical references and index.
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