Karl Kraus is among the most important and remarkable writers in modern German or any other literature, and yet he is hardly known in the United States. Born in 1874 in a provincial Bohemian town, the son of well-to-do Jewish parents, he spent almost all his life in Vienna, and died there in 1936. When he was young he thought of working for a newspaper or as an actor, but in 1899 he founded his own journal Die Fackel (The Torch). It was immediately obvious that a satirical talent of great force had arrived on the Viennese scene, a writer supremely thoughtful in his use of language and recklessly determined to attack those whom he regarded as the journalistic, literary, and political corrupters of the human condition.

Among the early contributors to Die Fackel were such diverse writers as Wilhelm Liebknecht, Franz Werfel, Frank Wedekind, and Peter Altenberg, but before long the editor was writing everything himself, and did so until his death at sixty-two. From these writings for Die Fackel he selected the contents of his books. Nine volumes of his satirical essays and aphorisms alone were published, beginning in 1908 with Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität (Morality and Criminality) and concluding with the posthumous Die Sprache (Language) in 1937. 1

It is not fanciful to suggest that “Language” would be a fitting name for all these books—“Language,” or “The Apocalypse.” For Kraus examined the language written, spoken, and degraded by his age and knew that Armageddon was at hand. Yet his tone was not at all reminiscent of Biblical prophecy. The place evoked was Vienna, not Babylon, and the time was every day, not the last one. And yet he wrote, “I hear noises which others don’t hear and which interfere with the music of the spheres that others don’t hear either.” The noises were in the speech of both prominent public men and hack journalists, passers-by, tip-greedy waiters, passengers in railroad cars, and patriotic or rebellious demonstrators in the city’s squares. The satirist perceived evil omens in these voices: their pretense, foolishness, or illiteracy announced to him catastrophes to come. The voices drowned out “the music of the spheres,” upsetting, that is, what he believed was, or should be, the natural and spiritual order of the human domain.

The end of the world is frequently alluded to in the very titles of Kraus’s books—for instance, Day of Judgment (1919) or The Destruction of the World by Black Magic (1922). But he is at his most apocalyptic in his vast assemblage of scenes about and from World War I, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind), written during the years of the war and finally published as a book of 800 pages of which thirteen are taken up with a list of characters. If performed on earth, Karl Kraus says in the preface, the drama would consume ten evenings, but this is not the reason why it was meant for “a theater on Mars”; no, the reason was that the audiences here and now would not be able to bear it. For it is “blood of their blood,” presenting as it does “those unreal, unthinkable years, out of reach for the wakeful hours of the mind, inaccessible to memory and preserved only in nightmares….”

But he saw the horror of the war not simply in its obvious violence, its cruelty and slaughter; the horror lay in the casting of a perverse stage director who allowed “the tragedy of mankind to be enacted by characters from an operetta.” This was Karl Kraus’s great and inexhaustible theme.

Our imaginations, he believed, had fed too long on the leftovers of the Renaissance and romanticism; instructed by that past, we assumed that only heroic greatness could bring about great upheavals, and therefore relied upon the mediocre for our safety, and upon the trivial for the conduct of our affairs. Karl Kraus’s satire relies on the recognition of the infernal dimension of the inferior, the gigantic shadow and freezing chill which the banal can cast over the world. In a way he anticipated Hitler long before anyone knew his name, just as he had, long before 1914, foreseen the bloodshed in the anemia of civilized life, and discerned in the restless boredom of that life the menacing thud of marching armies.

When war did break out, he wrote and delivered his celebrated oration whose first words are: “In dieser grossen Zeit…,” “In these great times,” the cliché he extracted from countless editorials that celebrated Europe’s descent into the depths of ignominy as the long-awaited triumph of the age, and the rout of the human spirit as proof of its ultimate glory. His first sentence fills half a page. Like most of Kraus’s work, it cannot be translated, only paraphrased:

In these great times which I knew long before they had become great and, if time permits, will be small once again; which, because in the realm of organic growth such transformations are impossible, we had better call fat times (for war profiteers) and surely hard times (for everyone else); in these times when things happen that could not be imagined, and in which the unimaginable must indeed happen because it would not, if one were able to imagine it; in these serious times which were dying with laughter at the thought that they might become serious; which, overtaken by their own tragedy, reach out for distractions and, catching themselves in the act of doing the unspeakable, grope for words; in these loud times which resound with the abominable symphony of deeds that bring forth reports, and reports that are responsible for deeds; in these times here and now you should not expect from me any word of my own.2

The main clause is, of course, “In these great times you should not…,” but the predicate is postponed again and again, just as in a world where wartime deeds and mendacious reports feed on each other, endlessly multiplying through their obscene couplings, the “great times” could return to their proper scale only after an unconscionable delay. Indeed they would not return until the will to perform bloody deeds of war was as exhausted as the imagination must have been before the deeds could be done. The construction of the sentence is the product of Karl Kraus’s superbly realized ambition not merely to express his thought but to do it so precisely that language itself would appear to be the thinker, would catch the rhythm of events in the rhythm of words, and make sentences the mirror of the world they describe—the mirror as well as the judgment passed on the world.


It should be clear that this use of language cannot be reproduced in any translation. For Karl Kraus’s work is more deeply rooted in its own language than is the writing of any other writer of prose. Of the German language he said—echoing Goethe—that it is “the profoundest of all languages” even when, as of course he had to add, German speech is the crudest and shallowest.

It was Goethe who believed that German, “this strange and wondrous tongue,” was so responsive to the subtlest stirrings of soul and mind that it could attune itself even to the spirit of any other language. He who knows German, he said, is well-equipped for the literatures of the world, for German translations are more successful than any other. And it is certainly true to say that, compared to the awkwardness of Goethe’s Faust in English, Hamlet in German is almost a German drama; and to render any philosopher’s thought in German is child’s play by comparison with the practically insurmountable difficulties of translating Heidegger. Neither the idea that language in its logical essence mirrors the world (Wittgenstein) nor the idea that it is “the house of Being” (Heidegger) could have been thought in any other language. For German is—or seems: a difference that vanishes in faith as well as in love—“the profoundest of all languages.”

A sober view of the matter may well be that modern German, having become a literary idiom later than French or English, is an adolescent language, malleable and ready to let the inarticulate, which lies buried beneath all languages, show on the surface of its articulations. It is easily seduced by genius, idiot, and villain. Of course no language is immune to the mendacity of rhetoric and to pretentiousness, but German has the lowest resistance. No translations of Hitler’s oratory, alas, could convey the resonance of hell in it (had it been otherwise, perhaps the resistance of the world might have come earlier and at less cost). And if, to pass from the base to the sublime, all great lyrical poetry can only be approximated in any translation, Hölderlin’s is nearly unapproachable; and this is so largely because he is a German poet. While every language is capable of purification by a writer of integrity, Karl Kraus’s epigram about his love affair with language, his mistress who was a whore before he restored her virginity,

Sie war eine dreiste Dirne,
die ich zur Jungfrau gemacht

would seem excessive, were it not said by him and in German.

“In these times you should not expect from me any words of my own.” This is the statement of his satirical method: he often spoke merely in quotations. Merely? It was enough. For his genius for quoting was such as to perform the magic by which the real, faithfully rendered, was transformed into the stuff from which art is made. “The most improbable deeds which are here reported,” he says in the preface to The Last Days of Mankind,


…really happened; I have registered only what was done. The most improbable conversations which are here conducted took place; exaggerations and inventions are quotations…. Documents assume a living shape, reports come to life as persons, persons die as leading articles. The feuilleton is given a mouth to deliver itself as a monologue; clichés walk on two legs—men have kept only one. Inflections of voices rush and rustle through our days and grow into the chorus of the unholy plot. People who have lived amidst mankind and survived it, the executive organs and spokesmen of an age that has no flesh but blood, no blood but ink, are reduced to shadows and marionettes, the forms befitting their busy sham existences. Cyphers and lemures, masks of the tragic carnival, have living names because this must be so, and because nothing is accidental in this time conditioned by chance. But this gives nobody the right to regard it as a local affair. Even the noises of a Viennese rush hour are directed from a cosmic point.

“Cosmic points” are not easily come by in a time of skepticism, psychology, and relativity; and yet when Karl Kraus speaks of them it is not a façon de parler. He had no systematic theology or “cultural anthropology,” but his life was lived and his work was done from a firm center of belief, so firm indeed that it refuses to be penetrated even by the sharpest definition. He was, however, able to see the history of his time from that perspective in which events, despite their satirical distortion, showed their true face; and by “cosmic point” he meant the place where nature and spirit, world and language meet. Although Karl Kraus may not have believed in a god known to theologians, he had the right to say that his satire did not deny God, but only everything that is denying Him; and if He wills it so, everything will once again be miraculous:

Nicht Gott, nur alles leugn’ ich, was ihn leugnet,
und wenn er will, ist alles wun- derbar.

This is why true satire—that is, satire as an art—has it in common with all other arts that it transcends its subject matter. Just as King Lear transcends the foolishness and suffering of an old man, so does satire with the occasions it satirizes. The force of a satirical work solely concerned with its irritating material would vanish with the irritation; but the satire that succeeds in avenging its scandalous subject redeems it by the perfection of its language; the satire survives with the life of language itself. No less than the poet the satirical artist knows how to make his angry tales of last winter survive throughout the years. No one remembers a garrulous Viennese reporter during World War I named Alice Schalek. She is alive now only on a few pages of The Last Days of Mankind along with the other forgotten journalists, politicians, industrialists, bankers, and generals in Kraus’s drama. That no one remembers them did not prevent Karl Kraus’s works later from being rediscovered, republished, and read widely in postwar Germany.

But doesn’t the very negativeness of satire make it ephemeral? This would happen if the denials of the satirist were not the other side of affirmations: Alice Schalek, for Karl Kraus, was no more than one of the obstacles, small in themselves but endlessly effective because of their number, that stood in the way of the good. This was the essence of his satirical negations. For satire, in the hands of Karl Kraus, is a form of that “modern ecstasy” that Shakespeare, in Macbeth, discerns in the “violent sorrow” into which Macbeth’s poor country was pitched by evil.

Indeed, “pathetische Satire,” tragic satire, flows from a mind and soul “deeply imbued with the Ideal. Only a powerful desire for harmony is allowed and able to bring forth the acute perception of moral contrariness and the passionate indignation at moral perversity that inspires the works of Juvenal, Swift, Rousseau….” Thus Schiller wrote in his great essay “On Spontaneous and Reflective Poetry”; and Schiller insists that these very writers would have written poetry of affection and tenderness if the viciousness of their age had not diverted their sensibilities in the direction of satire; “and even so, some of them have produced such works,” namely, purely lyrical poems.

Certainly Karl Kraus has done so: nine volumes of Worte in Versen (Words in Verse, now available in one volume, the seventh in the series of the Works published by Kösel-Verlag in Munich, publishers who are also responsible for the current reprinting of Die Fackel). Although he carried on his satirical attacks in some of his verse, most of his poems are the creations of moments of repose when a valley and a mountain stream rushing through it seem to be all that is left of friendliness in the world:

Staunend stand ich da
und ein Bergbach rinnt
und das ganze Tal
war mir wohlgesinnt….

In form, meter, and rhythm his poems are traditional, written by an “epigone,” as he called himself in defiance of the stammering, blaring innovators who in his days as in ours thought they were probing the depths of a “new soul.” Like Bertolt Brecht, the only writer among the contemporaries of his later years whose lyrical genius he acknowledged, Karl Kraus never left or rebuilt “the old house of language.” For it stood “at the source”—“am Ursprung“—at that beginning which, for him, was also the goal. “Progress” in language was either a costly detour or, worse still, an odious betrayal. His much-quoted poem of the two runners—“Zwei Läufer“—who race for victory sounds as if it were testimony to a mystical initiation. For the one, starting off from nowhere, easily arrives at his arbitrarily chosen goal while the other, coming from the “Ursprung,” the origin and home of his soul, dies while still on the way; but it is he who overtakes the first:

Und dieser, dem es ewig bangt,
ist stets am Ursprung angelangt.

Yet Karl Kraus was not a mystic if mysticism ultimately leads to the silence of the ineffable. For Karl Kraus everything that truly was, was sayable: war, killing, money, hunger, journalists, lies, machines, infamy; but also trees, fountains, dogs, love, and the peace above the mountain tops on a summer evening. Compared to the real things conveyed by these simple words, anything that lay beyond the boundaries of language was, even if it lured the mind with vague intimations of the unknown, likely to be as trivial as the antics of ghosts from beyond the grave.

No doubt there is much that has never been said; but this is only because language has not yet reached it. The “dowsing rod” of words, as in one of his aphorisms he called the instrument of all true thought, is capable of finding it. For every truth that is meant for us is already there even though it may still be hidden in the folds of language, waiting to give itself to a great lover of words. Small wonder that Karl Kraus was outraged by the literary “revolutionaries” of his time, by all those expressionists and dadaists who split words, grammar, and syntax, vainly expecting that the explosion would yield some interesting particles to satisfy their bored curiosity.

Karl Kraus’s poetry is, like his satire, sustained at every point by his faith in the natural grace of language, indeed in the near-equation of language and human nature. Human corruption, he believed, could be revealed instantly in the corruption of language, and every correction of the tribe’s faulty speech might induce a miniature catharsis of the soul. His poetry and his satire thus have a common source and this is why his satire, as if it were poetry, has outlived its occasions. Indeed, it is poetry of a kind, poetry in reverse. As Aristotle believed that the only worthy protagonists of tragic poetry were royal—for only in the fall from the heights of life was the fate of man revealed in all its poignancy—Karl Kraus discovered the modern tragedy by showing how mediocrity, unexpectedly endowed with demonic powers, had mounted those abandoned thrones.

…My business in this state
Made me a looker-on here in Vienna
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’er-run the stew….

Measure for Measure, from which these lines are quoted, was in the repertoire of the “Theater of Poetry,” founded by Karl Kraus, if “founding” is the right word for his decision to counterbalance, as it were, his own purely satirical dramas3 by devoting his great talent as a public reader to the tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare. He wanted to restore the language of dramatic poetry; for it had become almost inaudible in the ever noisier machinery of the commercial stage, and enfeebled beyond recognition by the ever more “naturalistic”—that is, slovenly—enunciation of its actors.

Karl Kraus’s stage was empty, except for the curtains that covered its walls and the table at which he sat. His voice, face, and gestures were all the cast he used and yet—although he made no attempt at “impersonating”—his theater was richly populated with the creatures of the poetic imagination. Like the Chorus of Henry V, he relied on his voice and the poetry of the drama to bring forth on his “unworthy scaffold” “so great an object” as the proud triumphs and defeats of human worth in a world endlessly embattled and yet, suddenly and incomprehensibly, at peace when lovers in the poetry of their love cannot tell the skylark from the nightingale.

Kraus began by reciting on his little stage his own satirical scenes, diatribes, aphorisms, and lyrical poems, as well as the works of contemporaries he admired: Gerhart Hauptmann’s early dramas, full of compassion for the victims of social abuse, or Frank Wedekind’s plays, harsh, brittle, and eloquently indignant at the sexual mendacity of the age; or the poems of Liliencron, Georg Trakl, and Else Lasker-Schüler, the eccentric Jewish poetess, always assailed by visions, words, and penury. Kraus once gave a benefit recital for Lasker-Schüler during which he remarked that she could not earn as much in a year with her own dreams as a psychoanalyst earns in a week with the dreams of others.

Before long, however, Shakespeare dominated his theater, in the translation by Schlegel and Tieck (the greatest and most durable conquest Germany has ever made of foreign territory), which he only slighly adapted to the purpose of his one-man performances. He gave performances also of Goethe and of Nestroy, Kraus’s nineteenth-century countryman who also had examined Viennese corruption, and did so, as a writer and actor, with a vis comica that blended verbal wit, histrionic alacrity, melancholy pessimism, and moral exasperation. The excellent editor and biographer-critic of Nestroy, Otto Rommel, said of Karl Kraus’s readings of his comedies that Nestroy lived in them while most other performances of his plays lived off him.

The closeness of Kraus’s satire to his poetry explains what so often disturbed his readers: the fluctuation of his apparent political allegiances. The truth is that he had none. He said much that seemed political, and did so with inimitable satirical skill and force and great sympathy for the helpless and maltreated. Once or twice his “politics” were even posted, angrily and succinctly, on the billboards of the city, demanding, for instance, that the head of the Vienna police resign.

He wrote and spoke about rulers and ruled, war-drunk or blackmailing editors, sadistic colonels, cliché-ridden writers and illiterate readers, about Christian powerseekers and unchristian socialists, about soubrettes singing of the slaughter of men and black marketeers swearing Nibelungentreue, about boiling corruption, “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,” “accidental judgments,” and “deaths put on by cunning and forced cause.” But after all this it became transparently clear that the secrets of Kraus’s “politics”—so secret that he himself did not always have access to it—was that he was not political. He aimed at neither revolution nor reform, neither change nor conservation, but at aesthetic annihilation, wanting to dissolve into art all the vicious, inarticulate, obtuse stupidities that offended the moral and aesthetic intelligence. His verbal victories over the villainies of the world were not unlike the triumphs of Shakespeare’s sonnets over the wicked fascination of the Dark Lady.

But there were moments in Kraus’s recitals when the evils of life seemed to vanish into thin air, into the air that intoxicates, or into a music which, as in the finale of Don Giovanni, exuberantly rejoices at the city’s being rid of a scoundrel. This was when Karl Kraus “performed” the operettas of Offenbach. He had come to know them as a child and preserved his memories in the poem “Jugend“: of the enchanted summer days in the village of Weidlingau where the sky was blue and the butterflies red, and where, sitting before the stage of the summer theater, he fell in love with Offenbach’s Belle Hélène, with his Bluebeard’s Boulotte, “and not to forget: Gérolstein, Trapezunt, all the princesses.”

His performances of these works were imbued with such memories. Once again there was Weidlingau, and innocence was restored. Yet the delight he took in Offenbach was not merely nostalgic and certainly not sentimental. He found in those operettas—the libretti of which he partly rewrote and wholly cleansed of the dust that had settled on them—the ideal unity of satire and joie de vivre, the mirth that still vibrates with the echoes of great anger. Mauriac said that the laughter in Offenbach’s music struck him as that of the Empress Charlotte gone mad. For Karl Kraus it was an entirely sane and witty celebration of the self-transcending power of the satirical spirit.

Such force was of no avail against Hitler. Of course Kraus knew this. In 1933 there appeared a very slim Fackel: four pages. Three of them contained the text of the funeral oration he delivered at the grave of his friend, the architect Adolf Loos. On the fourth page there was the—now famous—short poetic manifesto of his silence. “Ich bleibe stumm,” it began, “I shall say nothing,” and it ended with “Das Wort entschlief, als diese Welt erwachte“: the word expired as this world awakened. This was not tragic irony but tragic consistency. For the art of the satirist was bound to abdicate before rulers who left nothing to be transformed into satirical art; and this was so because the world they created was itself “art”—the abominable art that perversely fulfilled itself in reality. It was not for nothing that Hitler was a bankrupt painter.

Karl Kraus had said of his Last Days of Mankind that its satirical humor “was only the self-reproach of a man who had survived with his mind intact.” The satirical exaggerations of this drama, as he insisted, merely reported what really happened in those unspeakable years. What he uttered as his own words was simply an attempt to avoid a silence that would be misinterpreted. But it is still true to say that those times were not yet the worst; for satire could still say: “This is the worst.” The worst was still to come; and it came when Germany insisted on outdoing even the exaggerations of satire, eliminating the breathing space the imagination needs to contemplate the event, and the event to grow into the sayable.

Nonetheless, Karl Kraus kept writing and went even so far as to have set up in type The Third Walpurgisnight, one of his last works. But he refrained from publishing it. Perhaps it should have been left at that. However, it was published posthumously, three times posthumously: after the death of its author, and of the Third Reich, and of satire itself in Germany. The title of the book declares the defeat of the satirist’s art; for the first two Walpurgisnights are creations of Goethe’s poetry, but the third takes place in a real country even if its scenes appear to overflow the embankments of reality. Now, for the first time, Karl Kraus’s writing was out of date. For the Day of Satirical Judgment was—at least by the calendar of European culture—the day after the last days of mankind.

Karl Kraus was of that remarkable generation of men who, despite all their differences, unmistakably belonged to the last days of the Austrian monarchy. They were prophets of its end, or messengers of a radically new beginning, or subtle analysts of its decadence. Or they were searchers for an ultimate clarity which, however painful and unsettling it may be, was to do away with the fustian that had become the idiom of an age bent upon hiding from itself the vacuity at its core and the doom that awaited it. It happened once before that the disintegration of a great empire released extraordinary spiritual energies in men possessed by premonitions of the end. As happened at the time of the decline of Rome, the men of the Austrian “apocalypse” were mostly Jews or at least not quite un-Jewish: Karl Kraus, Otto Weininger, Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Joseph Roth, Ludwig Wittgenstein,4 Hermann Broch; and it almost comes as a surprise, or strikes one as an act of willful “racial” discrimination, that the names of Adolf Loos, Alban Berg, and Robert Musil cannot be added to this list.

Is there anything, apart from the sense of civilization’s winter, that these men have in common? Yes, but it is not easily defined; and with Karl Kraus the difficulty is much enhanced by the fact that—with a few exceptions—he would not have liked being mentioned in their company, in any contemporary company: “If I were told that I shall have to share immortality with certain people, I should prefer a separate oblivion,” he once said.

Yet it may well be that the elusive awareness which to a greater or lesser degree they all share is the one that pervades the work of Karl Kraus: of the progressive diminution of human substance, or character, or “nature,” or “virtue,” or “Sein” (“being”) in an age abandoning itself more and more to the lust for the technical enslavement of the natural, and to the displays of mere talent and virtuosity. Life exhausted itself in “doing.” “Who on earth was it who thought out the great compensation: that a man should be able to do what he is not?”

This is one of Karl Kraus’s most revealing aphorisms, as revealing as his confession that he was puzzled by the fact that “half a man should have the faculty to write a whole sentence.” These utterances reveal his profoundest concern. What followed from it with regard to his writing was his refusal to be called a “master of language.” “I only master the language of others,” he replied. “My own does with me as it pleases.” About a poet whose early poems he printed in Die Fackel and whose later works he intensely disliked, he said that for a long time he had not been quite sure of the quality of his poetry until he found out that its maker was no good. This decided the matter.

To such a mind mere opinions meant little, and least of all political ideologies, those cheaply priced substitutes for faith or wisdom. Once, confessing in verse his “contradiction,” he called himself a revolutionary whenever lies threatened to get the better of life, or laws set themselves up against nature; but whenever freedom was used to further the commerce of the press or the degradation of the arts, he was a reactionary, going back, in his “reaction,” as far as “the origin.”

When in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, socialist critics reproached him for his friendship with some members of the Austrian aristocracy, he wrote an answer which, after evoking once more a lamentable “radical” scene where the ancient dreams of paradise were psychoanalyzed or organized or subsidized or advertised, concludes with the following sentences:

I know what is at stake: the salvation of our souls. I know and confess—at the risk of being considered, from now onwards, a politician or, worse still, an aesthete, or both—that in the name of the spirit it is more important to save the wall that surrounds a castle park where between a poplar tree, five hundred years old, and a bluebell, coming into bloom today, the miraculous works of Creation are protected from the destructiveness of the world—more important than all the agitations…that merely impede the breath of God.

The castle and the park belonged to the woman he loved, then and until his death: Sidonie Baroness of Nadherny. To sense in Karl Kraus’s satire the design of the wall that is to defend “the miraculous works of Creation” against the encroachments of a decaying civilization is to understand and affirm his “negativity.”

Both Professor Iggers’s and Professor Zohn’s books are intelligently conceived and knowledgeably executed introductions to a life’s work that is among the finest and most powerful in modern German literature. Unfortunately, this work is not available in English and, perhaps with a few exceptions, will never be satisfactorily translated. Therefore it is the more commendable that at least instructive maps have been drawn of this inaccessible country.

This Issue

May 3, 1973