When the eighteen-year-old Elias Canetti first came to Vienna in 1924, nothing more plainly marked him as a provincial than the fact that he had never heard of Karl Kraus. For a quarter-century, Kraus had been publishing Die Fackel (The Torch), a magazine that relentlessly exposed the crimes, lies, and blunders of Austrian society—above all, of its press, which he considered its greatest plague. “Why didn’t Eternity have this deformed age aborted? Its birthmark is the stamp of a newspaper, its meconium is printer’s ink, and in its veins flows ink,” ran a typical Krausian aphorism. The Neue Freie Presse, the influential Viennese daily, was Die Fackel ‘s favorite target. It was a measure of how deeply Kraus got under the skin of its powerful editor, Moriz Benedikt, that the Neue Freie Presse had a standing policy of never mentioning Kraus’s name in any context. When the writer Peter Altenberg died in 1919, the paper refused to cover the funeral because Kraus had delivered the eulogy.

The purity of Kraus’s rage was complemented by his fanatical attention to detail in his own work. Since 1911, Kraus had been not just the editor of his magazine but its sole contributor: “Every word, every syllable in Die Fackel was written by him personally,” Canetti remembered hearing from his friends. “He took personal care of every comma, and anyone trying to find a typographical error in Die Fackel could toil for weeks on end.” The result of this conscientiousness, in a city addicted to Schlamperei, or genial slovenliness, was to endow Kraus with an extraordinary moral authority. In A Torch in My Ear, the second volume of his memoirs—whose title pays homage to Die Fackel—Canetti remembers being incredulous at the way his friends idolized Kraus:

He was, I heard, the strictest and greatest man living in Vienna today. No one found grace in his eyes…. It was like a court of law. He brought the charges and he passed judgment. There was no defense attorney; a lawyer was superfluous: Kraus was so fair that no one was accused unless he deserved it. Kraus never made a mistake; he couldn’t make a mistake.

Kraus died in 1936, but even today, he remains to the English-speaking world basically what he was to the young Canetti—a rumor of greatness that is a little hard to credit. It is impossible to read far in twentieth-century German literature without being forcibly impressed by Kraus’s centrality. To his fellow German-speaking Jews, above all, Kraus was an inescapable presence. Arnold Schoenberg sent him a copy of Harmonielehre with the inscription, “I have learned more perhaps from you than one can learn if one is to remain independent.” Walter Benjamin, in one of his most important essays, cast Kraus as the century’s avenging angel: “Nothing is understood about this man until it has been perceived that, of necessity and without exception, everything—language and fact—falls, for him, within the sphere of justice.” Franz Kafka, Wilhelm Reich, Gershom Scholem, Theodor Adorno, Franz Werfel, and Arthur Schnitzler all testified to his profound influence, even when—like Freud, one of his favorite antagonists—they considered it a baleful one. “You know the unbridled vanity and lack of discipline of this talented beast, K.K.,” Freud wrote to Sándor Ferenczi in 1910. “He is a mad half-wit with a great histrionic talent.”

Yet the American reader cannot verify the Kraus legend the way Canetti did, when he attended one of the satirist’s legendary public readings and instantly fell under his spell. Indeed, while Kraus published 922 issues of Die Fackel—well as several volumes of essays and aphorisms drawn from the magazine’s pages, nine collections of poetry, and The Last Days of Mankind, an eight-hundred-page drama about World War I—only a tiny fraction of his work has been translated into English. When new editions or studies of Kraus do appear, they inevitably carry a disclaimer that his writing is essentially untranslatable. “It is next to impossible,” writes his chief English interpreter, Harry Zohn, “on a large scale, to convey in English an idea of Kraus’s style, the most brilliant in modern German letters.”

In part this is because Kraus relied heavily on puns and wordplay, to which the German language is so hospitable. The translator Jonathan McVity found an inspired equivalent for Sprüche und Widersprüche, Kraus’s 1909 collection of aphorisms, in Dicta and Contradicta. But how to capture in English the resonances of Kraus’s brilliant neologism for the Nazis, Untergangster—that is, gangsters inspired by and carrying out Spengler’s prophecy of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, the decline of the West? Even Kraus’s call for Jewish “redemption through assimilation”—“ Durch Auflösung zur Erlösung! “—is pithier in German. Then there is Kraus’s constant play with idioms and dialects, posing high literary language against newspaper clichés, bureaucratic doubletalk, and Viennese slang.


Finally, and above all, there is the problem of topicality. For all his invective against journalists, Kraus himself was a journalist, and the pages of Die Fackel are filled with comment on the passing events—the scandals, crimes, celebrities, advertisements—that the Viennese were talking about day by day. Kraus addressed himself conscientiously to such trivia, believing, as he wrote in 1914, that “the root lies at the surface”—that the disease of the age could be diagnosed from its most trivial symptoms. (The formula suggests why Kraus was such an important influence on Benjamin and Adorno.) Thus the Hervay trial of 1904, in which the wife of a provincial official was accused of bigamy, provoked some of Kraus’s best attacks on Austrian sexual hypocrisy. The Friedjung trial of 1909, in which a nationalist history professor was sued for libel by Croatian politicians whom he had accused of treason—on the basis of documents that were proved to be forgeries, concocted by Austria’s Foreign Office—was another glorious moment for the satirist.

These are some of the most celebrated episodes in Kraus’s career. But to follow Die Fackel month by month, over the thirty-seven years of its life, would require an immersion in Austrian history that few readers are likely to undertake. A sense of the labor required is suggested by the sheer size of the best study of Kraus in English—Edward Timms’s two volume Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist, more than a thousand pages total, and so digressive as to be almost maddening.

Even then, it might be impossible to recapture “the culture’s hum and buzz of implication” of early-twentieth-century Vienna. “My business is to pin down the Age between quotation marks,” Kraus said, and no quotation was too trivial to be used in evidence. Even misprints served the purpose—especially misprints, which Kraus interpreted the way Freud, at just the same time, was learning to interpret slips of the tongue. In 1912, for instance, he published an item titled “I Believe in the Printer’s Gremlin,” which reproduced a provincial newspaper’s announcement of a performance of “King Lehar, a tragedy in five acts by W. Shakespeare.”

To Kraus, who revered Shakespeare, the conflation of Lear with Franz Lehar, the operetta composer he regarded as the acme of kitsch, was “no laughing matter. It’s horrible,” he wrote in his gloss on the item. As with a Freudian slip, precisely the fact that the mistake was accidental is what makes it significant: “The printer was not trying to make a joke. The word that he was not supposed to set, the association that got into his work, is the measure of our time. By their misprints shall ye know them.” No wonder Kraus proofread each page of Die Fackel up to a dozen times, not just insisting on correct spelling but making sure that every comma appeared exactly halfway between the adjoining letters.

But if Kraus were simply a press critic in this sense—pointing out errors and clichés, or even exposing biases and conflicts of interest—he would not remain such a significant figure, seventy-two years after his death. He would be merely a kind of blogger avant la lettre, appending his “glosses” to newspaper items in the way that bloggers today post hyperlinks along with carping comments. The analogy even extends to Kraus’s working methods: as Timms writes, he would compose an item for Die Fackel by “pasting a newspaper clipping on a larger sheet of paper, to define an opponent’s position. That position would then be encircled—penned in by Kraus’s minute handwriting.” (It seems appropriate, given this kinship, that the complete German text of Die Fackel is available online, through the “Fackel Gate” Web site of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.)

But Kraus was a critic of the press in a deeper and more problematic sense as well. During World War I, his longtime feud with the Viennese newspapers took on an apocalyptic character, as Kraus began to blame them for causing the disaster on which they so complacently reported. In November 1914, as the Western Front settled into stalemate, Kraus gave a public reading of his essay “In This Great Time,” which appeared in Die Fackel the next month. Though it was his first public statement since the war began, Kraus did not address the war’s political and diplomatic causes. The real origin of the world war, he argued, lay not in Austrian expansionism or German belligerence, but in a continent-wide failure of imagination, which allowed the nations of Europe to rush into a catastrophe whose dimensions they could not perceive. “Things are happening,” Kraus said in his long, dazzlingly constructed opening sentence, “that could not be imagined and…what can no longer be imagined must happen, for if one could imagine it, it would not happen.”


The agency responsible for this atrophy of the imagination, Kraus continued, was his old adversary, the press. “Through decades of practice, [the reporter] has produced in mankind that degree of unimaginativeness which enables it to wage a war of extermination against itself.” This logic is what allowed Kraus to argue, in a paradox worthy of Wilde, that the reporting on the war was more important than the war itself: “Is the press a messenger? No, it is the event itself. A speech? No, life itself.” He even predicted that “some day people might find out what a trifling matter such a world war was as compared to the intellectual self- annihilation of mankind by means of its press and how at bottom it constituted only one of the press’s emanations.”

This idea is as provocative, and finally as otiose, coming from Kraus as it was, decades later, coming from the French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who similarly claimed that “the Gulf War did not take place.” But for Kraus, placing blame for the world war on the Neue Freie Presse was an especially fraught move, for that newspaper was intimately identified, in the public mind, with Vienna’s Jews. The conspicuousness of Jews in the ranks of journalists, editors, and newspaper owners was, in fact, a constant complaint of Austria’s anti-Semites. Henry Wickham Steed, the Times of London’s Vienna correspondent in the decade before the war, echoed the standard anti-Semitic line when he wrote that “the Neue Freie Presse…embodies in concentrated form and, at times, with demonic force, the least laudable characteristics of Austro-German Jewry,” and suggested that the paper be required to carry the heading “Organ for the propagation of German-Jewish ideas.” Georg von Schönerer, the viciously anti-Semitic founder of Austria’s Pan-German party, famously petitioned Emperor Franz Josef, “Your Majesty, deliver the people from the yoke of the Jewish press!”

Kraus’s attacks on the Neue Freie Presse, then, put him in some very unpleasant company. And while he joked that “my hatred of the Jewish press is exceeded only by my hatred of the anti-Semitic press, while my hatred of the anti-Semitic press is exceeded only by my hatred of the Jewish press,” in fact his lifelong crusade against the press entailed a complex and unhappy transaction with his own Jewishness. He could have said, like the German-Jewish socialist Ferdinand Lassalle, “I despise above all two kinds of people: Jews and journalists. Unfortunately, I am both.”

This tangled history—which led Kraus, during his lifetime and ever since, to be labeled a self-hating Jew—is the subject of The Anti-Journalist, Paul Reitter’s intelligent and clarifying new study of the satirist. Reitter, an associate professor of German at Ohio State University, puts Kraus’s use of anti- Semitic remarks into historical and literary context, helping us to understand how they would have been understood by his original readers—most of whom were themselves Jews. The result is not to acquit Kraus of Jewish self-hatred—though Reitter, like almost all Kraus scholars, is uneasy about using that term—but to show how widely ramifying that self-hatred was.

Before delving into the nuances of Kraus’s anti-Semitism, however, it is useful to look at the most glaringly unnuanced examples. In 1911, for instance, after the Liberal Party—favored by most Austrian Jews, and by the Neue Freie Presse—made gains in the parliamentary elections, Die Fackel ran a photomontage showing Moriz Benedikt in front of the parliament building, under the headline “The Victor.” See, Kraus adjured his readers, “how Progress stands, how Avarice clenches its fist, what sort of look Enlightenment has, what sort of beard Influence, what sort of nose the Triumph of Liberalism.” In The Last Days of Mankind, his brilliant and unperformable documentary drama about World War I, Benedikt appears as “the anti-Christ,” gloating over the war, in telling juxtaposition with Pope Benedict XV, who is seen praying for peace.

More violently, Kraus wrote that “the blood that they [the Jews] have was not siphoned from the body of a Christian, but rather, from the human intellect”—this at a time, as Reitter points out, when an actual trial of a Jewish shoemaker for ritual murder was taking place in Austria. He mocked psychoanalysis as the “newest Jewish malady”: “They have the press, they have the stock exchange, and now they also have the subconscious!” In Zurich in 1916, he gave a reading of a poem, “Prayer to the Sun of Gibeon,” in which he attacked German militarism by allegorizing Germany as “Israel”—giving the impression, in the words of one journalist, that he was “blaming the Jews for the World War.” The poem led Schnitzler to describe Kraus as “the most extreme and cowardly renegade.” Not coincidentally, “Prayer to the Sun of Gibeon,” like most of Kraus’s explicitly anti-Jewish writing, is not included in any of the English editions of his work.

Neither is “Heine and the Consequences,” the more complicated text that is Reitter’s point of departure in The Anti-Journalist. Kraus’s entire attitude toward journalism, Reitter argues, was influenced by a fundamentally anti-Semitic complex of ideas and associations, which find expression in this 1910 essay. At the heart of the problem lies the seemingly innocuous feuilleton—the elegant, impressionistic personal essay that was a popular feature of the culture sections of Vienna’s newspapers. For Kraus, however, the feuilleton was an agent of intellectual disintegration, because it placed a premium on superficial phrase-making at the expense of objective reporting and analysis. It was ersatz literature, the product of mediocre minds, meant to distract rather than inform. And Kraus traced the paternity of this genre to the greatest of German-Jewish writers, Heinrich Heine, whom he abused in extremely suggestive terms.

Heine, Kraus wrote, “loosened the corsets of the German language, so that every little salesclerk could fondle her breasts.” He could only produce feuilletons, not genuine literature, because the German language “only thinks and sings for someone who can give her children…one must be a real man to have a chance with her.” And Heine’s “consequences” were a race of similarly impotent feuilletonists, who were, as Kraus did not need to point out, disproportionately Jewish—including Theodor Herzl, the feuilleton editor of the Neue Freie Presse. So powerful was Kraus’s attack on Heine that the young Elias Canetti was shocked to learn that his future wife Veza, a fellow Kraus disciple, actually owned Heine’s collected works: “I refused to take hold of the volume. There was no one Karl Kraus so utterly disapproved of as Heine.”

As Reitter expertly shows, Kraus was drawing on well-established codes in this essay. It was the historian Heinrich von Treitschke, coiner of the slogan “The Jews are our misfortune,” who first equated the feuilleton with Heine, and with Jewish superficiality: “With Heine,” he wrote in 1891, “there appeared among us for the first time a virtuoso of form who did not care about the content of his words.” Jewish proficiency in the feuilleton became a kind of proof that Jews could not create in more elemental genres like poetry and music—the very charge that Richard Wagner had leveled half a century before, in his essay “Jewishness in Music,” where he claimed that Heine “lied his way to the status of poet.” Reitter shows that even some of the most brilliantly creative Austrian Jews took this poisonous idea to heart. Ludwig Wittgenstein could write in his diary,

Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself, for instance.) I think there is some truth to the idea that I really only think reproductively. I don’t believe I have ever invented a single line of thinking.

In “Heine and the Consequences,” Kraus clearly embraced Treitschke’s and Wagner’s logic. Yet as Gershom Scholem once wrote, “In dealing with Kraus’s relations to Jewish issues, one can only commit errors, something for which Kraus himself made sure there would be plenty of scope.” For if Kraus were simply repeating old anti-Semitic tropes, thinkers like Scholem and Benjamin could not have found him such a fruitful commentator, or insisted so strongly on his essential Jewishness. In his most speculative and intriguing chapter, Reitter traces the affinities between Kraus’s style of criticism-by-quotation and Benjamin’s own metaphysics of quotation, which his 1931 essay on Kraus helped him to refine.

Characteristically, Benjamin cast Kraus as an “Angelus,” a divine or demonic “messenger,” who discovered “in citation the power not to preserve but to purify, to tear from context, to destroy; the only power in which hope still resides that something might survive this age—because it was wrenched from it.” In his insistence on the strictest, most unforgiving linguistic standards, Benjamin argued, Kraus remained essentially Jewish:

It has been said of Kraus that he has to “suppress the Jewishness in himself,” even that he “travels the road from Jewishness to freedom”; nothing better refutes this than the fact that, for him, too, justice and language remain founded in each other. To worship the image of divine justice in language—even in the German language—this is the genuinely Jewish salto mortale, by which he tries to break the spell of the demon.

The ingenuity of this reading, however, tells us more about Benjamin than about his subject. As Reitter notes, Kraus himself completely failed to sympathize with Benjamin’s Jewish-theological interpretation of his work. In a perfect irony, he dismissed Benjamin’s essay as “abyssal feuilletonism,” reducing Benjamin to yet another example of sterile “Jewish journalism” even as Benjamin strove to release Kraus from the prison of that cliché.

For in his own eyes, Kraus’s writing was not an incarnation of Jewish virtues, but a way of proving his immunity to what he, like many assimilated Austrian Jews, considered peculiarly Jewish vices. Indeed, while he wrote of “redemption through assimilation,” Kraus’s primary impulse was not to assimilate to the mainstream of Austrian Catholic life—of which he remained, until his death, an unsparing critic—but rather to emancipate himself from the heavy burden of Jewishness. He pleaded, abjectly, that “I not only believe, but…I feel as if with the overwhelming force of a revelation, that I am entirely free of all those characteristics of the Jews, which in the present state of affairs we may by common consent identify.”

Indeed, Kraus formally renounced his Judaism as early as 1899, more than a decade before he converted to Catholicism, in 1911. And when Kraus left the Church, in 1923, he declared, paradoxically but sincerely, that this second apostasy was itself motivated “primarily by anti-Semitism.” He was outraged, he said, by the Church’s decision to allow Max Reinhardt to stage one of his celebrated pageants in a church at Salzburg. As Timms notes, Kraus’s suggestion that “the Church [had] succumbed to the ‘Jewish’ spirit represented by Reinhardt’s production style and box-office success” once again put him on the same side of a controversy as Austria’s gutter anti-Semites.

Yet it would not do simply to dismiss Kraus’s achievement for this reason. For the crowning irony of Kraus’s career is that the very Jews from whom he distanced himself constituted his most loyal audience—to the point that, in the mocking words of a rival journalist, the red cover of Die Fackel was “the successor to the yellow patch from the age of the ghetto.” It is important to remember that, for many of these readers, Kraus seemed to offer a moral lifeline at a time when society was drowning in lies. In Benjamin’s words, he “embodies the secret of authority: never to disappoint.” His rigidity and pride, the hyperbole and obsessions that fueled his work, were the very things that made him trustworthy, as war and the rise of fascism cast all other institutions in doubt.

Just what this meant can be seen in the passage of Canetti’s memoir dealing with the Vienna riots of July 15, 1927, when the police fired into a crowd of Social Democrat protesters, killing eighty-nine people and dealing a fatal blow to the Austrian Republic. Canetti captured the mood in the aftermath:

In the following days and weeks of utter dejection, when you could not think of anything else, when the events you had witnessed kept recurring over and over again in your mind, haunting you night after night even in your sleep, there was still one legitimate connection to literature. And this connection was Karl Kraus. My idolization of him was at its highest level then. This time it was gratitude for a specific public deed; I don’t know whom I could ever be more thankful to for such an action. Under the impact of the massacre on that day, he put up posters everywhere in Vienna, demanding the voluntary resignation of Police Commissioner Johann Schober…. Kraus alone had the courage of his indignation. His posters were the only thing that kept us going in those days. I went from one poster to another, paused in front of each one, and I felt as if all the justice on earth had entered the letters of Kraus’s name.