August 24, 2010

The Maverick Prophet

The last book by Karl Kraus "Die dritte Walpurgisnacht", published 1952, 19 years after Kraus wrote it, took off with the sentence, “Zu Hitler fällt mir nichts ein” (“I can't think of anything worth saying about Hitler”), meaning that he found him beyond description in his hatefulness.

Who was Karl Kraus? Karl Kraus (1874 – 1936) was an Austrian writer. He is regarded as one of the foremost German-language satirists of the 20th century. However, he is little known in the Anglosphere. Why I can only guess and my money would be on the facts that his idiosyncratic work is not for translation (I had to learn that the hard way when I wrote this entry) and that the English and specifically the American BENIGN interest in German culture starts at BMW and ends at Miele kitchens with a little bit of Bach and Beethoven and some Rommel and Guderian thrown in. After all, there aren't many other Germanophone satirists known in England or America either. The fact that Kraus can be hardly fit into a political pigeonhole doesn't help matters. He was an uncompromising advocate of Jewish assimilation and thus a foe of modern Zionism, he hated, and was a vocal antagonist of, psychoanalysis, the corruption of the Habsburg empire, nationalism of the pan-German movement, laissez-faire economic policies, Social Democrats (most of the time), numerous other subjects and most of all hypocrisy.

1899, he converted to Roman Catholicism, but left the Church in 1923 because of political, not theological, reasons.

1899, too, he founded his newspaper Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published and for which he wrote until his death. From here, he launched his attacks on people of whom he disapproved, which resulted in many lawsuits. Die Fackel was privileged in its editorial independence because Kraus, who was independently rich, funded it. In its first decade, contributors included many renowned writers and artists such as Peter Altenberg, Richard Dehmel, Egon Friedell, Oskar Kokoschka, Else Lasker-Schüler, Adolf Loos, Heinrich Mann, Arnold Schönberg, August Strindberg, Georg Trakl, Frank Wedekind, Franz Werfel, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Oscar Wilde. After 1911, Kraus became the almost sole author and his work was published nearly exclusively there. Die Fackel targeted corruption wherever Kraus saw it. Notable enemies were his former friend Maximilian Harden (in the quagmire of the Harden-Eulenburg affair), Moritz Benedikt (owner of the newspaper Neue Freie Presse), Alfred Kerr, Hermann Bahr, Imre Bekessy, Felix Salten and Johannes Schober.

1934, thus estranging himself from many of his followers, he supported Engelbert Dollfuß' right-wing coup d'état, hoping Dollfuß would keep Nazism from swallowing Austria. This is not as surprising as most people think it is. Kraus' criticism was always ethically based, not political, his cultural background was not that of the 'Left' but that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He had a passionate love affair with language and was convinced that every little error shows the great evils of the world and times. Thus, he could see in a missing comma a symptom of a state of the world that would allow a world war. One of the main points of his writings was to show the great evils inherent in such seemingly small errors. He viewed his contemporaries' careless treatment of language as a sign for their careless treatment of the world as a whole and was adamant that language ought not to be subjected entirely to man's will. Even in its most maimed state, Kraus said, language will show the true state of the world, quoting Austrian supporters of WWI calling it "Mordshetz", an Austrian word for great fun that can also be understood as "murderous chase" or "chase for murder". Was he a cranky old grouch? You bet. But a genius as well.

One of his last works, which he declined to publish for fear of Nazi reprisals against the opposition and the Jews in Germany, was the anti-Nazi pamphlet Die Dritte Walpurgisnacht (The Third Walpurgis Night) of 1933. It is online in the German original here. Reading it now, it comes across as eerily prophetical. The entire book is full of similarities between the Nazi movement and Islam and the appeasement of the ruling elites. Regarding the Austrian Social Democrats, for example, he observed how they were lying to themselves about what they saw as 'tolerance', because "nothing is more urgent than to meet violence with "democracy" so that the former can use the latter to destroy it even more effectively" (p. 299f.). A couple of pages more into the book (p.305), he talks, depressingly accurate, explicitly about "the new Turkish menace" thus describing chillingly the contemporary and even newer second Turkish menace.

Kraus didn't miss a single trick. "Unwavering remains the trust in those who visit Germany and who conclude from the fact that they "haven't seen anything" that nothing happened and everything is fine. Many of them have really been present at such an omission, about which he can now from his own first-hand knowledge testify with some credibility" (p. 185) he writes about those who refuse to see evil as what it is. About the homoerotic overtones of the Nazi-movement and the degradation of women (p. 268 ff.) he said: "The problem of procreation is difficult to solve because specifically in Prussia the young men through adaption to synchronized* intercourse don't know the guidelines of it and so Gretel doesn't get what Hänsel doesn't know." Follows a detailed description of the brutal public humiliation women who comitted "Rassenschande" suffered (p. 271ff.)
*Kraus alludes to the Nazi term "Gleichschaltung" here.

Even taqqiya isn't new: "But what is so special is the ability ... to further develop creatively and thus to acquire a native regeneration, which adapts the language to a need for deep dishonesty and which will be able to cope with a penchant for hypocritical sanctification, the obfuscasion of shameful matters" (p. 148) and "... really, as far as German doublespeak goes, the listening world receives more conviction than it needs" (p. 282).

It is not a similarity of several symptoms and qualities which Islam and the Nazi-ideology happen to share, far from it. Here and there we have exactly the same traits, which are, and it is that which makes them so lethal, bound by interrelation and which share an inner bond. Kraus unmasks party politicians, the media, intellectuals and bystanders and the part played in the victory of Nazism by downplaying the crimes, about Nazi doublespeak (taqiyya), about the ruthless and violent degradation of women to silent birthing machines, about the suicidal "tolerance" of the Left, specifically the Social Democrats, about the don't-see-don't-tell mentality, even about anti-Amerikanism (p. 60: "American Jew-protectors"), about a "Volksgemeinschaft" (Ummah) that devours its children and brutally suppresses individualism, about homosexuality, which was as heavily tabooed as widely practised, about the exculpation and glorification of political crime. 400 pages of a pamphlet have taught me more about my people's history than entire libraries could.

Edited to add following a comment: No detail Karl Kraus mentions about the Nazis and their enablers in "Walpurgisnacht" is new. He wrote it 77 years ago, after all. But the way he put them together makes for an epiphanous moment. I'm afraid most of his genius is lost in translation.

Online edition of "Die Fackel" (registration needed.)

My thanks go to Gudrun Eussner. Without her help and inspiration this wouldn't have been written.


Ducky's here said...

You didn't know that the Nazi movement was loaded with homos?

Actually, that seems to be an exaggeration generated by Rossolini because he despised the lead Nazi in "Open City". Shows up often enough in Italian cinema of the period, however.

The_Editrix said...

Oh yes, I know that. Actually, I've written about it here and here. If you'd say in Germany that many of the homosexual Nazi-party victims have been, in fact, victims of internal party strife, you'd be crucified. I think it is probable that Ernst Röhm was murdered because he, having been an old friend of Hitler during his Vienna days, might have known a little bit too much about him. It's interesting how far some people go in their denial that the entire Nazi movement, including the beloved Führer, was (and is, by the way) heavily homosexualized. They may have been genocidal scum, but homosexuals they were not. And then we have those admirers of the beloved Führer, like the Rowdy Peacock, who accuse everybody and his pet ferret of being homosexual, but Hitler -- perish the thought! -- wasn't.

To be honest, I've never watched a film by Rosselini. Art bores me. As you know, I prefer American B-movies, so I don't know whether he exaggerated it. But the Nazi-movement was pretty much "gay" through and through. Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader, was a poofter as well. Talking about appointing the Billy goat as gardener...

No detail Karl Kraus mentions about the Nazis and their enablers is new. He wrote it 77 years ago, after all. But the way he put them together makes for an epiphanous moment. I'm afraid most of it is lost in translation.

Ducky's here said...

It's a fascinating issue. I know there were homosexuals in the Nazi movement but I wonder if it was anything like what was portrayed in the European cinema: Germany: Year Zero, The Night Porter, The Damned, The Conformist, The Serpent's Egg(Bergman's worst) and Schlondorff takes it ack earlier in Young Torless and Coup de Grace (brilliant).

Don't know what to make of it but it's hard to ignore.

Ducky's here said...

... of course if you love the B's there's the distaff side with the likes of "Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS".

The_Editrix said...

"Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS"

Yikes, Duckie!

I haven't seen a single one of the films you mention. I know I ought to hang my head in shame as a first-rate philistine, but as I said, "culture" (as opposed to culture) bores me stiff.

I don't find this phenomenon fascinating, rather offputting and not terrifically amazing. It has become anathema to talk about the dark side of this kind of male bonding. It's quite obvious that homosexuality is more than just an alternative sort of sexuality. Its aestheticized expressions are just something I don't wish to watch. That said, and the following will convince you that I am a hopeless lowbrow, I enjoyed La Cage aux Folles (the original from 1978). I found it much more than thigh-slappingly funny. It showed the predicaments many homosexuals must experience and it was quite well performed how the Michel Serrault character recovered his dignity. But alas, pretty shallow entertainment compared with your tastes.

Universal Realist said...

Excellent article!

I never heard of him until now. Very interesting stuff.

Thank you!