Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — The Question of Karl Kraus |
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The Question of Karl Kraus

“A liberated woman,” said Karl Kraus, “is a fish that has fought its way ashore.” Even at the time, there were women, some of them among his cheer-squad of beautiful mistresses, who thought he was talking through his hat. Agree with him or not, however, you wouldn’t mind being able to say something that sharp. Kraus was famous for being able to do so whenever he wanted, but eventually, as with his hero Oscar Wilde, his fame as a wit was there instead of the full, complex, tormented and deeply contemplative man. As a writer and practitioner of the higher journalism, he is still up there with all the other great names of literary Vienna — Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth — but up there for what, precisely?

The risk run by the aphorist is that people will grow restless between aphorisms, because they aren’t getting enough of what it says on the label. Even while he was alive, most people didn’t want any more of Kraus’s world view than would fit into a fortune cookie. Though he had no computer on his desk, Kraus was essentially a blogger before the fact: his basic technique was to write a couple of hundred words about something silly in the newspaper. He sometimes wrote at length, but his admirers preferred him to keep it short. The kind of thing they liked best from him might have been designed to pop up on a Blackberry today. “An aphorism can never be the whole truth,” he once wrote: “It is either a half-truth or a truth and half.” Yes, but that’s an aphorism. So is it true?

Outside the German-speaking lands, Kraus is now known mainly for having been the Viennese café pundit who brilliantly fulfilled a self-created role as the scourge of loose language. Serious readers, even if their serious reading does not often include him, know that Kraus, from before the turn of the twentieth century until a couple of years before the Anschluss in 1938, was the linguistic health inspector who searched through what was said for what was meant, and was particularly scathing about the jingoistic propaganda that helped drive a generation of young men irretrievably into the mincing machine of the Great War.

Kept out of the trenches by his distorted spine, he was the pacifist on the warpath, the libertarian grammarian. Whether in the pages of his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch) or by means of his celebrated readings on stage, he constantly pointed out the connection between official bombast and the suffering of the people, between journalistic mendacity and political duplicity, between fine writing and foul behaviour. Some of those serious readers also know, or think they know, that Kraus finally fell silent because, on his own admission, Hitler had left him speechless.

Not true. The facts say that Kraus, immediately after confessing that the Nazis left him with nothing to say, went on to say quite a lot. There are thousands of facts like that in Edward Timms’s biography Karl Kraus, a two-tome desk-breaker which can be taken as the instigation of the piece I am writing now, because such a big, factually precise yet historically approximate biography brings to a focus some of the problems that Kraus’s brilliant career exemplified. Such a biography can also be a problem in itself, if its interpretations come to define its subject. Something like that, I believe, has happened in this instance, and it might be worth attempting a short historical account of Kraus’s career without wasting space by decorating the narrative with the usual sprinkle of aphorisms. There are a dozen different anthologies of those, quite apart from the compendia of his writings that Kraus put together himself. What we need, however, is a picture of the mind behind the fragments. Was that fragmentary too?

Timms’s first volume, with its Margaret Mead-sounding subtitle “Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna”, covered the years 1874–1918 and was published to acclaim in 1986. The second volume, “The Post-War Crisis and the Rise of the Swastika”, covering the years 1918–1936, came out late in 2005. I had meant to write about it before this, but first I had to read it. As with its predecessor, ploughing through it took time. Timms has done a lot of reading, and takes a lot of reading in his turn: far more than most non-academic students will ever give him. It should be said that he makes that demand with good credentials. Though his hulking double-whammy of a book is further burdened by an ultra-post-modern vocabulary and by his apparent conviction that having become an expert on the European politics of the early twentieth century has somehow given him automatic insight into the world politics of the early twenty-first century as well, he has done a good job of bringing subtlety to the accepted picture of Kraus, the picture we thought was adequate.

It wasn’t. But it wasn’t all that untrue either. Kraus, in the end, might not really have run out of things to say, but he did run out of hope that they might be relevant. His business had been to criticise high-flown speech that concealed base motives. Now, with the Nazis mouthing off in all media, he was faced with gutter talk that concealed nothing, or else with lies so blatant that they were clearly weapons in verbal form. There was nothing to uncover. Like Othello’s, his occupation was gone. Although Timms has the smaller facts to say otherwise, the larger fact remains: Kraus spent a lifetime thinking that euphemistic talk led necessarily to evil, as exemplified by the Great War, which he had thought the most evil thing imaginable. But the Nazis, who largely said exactly what they meant — and even their euphemisms were meant to be decoded as the threat of murder — brought an evil even worse than that. Though it’s a conclusion Timms doesn’t reach, his facts reach it for him: Kraus had been wrong from the start.

This, however, is a conclusion we should not reach too early. Today, there is no excuse for failing to see that the avowedly irrational doesn’t yield to reason. Kraus had every excuse, because total irrationality was not yet in charge of a modern European state. Even before the Great War broke out, Kraus had ample cause to think that he was already dealing with enough madness to keep him busy. Kraus was a Jew, but if he had not sought baptism in 1911 he would have faced a lot of closed doors. He wanted those doors to be open. He wasn’t against the Austro-Hungarian social order, he merely wanted it to be less stupid, and indeed it wasn’t until quite late in the war that he began blaming the Empire for having driven its various constituent populations into a slaughterhouse. Kraus preferred to blame the newspapers. He blamed them no less if they were owned and/or edited by Jews. Indeed he seemed to blame them more, a fact which left us obliged to deal with the question of Kraus’s anti-Semitism.

Timms deals with it in torrential detail, but seems to be in two minds when dismissing the usual accusation against Kraus of jüdische Selbst-Hass, Jewish self-hatred. Timms can only partly dismiss it, because Kraus really did seem to reserve a special virulence for Jewish artists he didn’t admire — the list went back to Heine, on whose grave Kraus regularly danced — and really did seem to go out of his way to accuse the Jewish bourgeoisie of money-grubbing, especially if they had taken baptism in order to increase their opportunities. (Kraus found it convenient to forget that he himself was living on an unearned income: it flowed copiously from the family firm in Czechoslovakia, a source that made it inflation-proof.) The question was already omnipresent in Timms’s first volume, and in the second volume, which takes up the Kraus story from the end of the First World War, through the disintegration of the old Empire and on into the various phases of the new Austrian republic, the question attains something worse than mere omnipresence: a focussed virulence that takes it out of culture and society and puts it into the heart of politics.

Timms might have reached an answer on the subject more easily if he had realised, going in, that it was Hitler who gave the question new life — or, rather, new potential for death. Before being Jewish became unequivocally an issue of race rather than of religion, any Jew who vilified another might indeed have been aiding and abetting an institutionalised prejudice. But he wasn’t complicit in mass murder. Very few Jews, no matter how clever, even dreamed that such a day could ever come. At the turn of the century, Theodor Herzl had guessed it, but most Jews thought he was just a nut. The playwright Arthur Schnitzler had half guessed it, but most Jews thought he was just a playwright. Freud, the master of dreams, never dreamed of it. Kraus, whom Freud admired for his insight, never dreamed of it either. The multi-zero deaths of the First World War were racially unspecific. That there might ever be, in modern Europe, such a thing as a racially specific extermination was unthinkable.

It should be said, however, that Kraus sometimes sounded as if he might be trying to think of it. In 1916 Kraus wrote a poem naming “Israel” as the “cosmic enemy”. You can strain to believe that he was using “Israel” as a symbolic analogy for “Germany”, but it seems more plausible to take it that by “Israel” he meant the Jews. And in 1918 Schnitzler was surely right to complain that Kraus, when denouncing the war-profiteers, seemed only to notice them when they were of Jewish origin. The fact awkwardly remains, though, that a Jew could as yet flirt with anti-Semitism and still convince himself that he was being merely rhetorical.

For a man nominally at war with rhetoric, this was a strange flirtation to indulge, but no doubt the causes went deep. It could have been that like so many Jewish rentiere intellectuals living on incomes they had never had to work for, Kraus just despised the bourgeoisie for their materialism, and that the bourgeois people he knew most about were Jews. In Germany during the thirties, the same lofty distaste for his personal provenance drove Walter Benjamin to become a Marxist, even as the Nazis were busy proving all around him that their own views on the Jewish question were free of class bias, in no way theoretical, and immediately effective.

In post-war Austria there were all kinds of contending views among the Jewish population about who they actually were, how they fitted into the state, and what kind of state they should favour. There were even Jews who backed the idea of Austria’s joining itself to Germany (Anschluss) as soon as possible. Kraus never really made his mind up on the subject of what the state should be. Even as he lost faith in the ability of the old social order to revive, and began to favour socialism, he still wasn’t sure, under his crisp air of certitude, that democracy could bring about a reasonable society. Like young radicals almost fifty years later, he began to nurse a fantasy about China. In his case there was no sweet smoke involved, but it was the same pipe-dream. In a letter to his great love, Sidonie Nadherny, he said “but really there remains only China.” It scarcely needs saying that he had no idea of what China had been like, was like then, and might be like in the future. He just wanted a cloud-cuckoo land to console him from the stress of living in his actual surroundings. Sidonie had already gone a long way towards providing him with that.

The Baroness Sidonie Nadherny von Borutin was elegant, sexy, clever, and loaded. Her country seat, Schloss Janowitz in Bohemia, was the full arcadian dream. Kraus was no hick —several great ladies had been among his mistresses — but he was still pleased by such lavish access to gracious living at top level, whereas Sidonie, with the delightful charm of a Euro-aristo bluestocking whose malapropisms came in three languages, enjoyed having her grammar corrected by the man who could make her laugh. In private, Kraus had a sweet nature to ameliorate the biting sarcasm he deployed in public, and he had the key element of a way with women: he found them interesting. Under the style and gloss, the baroness had a wanton nature and Kraus knew how to set it loose on the overnight train from Vienna to Trieste. Well aware that he was a great man, Sidonie was as flattered by his attentions as he by hers. Timms began to tell the story of their long, on-and-off romance in the first volume, but in the second he could have told us more about how it petered out. In a work whose chief characteristic is to tell us more than the doctor ordered on almost every topic, this is an annoying deficiency, because the romance between Kraus and Sidonie was something much bigger than a love affair: it was a meeting of history running at two different speeds.

Sidonie stood for inheritance, for noblesse oblige, for a long-standing social tradition that contained all its contending forces in a recognised balance, if not a universal harmony. Kraus stood for intellectual merit, which, in a rapidly developing political explosion, was only one of the contending forces, and possibly among the weakest. Even if the crisis had never come, the two lovers would have been star-crossed enough. Sidonie was one of the rulers of a Bohemia with a capital B. Kraus was a different kind of bohemian: no capital letter. However brilliantly, he lived outside the walls she owned. There have always been liaisons between the two realms but it works best if the participants respect each other’s individuality even when their physical union is intense. Sidonie quite liked his possessiveness, but the day came when she found herself gasping for air.

Kraus somehow overdid it. He got all the love she had to give but wanted more. The dynamics of the breakdown are hard to specify because his half of their correspondence is missing. But we should be careful not to underrate the significance of the part played by Rilke, who warned Sidonie, at a time when she might have been considering marriage to Kraus, that Kraus was essentially a stranger. Possibly Rilke, a schmoozerde grand luxe, had his eye on a solo guest spot at Janowitz: his talent for scoring free board and lodging from titled women was up there with his talent for poetry. But there can be no doubt what Rilke meant by his warning word “fremd”. He meant that Kraus was a Jew. Timms is well aware of this, but doesn’t make much of it. And possibly it doesn’t tell you much about Kraus and Sidonie, who, after all, went on being loving friends. But it does tell you an awful lot about Rilke.

And Sidonie’s tolerance for what Rilke said tells you an awful lot about the insidious prevalence of anti-Semitism even among the enlightened international beau monde. There is no reason to think that mass murder would ever have got started anywhere in Europe if the Nazis hadn’t come to power in Germany. But the Nazis, on their way up, had a lot of prejudice to draw upon, and it doesn’t need a very big minority to look like a majority when it comes parading down the street. Military force transferred to civilian life was the revolutionary new element that would eventually paralyse conventional political expression and Kraus’s critique along with it. After the war, Kraus realised almost as soon as Hitler did that if the war’s unfettered violence were to be unleashed in peace-time politics, private armies could enforce a new and criminal legality. Unlike Hitler, however, he had little idea of what to do about it. He can scarcely be blamed for that. Apart from the psychopaths, hardly anybody had. Sticking with the old legality looked like the only civilized option. The realisation that the civilized option, even with a professional army at its command, had little hope of prevailing against the uncivilized one was slow to dawn. By the time it did, the sun had set. Comprehension came after the fact.

Kraus saw the menace, however, and should be respected for his insight. From 1923 onwards he had no doubts that the Nazis were out to wreck everything. He just had trouble believing that they could. On the eve of the First World War, Kraus had said “violence is no subject for polemic, madness no subject for satire.” Here was a new and madder violence, a reign of terror. When it came to power in Germany, in 1933, Kraus was faced more acutely than ever with the question of what form of government in Austria might stave it off. His Social Democrat admirers were horrified when he failed to condemn the authoritarianism of Dollfuss, but Kraus was choosing the lesser of two evils: a choice that evil always demands we make, revealing itself in the demand.

In his long paper “Third Walpurgis Night”, Kraus pilloried the Social Democrats for not realising that only Dollfuss’s illiberal measures could keep the Nazis out. Timms gives a long and valuable analysis of “Third Walpurgis Night” — it was the speech about the Nazis that Kraus gave after saying they had left him speechless — but doesn’t make enough out of the fact that Kraus never published it. It was meant to appear as special issue of Die Fackel, but it didn’t. In effect, Kraus was already retreating from his public role. After the assassination of Dollfuss, he gave up altogether.

He was through with politics. The sophisticated reasoning of a lifetime had come down to the elementary proposition that anything was better than the Nazis. After Kraus’s death, the plebiscite that Schuschnigg called for would probably have shown that the majority of Austria’s population thought the same. Aware of this, Hitler terrorised Schuschnigg into calling off the plebiscite, and the Nazis duly marched in. A lot of them were already there. Austrian citizens put on swastika arm-bands and set about their vengeful business. Kraus was lucky enough to breathe his last before they took power but he already knew that his long vigilance over the use of language hadn’t changed a thing.

The dying Kraus could congratulate himself that he had at least, at last, seen things clearly. He had discovered the limited effectiveness of telling people they are fanatics when they think fanaticism to be a virtue. The full force of totalitarian irrationality had become plain to him: the real reason why “Third Walpurgis Night”, paceTimms, was not only unpublished, but incoherent. It was a piece of writing that knew that it was useless. Kraus might have reached the same conclusion about all his previous satirical writings had he lived long enough. His German equivalent, Kurt Tucholsky, had the same trouble sinking to the occasion. Asked why he had not said more about the Nazis, he said “you can’t shoot that low.”

In exile, before he committed suicide, Tucholsky was heard to wonder whether being satirical about the Weimar Republic had ever been a particularly good idea, in view of what was coming next. But even the brightest people — in fact especially them, and especially those who were Jews — had been slow to form a view of what was coming next until it actually came. Even then, some of them still couldn’t believe it. Rational people expect rational outcomes. In exile in London, Freud said in a letter that there was still a chance the Catholic Church would straighten the Nazis out. Not long ago I heard that letter read aloud, at a literary soiree in his Hampstead house. If one of the great analysts of the human mind was capable of that degree of wishful thinking, we can only imagine what drove him to it. But imagining that, of course, is still the hardest thing.

The First World War had confirmed Kraus in his pacifism, but by the time he died he knew that peace, in the face of Hitler, had ceased to be credible as a principle, and could be espoused merely as a desirable state of affairs. He had been blind-sided by events, but at least he changed his mind. Many of his admirers were to prove less flexible. Kraus preceded Orwell in the notion that the lying language of capitalist imperialism was the cause of all the world’s evils. Orwell also was obliged to change his mind in the light of events, but once again there were epigones who never gave up on the idea: it was too attractive as a catch-all explanation. And there is something to it, after all. But the idea has an imperialism of its own, which we can now see most clearly expressed in the patronising assumption that nobody would behave irrationally unless driven to it by the dominant West, with America to the forefront. In its extreme form, this mass delusion of the intellect comes up with brain-waves like the one about President Bush having arranged the attack on the World Trade Centre. Since it was always clear that President Bush was barely capable of arranging to recite his own name with the words in the right order, it seems a bizarre notion.

It is quite possible to imagine Kraus having a fun time with Bush’s use of language, although first it would have to be translated into German, and before that it would have to be translated into English. Commentators who amuse themselves today with the verbal output of Bush are following Kraus. If Kraus were here, he might point out that their target is a sitting duck. Kraus, before Orwell and even before H.L. Mencken, was the ancestor of many of our best sceptics, and almost all of our best bloggers. (The blogger technique of glossing some absurdity highlighted in a mainstream publication was what Kraus did in every issue of Die Fackel and even in his enormous play The Last Days of Mankind, which consisted almost entirely of citations from newspapers and periodicals.) But his biographer, who has gained a dangerous authority by the sheer magnitude of his labours, takes a lot on himself when he assumes that Kraus would have been against armed intervention in the Middle East as an example of our being led into folly by “propaganda for war”.

The phrase is of Timms’s coinage, and rings like pewter. By the time Kraus died, he knew that there could be an even bigger danger in propaganda for peace. Some of the brightest people in Europe, up to and including Bertrand Russell, preached non-violence up to and beyond the day Hitler invaded Poland. The British Labour Party, sitting in opposition to the Conservatives, denounced Fascism but also denounced any proposed armed opposition to it as warmongering. In service to the great analyst of cliché, Timms is hampered not only by his Cultural Studies jargon (the leaden word “discourse” riddles the text) but by an untoward propensity for not spotting what a current cliché is. The two drawbacks are connected, by his tin ear. Kraus, whom Timms tacitly invites to join in the widespread practice of putting jokey quotation marks around the phrase “war on terror”, might have pointed out that the quotation marks are a cliche in themselves, helping as they do to disguise a brute reality: terrorists are at war with us, and don’t care who they kill. The reason terrorists don’t use those risible cosmetic terms of ours such as “collateral damage” is that they not only have no intention of sparing the innocent, they have no more desirable target in mind.

The terrorist can talk a pure language: it’s purely violent, but still pure. His opponent is bound to equivocate, and sound silly doing so. That was the point Kraus missed because it had not yet become apparent by contrast with something worse. A liberal democracy, of any kind or degree, is bound to deal in hypocrisy and lies, simply because it has a measure of real politics, and is not unified and simplified by an ideology. Totalitarian irrationalism can say exactly what’s on its mind. Hitler had genocide on his mind, and said so. But only his nuttiest colleagues believed he would actually do it. Samantha Power, in her excellent book Genocide: A Problem from Hell, reached a conclusion she didn’t want to reach, as the best analytical books so often do. After showing that no genocidal government in the twentieth century had ever been stopped except by armed intervention, she reluctantly concluded that the armed intervention usually had to be supplied by the United States.

Those among us who sincerely believe that the Iraquis are killing each other in fulfilment of an American genocidal plan might think that her conclusion is no longer true. We would have to ignore the implicit opinion of the eleven million Iraqui adults who voted in the last election, but most of us would rather do that than be taken for suckers. The Vietnam war dulled the stars and stripes in our eyes. But Powers’s idea about America’s historic role was certainly still true when Kraus was alive. And there can be no question that he would have eventually spelled out the same conclusion himself. In effect, he had already reached it. In 1930 he published a piece called “SOS USA” predicting that America would have to step in if Europe were to be saved. And in 1933 he renewed the provision in his passport to include travel to the USA. Timms, who makes little of that development, could safely have made more. He could have said, for example, that in making of itself a refuge so difficult to reach, America had abetted the efforts of the maniacs. It would have been true, or at any rate half true.

Kraus had no particular love for America — it wasn’t China — and he definitely underestimated what America would have been able to do in the short term, when its armed forces were still considerably inferior even to those of Czechoslovakia. But he guessed how the balance of forces was shaping up. Can there be bad violence and good violence? But of course there can. It’s a tragic perception, though, and the day is always sad when a comic perception must give way to it. Kraus had a comprehensive sensitivity to all the abuses of society. Injustice angered him. He was way ahead of the game on questions of race. Nobody ever wrote more powerfully against capital punishment. Despite his famous pronouncement about the fish that fought its way ashore, he understood what women were facing, and why they had to fight. He was their champion. He was a serious man, and a piercing satire was his weapon. But it worked only because he was funny. And then, first gradually and then suddenly, being funny wasn’t enough.

(Australian Literary Review, March 2007)


When Kraus was alive there was no need for a word like ‘media’ because the press was the main thing, with radio only just on its way up. Had he been reborn into the television age, he would have had a vastly increased range of mendacity to debunk. In the 1970s, when I began reviewing television, I was well aware that I was following in his footsteps, and since that time his attitude has become universal. The main reason that his name now means so little outside the German-speaking countries is that an implacable scepticism towards the media onslaught seems a self-evident requirement: nobody intelligent thinks any other way. It would be an unwarranted assumption, however, to suppose that if Kraus were here now he would agree with what the majority of professional sceptics think, or even find them sceptical enough. He was a pioneer in his suspicion of power, but he lived long enough to realize that the only answer to the force of the irrational is a democratic state with a realistic determination to defend its liberties. Edward Timms is symptomatic in his confident retroactive prediction of what Kraus might have said today. Kraus might well have said, for example, that few official statements coming out of Washington in the last ten years, even those that stumbled from the lips of the second President Bush, have ever attained quite the lethal fatuity of Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of 1998. He wouldn’t have been able to read it in Arabic, but his analysis of the German translation could have been scathing. The consensus that the Western democracies are responsible for any threat aimed at them might not have convinced him.