Karl Kraus

From Russell Jacoby’s review of The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen, et al:

Kraus dabbled in anti-Semitism. He was Jewish himself—or rather he was born Jewish but joined the Catholic Church in 1911 and left it in 1923. Many of the leading Viennese figures of his time, including journalists and newspaper patrons, were also Jewish, and Kraus easily and often referred to them as the “Jewish press.” Most of his polemical targets were Jews, which he made plain…

[T]he truth is that the satirist’s idiom has not worn well in light of what happened. It is not so much Kraus’s attack on “Jewish” this or that, but his repeated eulogies to German national tradition and the German mind. These appeals might have seemed acceptable when his essay on Heine was published in 1910, but not later in the century. Kraus attacked Heine for his Frenchified, romantic, and “feminine” prose—and his “rootlessness.” Against all this, Kraus celebrated German culture and masculinity. “The German mind,” he opined, “will rise again only when the intellectual flood of filth in Germany has run its course: when people again begin to appreciate the mental labor of linguistically creative manliness and to distinguish it from the learnable manual labor of linguistic ticklings.” Such talk of filth and German manliness seems a half step toward Nazi rhetoric.

But only a half step. Kraus also attacked anti-Semitism, albeit sometimes indirectly. In April 1933, some months after Hitler became chancellor and anti-Semitic measures had been enacted, a German radio station wrote to Kraus asking for permission to use his Shakespeare translation in a broadcast. Kraus declined to provide a free copy and said he felt “obliged” to prevent a “mistake” that would bring the station into “conflict” with the current German “regulations on cultural criticism.” The mistake? He pointed out that his translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets appeared without an essential notice: “It was actually a translation from the Hebrew.” This was, of course, a joke or, more precisely, a dig at anti-Semitic Nazi edicts.

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