How crucial it is to cultivate the art of satire, one of civilization’s highest achievements, an art that can help us confront the challenges of our increasingly complex societies. All of us need a touch of Karl Kraus – recalling that the word kraus itself is an adjective describing the unruliness of curly hair, or the furrowing of a brow; figuratively it means complicated, chaotic, dissident.
The Austrian Jewish satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936) was an extraordinarily amusing dissident in the vein of Lucian, Swift, Bulgakov or Kishon. Still, large parts of Kraus’ work await discovery by English-speaking readers. This is all the more surprising given Kraus’ immense influence on major figures of modern German-language literature and thought such as Bertolt Brecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Kafka, Else Lasker-Schüler or Theodor Adorno. Until the 1990s, readers in English had to make do with the collection of aphorisms Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half Truths. The sheer dimensions of Kraus’ output may be part of the reason for this time lag: The satirical magazine Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published over a period of 37 years, extends to over 22,000 pages.
The explosive achievements in translation of the last six years have made up a lot of ground. The shockwaves of the now available masterpieces continue to ripple through the international intelligentsia. The essays selected by Jonathan Franzen in The Kraus Project (2014) showcase Kraus’ literary criticism, and with his astute commentary, makes an excellent introduction. Patrick Healy’s selection in In These Great Times (2017) includes more political satire, alongside aphorisms.
The major works, however, have been translated by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms. Their award-winning 2015 version of Kraus’ 800-page documentary anti-war drama The Last Days of Mankind showcased his versatility as a satirist. The translating duo then turned their attention to The Third Walpurgis Night, published in 2020. This work is a satirical atom bomb and a sensation: Here Kraus provides a forensic first-hand dissection of Nazi discourse in the early months after Hitler seized power, distilling our knowledge of the totalitarian techniques of cruelty and persecution.
Austria and Satire
Well, you may say: That’s all a long time ago and of course historically interesting. Vienna, a cradle of modernism, became a playing field for humanity’s worst nightmare. We have learned our lesson. But as you may have already discovered, in Austria we are proud of our great history. How many of our grandparents received a copy of Mein Kampf as a wedding gift from the registrar, I wonder, sitting in my favorite Gasthaus; behind me on the wall, a photo of same Gasthaus from the 1930s, the uniformed staff assembled proudly under the swastika banner. I’m tempted to order a Punschkrapferl, whose shiny pink frosting opens to reveal a thick, brown filling.
There’s no need to go further afield to grasp the necessity of immunization against the viruses of dehumanization and authoritarianism; Here in Austria, we have a sense of humor, unlike the Piefke, our stiff Germanic brothers across the border. The Austrian Lederhosen brigade had the blueprint for Europe’s right-wing nationalist populists ready long before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The populist posture of our leading politicians is itself a form of unwitting satire. Entering Europe’s first coalition with the ultra-right in 2000, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (alias “bowl”) devised a preamble pledging the government’s commitment to ethnic tolerance and democracy – you must be knee-deep in reactionary mud if you have to do this.
In the second coalition with the populist right in 2017-19, the youthful Sebastian Kurz (alias “short”), confronted with the rise of neo-nazistic vocabulary within his own government, had no better remedy than to become the Schweigekanzler (the silent chancellor). In light of Karl Kraus’ dictum “As to Hitler, I have nothing to say,” one could conclude that Chancellor Short has ambitions to become a second Kraus.
That is very honorable, but in fulfillment of this rhetorical sleight of hand, Kraus, in stark contrast to Mr. Short, found the right words in a 200-page polemic, whereas Mr. Short’s public relations have long since begun to take on the flavor of propaganda appearances in the style of a charismatic leader. The flagship episode of this long-running political satire was the notorious Ibiza Affair, where the chancellor’s patience came up short at last.
We can be grateful to Kraus for training the righteous and snappy watchdog who guards our house of democracy: the critical press. One of Austria’s best-respected daily newspapers has recently taken up the Krausian mantle, producing an evergrowing list of “isolated cases” of right-wing hate speech compiled from public and political discourse.
The Third Walpurgis Night, an allusion to Goethe’s Faust I and II, is a high point of Kraus’ satire: documentary and testimony that resonates far beyond its original context. Kraus, a qualified lawyer with theatrical interests and, fortunately for us, of independent means, takes his scalpel – honed on the whetstone of European literary tradition – to a corpus of over 1,000 quotes from the early months of National Socialist political discourse. He deconstructs the language of the Nazis or better, lets it deconstruct itself, dissolving it in the acid of juxtaposition, collage and intertextual reference.
He first calls the usual suspects to the witness stand – Goebbels and the party propaganda – and then calls expert witnesses such as Martin Heidegger, Gottfried Benn and members of the PEN club – who are also found guilty of high treason against philosophy and art. Kraus’ analysis of the language of the Nazis – here with an instructive foreword and a helpful and extensive glossary – anticipates Viktor Klemperer’s lexicon of Nazism, Lingua Tertii Imperi (1947), capturing the shock and disbelief at the political transformation of 1933 in stark terms:
“Could astonishment at an innovation that destroys fundamental principles with the elemental force of an epidemic of brain seizure (as if the bomb of advanced bacterial warfare were already being dropped) reanimate someone who had been rendered speechless when he discovers what a world looks like that practices what it preaches? From the inspiration for a four-thousand-year plan, with the human paradise to begin just beyond the hell endured by one’s neighbor. The synchronicity of electrotechnology and myth, of splitting the atom and burning at the stake, of the innovative and the archaic!”
Altogether, the eloquent commentaries of The Third Walpurgis Night are a witches’ Sabbath in which insanity and truth, enlightenment and terror must fight it out.