Josh Cohen reviews Paul Reitter’s biography of the favorite of my ethical spectres, Karl Kraus, in The Forward:
Kraus was born in 1874 in Austro-Hungarian Gitschin, now Jicˇín in the Czech Republic. It should be ironic that his father was a successful manufacturer of paper. Vienna 1899 was the decisive dateline: In that year, Kraus renounced Judaism and began Die Fackel, The Torch, which published whenever he pleased, even daily. After 1911, and up until the end of his life in 1936 amid fascism’s rise, he wrote most of this publication himself. Before Nazism became news, newly broadcast over the radio and on newsreels, Die Fackel’s intertextuality would preview that of the Internet; formed on the informal, referential feuilleton style of Heinrich Heine, Kraus’s literary editorializing could be considered — but isn’t, in any cyber history I’ve read — the first blog.
With the regrettable exception of Hitler’s mature years, there was no German-language phenomenon that did not occasion Kraus’s print comment: He inveighed against the Neue Freie Presse, Vienna’s petit-bourgeois paper of record; the ideal of pan-Germany; the Habsburg Monarchy, and, especially, the new Jewish science that was psychoanalysis: Kraus found exceptional hilarity in Freud’s account of Vienna’s fantasies of violence and sex, which frolicked after the populace was safely in bed, and the Realism of the newspaper’s day sound asleep.
Die Fackel’s eminent early contributors included Peter Altenberg, Richard Dehmel, Oskar Kokoschka, Else Lasker-Schüler, Adolf Loos, Heinrich Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, August Strindberg, George Trakl, Franz Wedekind, Franz Werfel and Oscar Wilde; Prague’s Franz Kafka was a loyal reader, as was Berlin’s Walter Benjamin, who regarded Kraus’s project as the literary fulfillment of Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution — the making of “an eternally new newspaper.” Benjamin often discussed Die Fackel with his friend Gershom (then Gerhard) Scholem, who would torch the noun Fackel into a verb: fackelt, “to fackel on” — signifying a prophetic though aggressively egotistical rhetoric, not necessarily flattering, but proof that Kraus could not be ignored.