Karl Kraus was the fifth son of Jakob Kraus, a well-to-do manufacturer of paper bags, and Ernestine Kantor Kraus. In 1877, the family moved to Vienna, and Kraus was to spend the rest of his life in the city with which he, like Sigmund Freud, had a love-hate relationship (“My hatred of Vienna is not love gone astray. It’s just that I’ve discovered an entirely new way of finding it unbearable”). From 1884 to 1892, Kraus attended the Franz-Josefs-Gymnasium, where he was a mediocre student. Following the death of his mother in 1891, Kraus studied law, philosophy, and German literature at the University of Vienna, but he attended few lectures and did not take a degree. In 1893, he made an unsuccessful debut as an actor at a theater in suburban Vienna. His failure on the stage irrevocably turned him to journalism and literature, though his talent for mimicry and parody as well as his penchant for verbal play found ample expression in his later public readings and his writings.
During the next several years, Kraus contributed book reviews, drama criticism, and satiric sketches to many Austrian and German newspapers and periodicals. His satiric impulse soon became too strong for any kind of accommodation, however, and Kraus rejected the prospect of becoming a sort of culture clown absorbed by a deceptively slack and effete environment and accorded, as he put it, “the accursed popularity which a grinning Vienna bestows.” Because work within the establishment seemed to be hedged in with multifarious taboos and considerations of a commercial and personal nature, Kraus turned down a job offer from the Neue freie Presse and founded his own journal, Die Fackel, the first issue of which appeared on April 1, 1899, and which from the beginning had an incomparable satiric genius loci. After 1911, the irregularly issued periodical contained Kraus’s writings exclusively (“I no longer have contributors. I used to be envious of them. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself”). Die Fackel did continue to have numerous “contributors,” albeit unwitting and unwilling ones: the people who were copiously quoted in its pages and allowed to hang themselves with the nooses of their own attitudes, actions, and statements.
Kraus’s first major work, Die demolirte Literatur (1897; a literature demolished), appeared in the form of a witty obituary of the Café Griensteidl, the headquarters of Austria’s men of letters, particularly the “Young Vienna” circle. The work lampoons such literary contemporaries as Hermann Bahr, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Beer-Hofmann, and Arthur Schnitzler. Kraus’s pamphlet Eine Krone für Zion (1898; a crown for Zion) attacks political Zionism and its leader Theodor Herzl, who was also serving as the cultural editor of the Neue freie Presse, from the standpoint of an assimilated European Jew in sympathy with Socialism. (Kraus left the Jewish fold as early as 1899 and was secretly baptized in 1911, but he broke with the Catholic Church eleven years later and then remained religiously unaffiliated. He has, with some justification, been called everything from “an arch-Jew” and “an Old Testament prophet who pours cataracts of wrath over his own people” to “a shining example of Jewish self-hatred.”) After the death of his father in 1900, Kraus detached himself from his family fortune, and went to live in a bachelor apartment.
If Kraus’s early writings were directed largely against standard aspects of corruption, the second period of his creativity may be dated from the appearance, in 1902, of his essay Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität (morality and criminal justice; it was reissued in book form in 1908), which focused on the glaring contrast between private and public morality and exposed the hypocrisy inherent in the administration of justice in Austria. The book edition of that essay contains forty related essays on subjects and attitudes that are also germane to present-day problems: education, child abuse, sexual mores, women’s rights. The gloomy, bitter wit of these essays gave way to lighter humor in Kraus’s next collection, Die chinesische Mauer (1910; the great wall of China). Having published his first collection of aphorisms, Sprüche und Widersprüche (dicta and contradictions, or sayings and gainsayings), in 1909, Kraus issued during the following year his pamphlet Heine und die Folgen (Heine and the consequences), in which he attacks the German-Jewish writer for establishing the meretricious tradition of feuilletonistic journalism, deemed a dangerous intermediary between art and life and a parasite on both. With his address (and pamphlet) Nestroy und die Nachwelt (1912; Nestroy and posterity), Kraus revived interest in the nineteenth century Viennese comic playwright and actor, whom he presented in his full stature as a great German dramatist and social satirist who, like Kraus himself, achieved his critical and satiric effects through an inspired use of language.
In 1913, Kraus met Baroness Sidonie Nádherný, a Czech aristocrat to whom he unsuccessfully proposed marriage on several occasions. Despite her engagement to an Italian and her brief marriage to an Austrian doctor in 1920, Kraus’s affectionate (and sometimes subservient) relationship with her continued for the remainder of his life, though with some periods of estrangement (“To love, to be deceived, to be jealous—that’s easy enough. The other way is less comfortable: To be jealous, to be deceived, and to love!”). For many years Kraus found relaxation and inspiration at Sidonie’s family estate at Janowitz and on trips taken with her. Much of his poetry refers to their relationship or is dedicated to her.
The outbreak of World War I inspired the outraged and anguished pacifist and humanitarian to produce his most powerful and characteristic work, beginning with the address “In dieser grossen Zeit” (in these great times), which was delivered in Vienna on November 19, 1914, and may be regarded as the germ of his extensive wartime output. The following year, Kraus began work on his mammoth drama The Last Days of Mankind, reading parts of it at recitals and publishing the text in several issues of Die Fackel. The year 1918 marked the appearance of Nachts (at night), Kraus’s third and last collection of aphorisms, and, the next year, a two-volume compilation of Die Fackel articles was issued under the title Weltgericht (last judgment).
The story of Kraus’s postwar writings and polemics is basically the history of his disillusionment as his “homeland’s loyal hater.” The best that Kraus could say about the Austrian Republic, a truncated and scarcely viable country still bedeviled by “the parasites remaining from the imperial age and the blackheads of the revolution,” was that it had replaced the monarchy and relieved the satirist of “that burdensome companion, the other K.K.” (The reference is to the abbreviation of kaiserlich-königlich, royal-imperial, the designation of many Austro-Hungarian institutions.) The 1920’s were a fertile period for Kraus the dramatist; during this time he wrote, recited, and published five plays: Literatur: Oder, Man wird doch da sehn, Traumstück, Traumtheater, Wolkenkuckucksheim, and Die Unüberwindlichen. In 1929, Kraus’s collection Literatur und Lüge (literature and lies) appeared, and between 1930 and 1932, his adaptations of Jacques Offenbach and William Shakespeare were broadcast by the Berlin and Vienna radio.
“Mir fällt zu Hitler nichts ein” (I can’t think of anything to say about Hitler): This is the striking first sentence of Kraus’s prose work Die dritte Walpurgisnacht (1952; the third Walpurgis Night)—the title refers to both parts of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, pb. 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1828) as well as to the Third Reich—written in 1933 but not published in its entirety during Kraus’s lifetime. That sentence, which gave rise to misunderstandings and conflicts that were the bane of Kraus’s existence in his last years, may be indicative of resignation, but it is also a hyperbolic, heuristic device for depicting the circumstances of the time. The satirist sadly realized the incommensurability of the human spirit with the unspeakably brutal and mindless power structure across the German border. Once again, language was in mortal danger, and the perpetrators of the new horrors were not characters from an operetta (as Kraus had perceived the “cast” of World War I).
In voicing genuine concern over Germany’s pressure on his homeland, Kraus assumed the unaccustomed mantle of an Austrian patriot. Paradoxically, this stance led him to side with the clerico-Fascist regime of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, whose assassination, in 1934, was a severe shock to Kraus. Many of the satirist’s erstwhile adherents expected him to join them in their struggle, perhaps hoping that he could stop Fascism with a special issue of Die Fackel, but they were disappointed at what they regarded as the equivocation of the essentially apolitical satirist. Die Fackel now appeared at even more irregular intervals than before, and Kraus was content to reduce his readership to those who not only heard “the trumpets of the day” but also cared about Shakespeare, Nestroy, Offenbach, and German style, including Kraus’s unique “comma problems.” Preparing to “live in the safe sentence structure,” Kraus pathetically and futilely strove to pit the word against the sword. His death, of heart failure, at the end of a long period of physical and spiritual exhaustion, four months after the appearance of number 922 of Die Fackel, mercifully saved Kraus from witnessing the Nazi takeover of Austria to the cheers of most of its population, the destruction of his belongings, the deaths of close friends in concentration camps, and untold other horrors.