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...
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