Karl Kraus and ‘Die Fackel’ – a battle to save the German language
As a key Austrian journalist and legendary author of his time, Karl Kraus was a man of many facets – satirist, lyricist, author, supporter of young writers and avowed critic of the press.
The Jewish dramatist polarised readers throughout his life. His criticisms of society and journalism, published in the magazine ‘Die Fackel’, and his struggle to save the German language were radical and provocative.
Karl Kraus lived in Vienna in the early 20th century. He was a contemporary of many famous men, including Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler. Although he had a relatively common name, Karl Kraus as an individual was anything but ‘common’. He was active in many fields. Today, he would probably be called a ‘critic’. However, unlike other critics he did not restrict his work to literature, theatre or music. He was a universal critic. He observed Viennese society just as critically as contemporary art, journalism, politics and science. The all-embracing theme at the heart of all his work was the German language; the thoughtless use of which he saw as the root of all evil.
Karl Kraus and the power of the language
Karl Kraus was obsessed by language. For him, every tiny detail, a forgotten comma, a superfluous hyphen, all had the potential to exert a crucial influence on society and politics.
Today, his stance appears exaggerated. We measure a society above all by the freedom and ability of its members to express themselves. We consider free expression of opinion to be a basic right, and often view the content and form of what is expressed as secondary. The internet offers large numbers of people the opportunity to express themselves – irrespective of whether or not they have anything valuable to say.
If Karl Kraus were alive today, he would probably be a blistering opponent of this development and would no doubt have very little time for the often arbitrary and trivial messages that are communicated via modern media.
Language shapes thought
Karl Kraus accused his own contemporaries of understanding language as a medium that could be subjected, rather than a purpose to be served. His key argument reads: the thoughtless man thinks that one only has a thought by having it and clothing it with words. He fails to comprehend that one actually only has it when one has words into which the thought grows.
This hundred-year-old sentence has lost nothing of its radicalism today. The crux is that it is not the intention that is important, not even what one says, but solely how one says it.
Oscar Wilde, to whom Karl Kraus repeatedly referred, said that it was only form that breathed life into thought, and that ‘it is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done’.
Karl Kraus expresses himself similarly. ‘If you are strict with language, you will be strict with the idea.’ On this basis Karl Kraus spent his life unrelentingly dissecting what his contemporaries published, showing no consideration for anything and anyone. Personal friendships, social esteem, political persuasions – nothing served as protection against his frequently scathing commentaries.
To be absolutely independent of any external influence, Karl Kraus founded his own magazine, ‘Die Fackel’ (The Torch). He was owner, publisher, and after 1911 sole editor and author too. Not least this independence made Karl Kraus an outstanding commentator of his time. ‘Die Fackel’ was a great success, judging by the 415 issues (23,000 pages) that were published. The outrage that often greeted each new issue was proof that Karl Kraus had his finger firmly on the pulse.
Karl Kraus: ‘Die Fackel’ – Satire à la mode
The 19th century was an epoch that saw the birth of many satirical journals, starting with the ‘Le Charivari’ (1832-1937) in France and ‘Punch’ (1841-2002) in Great Britain. These were the predecessors of the German-language satirical magazines, including Karl Kraus’s ‘Die Fackel’ (1899-1936).
The hallmark of Kraus’s magazine was its characteristic red cover and the title sketch of a burning torch in front of the silhouette of Vienna. Karl Kraus himself called his publication a ‘political-satirical magazine’ that polemically attacked the moral hypocrisy and corruption of the judiciary, the press and society. He spared no-one, and saw his magazine as a kind of independent court of judgement.
Language as a weapon
Kraus’ magazine honed in on anything that displeased him, and did so in an unprecedented way. He dissected every statement right down into its most minute parts, using his incisive intelligence to lay every imprecision and every contradiction bare.
For his followers, the journalist Karl Kraus was a fascinating and universal authority. His countless enemies saw in him a narcissistic misanthrope. The list of Kraus’s opponents was long. The established press in particular led an embittered fight against him. After all, Kraus was an acerbic critic of contemporary journalism which he referred to derogatively as the Journaille (gutter press).
Karl Kraus’s struggle against the omnipotent press
Kraus complained that the press used language to manipulate the public, and at the same time to place itself above the public: ‘In the beginning was the press, and then came the world […]’. Everything was exposed to criticism through the press, other than the press itself. Much of what Karl Kraus wrote in order to counteract this injustice is still very apt today.
Why not discuss Karl Kraus in the community?
The power of the media is greater today than ever before. Newspapers, radio, television and the internet are accessible to ever more people – but regrettably the same cannot be said for independent and serious journalism.
What degree of power do the media enjoy in your country? Share your views with us.