Karl Kraus was the son of a wealthy Viennese paper merchant. Born a Jew, 145 years ago this week, he renounced his religion of birth, converted to Roman Catholicism, only to renounce that faith in turn. When asked why, Kraus attributed his departure from the Catholic Church to “anti-Semitism.” Kraus was a funny man.
Kraus loved paradoxes and published a magazine, Die Fackel, full of them. “An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half truth or a truth-and-a-half,” he wrote. Kraus also gave popular stage performances, in which he played piano, read Shakespeare’s sonnets, and acted out parts from his monumental masterpiece, the 800-page play, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, usually translated as The Last Days of Mankind.
The Last Days was conceived as a play in the early weeks of World War I, from the perspective of Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The play begins with Vienna newsagents crying the headlines, “Archduke Ferdinand assassinated in Sarajevo! Murd-ra’s a Serb!” (“Thank God, not a Jew,” remarks a passerby to his wife, who immediately drags him offstage.) The play ends with the voice of God intoning, as Kaiser Wilhelm did in the aftermath of the war, “This is not what I intended.”
Kraus wrote his play “live” throughout the war in response to events reported or observed. As he says in his introduction, “The most improbable actions reported here really occurred … the most implausible conversations are reported verbatim, as spoken, word for word; the shrillest fantasies direct quotations. Sentences whose insanity is indelibly imprinted on the ear are grown into the music of time.”
Patriot: For example, the civilized language we use, even when speaking of the enemy, who are, after all, the greatest scum on God’s earth.
Subscriber: And above all, unlike them, we are always humane. For example, the editorial in the Presse even talked about the good times ahead for the fish and crustacea in the Adriatic, with so many Italian corpses to feed on …
In part, Kraus seems to have invented the form of a living play in response to the collapse of the Austrian press during wartime. “The truth is that the newspaper is not a statement of contents but the contents themselves; more than that, it is an instigator,” said Kraus in a remarkable speech, “In These Great Times,” made in 1914 as WWI commenced. “It would be far less shameful to be paid for committing atrocities than for fabricating them.” In the same speech, Kraus warned, “If the reporter has killed our imagination with his truth, he threatens our life with his lies.”
Kraus never expected his play to be staged in its monstrous entirety, as he said, “Theater-goers on planet earth would find it unendurable. For it is the blood of their blood and its contents the narrative of those years, unreal, unremembered, unthinkable years, preserved only in bloodstained dreams, when operetta figures played out the tragedy of mankind.”
Patriot: … Your Viennese is a real diehard when it comes to holding out to the end. He can endure all hardships as if they were pleasures.
Subscriber: Hardships? What hardships?
Patriot: I mean, if there happened to be hardships.
Subscriber: Luckily, there aren’t any.
Patriot: Quite right. There aren’t. But then … if there aren’t hardships—why do we have to hold out?
Subscriber: I can explain that. It’s true there are no hardships, but if there were, we would easily endure them if we had to—there’s an art in that and we’ve always had the knack.
The action, said Kraus of his play, “is likewise without heroes, fractured and improbable, as it picks its way through a hundred scenes and hells …” His cast of demagogue politicians, financiers and manufacturers—the celebs of the day—engage in a collective charade, performed in partnership with the press, piling deception on self-deception in support of a profitable and disastrous war.
The apartment of the actress Elfriede Ritter, recently returned from Russia, luggage partly unpacked. The reporters Füchsl Feigl and Halberstam are holding her by the arms and plying her with questions.
All Three: Has the knout left scars? Show us! We need every detail. How was Muscovy? Your impressions, please, of the capital of the Slav empire. You must have suffered dreadfully, didn’t you? You must have!
Füschsl: Describe how you were treated like a prisoner!
Feigl: Give the evening edition your impressions of your stay!
Kraus identified the vector of the monstrous insanity of war and the means of insanity’s propagation. As one of Kraus’ recent translators, Michael Russell, says, “Kraus saw a powerful influential press in Vienna becoming ever more mendacious, manipulative, corrupt and self-serving, forming ever stronger ties with the aristocratic, industrial, financial and above all political elites of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later, after the war, with the struggling democracy of a new Austria. He witnessed the birth of modern ‘media spin.’”
Edward Timms and Fred Bridgham, translators who produced the first complete edition of Kraus’ masterpiece in English, remark, “Almost alone in the period before the first world war, Kraus saw the press as an apocalyptic threat.” Michael Russell concurs: “Kraus’s particular preoccupation, throughout his life, was the media, then primarily the press and advertising.”
Füschl: Hang on. I wrote an intro back in the office—wait a second—(writes) “Released from her sufferings in Russian captivity and having finally reached her destination after an onerous and tedious journey, the artiste wept tears of joy at the realization she was once more in her beloved city of Vienna.”
Elfriede Ritter: (waving a finger threateningly) My dear sir, that’s not what I said! On the contrary did I not say, I had nothing to complain of? Not a single thing.
Füschl: Today, the artiste can look back today on her ordeal with a certain ironic detachment.
Elfriede Ritter: But Gentlemen what are you trying to do—I really can’t say
Halberstam: Go on. You’ve no idea of the things you can say. Here we have freedom of speech thank God, not like in Russia. Here, praise be, one can say whatever one wants about conditions in Russia.
Advertising is persuasion. Its standards of truth are extremely flexible, and the media’s standards of objective truth can be little better than the standards of the advertisers who pay them. When the selective enhancements and omissions of marketing advocacy become standards of objective truth, the result is a poisoned social reality. As the editor and publisher of Vienne New Free Press, and a frequent target of Kraus’ fierce wit, Moriz Benedikt, put it, “We’ve got to make the public hungry for war and the newspaper, the two things are inseparable.” Collectively we have an interest in hearing the truth, but, as individuals, we often have a stronger interest in concealing information harmful to us or our cause.
Elfriede Ritter: But my dear sir, are you pulling my leg? I’m telling you, on the contrary the police officers were very approachable, they received me with open arms and provided support at every opportunity. I could go out when I wanted and go where I wanted and come home when I wanted—if I had felt for a moment like a prisoner …
Füchsl: (writes) The artiste tells of once attempting to go out when the police approached her, seized her by the open arms with which she greeted them, and dragged her home, where they ordered her to stay, making her a virtual prisoner.
Elfriede Ritter: Now you’re making me angry! It’s not true gentlemen!
Deceptions—whether white, black, or rainbow-colored—accumulate. When they are formulated as social dogma, they’re represented forcefully by media as orthodoxy, which we must wholly accept, as good citizens, or entirely reject, as immoral fools, traitors, and lunatics. As Russell says, “Kraus responded to agitation for Anschluss, annexation by Germany, declaring that “the hypnotic power of newsprint was creating a ‘counterfeit reality’ in which ‘nothing is real except for the lies.’”
Bertolt Brecht wrote of Kraus, on hearing of his death in 1936: “As the epoch raised its hand to end its own life, he [Kraus] was the hand.” Brecht, presumably referred to the 19th century: The era Kraus foresaw ending was our own, of lies spread by digital platforms with unprecedented velocity and social penetration and enforced as a single compounded orthodoxy.
Information poisoning is no less a danger to social health than poisoning the air or the water; Karl Kraus understood and described it in ways that captured the essence of his own time, and our own.
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Ted Mann is an Emmy award-winning writer who worked on NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Hatfield McCoy, and Homeland.