Franz Kafka. A German-Speaking Jew from Prague

Franz Kafka (1883–1924) is arguably one of Europe’s most fascinating authors. Kafka is rightfully associated with the city of Prague, today the capital city of the Czech Republic. But was Kafka Czech? No, Kafka was a German-speaking Jew from Prague.

Kafka
Franz Kafka
Source: Anonymous

To understand this statement, we must first understand the city of Prague and its history, as well as the region where it is located, Bohemia.

Prague was founded during the second half of the 9th century. During the High Middle Ages, the city flourished as a political and economic center for its surrounding region, Bohemia, or Čechy in Czech and Böhmen in German.

Prague played an important role in Bohemia and Central Europe from the Middle Ages until the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). In fact, the Thirty Years’ War is considered to have begun in Prague with what is known as the Second Defenestration of Prague. Defenestration is a method of execution where the intended victim is thrown out of a window. The name of the this method comes from the Latin word for “window”: fenestra.

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Prague Castle (2006)
Source: Wizzard

The Second Defenestration of Prague was the execution of the governors of Bohemia, installed on their posts by the Catholic Habsburg dynasty to subdue Protestantism in Bohemia. The citizens of Prague responded to this policy by defenestrating the Habsburg officials from the windows of the Hradčany, or Prague Castle.

The Thirty Years War ravaged the European continent and Prague’s political and economic success waned. However, new life was breathed into the city during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. When Kafka lived in Prague it was a bustling and modern city at the heart of Europe.

When Kafka was born in 1883, Prague and Bohemia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into being in 1867 when a constitutional compromise between the Austrian Empire and Hungary was reached. This compromise meant that Hungary would continue to acknowledge the rule of the Austrian emperor, but was autonomous in all political issues except war and foreign relations.

Outside of Hungary, the empire consisted of a not-clearly defined agglomeration of regions called “the kingdoms and lands represented in the [Austrian] Reichrat” or simply “the other Imperial half.” What these different regions had in common was the dynastic claim of the Habsburgs, the royal dynasty to which the Austrian royal family belonged. Bohemia and Prague belonged to this other half.

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Austria-Hungary in 1899. Prague is located at the map coordinates 14:50.

Throughout history, Bohemia had three major population groups: Czechs, Germans, and Jews. Czechs lived in Bohemia because of it being a region within the Slavic cultural and ethnical sphere. Germans lived in Bohemia because of its proximity to German regions such as Bavaria. Jews lived in Bohemia because of the Diaspora, which after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. spread the Jewish population across the world. Jews are known to have lived in Prague since the 970s, with a permanent community established there in the 11th century.

Reading articles, texts, and private correspondence contemporary to Kafka, it becomes evident that these three groups defined themselves as separate from one another. In fact, tensions were at times rife between Germans and Czech nationalists with Jews trying to find a place in the middle while avoiding anti-Semitism from both sides.

During Kafka’s lifetime, approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Prague, most of them spoke German and mainly identified with the German-speaking culture. They lived a secularized, mostly bourgeois lifestyle and distanced themselves from Jews living in rural areas further east. Yiddish, the language most often connected to eastern European Jews, was unknown to them. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Prague’s Jewish population consisted of 92,000 people, one of the largest in Europe. 60% of them are estimated to have perished in the Holocaust. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews live in Prague.

Franz Kafka was born into a wealthy merchant family, where everything centered around the family business. Kafka himself worked as an official at an insurance company and dedicated his spare time to writing, which lead to conflict with other family members. A relentless self-critic, only a handful of his stories were published during his lifetime. Most of Kafka’s works that we know and admire today, were published posthumously by his friend Max Brod, who disregarded Kafka’s wish to burn all the manuscripts after his death. All of Kafka’s stories were written in German.

Although secularized through his upbringing, Kafka identified himself as a Jew. He became engaged in the Zionist movement in early 20th century Prague and that movement’s discussions on Jewish identity and culture interested him a great deal. He frequented the Yiddish theater whenever such plays were available in Prague and made friends within the theater companies.

Reading Kafka’s works, Jewish folklore and Talmudic discussion techniques jump out off the page. The Jewish sense of humor and the twists and turns of Talmudic discourse lay the foundation of an absurd and unpredictable reading experience. Believe it or not, but the step from Kafka to Mel Brooks is not a big one.

Throughout his life, Kafka lived in Prague, the main city of Bohemia but only a regional capital in the other half of the Austro-Hungarian empire, belonging to and identifying with one of the three main ethnic and cultural groups. When he died in Vienna at the age of 40, Prague had been the capital of the new nation of Czechoslovakia, created after the collapse of the empire brought on by World War I, for only six years.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Britannica.com Czechoslovakia
Britannica.com Bohemia
Britannica.com Prague
Jewish Virtual Library Prague
Franz Kafka The Trial (Der Prozess) (New York, 1998)
Reiner Stach Kafka: The Decisive Years (Princeton & Oxford, 2005)

Note:
The images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Sleepy Hollow, Starbucks and the American Revolution

In the preview for the upcoming TV-show Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, newly awakened from a slumber lasting more than two hundred years, reacts to the number of Starbucks there are. It is clear that what surprises him isn’t Starbucks as such, but the large amount of coffee shops on each block. The historian in me immediately asked, how plausible would it be for Ichabod Crane to be familiar with the concept of Starbucks? Then I realized the stupidity of my own question. Of course Ichabod Crane would be familiar with it. It’s a coffeehouse!

The TV-series Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written by Washington Irving (1783–1859). Irving is best known today for two of his short-stories of which Sleepy Hollow is one, the other one being Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were first published in the same story collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), and are based on themes found in German folktales.

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Portrait of Washington Irving (1809) by John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of the not-so likeable schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who moves to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. Being poor, Crane’s purpose in life is his own self-advancement. Therefore, he begins courting Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and heiress of a local, wealthy farmer. Crane’s rival is Abraham Van Brunt. Knowing that Crane has come to believe in the local lore of ghost stories, Van Brunt decides to play tricks on Crane. One late night, on his way home from Katrina Van Tassel’s, Crane is pursued by a seemingly headless horseman. This incident is so distressing for the schoolteacher that Ichabod Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor (1801–1881)

Washington Irving published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819-1820, but the story is considered to take place in the 1790s. Although not much of the original story seems to have been brought into the upcoming TV-series, the fact remains that the Ichabod Crane, who reacted to the amount of Starbucks on each block, is a man who lived during the eighteenth century. Him being able to relate to the concept of Starbucks is therefore not a surprise.

The reason for this is that in eighteenth-century North America, the coffeehouse was an integral part of the social life of free, white males. It was at the coffeehouse that such men gathered to gossip, to socialize, to debate, to do business and to receive the latest news.

The North American coffeehouse is part of a way of socializing, introduced into Europe with the introduction of coffee, which came from the Middle East and North Africa by way of Venice. Not long after coffee had been introduced in an area, coffeehouses began appearing and came to play an important part in politics and business. For example, the world’s largest insurance company, Lloyd’s, began as a coffeehouse in London.

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Roasted coffee beans
Source: GOELE

The North American coffeehouses were important during the struggle for Independence from the British Empire (1776–1784). Because of their function as arenas for politics, debate, business and socializing, it was at the coffeehouses that decrees from the British government were read to the public. And it was at the coffeehouses that the public voiced their concerns regarding these decrees. Moreover, once the Declaration of Independence had been signed, it was first read to the public at the Merchant Coffee House in Philadelphia.

Today, the continuation of the tradition of the North American coffeehouse as a public arena for business and socializing can be witnessed in places such as Starbucks. When you walk in to order your hot beverage of choice, you will see people engaged with their laptops, college textbooks or attending a business meeting. If the North American coffeehouses of the twenty-first century will become arenas for the initiation of a revolution is doubtful. However, drinking coffee is in itself a revolutionary act. The Patriots of the eighteenth-century chose coffee over tea to demonstrate their opposition to the British Empire.

I will watch Sleepy Hollow when it begins airing on September 16. The preview looked interesting enough to give it a shot. Also, John Cho is part of the cast, which of course is a bonus.

If you are interested in the role of coffeehouses as meeting places for revolutionaries, go to the blog post Lenin Never Lived in Vienna.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Benjamin L Carp Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007)
Britannica.com Washington Irving
Britannica.com The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Britannica.com Ichabod Crane
Britannica.com Coffee
International Coffee Organization The Story of Coffee
Sleepy Hollow

Note:
The images in this blog post have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
This blog post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

Lenin Never Lived in Vienna

In his classic study on scientific paradigms and anomalies, Thomas S Kuhn writes about the issue of preconceived notions and expectations in interpreting our surroundings. He mentions a psychological experiment where a test group were shown a deck of cards where some cards had been slightly altered, for example a card of hearts was colored black instead of red. When shown these altered cards, the test group participants called the cards out as red, despite the fact that they were black. This misidentification was caused by the fact that from previous experience the participants anticipated the cards to be red since the symbol on the card was a heart. Therefore, the brain saw one thing but named it another.

For many years, I saw one thing and named it another. I saw Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870–1924), the leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Soviet Union, as being in exile in Vienna but I named it Zurich. Let me explain.

One of the first historical topics I took on with interest was the Russian Revolution. I was in high school, had just discovered literature through Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) was my favorite movie. By way of books and films, I discovered Russian history.

On New Year’s Eve in 1992 I was in Vienna for the annual New Year’s Day Concert at Musikverein. I remember watching CNN when the news broke that the Soviet Union had been dissolved. The week we spent in Vienna became an interesting blend of the beginning and the end of that Socialist colossus. The Soviet Union had just ceased to exist when we went for coffee at the Café Central, during the early 20th century a hub for the intellectual elite of Europe. Authors, artists, revolutionaries and philosophers frequented the Café Central, many of them Russian.

During the years leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Lenin lived in exile in Europe. He moved between places, such as Munich, Bern, and Zurich. As I read about the causes behind the Russian Revolution and those who played a part in it, I saw all this before me. The only problem was that I always pictured Lenin at the Café Central in Vienna. Consequently, even though I knew intellectually that Lenin never took up residence in Vienna, that was where I pictured him. If someone had asked me about Lenin’s years in European exile, I probably would have begun explaining Vienna to them.

Not until I went to Zurich in 2001 and was taken to the building where Lenin lived and shown the historical marker, did I finally realize that Lenin actually lived in Zurich and not in Vienna. In other words, it took me more than a decade and a trip to Switzerland to be able to put to the side my preconceived notion of what the life of an exiled 20th-century revolutionary was like. It was not until it was pointed out to me that Lenin lived in Zurich, that I, in my mind, could fully comprehend that he did not live in Vienna.

Just like the participants in the psychological study, referred to by Kuhn, who realized that the cards were black and not red only when it was pointed out to them.

Sources:
IMDB http://www.imdb.com Doctor Zhivago
Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com Lenin
Thomas S Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press, 1962)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.