30 January 1933, or the day humanity died

On 30 January 1933, ninety years ago this week, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the Reich. Faced with this event, the whole of Europe was waiting for one person to speak: Karl Kraus, a Viennese Jew, a radical pamphleteer and universally feared polemicist who had founded The Torch in 1899, a newspaper of which he was the sole editor from 1911 and from the arrows of which few of his contemporaries escaped. But Karl Kraus refuses to speak. Instead of commenting on the ‘event’, he tries to make all those who want to ‘talk about it’ understand why there is nothing more to say. Julia Christ examines the silence of the man who until then had always found something to talk about and gives an account of its significance for the history of Europe.



“I have nothing to say about Hitler”. Such is the opening of the Third Night of Walpurgis, a work written by Karl Kraus between May and October 1933 but never printed during his lifetime, except in the form of long passages composed in response to a Europe-wide polemic concerning his silence on Hitler. Published in the second issue of July 1934 of his world-renowned journal The Torch – Kraus was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926 and 1928 – these long extracts form a text of some three hundred pages long. The title? “This is why The Torch does not appear”. The little sentence about Hitler is indeed there, not as an opening to the text but as part of an initial development, to answer the question of why Karl Kraus remains silent about the coming to power of Nazism.  

This question was indeed of intense concern to the Austrian, German-speaking and, more broadly, European intellectual world following the election of the National Socialist Party as the majority party in the Reichstag and Hindenburg’s appointment of Hitler to the Chancellorship on 30 January 1933. The fact may seem incongruous today, in societies which, admittedly, maintain an intellectual class through public funding, but above all expect it to repeat, perhaps more gracefully, what public opinion already thinks. In 1933 this public opinion, where it is still free, therefore outside of Nazi Germany, summons Karl Kraus, undoubtedly one of the most “ugly” characters of his time, in any case the most harsh, the most malicious, inflexible and critical precisely with regard to the public opinion, to “say something”.

Karl Kraus, wikipedia commons

Karl Kraus, an early defender of Freud’s psychoanalysis, which he demolished by ferocious mockery as soon as the opportunity arose after 1913. Karl Kraus, a “non-confessional” Jew, secretly converted to the Catholic faith in 1911 and then publicly left the Church in 1921, and for whom the enemy of choice, the one he never misses in any issue of the Torch, is not the anti-Semitic press that floods the streets of Vienna at the time, but the flagship newspaper of the liberal Jewish bourgeoisie (the Neue Freie Presse for which Herzl was a reporter). An open anti-Zionist, doubting the necessity and justice of putting the Dreyfus affair at the centre of Europe’s political attention, he was also the only one to publish the anti-Dreyfus pamphlet of the communist Karl Liebknecht, in which the latter declared that he “does not believe in Dreyfus’ innocence”. Born into a wealthy bourgeois Jewish family, which enabled him to finance his journal with his father’s inheritance, his anti-militarist voice was the most powerful in Austria from the very first hours of the First World War – while, as it should be remembered, the Austrian social-democracy was happily voting for war credits. However, this did not hinder him from supporting Social- Democracy during the era of Red Vienna, praying to God (in a parody of the Austrian national anthem) to preserve communism “so that this scum [sc. the bourgeoisie], which has already lost all sense of reality, will not become even more insolent, so that this society of consumers, which believes that the human beings at their mercy have had enough of love when it gives them syphilis, will at least go to bed in a state of nightmare!” And so he was the only famous voice to protest against the massacre of the workers in Vienna in 1927, printing, at his own expense, posters demanding the resignation of the guilty governor. An acerbic critic of Schnitzler, Hoffmansthal and so many others who today rank among the European literary avant-garde, calling them inconsistent dandies, he was a friend of Brecht, Canetti, Schönberg and so many others who today rank no less among that same avant-garde. He was a public advocate of prostitution, homosexuality and, in short, of any sexual life that the hypocritical bourgeois morality wanted to undermine, and he held the jewish misogynistic and anti-Semitic sexologist Otto Weininger in high esteem. Author of The Last Days of Mankind while everyone was applauding the mass slaughter in the trenches, he defended in 1934 the Dollfuss putsch of 1933 by declaring that a dictatorship of the ultramontane Catholic right would be a better defence against Hitler than an Austrian social democracy which since 1918 had always defended unification with Germany – and which, in fact, in 1938, when Kraus was no longer alive, called for a vote for the Anschluss.

The question then arises. What was expected from a man who seems so fickle in his alliances and detestations? “When the century took its own life, Karl Kraus was the angel of that death”, said Brecht. Why turn to him at a time when the act seemed to be definitely accomplished?  What words does the free Europe hope to hear from this man who only used words to send the free world back to its unspeakable thoughts, documenting in each issue of the Torch the progress of its suicidal enterprise?

Issue 890-905 of The Torch « Here is why The Torch is not out »

Yet the facts are there. Kraus, who was quarreling with almost the whole world, is called upon from all sides in 1933. People get restless, they want to hear his voice. One must say that the last issue of the Torch had been published in December 1932 and that it was legitimate, from the point of view of a regular reader, to expect a spring issue (the magazine was published quarterly) which had not been published, nor the summer and autumn issues. It was during this period of editorial void that the pressure grew on Karl Kraus. At the end of 1933, he reacted for the first time with a four-page issue of the Torch, consisting of an obituary for his friend Alfred Loos and a short poem entitled ” Don’t ask “. The latter contains the line “I remain silent” and ends with: “the verb fell asleep when that world awoke. That is all. 

The reaction of German-language newspapers in Prague, Vienna, Zurich, Amsterdam and Paris was instantaneous. Whether it is the liberal or left-wing bourgeois press, their organs publish, as if by mutual agreement, ‘death notices’ for Karl Kraus. Indeed, the declaration “I remain silent” is maliciously interpreted as a suicide. Kraus then gathers an anthology of these texts in a first issue of the Torch of July 1934 entitled “Obituaries in memory of Karl Kraus” which already announces on its cover that another issue, the one that will explain why the Torch does not appear, will follow the “obituary” issue by a couple of days.

The obituaries in homage to this “great pamphleteer of past times, this moral conscience of the bourgeoisie, as long as it had one”, to this “bad conscience of his time, [who] had the relentless corrosiveness not of a man, but of a principle”, are not at all friendly. Basically, they blame him for remaining silent precisely in an era that is so desperately in need of conscience, morals and principles: ‘Karl Kraus has fallen silent. The greatest critical temperament of his time, the most powerful weapon of intellectual defence, the German Swift of the twentieth century has suddenly fallen silent. And this precisely at a time when this anti-spirit, this inculture, this under-humanity that Karl Kraus fought all his life with the greatest passion, dares to manifest itself in broad daylight in a more insolent and criminal way than ever.” Finally, the blame stated, he is called upon to help: “A stinking, fetid disease is covering Europe. There is a doctor in possession of an instrument to treat the brain metastases it causes. We call upon him. There is a spiritual force capable of exacerbating the derisory contradictions of Teutonic nature to the point of polemics, of exposing the misdeeds and laying bare the core. We need this strength. Karl Kraus, do not walk away from us!”

What intellectual these days could resist this kind of solicitation? Who, worhsiped in this way, would not feel entrusted with a mission, with the obligation to respond to the desire of his public, to show it the way, even if he had pretended to despise this public throughout his life? Karl Kraus does not answer. Nor does he react to the revanchist hatred unleashed in the Marxist newspapers against the one who “with his Torch and his conferences, has, for decades, incited young dissatisfied intellectuals to a passivity as whiny as self-indulgent” and now, in the face of the historical danger, does not “waver”.  Instead, he sues one of the newspapers that was negligent enough to omit a comma from a line of the poem “Don’t ask” that it reproduced. 

He obviously lost the case. It was important to him, however, in the face of social groups that called on him for help in their struggle against “subhumans”.

Georg Grosz, Germany a winter’s tale, 1917-19, wikiart

And yet, it is not the bad company of a bourgeoisie that has complacently worked for the destruction of its own culture by yielding more and more on the link between the written word and thought, as if one was allowed to write things that were not well thought out, or that one did not think at all, under the pretext that it was necessary to “say something”, and that Kraus has fought all his life by sending it back to its baseness. Nor even that of socialists and Marxists in desperate need of allies, whom Kraus sharply accuses of having contributed to the present situation, not only by the brutalization of political speech but also by the ridiculous importance given to internal oppositions while the Nazis were already marching in the streets. Kraus, though at the centre of public attention for thirty years, always spoke alone. The Torch, rather quickly, was entirely his doing. The back cover of the magazine was not afraid to stress this point: it expressly stated, irregularly between 1912 and 1920, and then with each issue, “The sending of books, reviews, invitations, excerpts, printed matter or manuscripts of any kind is not desired, as has been pointed out on several occasions. Under no circumstances will there be any response or return. Any shipping fees enclosed will be donated to charity.”

So one must assume that, even though a world he utterly abhors screams out his indignation, Kraus knew he was perfectly capable of building a place far away from this hubbub from which he might speak. The dreadful relationship he had with his contemporaries of ‘good will’ does not explain this man’s silence.

Why then does he remain silent? Because he has nothing to say about Hitler. The sentence must be put in the context of Kraus’ writings. In 1926 he published a short poem in which he declared: “The are no limits to the scope of my work /I have something to say about every jerk”. To have nothing to say about Hitler is first and foremost to acknowledge that he is not a jerk, that he does not join the ranks of those morons to whose writings Kraus devoted all his destructive creativity. The fact is that the same people who do not understand his silence have never asked themselves why he spoke. And yet, few lives are as challenging to understand as that of Karl Kraus. For thirty-four years, the man published almost single-handedly at least four issues a year of a journal of an average of sixty pages, about twenty books, mainly of literary criticism, and gave no less than 700 public readings of classic works or of contemporary authors he liked. That the work is monumental is of course a given, but what is much more striking is its regularity, the discipline the author imposed on himself to scrutinise German-language newspapers on a daily basis, to unearth the smallest signs of the self-destruction of reason, of culture, in short of what was then called ‘the spirit’, which he then exposed in detail, using quotations, in the Torch, while discerning in the linguistic aberrations of his contemporaries trends that allowed him to compose coherent issues in which he forged a diagnosis, year after year, of the mental state of society and its evolution. Thirty-four years, daily, the same disgusting task, that is what this man imposed on himself. 

Walter Benjamin, in his study on Karl Kraus, gives hatred as the psychological motivation for this immense work of harassment. As the text was written in 1931, he could not integrate Kraus’s silence regarding Hitler, a silence that hatred, if it was indeed the motor of his activity, could not explain – there are too many reasons to hate Hitler. In this case, it is love that seems a much better explanation. Love, not inasmuch as it finds its reason in a personal inclination, but in a position of social class. For Kraus was madly in love with the greatness of the ideals of the bourgeoisie: rationality, universalist morality, humanism, equality, justice. Even so, the question is not settled. In what way does the proper use of language actually achieve these ideals? Why hunt down every abuse of language as if it were the weapon of a crime against humanity?

Jérôme Bosch, The last Judgment (detail), 1482, wikiart

Whether Kraus was a prophetic figure is a question that has often been raised. And he certainly was, if it is the role of the prophet to remind us of the law, to vituperate by pointing out that the law is not respected, or even that it is used for the purposes of injustice. For Kraus, this law was none other than the language. Like the law, it is there for everyone. And like the law, it contains the promise of a just world. Such was at least the discovery of the German bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century: structured and regulated, it forces feelings, sentiments and opinions to shape themselves into objective forms, to become statements to which one can object. Correctly used, or so Kraus hoped, it forbids sentences like “Prostitution is immoral” and commands that one say “I think that…”, “In my eyes…”, “I believe that…”, “I feel that…” and each of these sentence beginnings engages the rest of the conversation in a different way – if “I think that” requires an argument, “I believe that” and even more so “I feel that” can leave the other party quite rightfully indifferent. One only has to think of the use of language in Proustian aristocratic circles, where it is employed to dress up personal judgements of taste as words of authority that create reality, to realise that the demand for correct use of language, the demand to submit to its internal constraints, is a famous operator of democratisation: it contains the possibility that everyone can object to anyone, not by relying on his or her ‘opinion’ or ‘point of view’, but by referring to common rules. For the bourgeoisie in Germany as much as in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which politically had long failed to impose a common law for all, language was what the democratisation of society could proceed through.

What Kraus discerns in the press of his time is the travesty of the situated point of view into a pure statement of fact; it is the translation of an “I believe” into an “I think” without any argument following; it is the chaining together of unrelated sentences that are presented as coherent; it is the misuse of words, it is false meanings, and also, of course, carelessness in spelling. In short, it is everything that confuses the mind, prevents it from distinguishing, and, in the end, from perceiving beyond the written word the much more complex reality it claims to convey. A use of language that prevents one from seeing, thinking and imagining, here is the enemy that Kraus has been fighting for thirty-four years. But this use is specific to a bourgeoisie that has conquered positions of power in the public space, and that behaves like the old aristocracy by imposing its point of view as the only reality. Hence Kraus’ struggle against this bourgeois press, which is economically all-powerful and floods the whole society with its words because of its financial power. When Kraus constantly reminds us that language, like law, is given to humans, that it is not made by them and that they have no right to claim ‘mastery’ of it – that there is no greater political danger than this claim to ‘master’ the language, especially if this mastered language can be imposed on everyone, then his role is indeed prophetic. If the ancient prophets reminded us that the law is there to produce justice, Kraus reminds us that language is there to enable everyone to respond to each other, regardless of social status, class position or profession. Language, taken in this sense, is a support for the social mobility of modern societies, and the German bourgeoisie of the 19th century made it a remarkable support also because, alongside the economic liberalisation that allowed upward mobility, it was the only one available to them to challenge aristocratic privileges. This fact, Kraus reminds the social class that first perceived this dimension of language, and that now, after having benefited from it, blocks downwards the process of democratisation that should follow by imposing its speech on all.

Joseph Beuys, Bathtub, 1960-77, wikiart

Kraus belongs to the generation of German-speaking Jews who believed in the promise of culture. In a political space that belatedly realised the civil and political emancipation of Jews, their participation in modern society did indeed involve contributing to a culture that was seen as the only agent for the emancipation of all. A well-defined culture. For what was meant by culture was the universalist humanism of German classicism and idealism, of Goethe, Schiller and Kant. Not ‘all men are born free and equal in rights’ – an unrealistic proposition in this area politically under the rule of the aristocracy – but ‘all men are born free and equal in reason’. The idea that each individual was equally endowed with rational capacities, that it sufficed to educate people to develop these capacities, that the first tool of education was the correct use of language, and that everyone should be able to use it, was the ideal of this bourgeoisie. Obviously, the aim was political, insofar as, in the end, the rational argument would replace the argument of authority, precedence and power, and the poetically opened space of imagination would create perspectives beyond the current state of matters. The aim was not political revolution, but simply to continue the work of culture that was supposed to lead to a democratic society. 

The importance of ‘culture’ in this political constellation is clear. Whether intellectual, scientific or artistic, it was thought to be the supreme path to intellectual and collective emancipation; the man of culture accepted the frustration of his real inequality and his political powerlessness, by devoting himself to his own education as much as to that of everyone else, which was expected to bring about the desired political changes. Much has been said about the famous Jewish-German symbiosis. Scholem rightly pointed out that it was mainly a Jewish illusion, and that the Germans, like the Austrians, did not really want the Jewish contribution to culture. But it should not be forgotten that Germans, Austrians and Jews met in the experience of political powerlessness. Symbiosis was certainly not desired by the German-speaking bourgeoisie, but the Jewish illusion that all the powerless contributed, through culture, to the political emancipation of all, is not surprising.  

Kraus is a major representative of this illusion. It is the reason for his anti-Zionism and for all his anger against politics in favour of the defence of the Jews, which he considered particularistic and, as such, obstacles on the way to the assimilation of all, not only of Jews, to the universal culture. As a radical assimilationist, not to the dominant culture and values of the majority nation, but to culture itself, he could not stand those who, like the Zionists, saw the lie in the discourse on culture which in reality went hand in hand with a clear refusal of a Jewish contribution, and drew the conclusion of a break, not with culture, but with Europe; nor the nationalists of all stripes, who were dragging the countries of Europe into a war that he had foreseen precisely on the occasion of the Dreyfus Affair, the great moment of the exaltation of German nationalism against that “horrible militaristic French Republic”. But above all, he could not stand that liberal bourgeoisie which, acting out of particular interests, often of a pecuniary nature, in order to sell more or to more people, gave in to the demands of culture and to its task, which alone justified its dominant position, of educating, of drawing the whole of society upwards. What revolted this man was the bourgeois endeavour to make culture homogeneous to the public, no matter whether it was for the sake of applause, to make money, to please the authorities, to feel close to the people, or simply out of indifference to the political purpose of culture.

A cafe, Vienna, 1900

It is these contemporaries that Kraus calls jerks, morons, bastards. It is about them that he has something to say, and what he had to say about them was the gap between their own ideal justifying their social position, and the daily and voluntary betrayal of this ideal. What he had to say about them was that, out of ease and laziness, they were destroying the only available weapon against nationalist and identity-based particularisms which he considered incapable of producing any universalist thought from their situated point of view. 

This is why he has nothing to say about Hitler. Hitler has no claim to culture. He doesn’t even claim a primacy of thought over action. The Nazis, such is Kraus’s sharp observation, do not do what they say, which would still allow the polemicist to pin them down on the absurdity of what they say, and thus hope to prevent their act. Hitler and his cronies say what they do. Nazism is the political regime where the act precedes the word. In his lengthy analysis of Nazism in the issue “That’s Why the Torch Doesn’t Appear” Kraus places particular emphasis on a story reported in German-language newspapers in 1933: a young girl being chased by the German plebs through the streets of Nuremberg with her head shaved because she was having an affair with a Jewish man. While moral indignation prevails in the press of the time, Kraus refuses to think that this act can be seized upon, even negatively in condemning it, by a universalist morality. From what point of view can one judge a society which not only does not judge itself, but which has simply stopped speaking in order to act and only speaks to say what it does? 

Kraus has been asked to ‘exacerbate the derisory contradictions of Teutonic nature’, but he does not see these contradictions. Not a single sheet of paper can slip between what this society does and what it says it does. It shoots Jews in the street and says ” The Jews must die “. No contradiction to be found here. In his critique of the liberal bourgeoisie, Kraus was able to survey the space that separated the ideals of this bourgeoisie, what it claimed to be, and what it did. This is why his arrows hurt, why they hit the target: willy-nilly, this bourgeoisie found its raison d’être in these ideals. The liberal bourgeoisie, corrupt as it was, never exalted its own injustices as its birthright. Hitler did. When Kraus says he has nothing to say about Hitler, he is not talking about himself or his astonishment. He is talking for the last time about this bourgeois culture and its achievements that he has defended all his life. This universalist and humanist culture has nothing to say about Hitler. This culture, which, even in the face of such atrocious acts as that of the Nuremberg plebs, still naively believed in the promise of the Gospel that ‘in the beginning was the Word’ and therefore that the Word would prevail, in Kraus’s eyes, it had just died definitively: German society, blossoming without contradiction in the act, had put an end to the promise of the Word. 

Otto Dix, Masks as ruins, 1946, wikiart

“In the beginning was the Act”. This sentence, by which Faust triumphantly amends the current translation of the Gospels and starts his descent into hell, is corrected at the end of the second Faust by the line: ‘the eternal feminine draws us on high’. For Kraus, a society that produced the Faust and yet chases naked girls through the streets, stoning them to death as they pass, puts a definitive end to this hope. There is a reason why he named the definitive text on his silence on Hitler The Third Night of Walpurgis, whereas the Faust knows only two of these nights. The adventure, which was quite brief after all, of the culture that believed itself capable of achieving the true emancipation of the human kind and of leading, in the end, to universal peace, comes to an abrupt end with Hitler. Only the most radical assimilationist could have perceived the final death of the ideal of humanity through this event. Only Kraus, who did not belong to the majority nation and therefore had to understand the validity of these ideals at the level of humanity (whereas the German could always see in them a sign of the superiority of German culture), could draw all the consequences of what was no longer a simple attack on the word but the abolition of its reign. Only Kraus, who throughout his life was aware of the fragility of the word, of the need to protect it against men and their particular interests, had the lucidity to perceive that it had been irremediably defeated by Hitler. The others were still struggling to speak, to rely on the word. Having never taken the importance of language seriously, they thought they could master it one last time to make it say one last indecent thing: moral indignation in the face of state-sanctioned torture, persecution and murder. As if culture could integrate this event and judge it, whereas “the event constitutes a barrier for the mind, not only functionally but essentially.” 

Kraus died in 1936. His sisters, like Freud’s, were murdered in the death camps. After explaining his silence on Hitler, he never spoke again on the subject. The struggle of his last years was directed against those who ‘desecrate’ the only thing we still possess, namely ‘what no longer exists’, by pretending that it still exists.




Since 1945, there has been much talk about Hitler. The social sciences quickly took the place of moral judgement, which, Kraus was right on this point, proved powerless in the face of the event – and besides, in all Europe, there was no longer any society that could claim to have the right to utter such a statement. Individuals, yes, the righteous among the nations. But as for the European societies, they all failed to live up to their own ideals. It was as if, after the Holocaust, everyone had to face up to the fact that they had nothing to say about Hitler, not because they could see with clarity that the act took precedence over the word, but because the fact is that they themselves committed the act, by participation or omission. Yet Europe speaks; and it speaks about this tirelessly. It is not stingy in its talk about Hitler, about his crimes, about European crimes, and thus about its own downfall. By relying on the social sciences to talk about this, and not on moralists, she expresses a difficult truth which, if one looks closely, commands the whole reconstruction of Europe: namely, that culture was an illusion; that it takes more than culture and spirit to produce democratic societies. It is to elucidate this observation, to illustrate it, that the social sciences are committed when they speak of Nazism, when they risk placing it in the current understanding of Europe, and do not limit themselves to restating facts. Yet it is in this respect that these disciplines, which are claimed to be at the forefront of consciousness in the present, also reveal their failure in the post-Shoah era: this failure is inevitably demonstrated when they attempt, as if nothing had happened, to judge history in the name of the abstract ideals of this culture which – Kraus was right – had and still has nothing to say about Hitler.

Julia Christ

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