Der Schriftsteller Franz Kafka

The writer Franz Kafka

Who was Franz Kafka?

Franz Kafka was one of the greatest German-speaking writers of the 20th century. Born in Prague (then Austria-Hungary) in 1883, he received little recognition for his literary work during his lifetime. In his works, Kafka deals with themes such as alienation, existential fear and the absurdity of modern life.

His best known works include The Metamorphosis , The Trial and The Castle , which are considered masterpieces of existentialist and absurdist literature. Kafka's writing style is characterized by a surreal and nightmarish quality, with the protagonists often trapped in confusing and oppressive systems beyond their control. Kafka died 100 years ago, only 40 years old, from the effects of his tuberculosis illness.

Kafka’s experienced homelessness

Although he spent a large part of his life in Prague, Franz Kafka always lived with the awareness that he belonged to one or more minorities and was 'not one of them': Prague, from the time of his birth until 1918, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, native German speakers like him only made up about 7% of Prague's population. Of course, Kafka also spoke Czech, but he still experienced his existence as an 'island of isolation'. He also had no connection to Czechoslovakia, which was founded in 1918 - just as there are no signs in his writings of a sense of belonging to the Austrian nationality or a closeness to the political German Reich.

But it wasn't just his mother tongue that excluded Kafka, but also his religion. The Kafka family was assimilated and emphatically loyal to the emperor, but Franz still experienced anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews again and again. This became particularly pronounced after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy at the end of the First World War: due to the anti-German and anti-Semitic resentment among the majority population in Prague, Franz Kafka made plans to emigrate.

"I spend all afternoons on the streets now, bathing in hatred of Jews. I once heard the Jews called Prašivé plemeno (=mangy brood). Isn't it only natural that one leaves a place where one is hated so much (Zionism or national sentiment is not necessary for this)?"

Franz Kafka and Judaism

Kafka's relationship to Judaism was divided throughout his life. In a diary entry in 1914 he wrote: "What do I have in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand in a corner, completely still, content with being able to breathe."

His family lived the secular life of assimilated Western Jews: religion and religious traditions had little place in the parental home. In a long passage in his letter to his father, Kafka complains about the "nothingness of Judaism" that he had experienced in his youth.

As an adult, Kafka was very interested in Judaism, albeit in a more academic way through extensive reading. He was particularly interested in religious legends, stories and instructions for action that were originally passed down orally.

At the same time, he had many Jewish friends, including Max Brodt, who became his publisher. He also had personal contact with the Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber. Kafka admired the work of Jewish artists and often attended performances of the Yiddish theater in Lemberg. He was particularly fond of Eastern Jewish and Hasidic culture - according to Egon Erwin Kisch, he found in the folk tales of the Hasidim, "perhaps for the first time in his life, a certain harmony."

Judaism is not mentioned at all in Kafka's fictional work, although this is hardly surprising given the often abstract, fantastical content and existential themes that go beyond the questions of individual religions.

Some of his friends, including Max Brodt, were very enthusiastic about Zionist ideologies, but not so Franz. Nevertheless, after the First World War he decided to emigrate to Palestine and studied Hebrew intensively. However, his health deteriorated rapidly and the move, which had been seriously planned for 1923, never took place.

Today, Franz Kafka is known as one of the great writers of literary modernism - on the one hand, his works are very atmospheric, vivid and impressive, but on the other hand, they are difficult to penetrate. Different approaches to interpreting Kafka's work look at it psychologically, philosophically, biographically and sociologically, and again and again with regard to the influence of Jewish religion and culture on the work. Regardless of the approaches to interpreting it, Kafka's work has had a great influence on the literature of the 20th and 21st centuries, and its questions and themes are still relevant today.

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