By Bill Marx
“Let my style capture all the sounds of my time. This should make it an annoyance to my contemporaries. But later generations should hold it to their ears like a seashell in which there is the music of an ocean of mud.”— Karl Kraus
The Third Walpurgis Night: The Complete Text by Karl Kraus. Translated from the German by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms. Yale University Press, 283 pages, $35.
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In his election post-mortem, Anand Giridharadas listed a number of “things we know already.” The publication last June of the first complete English translation of Austrian Jewish journalist Karl Kraus’s savage dissection of the Nazi media makes one of his observations particularly ironic: “A media that is shy to describe autocratic attempts as what they are, early and often, makes it easier to pull them off.” The Third Walpurgis Night, Kraus’s drop-dead analysis of the rhetorical barbarities of the Hitler cult, stands as an inspiring model for what’s needed (steely courage, a strong stomach, prophetic verve) to excoriate the language of autocracy, early and often. This brilliant jeremiad dismembers Nazi dishonesty in detail, its opportunistic obfuscation of words and facts, its embrace of lies, grievance, viciousness, and self-serving hyperbole. Kraus assumes the satiric stance of utter astonishment at the perfect articulation of utter stupidity: “On all sides, nothing but stupor, people spellbound by the deceptive magic of an idea which consists of not having any.”
That no major review pages, in the New York Times, New Yorker, The Jacobin, etc., has noticed the arrival in English of this antifascist masterpiece by one of the 20th century’s most influential writers is puzzling. Especially given the very real threat of autocracy in this country. Though this neglect may be symptomatic of our greater media’s initially reserved response to Trump-inspired bilge. Kraus’s polemical approach to exposing Nazi inanity in Germany and Austria in the early ’30s was full-frontal and furious; there’s no talk about maintaining neutrality or balance, no hopes that bullies and barbarians will make some sort of pivot and embrace social norms. Kraus’s mode of “understanding” what was happening had nothing to do with empathy: he painstakingly examined the linguistic strategies fascism used to assert dominance, how it schemed to shape cultures high and low. Confronted with waves of misinformation, propaganda, and anti-Semitic poison, he assumed the role of “a stage director orchestrating a cacophony of voices,” observes the late Kraus scholar/translator Edward Timms:
The resulting acoustic montage juxtaposes the beguiling doublespeak of Goebbels with the raucous chanting of the SA, while a poignant counterpoint is provided by the plaintive cries of the their victims: socialists and communists being dragged off to concentration camps, lawyers and shopkeepers whose existence has been destroyed. Liberals line up with nationalists, time-serving journalists with Nazi broadcasters, while cringing aristocrats conspire with petit-bourgeois usurpers. The impact of the tragedy is heightened by a range of discordant registers, from the exalted tones of patriotic intellectuals to advertising slogans and popular songs.
(Because of my interest in arts criticism, I was disappointed Kraus didn’t include more in-depth looks at reviewers, though he devotes some of his excoriation to a theater critic, referring to “the arse-licking enjoyed by certain influential theatre critics” and “the respect they continue to receive even when unmasked as the pseudonymous authors of amusing advertising features.” (Those interested in seeing how critics curtsied to Nazi dictates should turn to Jonathan Petropoulos’s The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany.)
The cataclysm of corruption and viciousness leads to a theater of the absurd: “It sweeps everything away like an epidemic of cerebral concussion that affects all who live and breathe, making the detached onlooker feel as tactless as someone who fails to take his hat off at the funeral of mankind.” Kraus’s pose of clinical distance serves as a modernist shield for his disgust and horror. (He was highly admired by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.) His attitude is diagnostic: Kraus listens carefully to the media’s autocratic cancer cells as they spew lies and nonsense, chomping away at civilization. He examines how chaos, cunningly injected into society, rots the healthy tissue of Weimar democracy and German humanism, from Goethe on. “Is the damage inflicted on the human mind something our minds can absorb?” Kraus asks. The answer is no, and that response helps explains the book’s celebrated/reviled first sentence: “As to Hitler, I have nothing to say.” He is not interested in probing the source of the infection; he wants to dramatize the demise of the bodies politic (Germany and Austria) via cadres of double-talking germs. That decision makes The Third Walpurgis Night more than simply an exercise in vituperation worthy of Juvenal or Swift. Kraus charts the full range of the disease’s debilitating movement — across left, right, and center — drawing connections among seemingly disparate discourses. The disease has seeped into society, to the point that some speakers are unaware they have been afflicted: the despoiled include apparatchik journalists, members of Jewish organizations, and bureaucrats and business power brokers, as well as intellectuals and poets. Among the latter, Kraus strafes the egghead perfidy of Martin Heidegger, lacerates Gottfried Benn’s huzzah for Primitivism (“How odd that these Germans have to fight even when they are thinking”), and points out the cowardice of the president of Austrian P.E.N., Felix Salten, the man who wrote Bambi!
The Third Walpurgis Night explores how authoritarian strongmen and their henchmen in the press brutalize society through the decimation of language (“germanogibberish”). In this regard he anticipates George Orwell but, as the translators point out in their introduction, Kraus doesn’t think words will be eradicated by the imposition of doublespeak so much as live on in a zombified state; he is investigating the rise of “a new rhetoric [that] infuses reassuringly familiar words of ‘oldspeak’ with new force.” Among the techniques Kraus castigates: manipulating clichés to prettify acts of barbarity, numbing resistance to lawless violence by belittling the intellect and worshiping intuition, and counting on repetition and simplification (“soundbite-hooks to trap the mind”) to create an all-powerful messaging echo chamber. The sales pitches of German publishers obsess on words like “action” and “will” and “blood and soil” — “every catchphrase a hand grenade.” The Nazis can “of course, claim that they ‘won’t harm a hair on the head of any Jew,’ since it’s evidently the only treatment that wasn’t inflicted.” Kraus is not above exposing the madness by making ghastly if telling puns; he sardonically notes the arrival of “a political reality that talks of action and actually means what it slays.”
Warning: the parade of unfamiliar names in The Third Walpurgis Night will make it a difficult read for nonspecialists. (Will any of Trump’s enablers be remembered in 90 years?) A glossary of the cast of characters is provided, and that is useful. Kraus also filters his judgment through literary allusions, referring to Goethe, of course, but particularly to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and its vision of murderous ambition. Kraus died in 1936 and he didn’t publish the book in his lifetime: parts were included in his magazine, Die Frankel (The Torch). He withheld publication because he was afraid of what the Nazis would do to the Jews in Germany who were mentioned in the book. The volume was finally published in German in 1952.
Is there any doubt about Kraus’s relevance today? “What Germany is suffering from,” he writes, “more than the enemy’s arbitrary use of power, is its own ideological fabrication of an enemy within, a fantasy that turned the heads of the wholesome part of the population into the bargain.” As for the stultification of language, the critic would no doubt relish the words of the Trump lawyer who admitted in a hearing over alleged voting fraud that the campaign did have canvassing observers present: “There’s a non-zero number of people in the room.” The Trump administration has not, like the Nazis, taken over the media, so that inanity was called out. But, as Marjorie Perloff notes in her foreword to the volume, the Republicans and their supporters are pumping mass and social media full of fake news, inane slogans, and alternative realities. Hopped up on algorithmic steroids, this kind of zombified language can’t be eradicated because it was never alive in the first place.
Not that the “legit” side of the media is innocent. Perloff mentions that “a year into the Trump presidency, CNN, which attacks and ridicules Trump from morning till night, was able to hire more than a dozen new reporters on the strength of the profits the network has made in its exposé of the president’s iniquities.” Kraus would no doubt hone in on on how succinctly CBS CEO Les Moonves articulated the value of Trump’s candidacy in 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” (Hitler was also very good for the media business.) News on the cable channels — CNN, et al. — is squeezed in between ads, a setup that lumps all the messages together. Credibility is contagious. Big Pharma and the fossil fuel industry pay for propaganda that assures viewers these corporate giants are fighting the good fight — combating diseases and lowering carbon emissions — as they continue to leverage political power and spread falsehoods to maintain control and profits.
At the end of The Third Walpurgis Night Kraus’s disdain for the media becomes hysterical. (It builds on the animus toward journalists displayed in his antiwar drama The Last Days of Mankind, available, via Yale University Press, in a superb translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms.) “I derive war and famine from the use made of language by the press, its inversion of meaning and value, its diluting and dishonoring of every concept and content,” he charges. Kraus’s bucket of bile runneth over, to the point that he blames the press (“a messenger of doom responsible for the message itself”) for Hitler. Over the top — but perhaps Kraus was, once again, simply being prescient. The global reach of Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube affects our communications, data, and privacy, as well as the flow of information around the world. Our technological messengers of doom earn billions by spewing languages of “cruel idiocy,” supercharging the 20th century’s effort to heap ever more clichés and kindling onto the “bonfire of a paper world.”
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.