Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Karl Kraus Collection
Karl Kraus was born on April 28, 1874 in Gitschin, Bohemia (modern Jičin, Czech Republic), then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The son of Jakob Kraus, a wealthy Jewish papermaker and businessman, and his wife Ernestine Kantor, Karl moved with his family to Vienna in 1877. He began to study law at the University of Vienna in 1892, but after changing his major to philosophy and German studies, he decided to leave the university in 1896 without a degree in hand.
Still in his early twenties, Kraus launched himself into a career in literature, publishing the first issue of a new journal, Die Fackel ("The Torch"), in April 1899. Kraus attracted a number of well-known artists and writers to Die Fackel in its first decade, however, by 1911 Kraus had become virtually the sole contributor. Despite the dearth of other writers, Kraus continued to edit and publish Die Fackel until his death in 1936.
Kraus is typically considered a key member of the fin de siècle literary and artistic culture in Vienna. This group included artists such as Gustav Klimt, a pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement, and a later the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, who painted a portrait of Kraus. Typically, the writers and painters associated with Kraus were immersed in the twin ideas of both cultural decadence and imminent change. Die Fackel, in fact, was intended to hold a "torch" to the hypocrisy of German and Austrian society and the Austro-Hungarian government. In his writing, Kraus criticized everything from psychoanalysis to the corruption of the Habsburg Empire, laissez-faire economic policies, and the nationalism of the pan-German (Großdeutschland) movement, among many other topics.
However, Kraus was not limited to biting essays on subjects of cultural concern, nor was he necessarily limited to these particular subjects in all of his writing. Kraus is known for using an array of literary vehicles to express himself, including essays, plays, poems, and aphorisms. His best-known work is the satirical play, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit ("The Last Days of Mankind"), a massive piece about World War I. Kraus also exhibited a lasting interest in language, about which he wrote regularly in Die Fackel as well as in books such as Die Sprache (Language). His linguistic interests also led him to re-translate Shakespeare's sonnets in 1932.
The fact that newspaper articles discussing Kraus and his work could still be found in German-language newspapers nearly 30 years after his death speaks to his strong influence in German literature and cultural studies. His last writing, an issue of Die Fackel, appeared in February 1936. He died in Vienna four months later on June 12, 1936, from a stroke and heart failure.