Franz Kafka and the Politics of a Novel

Karolina R. Swasey


This year’s 130th birthday of Franz Kafka is concurring with two other anniversaries that are affiliated with his name: the Kafka Conference, which took place in Liblice 50 years ago went down in history as a milestone in the democratization process by creating important impulses for the Prague Spring in 1968, and the 100th posthumous birthday of its initiator and spiritus recti Eduard Goldstücker.


In view of Kafka’s omnipresence in literature, film, theatre and art — it seems as though not a single year goes by, without a new book on the Czech author being published or one of his works adapted in various embodiments — it is hard to imagine that up until the early 1960s he was partially forgotten by a large part of the population.


While Kafka emerged as one of the most significant and widely read modern authors in the US and Western Europe right after the Second World War, his works were ostracized and banned throughout the entire domain of the “Real Socialism,” which sprawled out from Moscow to the border of East-Berlin. Until its first publication in Moscow in 1965, Kafka’s Trial was merely a mysterious typescript that was secretly passed around from hand to hand, concealing the author’s name and origin. A typescript with explosive power, as it turned out.


The writer Alena Wagnerová recalled reading its famous first sentence: “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” The situation seemed “completely normal” to her and most of the Soviet readers. Wasn’t this novel disguisedly portraying the terror-stricken events of 1935, 1937/38 and 1949-1952 in the USSR? But what is it that constitutes the striking resemblance between the world of Josef K. and the Soviet citizen? And when and how did the political impact of a nonpolitical writer begin? Or do Kafka’s texts become political, precisely because they don’t have anything to do with politics?



On May 27 and 28 1963, at the Liblice Chateau, the Czechoslovakian Writers Guild hosted an international symposium on the occasion of Kafka’s 80th birthday to discuss the very same questions. The initiator of the conference, Eduard Goldstücker, a professor of German Studies at the Charles University in Prague, and a victim of Stalin’s show trials, invited 27 Marxist critics and scholars from Czechoslovakia, Austria, the GDR, France, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia (Soviet Germanists were not amongst the participants) to discourse on Kafka’s rehabilitation within the communist countries. The center of the debate revolved around the phenomenon of alienation that Kafka depicted in his writings so scrupulously — so scrupulous, in fact, that he was suspected of undermining the Marxist Weltanschauung. When The Trial was finally released in 1965, by the Moscow State Publisher it was necessary to emphasize that it had no correlation to the Soviet reality. The editor as well as the critics claimed eagerly that Kafka foresaw and described the Nazi regime. 


“The Stalinist criticism had to deprecate Kafka’s work, because it negated the norms of socialist realism’,” writes Ehrhard Bahr in retrospect of the events leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968. “Reality dissolves in his writings, and any attempts of an ultimate interpretation are doomed to fail … The content of his work is paradoxical, its form is often fragmentary … The artwork turned into a dreadful nightmare, impenetrable and subjective. Kafka is not claiming to know the truth. The only truth that remains is that the human being knows nothing, and is incapable of knowing anything. A political doctrine that is convinced to be the equivalent of truth is bound to fail when confronted with a work of art, which consists of questions that are not meant to be answered.”


It is precisely this disjuncture of form and content, this invisible but perceptible second reality as pictured in The Trial, that was so characteristic of Soviet reality, argues Efim Etkind. “Kafkaesque seem the elections, when two hundred million people engage in that comical game and pretend to cast their vote for a candidate amongst many, although the electoral list consists of only one candidate … Kafkaesque are the ideological ‘discussions’, because anyone who expressed his own opinion would be immediately excluded or even arrested … Kafkaesque is the constitution, which is nothing but an empty formation of words.”


The voluminous ideological packaging of Stalin’s cultural and educational policy concealed the underlying core of socialist realism, which was the sheer preservation of power. This required the elimination of all other potential sources of influence, and therefore the political conformity of art and literature, which were seen as powerful propaganda tools that were to serve the interests of the ruler.


Artists and writers were explicitly enjoined to convey heroism, to educate the people in the goals and meaning of communism, hence to reflect the ideal, rather than the realistic. Any form of experimentation, any search for new possibilities of expression were denounced as “formalism” and combated with all instruments of power. Although these restrictions were somewhat loosened during the first so called “thaw periods” that occurred after Stalin’s death in 1953, the hostile attitude towards the “decadent bourgeois formalist” Kafka survived.


Particularly after the Second World War, when the alliance between East and West was replaced by a global struggle for power, the still widely unknown author reappeared on the horizon of those who were tasked with the surveillance of intellectual life. Aside from the fact that his work was diametrically opposed to the postulates of socialist realism, two further circumstances played a significant role in that, as Eduard Goldstücker recalls: Kafka was the most discussed writer in the Western hemisphere at that time. Secondly, he was often presented as a prophet, who anticipated the bureaucratic chicanes of the Stalinist regime by western propagandists. And since Moscow was conducting a relentless campaign against everything that was Western, Kafka too was pegged as an “imperialistic agent”.


Although the verdict against the Czech writer, who wrote in German — a language that was hardly equipped to interfere with the political agenda of the Soviets — began to alleviate in some Eastern European countries due to their respective liberalization process since the 1950s (mainly in Czechoslovakia and Poland, where first translations of The Trial and The Castle began to circulate), it was not until the Liblice-Conference in 1963, that the cracked prejudices against Kafka began to show their far-reaching repercussions.


Set against the backdrop of Khrushchev’s doctrine of a peaceful coexistence between capitalism and socialism and the increasing influence of an undogmatic Marxist literary criticism, the initially academic event quickly turned into a political one. It revolved around the question, whether the growing problem of alienation was, as Marx stated, merely a product of capitalism, or if its profound and pervasive nature was also to be found in socialist societies and therefore Kafka’s texts ought to be read more subversively, as the Austrian guest speaker Ernst Fischer proclaimed: “Kafka is a poet who concerns all of us. The alienation of man that he depicted with maximum intensity, assumes horrifying proportions in the capitalistic world. However, it is by no means surmounted in the socialist world. To overcome [this phenomenon] step by step, by fighting against dogmatism and bureaucracy and for socialistic democracy, initiative and responsibility, is a long process and a great task. ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Castle’ are suited to contribute solutions to this mission. The socialist reader will find traits of his own problems within them, and the socialist functionary will be coerced into reasoning certain questions in a more thoroughly and differentiated manner. Instead of discounting or fearing Kafka, one should print his books and thus evoke a high-level discussion … I am appealing to the socialist world: Bring Kafka’s work back from its involuntary exile. Grant him a permanent visa!”


The six guest speakers from the GDR were more cautious in delivering their speeches, toeing the Stalinist party line of Walter Ulbricht. Their participation in the conference took courage, since the case Kafka was a highly sensitive subject in Eastern Germany. In 1962 Jean-Paul Sartre held a speech on “the demilitarization of culture” at the World Freedom Congress in Moscow, in which he emphasized the necessity of the intellectual coexistence between East and West and urged his audience to translate and to publish Kafka’s works. This speech was put in print by the GDR magazine Sinn und Form, whereupon its chief editor Peter Huchel was laid off. It came as no surprise that the “new spring theories” elaborated in Liblice, were discredited as “Prague Revisionism” by GDR’s newspapers, and when Walter Ulbricht, GDR’s head of state at that time, described the Kafka-Conference as the beginning of a decay.


In retrospect, the results of Liblice might seem modest from a literary standpoint. However, Kafka’s rehabilitation that manifested itself at that conference set the ball rolling throughout all European socialist countries. Within the next five years the ball turned into an avalanche that surpassed the Czechoslovakian borders and was thus symptomatic of a general cultural development. It can be traced to the events of the Prague Spring, which culminated in the tragic events of August 1968, when Alexander Dubcek’s efforts to reform his country by liberating Marxism from its Stalinist captivity in order to create a “socialism with a human face”, were forcibly suppressed by the Eastern Bloc armies from four Warsaw Pact countries — the Stalinist dogmatism was thereby re-enthroned.


How strongly Kafka was affiliated with the events of 1968, and why the prejudices against him don’t stem from his texts but rather from the dangerously black-and-white interpretations of his texts, might be proven by the reports of Heinrich Böll, who witnessed the invasion of the troops in that summer of 1968: “In front of Kafka’s birth house stood a tank, its barrel aiming at Kafka’s bust.”


Someone must have traduced Franz K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one somber night, nearly 40 years after his demise.


Author Bio:
Karolina Swasey is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photos: Adam Jones (Wikipedia Commons); Wikimedia Commons

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