- The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe
In the conclusion to The Anti-Journalist Paul Reitter points to a problem confronting anyone who writes on the difficult, sometimes exasperating, often brilliant figure of Karl Kraus: "For if important thinkers regularly rediscover Kraus, and if both the significance of his major themes and his skill at chronicling them have been vigorously underlined, he is not widely read today" (p. 178). In the nearly 200 pages that precede this remark, Reitter astutely demonstrates why students of both European modernism and German Jewish culture would do well to read and teach the work of Karl Kraus; he shows why the "anti-journalist" media critic is still relevant today and why his troubled relationship to Jewish issues helps illuminate both fin-de-siècle Europe and Jewish life there and in modern western culture, more generally.
Both Kraus's criticism of language (Sprachkritik) and his complex relationship to Jewish issues pose a serious challenge to Kraus scholars—Reitter cites as preface to his analysis Gershom Scholem's admonition: "In dealing with Kraus's relation to Jewish issues, one can only commit errors, for which Kraus himself made sure there would be plenty of scope" (p. 26). Scholem's remark does more than underscore this challenge; it also suggests the stakes involved in Reitter's study, for Kraus's difficulty relates both to the larger question of German Jewish acculturation and the ways in which Kraus wove certain kinds of difficulty into his own sharp-edged analyses of society, language, culture, and the press. The fact that Reitter combines these two sides of Kraus is itself significant, for as he suggests in his introduction, one can approach Kraus without seriously exploring the question of Jewishness in his work—an approach, however, whose gaps Reitter's study throws into stark relief.
A key question Reitter's study responds to is: how does Kraus's approach to language relate to his view of power? Reitter shows that Kraus criticized language abuse as a means for criticizing how the press conceals abuses of power. At the same time, Reitter addresses a second key question: how does one reconcile Kraus's use at times of antisemitic stereotypes with his repeated assertion, especially after 1910, of his own Jewishness?
Reitter's response to these conflicts in Kraus is both complex and elegant: it combines a careful, lucid contextualizing of Kraus's work and the issues he responded to with a series of exacting readings of key essays by Kraus and others. In setting up this context, Reitter's introduction discusses how figures like Richard Wagner and Heinrich von Treitschke, among others, polemicized against the role of Jews in German culture. Reitter further explores in Chapter [End Page 181] 1 a troubled article on German-Jewish assimilation, "The German-Jewish Parnassus," by a young Jewish scholar named Moritz Goldstein. Appearing in 1912, the article triggered much controversy about the question of German Jewish creativity and psychic health.
This debate forms a backdrop for Reitter's treatment of Kraus's own interventions on the subject. By focusing on the controversy around Goldstein, Reitter shows that influential German Jewish writers drew for their analyses of Jews in German culture, and journalism in particular, on terms and tropes disturbingly similar to those used by antisemites. But they did so in complex ways. By exploring these debates, Reitter seeks to generate a "new openness" for understanding Kraus's own capacity to align himself with such issues (p. 34). He also sets up the context for showing "how Kraus's style came to be signified within German-Jewish circles as a profoundly Jewish phenomenon," a point explored in depth in Chapter 4 (p. 34).
Chapter 2, "Karl Kraus and the Jewish Self-Hatred Question," explores Kraus's utterances on journalism, Jewish issues, Zionism, antisemitism and German culture, and culminates in an exacting reading of Kraus's oft-cited essay "Heine and the Consequences...