Kafka, Prague and the First World War

It is well known that Franz Kafka never took part in the conflict. His private and professional life – so as that of everybody living in the first decades of the last century – was however influenced by the WWI: newspaper and personal reports of acquaintances, the occasional meeting with soldiers, veterans and other civilians whose lives were upset by the war provided him constant information on the destroying force of the war. And yet we can scarcely find few direct annotations on the WWI in Kafka’s letters and diaries. Literature often refers to the his famous diary entry on 2nd August 1914, where the writer notes: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon”. A good example of macro- and micro-history, collective and personal existence which may be interpreted also as a radical shift from world events and the “banality” of the everyday life. Scholars have never been deceived by this - apparently detached - entry and often highlighted how deep Kafka’s works were influenced by the Great War. Analysis of his single masterpieces, starting from The Trial (written between 1914 and 1915, but published only in 1922) to the The Castle (1926), has proved how the Czech writer elaborated in his narrative creations the trauma of the WWI. We could spend days to talk about each one of these works, yet we suggest today to consider the connection between Kafka and the WWI from another point of view.

Due to the lack of direct references in his private correspondence and in his personal writings, it is not clear how Kafka elaborated the indirect experience of the Great War in his life and in his works. We have only the results of this process: his novels. To explain the question, scholars have recently experimented other perspective of analysis, focusing for example the investigation on the cultural milieu in which Kafka lived and worked.

We turn therefore to his city, Prague, a place that remains indissolubly connected to the spirit of Kafka. This is the starting point of a new collection of essays – part in English and part in German – entitled Kafka, Prague and the First World War (edited by Manfred Engel and Ritchie Robertson, Würzburg 2012), to which we would like to refer here shortly. The book, which collects the acts of an international symposium held in Oxford in September 2010, is organized in three section. The first one evaluates the historical context and discuss the particular situation of Prague, in order to understand how the Great War became a theme discussed in the city. Prague was in fact one of the most important city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and embodied its multinational conflicts. The important Jews community and the Zionist movement influenced both Kafka and the cultural climate in which he lived. Prague breathed also the constant tensions between German and Czech culture, being a cultural centre of the former and the political capital of the latter. This aspect is discussed in the second section of the book, where the literary scene is analyzed referring for example to Max Brod’s novel Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott, or to the “shell-shock” as a literary trope in Kafka’s and in Richard Weiner’s works. Four essays try to describe so how the war affected both the Czech and the German culture of the city. Finally the third part focuses on Kafka’s works, especially on those produced between 1916 and 1917 in the Alchimistengässchen and examines the distinctive kind of mimesis performed in the writings of the war-time. The book enable the readers to contextualize in an effective way the work of Kafka in the broader cultural and ethnical context of Prague and deserves therefore the attention of  all those who are interested in the WWI literary legacy.