TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Kafka in Eastern Europe

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johanna Schenner looks at Antonin J. Liehm’s “Franz Kafka in Eastern Europe” from Telos 23 (Spring 1975).

In “Franz Kafka in Eastern Europe,” Antonin J. Liehm addresses the impact of Kafka on both the communist literary sphere and the regime following the May 1963 Liblice Conference, an international symposium dealing with Kafka’s life and work. At first glance, this symposium does not appear to be remarkable: Kafka, known for such works as “The Metamorphosis” (1915) and “The Castle” (1926), was born in Prague in 1883, and he worked there as a lawyer before dying in 1924 in the sanatorium at Kierling, located in Klosterneuburg, Austria. Nonetheless, the symposium revealed that the socialist regimes were less totalitarian than supposed, if only for a short time, and it also attributed to Kafka a significant role in the beginning of cultural democratization, which then spread to other spheres.

The Liblice Conference was unique for several reasons: first, Kafka was hardly known in his native country until 1963; second, Communist Marxists organized the conference—back then Czechoslovakia had been behind the iron curtain since 1945; third, this conference led to a partial opening up of the regime, which had not been an envisaged goal; and fourth, the relaxation of censorship in communist countries points toward the beginning of a democratization process that ultimately led to the era of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia known as the 1968 Prague Spring.

The first point raised by Liehm seems paradoxical: Kafka, who had lived most of his life in his native Prague, was hardly known to the Czechoslovaks. After the disastrous years of the Second World War, socialist countries publicly denounced the writer as an opponent of socialism as well as an antirealist (54). Antirealism was criticized on the grounds that it did not represent mundane and ordinary aspects of human life. Due to the official communist position, the years between 1948 and 1957 saw only indirect pamphlet-like attacks on Kafka and his work; however, neither articles directly dealing with Kafka nor any of his literary works were published at that time (54).

Another paradox is the Communist Marxists’ contribution in legitimating Kafka as an author. Eduard Goldstücker, former head of German department at Charles University in Prague and a participant at the Liblice Conference, noted: “Remember that the beginnings of Kafka’s acceptance are intimately bound up with the Communist movement” (cited on 53). That Kafka had been acknowledged as a force antagonistic to socialism did not go unnoticed. Indeed, Kafka served as a tool of denunciation by Western nations during the Cold War, in the sense of being a man caught in a totalitarian society exhibiting the bureaucratic atrocities of the socialist countries. Nevertheless, Kafka owes his first translation into the Czech language to the Communists (53). From 1920 until 1924, translations of major works were undertaken and published in Czech communist publications. Moreover, the Communist faction tried to make Kafka’s work consistent with their ideological position by mentioning, in the eulogy following Kafka’s death, his antipathy for unjust social orders and his sympathy for oppressed people (53).

The Liblice Conference also testifies to the unexpected character and outcome of the symposium, that is to say, to both its international scope and to Kafka’s rehabilitation in the socialist world. Initially, the conference organizers intended to bring together only Czechoslovakian and Soviet literary theoreticians and critics. However, the organizers wanted to invest the conference with greater significance, and so they invited representatives from all the Eastern European countries. Only the Soviet Union chose not to send any representatives (58). The significance of the Liblice Conference goes beyond the recognition of Kafka as a writer. In fact, the public statement made by the Communist Marxists regarding the communist misperception of Kafka’s work resulted in the calling into question of the strict censorship by the socialist regime. Kafka’s rehabilitation can also be assessed as a starting point for far-reaching changes in the cultural, social, and political spheres during the 1968 Dubček rule in Czechoslovakia (53).

That Kafka was understood as instrumental in democratizing the socialist regime was evident during the Moscow Conference for Disarmament in July 1963. Jean-Paul Sartre, who was inspired by Kafka’s existentialism, participated at this conference and invoked the significance of cultural disarmament: Kafka is “an example of real cultural competition . . . culture doesn’t need to be defended, either by soldiers or politicians . . . culture does have to be protected. All it asks of us intellectuals—and this is our duty—is to demilitarize it” (cited on 56). Although Sartre further opened the door for Kafka to gain a foothold in the socialist countries, his speech was not published in the Soviet Union (57). Still, the discourse contributed to the relaxation in publishing policies and provided incentives to reach out to foreign countries. As the German literature scholar Roman Karst rightly put it: “To admit Kafka into Soviet literary consciousness would mean recognizing either openly or covertly the existence of a plurality, in literature at least” (cited on 64).

Karst, a Polish critic and then deputy-editor-in-chief of a Warsaw literary review, also sheds a new light on Kafka’s recognition within the Eastern bloc. Kafka was accepted to varying degrees and in several ways at different periods in Eastern European countries (61). Four communist countries testify well to these differences: first, the Soviet Union completely rejected him; second, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) acknowledged his artistic/literary existence without paying any attention to him: “In the German Democratic Republic, they made a virtue out of necessity: they allowed Kafka into the living room but they made him stand in the corner” (61); third, Kafka made his entrance into Hungary’s cultural sphere in a top-down manner: “It was different in Hungary . . . he [Kafka] was declared salonfähig [socially acceptable] in Budapest from “above.” In other words, the Central Committee of the Hungarian Communist Party decided that the time had come to liberalize their cultural policy and Kafka got the benefit of their position” (61); fourth, the October 1956 uprising against the Communist government in Hungary, which caused over 70,000 people to seek shelter in Austria, had a significant impact on the Polish Communist government. The Polish government relaxed some of its policies for a short period of time in response to the October 1956 uprising, however, after this short period of liberalization, it became even more authoritarian (61).

Introducing Kafka’s work turned out to be a challenge during Krushchev’s leadership, which aimed at providing a stark contrast to the preceding Stalinist Terror. The anthology Franz Kafka: Novels, Stories, and Parables was published in 1956. The introduction by B. Suchkov does not introduce Kafka in a positive light to the readership. In fact, Suchkov tries to discourage potential readers from Kafka’s work: “For almost sixty pages, he [B. Suchkov] warns the reader about Kafka. It is one big attack. He finds Kafka guilty of seven cardinal sins which he enumerates: ignoring literary conventions, pessimism, distracting the reader’s attention from basic social problems, nihilism, wallowing in despondency, passivity, and alienation” (63).

As mentioned earlier, the GDR was revealed to be slightly more open to Kafka. The German communist government published Kafka’s original work after communist literary critics had first published their critique of his books. Artistically accepted, the German writer was ideologically disapproved of. In Hungary, the nomenclature made Kafka salonfähig, while in Communist Poland his acceptance was based on pre-war literary development as well as on postwar political transformations (62).

To summarize, the initial Liblice Conference gave hope to both opponents and reformers within the Communist regime. Karst illustrates well the “dangers” emanating from Kafka’s writings: “Actually, Kafka is a very dangerous author in the sense that he threatens to destroy all his admirers who do not succeed in defending their own independence.” (cited on 62). Even if Kafka’s triumph in becoming a res publica was short lived, it laid out the foundations for reforms and helped in democratizing the communist regime.

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