Creative Genius in Central Europe

With the collapse of Empire and the transformation of political interaction, the shift of boundaries and the realignment of nations, the ideological and political tremor came to a climax in the late nineteenth century. Then there came the great war, and  the writer emerging from all these circumstances had a responsibility to articulate both a personal position and a position within the public domain. Nothing better illustrates this situation than what took place in the heart of the failing Austro-Hungarian Empire, and specifically in Bohemia. And our focus here is on that province and what became the independent State of Czechoslovakia at the end of that huge conflict, with Prague as its capital.

Writing necessarily reflected the experience of those passing through the phase of “liminality”; that is standing on the threshold of disparate experiences, attractions and borders. This perception of borderlands was especially though certainly not exclusively within the spectrum of the Jewish population. The Jews were living in changing and uncertain times and subject to pressures often pulling in opposite directions. They inherited a tradition to which they might well have sensed a dubious loyalty. The adherence to the ancestral faith was often shaken by the exposure to new sources of truth testing and to a welter of ideologies. They lived amongst the Czechs, often spoke their language and shared their concerns. But were they really authentic Czechs? Many on the outside cast doubt on this, even such a person as their great friend and advocate Thomas Masaryk (1850-1937), first president of the republic, and such uneasiness was also sometimes experienced by the Jews themselves. And what about the German attraction? The primary language of communication of the Jews of the region might well have been German, and it was indeed most frequently their primary language, particularly amongst city dwellers. It was also the language of world culture, leading into, as it was hoped, a greater general acceptance of their intrusion on the part of that world. But did this bare fact, born of reality, mean then that they were genuinely German? The ambivalence relating to the responses to both questions, the Czech and the German, indicated a greater uncertainty. The truth was that they straddled three identities, Jewish, Czech and German, all embracing ethnicity, nationality and religion. In addition to which, these optional identities were  not only delimited themselves, but also in process, and thus changing their own nature quite significantly.

So the expressed culture that emerged reflected this exciting but unstable situation. Literature of a specifically characteristic tone was produced by what was, in terms of population proportion, a very small clique. These individuals, centred in Prague, became known as the Prague Circle (der Prager Kreis), primarily recoginized as such and described by Max Brod (1884-1968). Brod is mainly thought of today as the promoter and biographer of Franz Kafka (1883-1924), but he was, in his own right, a leading light of the Prague intelligentsia, a prolific novelist, music critic and publicist. He was not only Kafka’s closest friend, but he also became his executor and promoter par excellence, without whom Kafka might not have been widely published, let alone known as one of the greatest and most distinctive narrative writers of the era. Brod was also the primary historian of the Prague Circle, which soubriquet he created, arguing that the group as he saw it could not be regarded as a “school” in any coherent sense.

Indeed there were so many strands and tendencies amongst these writers, ideologically and technically, that this in effect did not constitute a school. Not only were the sympathies divided as between Left and Right, between Czechism, Germanism, Zionism and Internationalism, but these all also morphed with the changing times and situation.  The Jews of Bohemia were indeed positioned on the border. That border was composed of an inherited but weakening Jewish background and allegiance, a location within a growing and increasingly militant nationalism springing up within the indigenous population. But  there was also an impinging German presence. Simultaneously there began to emerge too as a third option an insistence that the Jews also should plant a stake in a recognition of their own ethnicity and a forging of a Zionism of a special brand.  As for the outside world which the writer inhabited, the situation was not only dynamic and fluid, but also not so slowly but surely moving in the direction of catastrophe.

How some of these various tendencies were reflected can be seen, for example, in the contrast between the work of Max Brod himself and that of Franz Werfel (1890-1945), the older man originally cherishing and nurturing the younger. Brod moved from a position of idealised assimilationism towards a single minded Zionism, whereas Werfel, one of the most celebrated Expressionist poets in the world, shifted from his commitment to world peace and a kind of pacifistic Communism,, towards a tender but enormous sympathy for Catholic Christianity. He also developed a career as a highly successful novelist, dramatist and Holywood  script writer, whilst fleeing the threat of Nazi persecution. Kafka himself, whilst dabbling in efforts to familiarize himself with Yiddish and also to learn Hebrew, clearly felt himself alienated from practically everything, both from his Czech environment and from his bourgeois Jewish background. He was desperate to be able  to commit himself to one of the possibilities extended, but he felt unable so to do. Such was the case too in regard to his inability to get married, despite his engagements and loves. He sought a meaningful anchor in life, but he also eschewed all labels and loyalties. As he saw it, he could not even know himself and remain whole within that entity, let alone to belong to publicly declared movements and to associate himself with some generalised ideological tendency. He was locked into a position of someone trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to know himself. Because of that failure he could not achieve marriage (vivre dans le vrai, as his hero Flaubert named it), and, as we observe, he could not either bring any of his long narratives to completion (his three novels are all uncompleted). This seems to parallel his understanding of the Messiah, who may indeed “come”, but only when it is too late.

Bohemia was not usually the final destination of these writers. Many were those who migrated, just as there were others, such as Martin Buber (from Poland) and Joseph Roth (from Galicia), who moved to Prague for brief snatches. The local authors, like the international ones, wrote primarily in German, although thy often knew Czech well. But German was no longer the undisputed master of the roost in Czechoslovakia, as the country was moving from a situation of imperial province to independent State. It was not only the immediate environment that was being transformed though, but the entire world. And this applied too to the personal world of the writer and to its expression in letters.

So many of our writers’ activities were disrupted, shifted and disturbed by the turbulence of events, as well as by attractions of ideology. Leo Perutz (1884-1957) left Prague and  served as an officer in the great war, and was wounded. Then he emigrated to Haifa (Palestine/Israel) and functioned as a successful novelist in the German tongue. But Prague remained the backdrop of his magical settings. This was the case too of the Vienna born Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932), who moved to Prague in his youth, and became the author of the Golem legend in fiction. The blind author, Oskar Baum (1883-1941), regarded by Brod as a founder member of the Prague Circle, wrote two collections of stories set in Prague. Paul Lappin (1878-1945) was a translator from Czech, but he wrote creatively mainly in German and was totally possessed by the presence of Prague. The great modernist poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was Prague born, and is seen by Brod as being on the fringed of the circle. Although he had departed the city early in life, he still regarded it as lodged deep in his heart. Many and various are the connections and associations of these authors, so disparate, but still drinking from this same well.

Where now do we locate this group? Perhaps, in our recognition of its differentiated nature, we should indeed not categorize it as a group at all, but rather as a historical phase and as a segment of cultural history. How was it that these writers, so meagre in number, managed to contribute so hugely to the cultural life of Europe? Here was the borderland position crying out for a voice in the contemporary world. This voice was, of necessity, the possession of all, but it also belonged to nothing totally. This stance constitutes its quintessential  character, and that is what it has transmitted to our own world. It appears to be so distant, as further radical transformations have taken place, and yet it is still close at hand. It both belongs to a vanished time and place, and yet is still present in so many guises.

Leon Yudkin is the author of The Prague Circle and Czech Jewry. Copies are available from the author, by contacting

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