Kafka and Kant: How Germany’s Intellectual Frontiers Overcome Territorial Borders


The Charles Bridge, with its baroque statues, is the oldest in Prague and the emperor who built it in 1357, Charles I of Bohemia and IV of Germany (1316-1378), also founded the first German-speaking university in that city. .

For centuries, Prague was at the heart of German cultural and intellectual life.

Carolina University continues to be one of the most prestigious, but German is no longer one of the dominant languages.

About 1,600 kilometers to the north is another large university town, Königsberg – now Kaliningrad – equally central to German intellectual history, but in which German is not spoken either.

Two cities that are no longer German, but that, in every way, remain part of the German cultural consciousness.

Although they are beyond the current borders of Germany, they played an important role in its intellectual and literary history. And in the memory of that country, as in that of others, there are often places that are not limited to political realities.

Kant’s Königsberg

If you are looking for evidence in modern Russian Kaliningrad that it was once a great German city, you will probably go to the Gothic Cathedral, a typical example of German Baltic brick architecture, destroyed by the British Air Force (RAF). English) in WWII and carefully rebuilt in the 1990s.

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Königsberg Cathedral.

In its northeast corner is the tomb of the city’s most famous son, the “Sage of Königsberg”, Emanuel Kant, born in 1724.

The great philosopher never traveled more than 20 kilometers from the city; in fact, he never set foot in what is now Germany.

However, German and European philosophy would be unthinkable without him.

Kant’s Königsberg was on the edge of the german speaking world, of which it was the easternmost outpost.

It had been founded on violence in 1254 by the Teutonic Knights (or Teutons), fierce German crusaders who set out to conquer and convert the pagan Baltic Prussians.

The new German state that they created, Prussia, became rich thanks to the trade in mainly one commodity: amber.

The elaborate amber gifts allowed the Hohenzollern House of Brandenburg, so ostentatiously frugal in their own court, to show off extravagantly in their gifts to others.

Because this was a rising house with great royal ambitions and, paradoxically, the peripheral Königsberg was central to those ambitions: its remoteness was your biggest advantage.

“Königsberg was outside the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, so it became very important for the Brandenburg electors’ claim to a royal title,” Christopher Clark, the Prussian historian, explained to the BBC.

“They couldn’t get a royal title without asking permission from the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, something they didn’t want to do, so they looked outside: Königsberg became the seat of Prussian royalty“.

It was a turning point in the history of Germany and Europe.

Frederick III, Margrave Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick I, as King in Prussia (Königsberg, July 11, 1657 - Berlin, February 25, 1713), member of the House of Hohenzollern, was the first King in Prussia

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Frederick III, Margrave Elector of Brandenburg, a member of the House of Hohenzollern, was the first king in Prussia as Frederick I.

From 1701 to 1918, as the new state of Prussia grew in strength and importance, the marginal Königsberg conservor its special, almost mythical place, as the seat of the monarchy.

While it was true that the royal residence was in the palace of Berlin, that eastern city enjoyed a status of its own.

That is why in 1806, when Napoleon entered Berlin in triumph, the royal family naturally took refuge in Königsberg.

And it was there that the king and his advisers reimagined the Prussian kingdom, drafted reforms, and devised the restructuring that enabled the Prussian army and state to equip themselves first to lead their German allies to victory over Napoleon, and then – in 1871 – to unite all of Germany to northern Austria under Prussian leadership.

It was in Königsberg that Prussia was made in 1701 and remade in 1806.

Kafka’s Prague

In 1878, while Kant was working at Königsberg on his “Critique of Practical Reason”, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his way to Pragueto premiere his opera Don giovanni, hoping to find a city that was — for all intents and purposes — as German as Königsberg.

Statue of Charles IV

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Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Charles IV, a patron whose name remains on many monuments and institutions.

“The external appearance of Prague would have been typically German, no different from the kind of places you would travel from in Saxony or Austria to get there,” RJW Evans, a historian of the Holy Roman Empire, told the BBC.

“And the language of a large part of standard social relationships was German,” he added.

But Prague, of course, was never an entirely German city. However, the capital of the former Kingdom of Bohemia, center of Czech consciousness, had a long and complex relationship with the German world.

The Mongol invasions of central Europe had resulted in severe depopulation, and the kings of Bohemia, eager to rebuild their towns and cities, encouraged German settlement.

From the beginning, the German community played a prominent role in the intellectual and cultural life of the city.

Prague in artistic photo

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For centuries, Prague had a strong German tinge.

When the Carolina University was founded in 1357, most of the teachers and students were German-speaking, and when – in the years around 1600 – Emperor Rudolf II established his main residence in Prague, the city became the intellectual capital of the German world, attracting artists and scholars, scientists and astronomers from all over Europe.

For the next 200 years, German ancestry remained essentially unquestioned, until, like the rest of Europe, Bohemia was shaken by the nationalistic yearnings that followed the Napoleonic Wars.

Then things changed very fast. Between 1848 and 1880, Prague went from being a mostly German-speaking city to a Czech-speaking one.

In 1882, the last of the Germans resigned their positions in the City Council in protest at the inaugural speech of the new mayor, in which he spoke of “our beloved prague slavic dorada of 100 towers“.

The following year Franz Kafka was born.

A stranger in his city

“Kafka is one of the most important writers in German,” Karen Leeder, a specialist in German culture at the University of Oxford, told the BBC.

Franz kafka

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One of the greats of 20th century literature.

“It details in many ways the restlessness and spiritual desolation of modern man, and has become synonymous with modern alienation and loss of self.

“For me, the 20th century is unthinkable without Kafka, not only in German literature, but in world literature.

“People will tell you that he is a Czech writer, an Austrian writer, a Jewish writer… to define him is to get into the problems that surround his unique voice.

“I lived in Prague and spoke German and Czech. But he wrote in german and in that sense many of its focal points are in German ”.

The Prague in which Kafka was born in 1883 was a place where German was already in terminal decline.

The City Council had determined that it was to be a one-language city. Kafka’s childhood street signs were written exclusively in Czech.

German stamp celebrating Kafka.

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German stamp celebrating Kafka.

When he came to Carolina University in 1901 to study law, the university had already been divided into a German-speaking part and a Czech-speaking part, with students using separate entrances.

So Kafka, as a German speaker, was an outsider in his own land, but not only in that sense.

At the Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium, the German-language high school he attended, more than half of the students were, like him, Jews, in a land that for 300 years had been militantly Catholic.

Kafka was doubly stranger, well placed to understand the alienations and oppressions of modern political systems.

Kafka’s novels “The Castle” and “The Judgment”, and especially his story “The Metamorphosis”, whose hero wakes up one day transformed into a huge beetle, have become part of the canon of world literature.

They are the last lasting flowering of German-speaking Prague.

Comic of the transformation of Gregorio Samsa into a cucarrón

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“When Gregorio Samsa woke up one morning after a restless sleep, he found himself on his bed turned into a monstrous insect.”

“Prague was an extraordinary melting pot at that time of Czech and German and Jewish and Yiddish influences, and Kafka was moving in the coffee culture where there was a true creative spirit, all these different people coming together bringing fragments of all kinds of different traditions”, Leeder pointed out.

The end

But by the time Kafka died in 1924, only 5% of Prague’s population was Native German, and nearly all, like Kafka himself, were Jewish.

15 years later, most of them, like Kafka’s three sisters, were killed in the Holocaust.

During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, were, ironic Y tragically, the Germans themselves who eventually eliminated his language and his tradition in prague.

In 1945, the new government of Czechoslovakia expelled the remaining German-speaking population of the country, which numbered about 3 million people.

The expelled took refuge in a Germany that most had never visited and after 700 years, the history of German Prague had ended, living only in the pages of Kafka’s fiction.

German stamp celebrating Kant.

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German stamp celebrating Kant.

The loss of the German identity of Königsberg occurred at the end of the same war.

In 1945, the German population that had not yet fled was forcibly deported or killed.

A new population from the Soviet Union was brought in and the city itself, renamed Kaliningrad, became Soviet territory, an enclave that housed a militarized naval base.

Between 1945 and 1989, the Soviet authorities, in what must be a classic case of the Stalinist eradication of memory, demolished most of what had not yet been destroyed. Every place name and every street name were changed.

Kant’s Königsberg disappeared.

Today, neither the Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor the Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.

But Prague, the imperial capital and home of Kafka, and Königsberg, the city of Kant and the Prussian monarchy, remain in German consciousness as crucial memories and endearing.

This article is based on the episode “Kafka, Kant and Lost Capitals” from the BBC Radio 4 series “Germany, memories of a nation”


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