Before the Second World War, the Czech capital was home to several ethnic groups – the Czechs, the Germans, and the Jews. Their co-existence in the modern era was often a source of conflict that only deepened after the 1918 foundation of Czechoslovakia. The question of identity in the multi-ethnic environment posed considerable challenges for leading intellectuals of the time; among them was the Prague writer, journalist and composer Max Brod. In this edition of Czechs in History, we talk to the Prague-based French historian Gaelle Vassogne, the author of “Max Brod in Prague: Identity and Mediation”. The book – only available in German to date – focuses on the role of one of the most significant personalities of the time during the fist decades of the 20th century.
The Prague-born, German-speaking intellectual Max Brod is most remembered for his friendship with another Prague writer Franz Kafka. This sometimes overshadowed his own work, which included journalistic pieces, novels, essays and music. In 1951, when he was already living in Israel, Max Brod wrote two songs based on Kafka’s poems. A recently published book on Max Brod by Prague-based, French historian Gaelle Vassogne focuses on Brod’s activities in Prague, among a group of writers that later became known as “the Prague Circle.” Gaelle Vassogne says that Max Brod’s crucial role was in mediating the relations between Czechs and Germans.
“Yes, you are right, Brod is famous for being Kafka’s best friend and the man who didn’t burn the manuscripts, which is what Kafka asked him to do, but he’s way more than that. He was a leading culture critic during the first Czechoslovak republic. He was working for the Prager Abendblatt and the Prager Tagblatt, which were two big newspapers catering to Prague’s German speaking community, and were more or less sponsored by the government. And Max Brod was the person who actually set the tone in Prague cultural life at that time, and worked as a mediator of Czech culture for the Germans, and as a cultural mediator, he was also a political mediator because he tried to further the understanding between the two communities.”
And Max Brod’s efforts were successful. He published the works of Franz Kafka, and he introduced several Czech works to a German audience, including the Good Soldier Švejk and pieces by the Moravian composer Leoš Janáček. But the early 20th century was also a time when Max Brod and his fellow Prague German speaking intellectuals had to deal with the issues of their own identity.
“The conflict was most important at the beginning of the 20th century, because that was the end of the liberal era, and the German community was becoming increasingly anti-Semitic. The Jews, who mostly considered themselves to be German, had to re-define their identity, and they chose various solutions, so for example Egon Erwin Kisch chose communism. A lot of them chose to leave Prague for Germany or Austria, like for instance Franz Werfel. Some of them stayed in Prague and became Zionists and the most famous among them is Max Brod, but there was also Felix Weltsch and Hugo Bergmann. They were impressed by the lectures Martin Buber gave in Prague before WWI, in 1909 and 1910.”
When independent Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, it gave its Jewish citizens the option of declaring themselves as being of “Jewish nationality”. This was a method of downplaying the significance of the country’s two largest minorities, the Germans and the Hungarians, as most Jewish people in Czechoslovakia considered themselves either German or Hungarian. The option was welcomed by Max Brod and other “cultural Zionists”.
“Masaryk and Beneš knew that they would have to recognize the Jewish minority to separate them from the German and the Hungarian minorities. This would lessen the weight of the Hungarians and the Germans, which would be good for the stability of the state. So what happened was that the Prague Zionists created a Jewish national council in Prague, just four days before the proclamation of Czechoslovakia, to promote the interests of the Jewish people. This council worked a lot with the government, and Brod was the vice-president of this Jewish national council.”
After the Nazis took over Germany in the 1930s, Czechoslovakia became a temporary haven for many German writers, who fled their country in the face of political and racial persecution. Max Brod made an attempt to argue with the Nazi theory on Jews, but the time was too dramatic for intellectual nuances.
“The only solution we have now regarding what is happening in Germany is to break clear and reject this German part of us. Brod even tried to argue with Nazi racial theories in his 1934 book, Rassentheorie und Judentum, in which he said, ‘we all know that the Jews are a race but the conclusions you are drawing from this fact is wrong because you can’t legislate on this basis’. But of course this didn’t work and many German Jewish writers ridiculed him, pointing out that there was no time to do this, now it’s time to fight.”
The fact that Nazis considered Jews the ultimate enemy of the German people made Max Brod, who felt part of German culture, reconsider his own identity.
“Max Brod did not really understand that the Holocaust was coming. He had a problem with his identity because he defined himself as a Jewish writer of the German tongue, and for him the German elections of 1932 were a catastrophe because he had to re-define it. He felt rejected by the culture that he loved – the German culture. He tried to preserve the German cultural identity by developing a concept he called “distanced love”, which basically said, ‘I’m a Jewish citizen of the Czechoslovak republic but I love German culture, and the Germans can’t take that away from me.”
But the Nazis would, and did, take away this notion of belonging to the German culture from any Jew who was left in the territories they controlled. When it became obvious that the Nazi drive to the east would not spare Czechoslovakia, Brod realized that his “distanced love” would not protect him.
“It seems that he really thought about leaving in 1938, after the Munich agreement. He in fact left Prague on the last train; he took the train on the night before German troops marched in, and the train he was on was the last to be allowed to cross the border between Czechoslovakia and Poland. The border was closed only minutes after the train went through. In his memoirs, Brod said that he didn’t realize any of that; he didn’t even realize that the border closed right after his train crossed.”
Max Brod and his wife, Elsa, eventually arrived in Palestine in 1939, where they spent the rest of their lives. They settled in Tel Aviv where Brod worked as a literary critic, and also at the Israeli national theatre, Habima. Gaelle Vassogne, the author of Max Brod in Prague, says he only returned to Prague two years before his death.
“As far as I know, he only came back to present his book, The Prague
Circle, in 1966. He was working in Israel at that time, he was one of the
artistic advisors at the Ha Bima Theatre, so I think he did not really see
any sense of coming back to Czechoslovakia, especially since he did not
appreciate what the communist did to the country.”