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Culture

Prague preserves bilingual era and German literary tradition

A century ago, Prague was home to a group of German-speaking writers that left their mark on the Czech capital. As the city becomes increasingly international, one organization is preserving the German tradition.

Franz Kafka

Prague was once home to a vibrant community of German-speaking, predominantly Jewish authors like Franz Kafka and Max Brod. They lived in a self-contained literary world - a world which vanished with the twin conflagration of the Holocaust and the post-war expulsion of Czechoslovakia's German-speaking population.

Now, there is an organization working to preserve and promote that literary legacy: the Prager Literaturhaus.

"Do you know why Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek could never have met?" asked Lucie Cernohousova, the director of the Prager Literaturhaus. This could either be the beginning of a clever literary joke or a simple historical statement.

In fact, as Cernohousova explained, it was a bit of both: "Because Kafka spent all his time in cafes, and Hasek hung out in pubs."

Parallel worlds

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), author of "The Trial," and Jaroslav Hasek (1883-1923), creator of "The Good Soldier Svejk," produced some of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century. Their lives overlap almost perfectly.

They lived in the same city at the same time, yet their paths never crossed: Hasek, the quintessential Czech writer, spent his time downing pints of beer in the spit-and-sawdust pubs of Zizkov, a working-class suburb of Prague.

Kafka, a middle-class Jew who spoke fluent Czech but wrote almost exclusively in German, lived in an entirely different world. It was a world of bourgeois cafes and coffee, not proletarian pubs and beer. The language of that world was, predominantly although not exclusively, German.

Lucie Cernohousova

Lucie Cernohousova wants to educate Czechs on their cultural history

Long literary tradition

It's supremely ironic that Kafka - a man so unconvinced of his own talent that he pleaded for his unpublished works to be destroyed after his death - has now become the poster child for the German-speaking Jewish literati of Prague. Kafka's legacy is, in other words, safe. The mission of the Prager Literaturhaus is to preserve the work of his lesser-known predecessors and peers.

"The tradition of German literature in Prague dates back almost to the 16th century," Cernohousova explained.

"A lot of Czechs don't know that," she continued. "That's the main goal of the Prager Literaturhaus. To say: there is a big tradition. There is a big cultural heritage which is connected with our culture, and with our roots.”

Prague's German literary legacy is indeed impressive. To name a few:

  • Rainer Maria Rilke: one of the most important poets of the German language; born in the Bohemian capital in 1876 and died in 1926, just two years after Kafka.
  • Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932): moved from Vienna to Prague, and became obsessed with the gloomy, cobble-stoned streets of its Jewish ghetto, using them as the backdrop for his mystical gothic masterpiece "The Golem."
  • Franz Werfel (1890-1945): a journalist, author and friend of Kafka who's often credited with inventing expressionism.
  • Egon Erwin Kisch (1885-1945: a prolific, passionate journalist and committed communist; shone a light on Prague's seedy back streets and brothels, and whose reportage later took him to far-flung corners of the world.
  • Max Brod (1884-1968): Franz Kafka's closest friend, who famously refused Kafka's orders to burn his unpublished works.

Pockets of German culture

All of these authors - and many more - can be found on the shelves in the Prager Literaturhaus, whose collection of Prague German literature rivals that even of the Czech National Library. You can sit down at the desk of Lenka Reinerova, the last of the Prague German writers, who founded the Prager Literaturhaus in 2004 four years before her death at the age of 92.

Lenka Reinerova's desk

Lenka Reinerova, whose desk is pictured here, was the last of the Prague German writers

The Literaturhaus is situated in a courtyard behind heavy wooden doors that lead on to one of Prague's busiest thoroughfares. It's an oasis of calm, a refuge from the traffic and the trams. It serves mainly as a resource center for scholars and students of Prague's German literary oeuvre, but when renovation is complete, the Haus will feature a cafe hosting regular literary evenings. At the moment they are held at various locations around the Czech capital.

"If you're looking for German culture, it's here," said Gabriela Rottova, sitting down to an evening at the Krasny Ztraty cafe dedicated to the Prague-born writer Auguste Hauschner. "It's possible to live a German cultural life here in Prague."

"German culture is all around us," added her companion, Petr Smetana. "It has deep roots, whether it's Franz Kafka, Max Brod, [Gustav] Meyrink, or whoever. German culture lives on; it's still with us," he said.

Lucie Cernohousova's mission is to make sure it's preserved for future generations.

A different kind of multicultural

"I would say even right now if you ask some Czech grammar school pupils, they would probably say the Germans came with the Second World War," she explained.

"That's a very big educational gap among our population. I was never taught at school about this great cultural tradition. Not only in literature - it's in culture, music, actually almost in every aspect of human life."

The Czechs of modern-day Prague are learning more about their city's past as a multicultural metropolis. The Prague of today is becoming multicultural, albeit in a different way - there are branches of Starbucks, Thai massage parlors, and large populations of Ukrainian and Vietnamese immigrants.

But, unlike the German tradition, those communities are transient and have so far left little cultural imprint on the Czech nation. The days when the city's intellectuals conversed comfortably in two tongues - Czech and German - are long gone.

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