Kafka’s goodbye to Berlin

  • Themes: Culture

Franz Kafka found peace in the German capital. It wasn't to last long.

Lesser Ury's painting Unter den Linden.
Lesser Ury's painting Unter den Linden. Credit: Svintage Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

One hundred years ago, Franz Kafka was living, and dying, in Berlin. He had wanted to move there for some time. ‘If only it were possible to go to Berlin,’ he wrote in his diary in April 1914; ‘to become independent, to live from one day to the next, even to go hungry, but to let all one’s strength pour forth instead of husbanding it here […] If only F. wanted it.’ ‘Here’ was Kafka’s native Prague, a city from which he couldn’t escape: ‘Prague never lets you go,’ he declared. ‘This dear little mother has sharp claws.’ ‘F.’ was his lover, Felice Bauer. In September 1923, Kafka managed to extricate himself from those claws and settle down in Berlin, not with Bauer but rather his later – and indeed last – lover, Dora Diamant.

Despite Kafka’s enthusiasm for the place, Berlin was Plan B. He originally considered emigrating to Palestine, but the tuberculosis he was suffering from was worsening, and he decided that the long journey would be too arduous. Nevertheless, for a while both he and Diamant kept that dream alive, viewing their stay in Berlin as temporary, a mere stop-gap sojourn before a final move to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, where they would open and run a little restaurant. According to their improbable plan, Diamant would cook (even though she couldn’t) while the author of ‘The Metamorphosis’ would wait tables.

Kafka stayed put in Berlin and went nowhere fast. He arrived at the worst possible time, when the city was in turmoil. Leftists and growing ranks of Nazis slugged it out on the streets following rallies and marches. Army and police units stepped in and opened fire when strikes turned violent or communists appeared to be winning. Hyperinflation led to looting and holdups. As biographer Reiner Stach notes: ‘It was as if Kafka had set up house at the edge of a minefield.’

And yet, to begin with, this self-styled ‘little emigrant’ found peace. That house – actually a small furnished apartment – was on Miquelstrasse in Steglitz, then an outlying district fringed by green space and far from the madding crowd. Kafka seldom strayed beyond his immediate vicinity, preferring to walk the leafy neighbourhood streets or visit the nearby botanical gardens. ‘My Potsdamer Platz is the square outside the Steglitz Town Hall. Even that is too noisy for me,’ he wrote to his friend Robert Klopstock. At the end of October he dined in a vegetarian restaurant on Friedrichstrasse – only the second time he had eaten out in the city centre. He contemplated enrolling for gardening school but considered himself ‘too weak for the practical classes, too distracted for the theoretical instruction’. Instead, he drew on dwindling reserves of strength to attend free courses at the Berlin Academy for the Science of Judaism, what he called ‘an oasis of peace in wild Berlin and in the wild regions of the inner self’. Cocooned in the sticks, he kept abreast of the latest developments in ‘wild Berlin’ by glancing in the windows of the three big publishers Ullstein, Mosse and Scherl, which had branches in Steglitz: ‘From the front pages of the newspapers on display there I absorb the poison that I can just manage to bear.’

Kafka also spent a lot of time at home in Berlin, and not just when his health ground him down. He and Diamant read to each other, mostly in Hebrew. They received visits from family and friends, many of them making the trip from Prague. In November, Kafka’s sister Ottla came to stay and to inspect, and after returning home she saw to it that her older brother was sent several food packages a week along with regular money remittances. Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod met him on the occasions that he was in town for business and pleasure – partly to oversee the production of Janáček’s opera Jenufa, for which he had translated the libretto, and partly to visit his mistress, Emmy Salveter. When Brod wasn’t there, Salveter would often turn up at Kafka’s door to complain about him.

Another reason Kafka stayed at home was to turn his attention to what he termed his ‘scribblings’. At the end of 1923 he produced two stories (or at least two that have survived). One was ‘The Burrow,’ about a creature that has tunnelled deep underground and built a shelter. But the protection it offers is precarious and any sense of security deceptive: ‘I live in peace in the inmost chamber of my house, and meanwhile the enemy may be burrowing his way slowly and stealthily straight toward me.’ Frustratingly, the story ends mid-sentence, leaving the reader in the dark as to the fearful animal’s fate.

Kafka’s other tale, ‘A Little Woman’, was more of a scathing sketch, a portrait of an old harridan who has an irrational and ineradicable hatred of the narrator. ‘Nothing can remove it, not even the removal of myself,’ we are told; ‘if she heard that I had committed suicide she would fall into transports of rage.’ This story was not entirely fictitious: it was inspired by Kafka’s landlady, whose antagonism towards her two tenants soured into animosity on learning about the electricity Kafka consumed when working through the night. At the end of their sixth week in the apartment, Kafka and Diamant were given notice to leave.

We can mark this moment in November 1923 as a turning point, the juncture at which Kafka’s luck changed and started to run out. He and Diamant moved to new rooms in Grunewaldstrasse but managed once again to incur the wrath of their landlady. When they moved to their third lodgings in early 1924 in the city’s Zehlendorf district, Kafka was too weak to carry his belongings, which resulted in Diamant making numerous trips back and forth alone. His health had been deteriorating sharply, leaving him frequently bedridden and housebound and plagued with coughing fits, bouts of shivering and an almost continuous high fever. Further attempts at writing were impossible. Medical bills were unthinkable. In February, Kafka’s Uncle Siegfried, a country doctor, paid a house call on his nephew and told him he required urgent treatment in a sanatorium. He recommended Vienna or Davos. Berlin wasn’t an option. Berlin was over.

On 17 March, Brod accompanied Kafka back to Prague. Diamant was to remain in Berlin until further notice. Kafka journeyed home heartbroken and ashamed. Six months earlier, at the age of 40, he had set out to turn his life around. He had considered himself a failure, a man who had done much yet accomplished nothing. Berlin heralded a new start, a stab at redemption; it afforded him the chance to stand on his own two feet, well outside his parents’ shadow. According to Diamant, Kafka regarded his success in tearing himself away from Prague as the greatest achievement of his life. Returning there was tantamount to ignominious defeat.

We know what Kafka thought of Prague, but not of Berlin. His diary entries stop in June 1923 and his letters only reveal certain details – his daily activities, his reading material, his current condition. Some of those letters are filled with regret and fuelled by misery. ‘It was monstrous I came here,’ he disclosed to one friend. To another he admitted that his move to Berlin was ‘a foolhardiness whose parallel you can only find by leafing back through the pages of history, say to Napoleon’s march to Russia’.

Even when at his lowest ebb, thwarted by hardships (‘the real agony of the prices’) and ill-health (‘I have trouble with my breathing, start to cough, become more anxious than I ordinarily am, see all the dangers of this city uniting against me’), Kafka remained stoic and made it clear he didn’t want to leave. He might not have ventured far enough in Berlin to have an informed opinion but he did know that, unlike home, it offered him a future. Perhaps the closest we will get to his opinion of the place is this concise verdict: ‘Berlin is the antidote to Prague.’

It is tempting to imagine an alternative reality in which Kafka overcame his illness and lived to enjoy and write through the Goldene Zwanziger, or Golden Twenties, those years of German stability and creativity, Expressionism and hedonism. It wasn’t to be. His short stay capped his short life.

Kafka was aware that time went by quickly for him. In his first month in Berlin, he sent a postcard progress report to his friend Felix Weltsch: ‘the days are so short, pass for me even faster than in Prague, and happily much less noticeably. Of course it is a pity that they pass so swiftly, but that is the way time is; once you’ve taken your hand off its wheel it starts to spin and you no longer see a place for your hand to check it.’ Less than three months after Kafka left Berlin, the wheel stopped spinning.


Malcolm Forbes