The Atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Before the First World War and the Problem of Cultural Identity

The Pre-World War 1 atmosphere in the Austria-Hungary Empire in which Franz Kafka grew up and lived in led him to feel outcast from both his culture and the culture of that society. Caught in the middle between the Germans and the Jews and experiencing the political and ethnic conflicts in the area of the time, he felt isolated and did not fit in anywhere in this society. In “The Metamorphosis”, Kafka uses the themes of loss of identity, culture, and language to represent the real struggles he and other Jews experienced in the Austria-Hungary Empire in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.

Conflict between nationalities in the Austria-Hungary Empire in the late 19th century into the early 20th century led to the Jews feeling like outcasts. In the Austrian half of the empire specifically, the relations between the Germans and Czechs in Bohemia, where Kafka lived, caused the most difficulty for peace and national identity. Kafka uses Gregor and his struggles with identity to represent how Czechs living in Bohemia, which included the Jews such as Kafka’s family, struggled to define their identity and culture. The Czechs themselves struggled for their ethnic identity and Kafka especially did as a Jew working in Prague because “most educated Czechs (and the other subject nationalities) could speak German”(Tonge). The Czech working class saw him as an outcast because he was a Jew and did everything in German and yet the Germans did not accept him because they held a higher political standing than the Jews.

Even though he tries to put his identity in his work and providing for his family, Gregor was simply “a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone”(Kafka 5). Just as the “Germans who saw their position of political supremacy being undermined”(Tonge) when the Austria-Hungary Empire tried to make reforms for the Czech people, Gregor was a slave to his work and had no sort of cultural achievements as work was the sole occupier of his life. He only focused on his work for his family because his parents could not work but when he is late one day he says “ I’d be fired on the spot. Anyway, who knows if that wouldn’t be a very good thing for me. If I didn’t hold back for my parents’ sake, I would have quit long ago”(Kafka 5). Even though he does this for his family, his father resents him for his German attachments. His father would have hated the Germans because “the so-called Old- Czechs lost ground in the 1880s and suffered a total defeat in the parliamentary election of 1891.

The most determined opponents of the Bohemians’ schemes were the representatives of the German-speaking population of Bohemia.”(Britannica). Both the Germans and the Czechs opposed the other gaining any sort of cultural or political clout even though the Germans were already politically supreme. Gregor worked for his father’s enemies and his father felt as if Gregor was abandoning his heritage and disrespecting his father by working for and assimilating to the culture of the Germans. An outcast in society for being Jewish and an outcast at home for working for Germans, Gregor had no sense of identity which finally manifested physically as him transforming into a bug.

The Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which included the Czechs and the Slovaks, had ethnic and political tensions that Kafka represented through Gregor and his family. The Slovaks are represented by Gregor and the Czechs are represented by his mother, father, and sister. The Slovaks experienced much less cultural identity and recognition than the Czechs did. The Czechs were offered much more recognition as a legitimate nationality. In the Hungarian part of the Austria-Hungary Empire, “Nationalities in Hungary – Romanians, Serbs and Slovaks- were forced to endure a policy of Magyarization”(Tonge). This so called policy of Magyarization is where the Slovaks and other nationalities had to assimilate to the Hungarian culture including language and other cultural practices and “[d]uring this period, in the Hungarian portion of the empire, the Slovaks continued to experience ever-increasing Magyarization. By the end of the 19th century no Slovak secondary schools remained”(Bradley).

In the Austrian part of the empire, however, reforms were being made to increase the recognition of the Czech culture for example, “Taaffe’s government improved linguistic and cultural equality between the Czechs and Germans in Bohemia”(Tonge) to the extent that fluency in Czech and German was required of all civil servants in Bohemia. Gregor’s sister, Grete, “unlike him, loved music and could play the violin movingly”(Kafka 26), this is an example of a cultural endeavor available to Grete because she is representative of a Czech citizen and not available to Gregor because he is representative of a Slovak citizen.

This idea of the Slovaks having less national identity increased through World War 1 and into the creation of Czechoslovakia. As the Czechs gained in recognition with their own state of Czechoslovakia the Slovaks were put down that much more into assimilation. Kafka even expressed this idea in the sense that as the book went on, Grete flourished into her own person(Czechoslovakia) shown when Gregor “ heard them say how much they appreciated his sister’s work, whereas until now they had frequently been annoyed with her because she had struck them as being a little useless.”(Kafka 29) and Gregor kept dwindling, “By World War I about half a million Slovaks had emigrated abroad”(Bradley), until he died(Slovaks).

The issue of language between the Czech Jews and the Zionists in the late 19th century influenced Kafka in his writing of “The Metamorphosis” to the theme of loss of communication between Gregor and the rest of the world. After civil equality was given to Jews in Prague, “Jews began to adopt the German language and assimilated German cultural patterns”(HolocaustResearchProject). The Jews almost lost their own cultural and language during this time period but then after the 1870’s, “the growth of Czech nationalism increased the level of antagonism felt by the Jews” (HolocaustResearchProject) which prompted some of these Jews to embrace Zionism which focuses on regaining Jewish culture. These Zionists felt like the Czech Jews that spoke German were not respecting and helping their own ethnicity but the Czech Jews that worked in Prague did not have much of a choice as business here was done in German.

Kafka represents this isolation of Jews speaking German from the Zionists through Gregor and when “No plea of Gregor’s helped, no plea was even understood; however humby he might turn his head, his father merely stamped his feet more forcefully”(Kafka 18). This is Kafka’s way of representing the isolation he felt because of the language conflict when the Zionists were forcefully imposing their beliefs but the working class Jews had to speak German because that was the language in which business was conducted.

In addition to the conflicts between the Germans and the Czechs, and between the Czech Jews and the Zionists, Franz Kafka and the other Jews at the time endured sentiments of anti-semitism in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. According to, “ In April 1882 a Christian girl named Esther Sobymossi was missed from the Hungarian village of Tisza Eszlar, where a small community of Jews were settled. The rumor got abroad that she had been kidnapped and murdered by the Jews”(Pike) this led to the imprisonment of 15 Jews which were only freed when “under the brilliant cross-examination of the advocates for the defence the whole of the shocking conspiracy was gradually exposed”(Pike).

This anti-semitic fueled conspiracy to have these Jews arrested represented the feelings of anti-semitism that was in the political, economic and social areas of the empire. These anti-semitic feelings throughout the Austria-Hungary empire were felt by Kafka, pushing him to feel less than human and like a bug, ready to be squished by those opposed to him and the other Jews.

Franz Kafka represents his experiences growing up and living in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, more specifically Prague, in the late 19th century into the early 20th century in his book “The Metamorphosis”. The experiences of the conflicts between the Germans and the Czechs, the inequality between the Czechs and the Slovaks, the conflict over language and the anti-semitic sentiments throughout shaped the themes in “The Metamorphosis”. These themes presented themself through the isolation of Gregor, the loss of identity and his humanity physically and otherwise, including loss of language.

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