Egon Erwin Kisch (Prague, April 29, 1885 - March 31, 1948) was a Czechoslovak writer and journalist, who wrote in German. He was noted for his development of literary reportage and his opposition to Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.
Kisch was born into a wealthy Sephardic
family in Prague
, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
, and began his journalistic career as a reporter for the Bohemia a Prague German language
newspaper in 1906. His early work is characterised by an interest in crime and the lives of the poor of Prague, taking Jan Neruda
, Emile Zola
and Charles Dickens
's Sketches by Boz
as his models. His most notable story of this period was his uncovering of the spy scandal involving Alfred Redl
At the outbreak of World War I, Kisch was called up for military service in the Austrian army. He fought on the front-line in Serbia and the Carpathians and his war-time experiences were later recorded in Schreib das auf, Kisch! (1929). He was briefly imprisoned in 1916 for publishing reports from the front that criticised the Austrian military's conduct of the war, but nonetheless later served in the army's press quarters along with fellow writers Franz Werfel and Robert Musil.
The war radicalised Kisch. He deserted in October 1918 as the war came to an end and played a leading role in the abortive left-wing revolution in Vienna in November of that year. Werfel's novel Barbara oder die Frömmigkeit (1929) portrays the events of this period and Kisch was the inspiration for one of the novel's characters. Although the revolution failed, in 1919, Kisch joined the Communist party, a political allegiance he maintained for the rest of his life.
Between 1921 and 1930 Kisch, though a citizen of Czechoslovakia
, lived primarily in Berlin
, where his work found a new and appreciative audience. In books of collected journalism such as Der rasende Reporter
(1924), he cultivated the image of a witty, gritty, daring reporter always on the move, a cigarette clamped doggedly between his lips. His work and his public persona found an echo in the artistic movement of Neue Sachlichkeit
, a major strand in the culture of the Weimar Republic
Through the late twenties and early thirties, Kisch wrote a series of books chronicling his journeys to the Russian SFSR, the U.S.A., Soviet Central Asia and China. These later works are more strongly informed by Kisch's communist politics. Whereas in his earlier collections of reportage he had explicitly stated that a reporter should remain impartial, Kisch came to feel that it was necessary for a writer to engage politically with what he was reporting on.
On February 28 1933
, the day after the Reichstag Fire
, Kisch was one of many prominent opponents of Nazism
to be arrested. He was briefly imprisoned in Spandau
, but as a Czechoslovak
citizen, was expelled from Germany. His works were banned and burnt
in Germany, but he continued to write for the Czech
German press, bearing witness to the horrors of the Nazi takeover.
In the years between the Machtergreifung and the outbreak of World War II, Kisch continued to travel widely to report and to speak publicly in the anti-fascist cause.
Reichstag Fire counter-trial & exclusion from Britain
Following the Reichstag Fire Trial organised by the Nazi government to lay the blaim for the fire on Communist opponents, a counter-trial was organized in 1933 in London by a group of lawyers, democrats and other anti-Nazi groups under the aegis of German Communist émigrés. Kisch was to be a witness at the counter trial but was refused leave to land in the United Kingdom because of his "known subversive activities".
Kisch's visit to Australia
as a delegate to an anti-fascist conference in 1934 was later chronicled in his book Australian Landfall
(1937). The right-wing Australian government repeatedly refused Kisch entry because of his previous exclusion from the UK. Under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901
, visitors could be refused entry if they failed a dictation test in any European language. This law was used to enforce the White Australia Policy
by ensuring that potential Asian immigrants were given an impossibly hard test. Kisch was one of the very few Europeans to be given the test; he passed the test in various languages but finally failed when he was tested in Scottish Gaelic
. The officer who tested him had grown up in northern Scotland
, and did not have a particularly good grasp of Scottish Gaelic himself. Kisch then took matters into his own hands. He jumped five meters from the deck of his ship onto the quayside at Melbourne
, breaking his leg in the process. This dramatic action mobilised the Australian left in support of Kisch. In the High Court
case of R v Wilson; ex parte Kisch
the court found that Scottish Gaelic was not within the fair meaning of the Act, and overturned Kisch's convictions for being an illegal immigrant.
Spain, France, the United States & Mexico
In 1937 and 1938, Kisch was in Spain, where left-wingers from across the world had been drawn by the Spanish civil war. He travelled across the country speaking in the Republican cause and his reports from the front line were widely published.
Following the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Bohemia six months later, Kisch was unable to return to the country of his birth. Once war broke out, Paris, which he had made his main home since 1933, also became too dangerous for an outspoken Jewish communist whose native land no longer existed. In late 1939, Kisch and his wife Gisela, sailed for New York where, once again, he was initially denied entry. He eventually landed at Ellis Island on December 28, but as he only had a transit visa moved onto Mexico in October 1940.
He remained in Mexico for the next five years, one of a circle of European communist refugees, notable among them Anna Seghers and Ludwig Renn, and the German-Czech writer Lenka Reinerová. He continued to write, producing a book on Mexico and an autobiography Sensation Fair (1941). In this period of exile, Kisch's work regularly returned to the themes of his Prague home and his Jewish roots and in March 1946 (after troubles in securing a Czechoslovak visa) he was able to return to his birthplace. Immediately after the return he started to travel around the country and work as a journalist again.
Kisch died two years after his return to Prague, shortly after the Communist party
seized complete power. There are contradictory reports of his attitude - as a German-speaking Jew - to the party in this period as it began to develop the anti-semitism
which culminated in the Prague Trials
of 1952 and supported the expulsion
of most of Czechoslovakia's ethnic Germans.
Kisch is buried in Vinohrady Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic.
After his death, Kisch's life and work were held up as exemplary in the GDR. The attitude to both in West Germany was more complicated due to his communism. Nonetheless, when Stern magazine founded a prestigious award for German journalism in 1977, it was named the Egon-Erwin-Kisch-Preis in his honour.
Kisch has appeared as a character in two novels by Australian authors. He is a minor character in Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory (1950), which was filmed for television in (1976), and plays a central, if fictionalised, role in Nicholas Hasluck's Our Man K (1999).
English titles are given where the work has been translated into English. All dates refer to earliest publication
- Aus Prager Gassen und Nächten (1912) - An early collection of reports from Prague's underworld
- Der Mädchenhirt (1914) - Kisch's only novel, again set in the Prague underworld
- Der Fall des Generalstabschefs Redl (1924)
- Der rasende Reporter (1924)
- Zaren, Popen, Bolschewiken (1926) - On the Soviet Union
- Schreib das auf, Kisch! (1929)
- Paradies Amerika (1929) - On the United States
- Changing Asia (1932) - On Soviet Central Asia
- China Geheim (1933) - On China
- Stories from Seven Ghettos (1934) - A collection with a Jewish theme
- Australian Landfall (1937)
- Soldaten am Meeresstrand (1938) - Reports from the Spanish Civil War
- Sensation Fair (1941)
- Entdeckungen in Mexiko (1945)
- Schlenstedt, Dieter: Egon Erwin Kisch. Leben und Werk. Berlin, Volkseigenen Verlag Volk und Wissen, 1985.
- Hofmann, Fritz with Poláček, Josef (ed.): Servus, Kisch! Erinnerungen, Rezensionen, Anekdoten. Berlin and Weimar, Aufbau-Verlag, 1985.
- For his time in Australia, see Kisch in Australia: the untold story by Heidi Zogbaum Scribe Publications Melbourne 2004.
- Cochrane, Peter (2008). The big Jump: Egon Kisch in Australia. Commonwealth History Project: The National Centre for History Education.
- Rasmussen, Carolyn (2006). KISCH, EGON ERWIN (1885-1948). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition,: Australian National University.