Major Historical Events
Franz Kafka lived through the turn of the century, a period of time characterized by increasing global interconnectedness through multiple developments. Essentially, the world was becoming smaller as globalization began to rapidly occur through the beginning of the 1900's. One of the main catalysts for increasing global connections during this time was the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1915). This period of development, particularly in Europe, also included the inventions of steamships and engines. With this new technology enabling the increased movement of people, a rapid sharing of ideas and cultures was subsequently facilitated. One of these ideas was the Darwinian Theory of Evolution (1859) created by Charles Darwin, who transformed the world of science and propelled the 20th century into unchartered territory.
World War One
World War One (WWI) was a large global historical event that occurred, marked by millions of casualties and the spread of diseases like influenza. Most poignantly, WWI revealed the full capacity of human imposed destruction on the world stage. The war also resulted in the fall of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, of which Franz Kafka's home country of Prague was previously a member of.
Up until 1806, the city of Prague was the capital of the monarchal Kingdom of Bohemia. By 1867, the previous kingdom became a part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire in 1867. A huge component of the Austria-Hungarian Empire was the expansive bureaucratic system it maintained. The principles and modes of bureaucracy was detested by Kafka, who saw this political institution as volatile. This message would appear in some of his other stories such The Trial and The Castle.
Another strong political aspect of Kafka's background was the continued mistreatment of Jews within Prague; in fact, Jews in throughout Bohemian history had been subject to state-sanctioned persecution. The climax of this tumultuous relationship was in January of 1743-1745, when Jews were coerced out of Prague during the "Expulsion" period. Despite the efforts of Joseph II in 1781 to smooth the state's relations with the Jews by implementing the "Edict of Tolerance."
Aside from governmental policies, the political scheme in Kafka's context was influenced by a movement that began in the late eighteenth century. Entitled the "National Revival," Czech citizens began to embrace and assert their national identity throughout Prague. This was catalyzed by the Industrial revolution, which spurred Czech migration into the city from rural farm lands. With an increased concentration of Czech peoples swarming with pride in Prague, the movement saw a revitalization of Czech language, culture, and identity. Subsequently, this identity directly clashed with external German influences existing throughout the region.
As a result of Jewish historical association with Germany and the previous monarchy, rampant anti-Semitism became characteristic among nationalistic Czech peoples in the mid to late 1800's. This animosity caused many within the rapidly increasing Jewish population to attempt integration into Czech society. Despite their attempts, it became clear that Jews, German-speaking Jews in particular, were societal outcasts due to friction with Czech citizens.
Three major cultural movements began to spread throughout Europe during Kafka's youth and adult life. The first was Existentialism: a concept revolutionized by Nietzesche and Dostoyevsky in the late 1800's. This was a philosophy contemplating man's aloneness in the universe, asserting that there is either no God, or that God exists apart from man leaving him the free will to make his own choices. The next movement that influenced Kafka was Zionism, created in 1899 by Theodore Herzl. This was a movement that asserted the reestablishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, a concept that captivated Kafka in his young adult life. Finally, the modernist movement of the late 1800's marked a cultural transformation, as artists of all fields began to break away from the conventional Victorian-era styles of the time.
Culture and Kafka
As a Jew living growing up in Prague, Kafka faced a variety of cultural tensions that ensnared him in a cycle of societal persecution. Due to Jewish faith, he was isolated from integrating into Czech society. Kafka also spoke German, further polarizing himself and Czechs, as well as between himself and Germans who became more hostile to Jews. Even within his own faith, Kafka was caught between traditional Jews and those who adopted a more modern outlook, encouraged by the development of Zionism and attempted assimilation into Czech society. All of these conflicts rendered Kafka both trapped and alienated, deepening the effects of his clinical depression and social anxiety.
Cultural Impacts on Genre
Franz Kafka's unique and distinctive works can be most holistically described as modernist fiction, as his plots incorporate a fusion of reality and fantastical realms. He primarily wrote novels and short stories, works which are considered by scholars to redefine art, and often transcend categorization. Due to the surreal, existential, absurd nature of his plots and overall openness to interpretation, his genre is more ambiguous and is slightly open to interpretation.
Most of Kafka's life was spent living amongst societal tensions; between nationalists, religions, ethnic groups, and even within his family. This constrained Kafka to the physical world, and thus, in his own literary world, he was free to break out of his conventional shackles and explore whatever realms he pleased. Considering his liberation in the literary world, the genre of modernism most accurately encapsulates his collection of works.