This year marks the centennial of two landmarks of modernity: World War I and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” Both events have their origins in 1914, but neither ever truly ended: Upon his death in 1924, Kafka left behind an unfinished manuscript, while the peacemakers at Versailles left behind an unresolved war. Beyond their incomplete natures, however, the two events have much else in common with one another, and with us as well.
Many claim that “The Trial” foretells the totalitarian ideologies that would soon engulf Europe. Perhaps. But at the very least, Kafka’s uncanny gift of clairvoyance also revealed the nature of the war that had only then begun to unfold.
On August 4, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, Henry James wrote that the modern age’s belief in progress had been given the lie: “To take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.” Even more potent, however, is Kafka’s diary entry, written two days earlier: “Germany has declared war on Russia. — Swimming in the afternoon.” In a way, this was his preemptive response to James’s lamentation. Rather like Joseph K.’s reaction to his arrest — “Of course I’m surprised, but by no means greatly surprised” — it paralleled most Europeans’ response to the news of war. But Kafka, unlike James, knew better than to seek meaning in the unfolding events.
Of course, Kafka did not fight in the war he writes into his novel. Instead, he remained at his post in Prague as a lawyer with an accident insurance company. When he eventually tried to enlist, the medical examiners took one look at Kafka’s emaciated and consumptive frame and sent him packing. Yet the war nevertheless came to his native city. From the edges of the crowd, Kafka watched military marches and listened to patriotic speeches, noting that they were “well-organized and slated to be repeated every evening, twice tomorrow and Sunday.” All the while, he was increasingly isolated as Prague emptied of his friends, now mostly in uniform.
What to do? Write, Kafka told himself — only writing, he insisted, could assist his “struggle for self-preservation.” And write he did. At the very moment the European powers called one another’s bluffs, Kafka’s diary recorded the birth of a character named “Joseph K.” The process of writing K.’s story, which developed into a novel — now titled “The Trial” — resembled the fortunes of the Austrian army, retreating as often as it advanced. Kafka lamented that his writing was either at a “standstill,” “[going] forward at a miserable crawl,” or that he had “come up against the last boundary.” As the number of Kafka’s chapters increased, he visited a model trench dug for the edification of civilians in the center of Prague. He noted that the pristine ditch contrasted with “the antlike movements of the crowd” swarming around it.