Egon Erwin Kisch (29 April 1885, Prague – 31 March 1948, Prague) was a Czechoslovak writer and journalist, who wrote in German. Nicknamed as "Raging Reporter from Prague", Kisch was noted for his development of literary reportage and his opposition to Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.
Kisch was born into a wealthy, German-speaking Sephardic Jewish family in Prague, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and began his journalistic career as a reporter for 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, Émile 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 and became a corporal in the Austrian army. He fought on the front line in Serbia and the Carpathians and his wartime experiences were later recorded in Schreib das auf, Kisch! (Write That Down, 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 became a founding member of the Austrian Communist Party and remained a Communist 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 (The Raging 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.
From 1925 onwards Kisch was a speaker and operative of the communist international and a senior figure in the publishing empire of the West European branch of the Comintern run by communist propagandist Willi Münzenberg. In 1928 Kisch was one of the founders of the Association of Proletarian-Revolutionary Authors.
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 28 February 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 as prisoner 1067 in cell 33, 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 and émigré German press, bearing witness to the horrors of the Nazi takeover.
Reichstag Fire counter-trial and exclusion from Britain
Following the Reichstag Fire Trial organised by the Nazi government to lay the blame 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".
Attempted Exclusion from Australia
Kisch's visit to Australia as a delegate to an anti-fascist conference in 1934 was later chronicled in his book Landung in Australien (Australian Landfall) (1937). The right-wing Australian government refused Kisch entry from the ship Strathaird at Fremantle and Melbourne because of his previous exclusion from the UK. 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. He was bundled back on board but this dramatic action mobilised the Australian left in support of Kisch. When the Strathaird docked in Sydney proceedings were taken against the Captain on the grounds that he was illegally detaining Kisch. Justice H.V. Evatt ordered that Kisch be released. 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. As soon as Kisch was released, he was re-arrested and 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. 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 and 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 28 December, but as he only had a transit visa moved on to 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 a memoir, Marktplatz der Sensationen (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.
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 Prize in his honour.
Kisch's work as a writer and communist journalist inspired Australian left wing intellectuals and writers such as Katherine Susannah Prichard, E.J. Brady, Vance and Nettie Palmer and Louis Esson. This group formed the nucleus of what later became the Writers League drawing on the example of Egon Kisch’s own journalistic dedication to reportage.
Kisch has appeared as a character in novels by Australian authors. Without him being named, his visit to Australia, the leap from the ship and the court case challenging the validity of the language test are mentioned in Kylie Tennant's Ride on Stranger (1943). 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
- Asien gründlich verändert (Changing Asia) (1932) - On Soviet Central Asia
- China Geheim (Secret China) (1933) - On China
- Geschichten aus sieben Ghettos (Tales from Seven Ghettos) (1934) - A collection with a Jewish theme
- Landung in Australien (Australian Landfall) (1937)
- Soldaten am Meeresstrand (1938) - Reports from the Spanish Civil War
- Die drei Kühe (The Three Cows) (1939) - Report from the Spanish Civil War
- Marktplatz der Sensationen (Sensation Fair) (1941) - memoir up to 1914
- Entdeckungen in Mexiko (1945)
- Blackshield, Tony; Williams, George (2010). Australian Constitutional Law and Theory (5 ed.). Annandale (NSW): Federation P. pp. 915–916. ISBN 978-1-86287-773-3.
- Cochrane, Peter (2008). The big Jump: Egon Kisch in Australia. Commonwealth History Project: The National Centre for History Education.
- Hofmann, Fritz; Poláček, Josef (1985). Servus, Kisch! Erinnerungen, Rezensionen, Anekdoten. Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag. OL21262934M
- Howells, A.F. (1983). Against the Stream: the Memories of a Philosophical Anarchist, 1927-1939. Melbourne: Hyland House. ISBN 0-908090-48-X
- Meacham, Steve (8 February 2005). "One jump ahead of a ban on freedom". Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February. Retrieved 3 June 2011
- Rasmussen, Carolyn (2006). Kisch, Egon Erwin (1885-1948). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition: Australian National University.
- Schlenstedt, Dieter (1985). Egon Erwin Kisch: Leben und Werk. Berlin: Volkseigenen Verlag Volk und Wissen. OL5807557M
- Schwartz, Larry (8 November 2004). "The first boat person". The Age (Melbourne), 8 November. Retrieved 3 June 2011
- Segel, Howard B. (1997). Egon Erwin Kisch, the Raging Reporter: a Bio-Anthology. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue U.P. ISBN 978-1-55753-100-1.
- Slater, Ken (1979). "Egon Kisch: a Biographical Outline". Labour History (Australian Society for the Study of Labour History) 36: 94–103.
- Spector, Scott (2006). Kisch, Egon Erwin. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
- Zogbaum, Heidi (2004). Kisch in Australia: the Untold Story. Melbourne: Scribe Publications. ISBN 978-1-920769-35-2.
- Kisch memoir of first 30 years in Prague
- Detailed biography in report of an exhibition on Kirsch in Vienna, 2006 (in German)
- Nicholas Hasluck on writing about Kisch
- "Kisch's Case" in the High Court of Australia:
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