By Kathryn A. Kopple
Justice and Parables: Alfred Dreyfus and Franz Kafka
|The Dreyfus family - Wikipedia|
Grotesque? Or Kafkaesque? As the truth of the misdeeds of the French High Command surfaced, and the pressure to revisit the Dreyfus case mounted, it was decided that Dreyfus be allowed to return to France—not as a free man, but to face a second trial. He was once more convicted, but by then French officials, wanting to wash their hands of the Affair, offered the Captain amnesty. Dreyfus accepted—much to the dismay of his supporters. Indeed, he infuriated them by requesting that he be reinstated in the army, and by his refusal to attack in any way those responsible for his ordeal. Perhaps he feared for his family? Whatever the reason, he refused to publicly assist the Dreyfusards.
As Sander L. Gilman writes in Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient, Kafka was eleven years old when Dreyfus was arrested. He would turn twenty-three upon the Captain’s final pardon. When Kafka was twenty-five, a last attempt was made on Dreyfus’s life. Jews across Europe were deeply shaken by these events. Kafka was no different. The “otherness” of his writing points not uniquely to a disturbed psyche (although Kafka suffered from ailments both nervous and physical) but to actual historical events as well. The Trial, certainly one of Kafka’s most famous novels, demonstrates the uncertain authority of the law, the vulnerability of the individual in the face of unfounded accusations, and the cruel absurdity of guilty before proven innocent. In particular, his story “The Burrow,” may be read as the culmination of the hysteria that took hold of Europe that resulted in World War I. For what was Kafka referring to in this parable about an animal that tunnels deep within the ground—a nameless creature—that seeks to protect itself by self-burial? “The Burrow” is a story about trench warfare: the misery of fighting in those holes, and the death of thousands. The conflict resulted in an even greater hardening of one nation-state against another--and a re-emergence with particular hatred and fear of the “Other.” In some sense, Kafka was spared the worst. He applied for service in World War I and was rejected for reasons of health. After World War II broke out, his three sisters were captured and killed by the Nazis. By that time, Kafka had passed away of tuberculosis.
Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.