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Beck, Karl Isidor

(1817–1879), poet and promoter of German-language culture. Karl Beck was born in Baja, a large Jewish community in southern Hungary; his father was a businessman. Beck was a medical student in Vienna until illness forced him to return home. After a brief interlude in the business world, he studied philosophy in Leipzig. There he associated with young radical Austrian writers, including Moritz Hartmann, Ignaz Kuranda, and Alfred Meissner (all of whom went into exile to avoid the severe censorship practiced under Metternich’s government), and made literary contacts within the libertarian Young Germany movement. Beck ultimately opposed nationalism, advocated the dominance of German-language culture throughout the Habsburg Empire, and venerated Bismarck, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor.”

Beck’s first book of poems, Nächte: Gepanzerte Lieder (Nights: Armored Songs; 1838), caused a sensation with its political militancy. Friedrich Engels called Beck the greatest talent to emerge in German poetry since Schiller. The poems pay homage to two famous Jewish radical journalists, Ludwig Börne (1786–1837) and Heinrich Heine (1797–1856); their mood suggests Börne’s passionate dedication to human emancipation rather than Heine’s ironic style. The collection includes Beck’s most famous poem, “Die Eisenbahn” (The Railway), in which the relentless onrush of a train symbolizes both the advent of modernity and the conviction that the people’s demands for liberty must overcome traditional authoritarianism.

Beck also admired Byron. His next book, Der fahrende Poet (The Traveling Poet; 1838), is a sonnet sequence that follows the form of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in narrating the poet’s travels, though Beck’s journeys took him only through Central Europe, from Hungary via Vienna and Weimar (home of German classical literature) to the Wartburg, near Eisenach, where Martin Luther had been confined in 1519.

After writing the biblical tragedy Saul (1840) and Janko, der ungarische Rosshirt (Janko, the Hungarian Groom; 1841), a narrative poem celebrating Hungarian folk culture, Beck returned to social themes in Lieder vom armen Mann (Songs of the Poor Man; 1846), in which he expressed compassion for the proletariat and anger against the wealthy. In particular, Beck denounced the Rothschild banking family, claiming that they dominated the modern world and neglected poverty-stricken fellow Jews. His poetry portrays traditional Jews imprisoned not only by legal restrictions but also by tightly knit communities, enforced reliance on commerce, and by what Beck considered an obsolete religion. Beck converted to Protestantism in 1843.

Though he was a leading political poet of the Vormärz (pre-1848 period), Beck abandoned radicalism and gained the reputation of a renegade. In 1848 he married Julie Mühlmann, who died of cholera in 1849. Grief-stricken, Beck took little interest in the revolutions that had broken out in Vienna, Prague, and other European capitals in 1848. After the violent suppression of the Viennese revolution, he published a long poem, An Kaiser Franz Joseph (1849), addressed to the new emperor. Critics attacked the poem, saying it indicated Beck’s loss of talent and his abandonment of his principles. He subsequently lived in Vienna and Budapest, subsisting partly from his writing and partly from his friends’ charity. His works were eventually forgotten by the general public.

Suggested Reading

Wolfgang Häusler, “Politische und soziale Probleme des Vormärz in den Dichtungen Karl Becks,” in Revolution und Demokratie in Geschichte und Literatur, ed. Julius H. Schoeps, Imanuel Geiss, and Ludger Heid, pp. 235–258 (Duisburg, Ger., 1979); Sol Liptzin, Lyric Pioneers of Modern Germany: Studies in German Social Poetry (New York, 1928); Ritchie Robertson, “Karl Beck: From Radicalism to Monarchism,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 46 (2001): 81–91.