Max Brod (right) with composer Hans Erich Pfitzner, Venice, 1923–1924. (Mahler-Werfel Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania)

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Brod, Max

(1884–1968), writer and critic. Born into an assimilated German-speaking family in multiethnic, late-Habsburg Prague, Max Brod went through an ideological transformation in his youth from German liberal and Jewish assimilationist sympathies to Jewish nationalism and Zionism. In his own time the most productive and widely recognized member of the Prague Circle of German-speaking Jewish writers, Brod is remembered chiefly for his role in the preservation of the literary estate of Franz Kafka and the introduction of these modernist masterpieces to a broad public. While his literary production over his long life would range from fiction of many different styles to translations of opera libretti, philosophical tracts, art criticism, and memoir, this ideological commitment would remain behind most of his work.

After obtaining a doctorate in law, Brod worked as an official for the postal service in Prague until leaving in 1924 to work as a full-time journalist and critic. Brod was a founder of the National Council of Jews in Czechoslovakia in 1918. In 1939, as the Nazis were occupying Czechoslovakia, he escaped the city with suitcases packed with the still little-known Franz Kafka’s unpublished manuscripts. In Palestine and then in the State of Israel he remained active in the area of postwar German-language exile literature, and in the cultural life of Tel Aviv, where he long served as dramaturg of the Habimah theater company.

Brod and Kafka became friends as fellow law students in the German branch of the nationally divided Charles University. Along with other future members of the Prague Circle, they participated actively in the cultural programming for the Lese- und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten in Prag, a reading and lecture group frequented by German-speaking, liberal-oriented students of both Jewish and non-Jewish origin. Brod, however, was among those most profoundly affected by the public appearances of Martin Buber, who lectured in Prague between 1909 and 1911 at the behest of the Bar Kochba Jewish student organization, in the aftermath of which he became committed to cultural Zionism. Both before and after this major shift in ideology, Brod was keenly attentive to European avant-garde movements, first favoring the modernist inclinations of Paris and Berlin. Thus, his earliest work followed French symbolist trends, eventually developing into a form of aestheticism that he labeled “indifferentism,” which can be said to have emerged from an environment of national confict. He understood Czech and took an interest in Czech culture that was uncommon among German-acculturated Prague Jews of previous generations. One of his most popular novels of the period, Ein tschechisches Dienstmädchen (A Czech Serving Girl; 1909) dramatized an ill-fated romance between a bourgeois German boarder and the Czech servant in his household. Its story line represented Brod’s emergence from “indifferentism” to a direct confrontation with themes of national difference. The work was attacked by German nationalists for its apparent Czech sympathies, by Czechs for its demeaning representation of Czech character, and by Zionists for describing the apparently German Jewish narrator as though he were simply German.

The following year, Brod embraced Judaism as a national identity, but such battles over political identity would continue, as he would confess in his later memoir Streitbares Leben (Embattled Life; 1960). Among his many novels, the 1915 Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott (The Redemption of Tycho Brahe) is one of the better known; it is a Prague tale of the fictionalized relationship between the court astronomer Tycho Brahe and his ingenious student Johannes Kepler, where Brahe’s internal struggles clearly suggest the problematics of cultural Zionism.

Brod was known very early as a cultural mediator as well as a producer. In the first decade of the century, he was active in promoting the poetic talent of the younger German-speaking Jewish Prague writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945), who became well known in expressionist circles. As a music reviewer, Brod was attentive to the innovation of modern Czech composers including the Moravian Leos Janáček, who at age 62 was as yet virtually unknown. Brod translated the libretto of Janáček’s master opera Její Pastorkyňa with the title of Jenůfa, and arranged for its performance at the opera house in Vienna. This produced a minor row when nationalist politicians saw this as a form of Czech national provocation, and Brod was again depicted as a traitor to German nationalism. Brod’s own understanding of this and other engagements was different; he saw in this work the spirit of a nationalism that granted access to the universal.

An idiosyncratic way of thinking about nationalism not as an exclusionary identification but as a process of understanding and connecting to others, similarly characterized Brod’s relationship to Jewish identity, which was also connected to the question of language. The “Jewish author of German tongue,” as he put it in an essay published by the Bar Kochba organization’s anthology Vom Judentum (“Der jüdische Dichter deutscher Zunge”; 1913), would always be alien to his language, and therefore needed a relationship to Hebrew literature or Yiddish culture in order to reproduce an organic relationship of author to national language by analogy. He later coined the term Distanzliebe (distance love) to refer to the special relationship of German Jewish writers to this alien language with which they were so intimate. In one of his most original formulations, he argued that since Jews were historically so unlike all other nations, Jewish nationalism would be “supernational,” based on universality rather than exclusionary politics. “It is the mission of the Jewish-national movement, of Zionism,” he wrote in a 1918 article in the Prague weekly Selbstwehr, “to give the word ‘nation’ a new meaning.” That meaning, he argued, was “universal humanistic feeling,” and with it the essential idea of peace.

Brod’s friendship with Kafka lasted from their time as students together beginning in 1902 until the latter’s early death in 1924. While the friendship certainly had a bearing on Kafka’s literary production in his lifetime, the overshadowing importance of this friendship to literary history is the preservation and transmission of Kafka’s unpublished manuscripts, or most of the writings now known, after the author’s death, in spite of specific instructions by Kafka to Brod to incinerate them all. In rescuing the manuscripts from Prague on the eve of the Nazi occupation, Brod salvaged this treasure a second time. From the 1930s on, he tirelessly promoted this work, editing the manuscripts, writing the first Kafka biography, and offering an influential interpretation of the religious character of Kafka’s oeuvre.

Suggested Reading

Werner Kayser and Horst Gronemeyer, eds., Max Brod, Hamburger Bibliographien 12 (Hamburg, 1972); Margarita Pazi, Max Brod: Werke und Persönlichkeit (Bonn, 1970); Scott Spector, Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s Fin de Siècle (Berkeley, 2000).