In 1896 he left university without a diploma to begin work as an actor, stage-director and performer, joining the Jung Wien (Young Vienna) group, which included Peter Altenberg, Leopold Andrian, Hermann Bahr, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Felix Dörmann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Felix Salten. In 1897, however, Kraus broke from this group with a biting satire Die demolierte Literatur [Demolished Literature], and was named Vienna correspondent for the newspaper Breslauer Zeitung. One year later, as an uncompromising advocate of Jewish assimilation, he attacked the Zionist Theodor Herzl with his polemic Eine Krone für Zion [A Crown for Zion] (1898).
On April 1, 1899, he renounced Judaism and in the same year founded his own newspaper, Die Fackel (The Torch), which he continued to direct, publish, and write until his death, and from which he launched his attacks on hypocrisy, psychoanalysis, corruption of the Habsburg empire, nationalism of the pan-German movement, laissez-faire economic policies, and numerous other bêtes noires. In 1901, Kraus was sued by Hermann Bahr and Emmerich Bukovics, who felt they had been attacked by Die Fackel. Many lawsuits by diverse offended parties would follow in later years. Also in 1901, Kraus found out that his publisher, Moriz Frisch, had taken over his magazine while he was absent on a months-long journey: Moriz Frisch had registered the magazine's front cover as a trademark and published the Neue Fackel (New Torch). Kraus sued and won. From that time, Die Fackel was published (without a cover page) by the printer Jahoda & Siegel
While at the beginning Die Fackel was similar to journals like the magazine Weltbühne, it became more and more a magazine that was privileged in its editorial independence, that Kraus could provide by his funding. Die Fackel printed what Kraus wanted to be printed. In its first decade, contributors included many well-known writers and artists such as Peter Altenberg, Richard Dehmel, Egon Friedell, Oskar Kokoschka, Else Lasker-Schüler, Adolf Loos, Heinrich Mann, Arnold Schönberg, August Strindberg, Georg Trakl, Frank Wedekind, Franz Werfel, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Oscar Wilde. After 1911, however, Kraus was usually the sole author. Kraus' work was published nearly exclusively in Die Fackel, of which 922 irregularly-issued numbers appeared in total.
Authors who were supported by Kraus include Peter Altenberg, Else Lasker-Schüler, and Georg Trakl.
Die Fackel targeted corruption, journalists and brutish behaviour. Notable enemies were Maximilian Harden (in the mud of the Harden-Eulenburg affair), Moritz Benedikt (owner of the newspaper Neue Freie Presse), Alfred Kerr, Hermann Bahr, Imre Bekessy and Johannes Schober.
In 1902, Kraus published Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität (Morality and Crimical Justice), for the first time commenting on what was to become one of the main issues in his writings: the allegedly necessary defense of sexual morality by means of criminal justice (Der Skandal fängt an, wenn die Polizei ihm ein Ende macht, The scandal starts when the police is stopping it) (In this grand time that I still know from when it was very small; that will become small again if it has the time; […] in this loud time that resounds from the ghastly symphony of deeds that spawn reports, and from reports that are to blame for deeds: in this one, you may not expect any word of my own. In the subsequent time, Kraus wrote against the World War, and editions of Die Fackel were repeatedly confiscated or obstructed by censors.
Kraus' masterpiece is generally considered to be the massive satiric play about the First World War, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind), which combines dialogue from contemporary documents with apocalyptic fantasy and commentary from two characters called "the Grumbler" and "the Optimist". The play was begun in 1915 and first published as a series of special Fackel issues in 1919. Its epilogue, Die letzte Nacht (The last night) had already been published in 1918 as a special issue. Edward Timms has called the work a "faulted masterpiece" and a "fissured text" because the evolution of Kraus' attitude during the time of its composition (from aristocratic conservative to democratic republican) means that the text has structural inconsistencies resembling a geological fault. Also in 1919, Kraus published his collected war texts under the title Weltgericht (World court of justice). In 1920, he published the satire Literatur oder Man wird doch da sehn (Literature or One will see there) as a reply to Franz Werfel's Spiegelmensch (Mirror man), an attack against Kraus.
During January of 1924, he started to fight against Imre Békessy, publisher of the tabloid Die Stunde (The hour). Békessy retaliated with a libel campagne against Kraus, who in turn launched an Erledigung with the catchphrase Hinaus aus Wien mit dem Schuft! (Throw the scoundrel out of Vienna). In 1926, Békessy indeed fled Vienna in order to avoid his being arrested. In the following year, Kraus unsuccessfully tried a similar undertaking against Johann Schober, police prefect during the forcefully suppressed July Revolt. In 1928, the play Die Unüberwindlichen (The insurmountables) was published. It included allusions to the fights against Békessy and Schober. During that same year, Kraus also published the records of a lawsuit that Kerr had filed against him after Kraus had published Kerr's war poems in Die Fackel.
In 1932, Kraus re-translated Shakespeare's sonnets. He supported Engelbert Dollfuß, hoping Dollfuß could prevent Nazism from engulfing Austria. This estranged him from some of his followers. When asked why he never said anything about Hitler, he reportedly answered: I cannot think of anything to say about Hitler.
His last work, which he declined to publish for fear of Nazi reprisals, was the verbally rich, densely allusive anti-Nazi polemic Die Dritte Walpurgisnacht (The Third Walpurgisnacht). However, lengthy extracts appear in his apologia for his silence at Hitler's coming to power, Warum die Fackel nicht erscheint (Why the Fackel Does Not Appear), a 315-page edition of his periodical. The last issue of the Fackel appeared in February of 1936. Karl Kraus died of an Embolism of the heart in Vienna on June 12th, 1936 after a short illness.
Kraus never married, but from 1913 until his death, he had a conflict-prone but close relationship with the Baroness Sidonie Nádherný von Borutin (1885-1950). Many of his works were written in Janowitz castle, Nádherny family property. Sidonie Nádherny became an important pen-friend and addressee of books and poems.
In 1911 he was baptized as a Catholic, but in 1923 he left the Catholic Church, because he disapproved of the revival of the Salzburg Festival. He is buried in the Zentralfriedhof cemetery outside Vienna.
Kraus was the subject of two books written by noted libertarian author Dr.Thomas Szasz. Karl Kraus and the Soul Doctors and Anti-Freud: Karl Kraus's Criticism of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry portrayed Kraus as a harsh critic of Sigmund Freud and of psychoanalysis in general. Other commentators, such as Edward Timms (Karl Kraus - Apocalyptic Satirist) have argued that Kraus respected Freud, though with reservations about the application of some of his theories, and that his views were far less black-and-white than Szasz suggests.
Karl Kraus has been a subject of opposing opinions throughout his lifetime. This polarisation was undoubtedly strengthened by his immense awareness of his own importance. This self-image was not completely unfounded: those who attended his performances were fascinated by his personality. His followers saw in him an infallible authority, someone who would do anything to help those he supported.
To the numerous enemies he made due to the inflexibility and intensity of his partisanship, however, he was a bitter misanthrope and poor would-be (Alfred Kerr). He was accused of wallowing in hateful denouncements and Erledigungen.
Karl Kraus was convinced that every little error, albeit of an importance that was seemingly limited in time and space, shows the great evils of the world and era. Thus, he could see in a missing comma a symptom of that state of the world that would allow a world war. One of the main points of his writings was to show the great evils using such small errors.
Language was to him the most important tell-tale for the wrongs of the world. He viewed his contemporaries' careless treatment of language as a sign for their careless treatment of the world as a whole. Ernst Křenek reported the following typical episode: Als man sich gerade über die Beschießung von Shanghai durch die Japaner erregte und ich Karl Kraus bei einem der berühmten Beistrich-Problemen antraf, sagte er ungefähr: Ich weiß, daß das alles sinnlos ist, wenn das Haus in Brand steht. Aber solange das irgend möglich ist, muß ich das machen, denn hätten die Leute, die dazu verpflichtet sind, immer darauf geachtet, daß die Beistriche am richtigen Platz stehen, so würde Shanghai nicht brennen." (At a time when one was generally decrying the bombardment of Shanghai by the Japanese, I met Karl Kraus struggling over one of his famous comma problems. He said something like: I know that everything is in vain when the house is burning. But I have to do this as long as it is at all possible; for if those who are obliged to look after commas had made sure they are always at the right place, then Shanghai would not be burning.)
He accused people — and most of all journalists and authors — of using language as a means that they believed to command rather than serving it as an end. To Kraus, language is not a means to distribute ready-made opinions, but rather the medium of thought itself. As such, it is in need of critical reflection. Therefore, dejournalising his readers was an important concern of Kraus in "a time that is thoroughly journalised, that is informed by the spirit but is deaf to the unity of form and contents". He wanted to educate his readers to an "understanding of the cause of the German language, to that height at which the written word is understood as a necessary incarnation of the thought, and not simply a shell demanded by society around an opinion."
Just how far the distance has grown between language, thought, and imagination of that which is being said becomes evident in phrases that invoke metaphors from times long gone: e.g. during the First World War, it was often heard that one should fight to the knife — at a time in which gas had long become an important weapon.
Kraus maintained that language may not be entirely subjected to man's wishes. Even in its most maimed state, it will still show the true state of the world. Even war enthusiast will unwittingly point out the cruel butchery during the war when calling it Mordshetz (an Austrian word for great fun that can also be read as murderous heat).
This single-minded pursuit of "correct language" has been viewed as wacky and superficial by many of Kraus' contemporaries. He saw his supreme enemy among the press and the "nether regions of literature"; other societal and cultural issues were less clearly defined, and his political preferences were shifting. He sympathized now with Social Democrats, now with Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Albert Fuchs, initially a follower of Kraus, summed it up: Karl Kraus' Philosophie lehrte, man solle gutes Deutsch schreiben. Sonst lehrte sie nichts. (The philosophy of Karl Kraus taught that one should write correct German. Otherwise, it did not teach anything.)
The Last Days of Mankind: a Tragedy in Five Acts (1974), an abridgement tr. Alexander Gode and Sue Allen Wright
In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader (1984), ed. Harry Zohn, contains translated excerpts from Die Fackel, including poems with the original German text alongside, and a drastically abridged translation of The Last Days of Mankind.
Anti-Freud: Karl Kraus' Criticism of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry (1990) by Thomas Szasz contains Szasz's translations of several of Kraus' articles and aphorisms on psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
Dicta and Contradicta, tr. Jonathan McVity (2001), a collection of aphorisms.