Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kisch, Egon Erwin (1885–1948)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Egon Erwin Kisch (1885-1948), journalist and communist, was born on 29 April 1885 in Prague, Austria-Hungary, second of five sons of Jewish parents Hermann Kisch, owner of a textile shop, and his wife Ernestine, née Kuh. Egon briefly attended the German Technical College and the German University of Prague before serving for a year in the Imperial army. He began a career as a journalist and continued his education informally as lecture-reporter for the Prager Tageblatt. In 1906-13 he worked for the major German-language newspaper, Bohemia, developing his skills in reportage—journalism as a form of social critique intended to arouse public concern. His experiences as a corporal on the Serbian front during World War I led him to seek a more systematic analysis of society's ills, resulting in a lifelong involvement with international communism.

In November 1918 Kisch participated in the revolution in Vienna. Soon after, he left for Berlin where he became involved in organizing 'popular front' bodies on behalf of the Comintern. The publication of Der Rasende Reporter in 1924, followed by accounts of trips to the Soviet Union (1926), the United States of America (1929) and China (1933)—'all written from the Communist point of view, but sparkling with wit and colour'—established his reputation as the most significant and successful writer of reportage in German.

Following the Reichstag fire on 27 February 1933, Kisch was imprisoned by the Nazis. They exiled him to Czechoslovakia whence he made his way to Paris. He lived with his wife, the 'faithful, complacent, horse-teethed Giesl, who looked like a school-mistress and worked for the G.P.U.' (Soviet political police). Kisch's opposition to war and fascism sprang from personal conviction and experience, not simply from his involvement with the Communist Party. He lied about his communist affiliation when sent by the Movement Against War and Fascism to attend an anti-war congress, to be held in Melbourne in November 1934. The Australian organizers had wanted someone better known, but they soon learned why this ebullient, good-humoured man was one of the 'most popular characters' among exiled communist intellectuals in Europe.

Acting on advice from London, the Lyons government declared Kisch a prohibited immigrant and refused him permission to land at Fremantle, Western Australia. The warmth and enthusiasm of supporters who visited him when his ship berthed in Melbourne, and the flurry of legal activity undertaken on his behalf, tempted the adventurer to jump on to the wharf on 13 November, breaking his leg. Rushed on board and taken to Sydney, he was able to disembark there because Justice H. V. Evatt, sitting alone, found the prohibition order to be illegal. The authorities gave Kisch a 'dictation test' in Scottish Gaelic; after he failed, he was convicted on the 28th of being a prohibited immigrant and sentenced to be deported.

To the embarrassment of the Federal government, the High Court of Australia ruled on 19 December that Scottish Gaelic was not a European language within the meaning of the Immigration Act (1901-25). Kisch was free to exercise his wit and charm on large crowds. The government's inept attempts to keep him out of Australia had succeeded in making the name of a previously unknown journalist a household word. Kisch was a consummate propagandist, inclined to be cynical, but undoubtedly likeable. He was dark, short, and 'fat around the midriff', a 'vivacious little man, fluent of speech, sparkling of eye, restless in spirit, quick of thought and action'. His gallantry and good humour made the government's vendetta against him seem the more crass.

While relatively few Australians had any sympathy for communists, the 'Kisch Affair' created widespread fears that, by using the Immigration Act to curtail free speech, the government was resorting to tactics similar to those undermining democracy in Europe. The government made a second declaration, overcoming the technical shortcoming which Evatt had found in the first, and on 21 January 1935 Kisch was again convicted of being a prohibited immigrant. None the less, the government offered to remit his sentence of three months imprisonment and to pay costs if he left Australia promptly. He did so on 11 March after a final blaze of public appearances, including a torchlight procession in Melbourne to commemorate the Reichstag fire.

For the small group of anti-war campaigners, Kisch's visit was a boost to morale. The incident alerted numerous Australians to the fascist threat and ways of combating it, and led to the formation of the Australian Writers' League. Kisch's account of his experiences, Australian Landfall (London, 1937), was a lively, entertaining addition to his long list of publications. Back in Europe, he took part in the Spanish Civil War. After the Germans occupied France in 1940, he found refuge in Mexico until he returned to Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II. His draft for a large book on his native land remained unfinished. He died of a stroke on 31 March 1948 in Prague and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith, On the Pacific Front (Syd, 1936)
  • A. Koestler, The Invisible Writing (Lond, 1969)
  • R. Throssell (ed), Straight Left (Syd, 1982)
  • R. Gibson, The People Stand Up (Melb, 1983)
  • U. von Felbert, China und Japan als Impuls und Exempel Fernostliche Ideen und Motive bei Alfred Doblin, Bertolt Brecht und Egon Erwin Kisch (Frankfurt, 1986)
  • APSA News, 9, no 3, Sept 1964, p 6
  • Labour History, no 32, May 1977, p 27, no 36, May 1979, p 94
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 Nov 1934
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Sept 1969.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Kisch, Egon Erwin (1885–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kisch-egon-erwin-10755/text19067, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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