Did Franz Kafka anticipate the Holocaust? Scholars and critics have argued for and against this ever since Kafka was rediscovered in the postwar era. A significant chunk of the "Kafka industry" is devoted to this very topic. No one, to be sure, could have anticipated the scale of mass murder of the Holocaust. But Kafka's novels and stories are propelled by the logic of the nightmare - which is also the logic of totalitarianism.
The one story that comes closest to anticipating the horror to come is In der Strafkolonie, which deals with the mechanization of torture and death, albeit on a small scale. The two principal characters - der Offizier and der Reisende - embody the two extremes of what Hannah Arendt labeled "the banality of evil." The Officer is the True Believer who enthusiastically supports the "justice" system in the penal colony ("Die Schuld ist immer zweifelos") and has an almost erotic fascination with the monstrous torture apparatus. The Traveler is the more deplorable character: an impassive technocrat who is horrified by what he sees but unwilling to intervene. (Der Reisende überlegte: Es ist immer bedenklich, in fremde Verhältnisse entscheidend einzugreifen. Er war weder Bürger der Strafkolonie, noch Bürger des Staates, dem sie angehörte. Wenn er diese Exekution verurteilen oder gar hintertreiben wollte, konnte man ihm sagen: Du bist ein Fremder, sei still.)
In der Strafkolonie provides a taste of the horror to come. But even Kafka - prescient as he was - could not have foreseen what would happen to the people he was closest to:
"The short story writer Oskar Baum died in a hospital in Prague in 1941, but his wife was deported to Theresienstadt and died there; their son, Leo, died on July 22, 1946, “in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by a Jewish resistance group.” Max Brod’s brother Otto, “an outstanding pianist,” was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Kafka’s translator Milena Jesenská was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939; she died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. Elli and Valli, two of Kafka’s sisters, both died in the Chelmno extermination camp in 1942. Ottla, his youngest sister, was deported to Theresienstadt in 1940. In 1943, she volunteered to “accompany a transport of Polish Jewish children to Auschwitz as a helper,” and died there shortly after. The novelist Ernst Weiss committed suicide when the German troops occupied Paris. Finally, there is Kafka’s second fiancée, Julie Wohryzek, who was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in 1944. As many as five of Kafka’s 22 classmates “appear to have been murdered in concentration camps.”
Franz Kafka died of consumption in 1924 and was thus spared the fate of his family and friends.