"Bei uns gab es Folterungen nur im Mittelalter" (We only tortured back in the Middle Ages)
- Franz Kafka, In der Strafkolonie
Franz Kafka's story In der Strafkolonie (In the penal colony) is, alongside the Metamorphosis and The Judgment, without a doubt one of his most famous and widely read short stories. And as is the case with all of his stories, the interpretations that can be drawn from In the Penal Colony are diverse. I would like to offer up another interpretation: the torture machine and execution that the story centers on can be seen as motifs of punishment and power, while in the course of the story Kafka demonstrates a deep understanding of how justice, order, and power are established in society.
These are historical themes heavily explored by Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, and his writings in the first two chapters of the book provide a background for interpreting In der Strafkolonie. The original German text of Kafka’s story that I read is available here, while an English translation that I will be quoting from is here. (This should not be seen as an endorsement of everything Foucault says in his work Discipline and Punish, or in any of his writings, his support of the Iranian Revolution after it turned into a reign of terror should already place him into question as being an unbiased observer of violence and power structures).
(For purposes of clarification, some background on the plot of the story: the main character, called the Traveler, arrives on the Island housing the Penal Colony, invited by the New Commandant, to observe an execution carried out by a Machine under the direction of The Officer. The Machine was created under the Old Commandant, who The Officer admires greatly, and in the course of the story he tries to convince the Traveler of the morality of using the Machine. Upon realizing that he cannot win over the Traveler to his side, he proceeds to turn the machine on himself. The machine then self-destructs, and the Traveler leaves the execution and visits the grave of the first Commandant.)
Even before examining content of the two texts, the tone of both texts is comparable: one of the most disturbing aspects of Kafka’s short story is the utter lack of compassion and emotion that is displayed by the characters observing the execution, and this removed tone in the face of brutality is echoed in Foucault’s primary source documents describing sickening forms of torture and execution in pre-revolutionary France. But beyond the tone of the story, Kafka deserves credit for identifying several of the main themes of Foucault’s work decades before it was published. The first common theme that is explored in Kafka’s story is that of absolute rule, as explained to the Traveler by the Officer:
“Diagrams made by the Commandant himself?” asked the Traveler. “Then was he in his own person a combination of everything? Was he soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and draftsman?”
“He was indeed,” said the Officer, nodding his head with a fixed and thoughtful expression. Then he looked at his hands, examining them. They didn’t seem to him clean enough to handle the diagrams. So he went to the bucket and washed them again. Then he pulled out a small leather folder and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. The law which a condemned man has violated is inscribed on his body with the Harrow. This Condemned Man, for example,” and the Officer pointed to the man, “will have inscribed on his body, ‘Honour your superiors!’”
This is the key passage in establishing the traditional power structure during execution that the old Commander and the Officer symbolize: that of absolute rule. He, like the king, replaces a legal bureaucracy for the island with that of the rule of the monarch. There are no higher courts, as the Officer notes, and no higher authority other than the Officer himself. As in Foucault’s examined time period of pre-revolutionary France and Europe, the law was not the people’s will, but a manifestation of the power of the sovereign. The diagrams replace the traditional royal symbols of crown and scepter (note how the Officer isn’t sure whether his hands are clean enough to handle this power symbol). The officer also later elaborates on how his sovereign power replaces the need for a justice system based on defense and appeal:
the basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant.
But the execution machine on the Penal Colony is more than just an instrument of justice, it is vital to the Colony’s power structure. The Officer explains how the inscription of the violated law and the subsequent death of the victim usually take place with more than just 3 people present:
In front of hundreds of eyes—all the spectators stood on tip toe right up to the hills there—the condemned man was laid down under the Harrow by the Commandant himself. What nowadays has to be done by a common soldier was then my work as the senior judge, and it was an honour for me. And then the execution began! No discordant not disturbed the work of the machine. Many people did not look any more at all, but lay down with closed eyes in the sand. They all knew: now justice was being carried out. In the silence people heard nothing but the groans of the condemned man, muffled by the felt.
The Officer clearly understands the importance of torture not only as a method of dispensing justice, but as a public and political ritual, which belongs, according to Foucault, “even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested” (47). The Commandant, as previously explained in the story, was the judge, executioner, and sovereign of the colony. The torture must be used as a method of restitution for the contempt that the victim has shown for the Commandant’s laws while manifesting the power of the Commandant “at it’s most spectacular” while it “deploys before all eyes an invincible force” (48). The groaning of the victim that the Officer fondly remembers is a fine reminder to the public of how “justice was being carried out” and the muffled cries of the tortured cement the public ritual in Foucault’s mind as “an exercise of ‘terror” (49). The fact remains that in the story, the execution is only carried out in the presence of the Officer, the soldier, and the Traveler. Although recognizing clearly the ritual value of the execution for the cementing of power, the Officer’s belief in it’s worth must transcend the power ritual; he must believe in the righteousness of the execution based on its function as a method of justice alone.
Another minor difference is the fact that the execution in the story transcends the symbolism and turns the bodies of the condemned into a literal tabula rasa for the inscription of legal code, as Foucault notes, most torture was based off of (tongues of blasphemers were pierced, impure were burnt, etc): the broken law is actually written on the body of the condemned (45).
In addition to the banning of the execution machine, the Officer explains how the new Commandant is replacing the authoritarian structure of the old colony government with a new, more transparent one:
My plan is based on that. Tomorrow a large meeting of all the higher administrative officials takes place at headquarters under the chairmanship of the Commandant. He, of course, understands how to turn such meetings into a spectacle. A gallery has been built, which is always full of spectators. I’m compelled to take part in the discussions, though they make me shiver with disgust… After various trivial and ridiculous agenda items designed only for the spectators—mostly harbour construction, always harbour construction!—the judicial process also comes up for discussion.
The officer demonstrates his disgust with this new power spectacle that the new Commandant has instituted, seemingly replacing a system in which power is manifested through terror with one in which it is manifested through democratic participation. The power position of the Officer is harmed, and he feels slighted through the attempts to ban the execution. The fact that the person who ultimately carries out the torture process with the machine was earlier a “Commandant,” and in during the story, an unnamed Officer, is hardly coincidental, as the sole purpose of the military is to serve as the ultimate level of violent enforcement of power for an institution. Foucault also notes this importance of the military in the execution ceremony:
“Now, this meticulous ceremonial was not only legal, but quite explicitly military. The justice of the king was shown to be an armed justice. The sword that punished the guilty was also the sword that destroyed enemies. A whole military machine surrounded the scaffold: cavalry of the watch, archers, guardsmen, soldiers. This was intended, of course, to prevent any escape or show of force; it was also to prevent any outburst of sympathy or anger on the part of the people, any attempt to save the condemned or to have them immediately put to death; but it was also a reminder that every crime constituted as it were a rebellion against the law and that the criminal was an enemy of the prince. All these reasons —whether a matter of precaution in particular circumstances or a functional element in the performance of the ritual — made the public execution more than an act of justice; it was a manifestation of force; or rather, it was justice as the physical, material and awesome force of the sovereign deployed there. The ceremony of the public torture and execution displayed for all to see the power relation that gave his force to the law” (50).
The role of the military in the short story is not limited to carrying out the execution; as previously mentioned, the Commandant is the sovereign of the Penal Island, a phenomenon that Foucault notes was common in the West in his investigation:
“It is ugly to be punishable, but there is no glory in punishing. Hence that double system of protection that justice has set up between itself and the punishment it imposes. Those who carry out the penalty tend to become an autonomous sector; justice is relieved of responsibility for it by a bureaucratic concealment of the penalty itself. It is typical that in France the administration of the prisons should for so long have been the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, while responsibility for the bagnes, for penal servitude in the convict ships and penal settlements, lay with the Ministry of the Navy or in the Ministry of the Colonies” (10).
We then come to where Foucault and Kafka’s main difference in tortured justice appears. The means that are examined in Foucault's writing and Kafka's story are very similar, but the ends that they are applied to are different with regards to extracting truth, as this writer noted. The purpose of torture, according to Foucault, was to force the truth. Kafka’s Commandant and Officer view this aspect as unnecessary in the ritual of torture and execution. By claiming that the guilt is always beyond question (Die Schuld ist immer Zweifellos), the second purpose of torture, according to Foucault, is sidestepped: the “truth” is already apparent, but the expression of power is what remains (44). The truth is determined entirely by position in the penal colony’s power structure: the captain is the master of the servant, and therefore his word with regards to the incident is taken as truth and the servant is not even questioned:
If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so forth. But now I have him, and I won’t release him again. Those are the facts. The captain came to me an hour ago. I wrote up his statement and right after that the sentence.
Yet in the story, the prisoner is not only deprived of the chance of self-defense, but of an explanation for his execution itself:
The Traveller wanted to raise various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man he merely asked, “Does he know his sentence?” “No,” said the Officer. He wished to get on with his explanation right away, but the Traveller interrupted him: “He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said the Officer once more. He then paused for a moment, as if he was requesting from the Traveller a more detailed reason for his question, and said, “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it on his own body.”....So the Traveller, who had up to this point been leaning back, bent forward again and kept up his questions, “But does he nonetheless have some general idea that he’s been condemned?” “Not that either,” said the Officer, and he smiled at the Traveller, as if he was still waiting for some strange revelations from him. “No?” said the Traveller, wiping his forehead, “So the man does not yet know even at this point how his defence was received?” “He has had no opportunity to defend himself,” said the Officer and looked away, as if he was talking to himself and did not wish to embarrass the Traveller with an explanation of matters so self-evident to him.
A prisoner being executed without a chance to defend himself or even learn of what he is accused of is, of course, very Kafkaesque, but understanding why Kafka diverts from Foucault’s studies at this point is mysterious. This author is right in that no element of Foucault’s concept of the duel is present in the torture and execution. Perhaps Kafka means that there is no need for torture in order to determine truth in the modern state, it’s powers are great enough to determine such; the problem of the modern state is not to find the truth, but to control it. By disallowing any self-defense by the victim and gagging him during the process of torture and execution, the state can demonstrate that it ultimately has a monopoly on the truth. This monopoly on the truth, combined with the state terror of the execution, the personality cult that surrounds the old Commandant, and the blurring of the traditional Victim/Perpetrator boundary seem to hint more toward a critique of modern totalitarianism, and Kafka would again be ahead of his time: modern totalitarian theory didn’t develop until the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, decades after the publication of In der Strafkolonie.
Once the Officer realizes that he cannot convince the traveler of the need for the machine, he assumes legal guilt for the injustice of the execution and places himself in the machine. It would be easy to write off this event as a Kafkaesque paradox, much like the desire of the hunger artist to achieve his artistic masterpiece in Der Hungerkunstler by starving to death, but I believe that this deserves more attention.
The suicide of the officer is more reminiscent of the suicide of the son in Kafka's other story Das Urteil (The Judgment) in that both are committing suicide in order to justify the power structures that they participate in, whether it be the patriarchic in Das Urteil, in which the father exercises power over the son, or the bureaucratic in In der Strafkolonie, where the Officer must kill himself because he has committed a crime because he believes so strongly in the laws that he enforces. In short, both kill themselves because the power structure they believe in compels them to.
When he is unable to justify the machine to the Traveler, the Officer programs the machine write to SEI GERECHT (be just) across himself. Kafka never explains whether the Officer is killing himself because he believes that his use of the machine is now considered unjust, or if he believes that the decision to ban the execution machine is unjust and cannot participate in an “unjust” justice system: this interpretation remains open to the reader, and both interpretations are important to the themes that are explored in the story. The first interpretation of the suicide is this: If the Officer kills himself because the destruction of the machine would be “unjust” to him, he sacrifices himself for his sense of justice, belief in the usefulness of the torture/execution machine, and for the order under the old Commandant, where power was manifested through public executions instead of public discussions.
On the other hand, if the Officer executes himself for carrying out an unjust act, he would rather believe himself at fault than the machine and process that it embodies. Regardless of the interpretation, there is something of ritual suicide apparent in the Officer’s behavior, a counter-ritual to the public execution ritual that had preceded it. The nameless Officer, like a General unwilling to accept defeat, sacrifices himself for an institution that is about to vanish, and would rather die than live in a world without the order it embodies. The Officer’s execution also shows the blurriness of the line between Täter/Opfer (perpetrator/victim) in the modern authoritarian state: the officer, who is usually the perpetrator of the power structure’s crimes, eventually becomes a victim of the power’s authoritarian justice.
Yet having an unjust system (the execution machine) dispense justice is impossible. The machine and its reign of terror cannot turn on itself, and the machine self-destructs in the process. As the various cogs of all sizes fall out of the machine, which Kafka describes in detail (something that I don’t suspect is coincidental), one is reminded of Max Weber’s famous speech warning of the “bureaucratization of German society” given only 5 years prior, specifically the lines:
„still more frightening is the idea that the world is filled with nothing more than these little cogs, sincere people who stick to their little posts and attempt to gain a still larger post- a condition, like in descriptions of ancient Egypt, that you can find increasingly in the spirit of the present-day bureaucracy and especially in his offspring, our current students. Passion for the bureaucratization, like those that we hear here, is deserving of despair. It is a politic of (untranslatable), with whose horizon the Germans already know best how to get along with, the rudder may lead completely by itself, as if we should become, with knowledge and will, humans that need nothing but order, who become nervous and cowardly when this order disappears for an instant, and helpless, when they are torn from their exclusive conformity to this order” (translation mine, sorry for the choppiness)
Original text: “noch fürchterlicher ist der Gedanke, daß die Welt mit nichts als jenen Rädchen, also mit lauter Menschen angefüllt sein soll, die an einem kleinen Pöstchen kleben und nach einem etwas größeren Pöstchen streben – ein Zustand, den Sie, wie in den Papyri, so zunehmend im Geiste des heutigen Beamtentums und vor allem seines Nachwuchses, unseren heutigen Studenten, wiederfinden. Leidenschaft für die Bureaukratisierung, wie wir sie sich hier äußern hörten, ist zum Verzweifeln. Es ist, als wenn in der Politik der Scheuerteufel, mit dessen Horizont der Deutsche ohnehin schon am besten auszukommen versteht, ganz allein das Ruder führen dürfte, als ob wir mit Wissen und Willen Menschen werden sollten, die „Ordnung“ brauchen und nichts als Ordnung, die nervös und feige werden, wenn diese Ordnung einen Augenblick wankt, und hilflos, wenn sie aus ihrer ausschließlichen Angepaßtheit an diese Ordnung herausgerissen werden „
The Officer is an example of the “honest and talented” people that Weber speaks of, the only one that can read the obscure drawings necessary for the functioning of the machine, but he is ultimately only a bureaucratic cog, and one, if one is to hazard a guess, desiring the “larger post” of Commandant. His desire to fulfill his duties has blinded him to the inhumanity of his actions: throughout the execution he complains of how old parts on the machine are in need of replacement, instead of facing whether the functioning of the machine should be carried out in the first place.
After the death of the Officer, the traveler goes to the colony itself, where the residents show him the tomb of the Old Commandant. The inscription on the tombstone is as follows:
“Here rests the Old Commandant. His followers, who are now not permitted to have a name, buried him in this grave and erected this stone. There exists a prophecy that the Commandant will rise again after a certain number of years and from this house will lead his followers to a re-conquest of the colony. Have faith and wait!”
Kafka ends the story by drawing an explicit comparison here between the blind belief in order, as personified by the Officer, and an equally unquestioning belief in religion. The Officers belief in the Commandant’s Power and Justice is not only worthy of death, but are worthy of a belief usually only reserved for religion (that of resurrection).
The story serves to illustrate the absurdity of blind belief in duty and authority, as well as the corrupt “justice” and “order” that is embodied in both military power and the public displays of torture and execution, so necessary to maintenance of an authoritarian or totalitarian state. Kafka hints at many of the themes that were later identified by Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish, but presents an even more frightening form of totalitarian justice, one that is not carried out to find the truth, but simply because it is still considered a form of justice, and provides a critique of the totalitarian ideology (monopoly on the truth, the state terror of the execution, personality cult of the old Commandant, blurring of the traditional Victim/Perpetrator boundary) that would emerge in Europe decades later.
It is a sad irony of history that these themes were so heavily explored in a story written only weeks before Europe, awash in nationalism, began a disastrous World War (the publisher was originally hesitant of publishing the story, fearing that many would see allegories of war in the tale). Hopefully In the Penal Colony will eventually teach us the lessons that it has contained since the first publication almost a century ago.