5) The Sudetenland town believed to have inspired Kafka’s ‘The Castle’

Frýdlant castle

Frýdlant, a town of about 7,400 inhabitants in Czechia’s Liberec Region, certainly has a Kafkaesque feeling about it. You arrive there only to find that the people you arranged to interview suddenly don’t have time to meet you, saying they are sure that one day, however, one day you will meet – uncannily reminiscent of Kafka’s unfinished last novel ‘The Castle’, where the protagonist desperately tries to gain access to the fortress where the mysterious authorities who govern the village he has been summoned to reside.

Photo repro: Jiří Slíva,  'Franz Kafka a Frýdlant'/Město Frýdlant

The castle from Kafka's story could indeed have been the one in Frýdlant – although there is unfortunately no proof that it was Frýdlant’s castle that inspired Kafka to write the novel. In fact, the village of Siřem, around 160km away, which will be the subject of our next episode on Kafka, also claims the same accolade.

Kafka regularly came to Frýdlant for his job as a labour safety inspector at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute, and would stay at the White Horse (Bílý kůň) Hotel, located on a square dominated by the impressive German-style town hall.

The White Horse Hotel

It is in front of the White Horse Hotel that we finally meet Jakub Žáček: an actor, proud Frýdlanter, and the organiser of a Franz Kafka festival that has taken place biennially in the town since 2020. So, I ask him, what do we know about Kafka’s trips to Frýdlant?

“We know that he came here as an inspector for the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute, and that he stayed here in a little room – unfortunately, we don’t know precisely which one, that information didn’t make its way to us. But one thing we do have is a peculiar diary entry written by Kafka, in this kind of typically depressive Frýdlant fashion:

The hotel in Friedland. The large hallway. I remember there being a Christ on the cross, which may not have been there at all. No water closet, a snowstorm was blowing from below. For a while I was the only guest…

“By the way, you’ll notice that the hotel is, in a rather Kafkaesque fashion, closed, so we can’t go in.”

So how many times did Kafka come here and how long would he stay? Was it, say, only three trips, or were there many more?

Bílý Kůň hotel located in Frýdlant  | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“He definitely came at least 10 times for trips of various lengths – some were for him probably unnecessarily long. But Frýdlant’s atmosphere and above all, its castle, which is somehow Kafkaesque, fascinated him. I think that our castle and Kafka were somehow searching for each other. There’s even a diary entry of his which shows how he was fascinated by the construction and structure of the building – a closed structure, which creates a kind of optical illusion.

“But as I was saying, he was an inspector and he came here to make sure that local businesses were adhering to work safety regulations. This also depressed him. He describes how at every moment he sees someone putting something somewhere it shouldn't be and how the workers rush down the stairs carrying full loads of dishes.

“There’s not much available information about his trips to Frýdlant, but the information we do have is very concrete and detailed thanks to his diary entries. But of course, there are big gaps, which have to be filled in by reading his literary works. When I read ‘The Castle’, I totally see our castle in Frýdlant, but of course, that’s just my projection.”

Frýdlant | Photo: Jaroslav Hoření,  Czech Radio

We’ve heard the words ‘depressing’ and ‘depressed’ several times now – but was it really like that? I thought that Kafka liked Frýdlant.

“Of course, he did. When his family was thinking about which school to send his sister Ottla to, he recommended the economic and dairy school in Frýdlant, where she actually did go to study in 1918. He probably wouldn’t have sent her somewhere that he thought was awful – the only reason I could see for that would be as some kind of sibling revenge, but I don’t think that was the case, Franz really liked Ottla a lot.

Photo: Radio Prague International

“He also sent her beautiful postcards from Frýdlant, where he drew and described the little room where he was staying. One of his letters to Ottla has been preserved and it almost looks like a sort of comic book.

“I think all Kafkologists would agree that Frýdlant was important for him in its own way. He saw the Kaiserpanorama here – it’s hard to describe for the radio but it was a kind of primitive 3D projection of its time – and on the basis of that he started working on the novel Amerika.”

Do you have an explanation for the fact that although Kafka is a world famous author and he had a relationship with this town, he doesn’t have a single monument, plaque or memorial dedicated to him here?

“Well that’s also somehow Kafkaesque, isn’t it?”

Although I suppose there is one reminder of him after all – the Franz Kafka cultural festival, which you personally organise.

“If we stay here a couple of minutes longer, then the town will start to breathe its special atmosphere into you. That’s why we named the festival after Kafka, although it isn’t about him specifically. The name and the special atmosphere that Kafka perceived here – that was the reason for us to hold the festival and why we do it here.”

Town Hall in Frýdlant | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

The Castle

As stated earlier, we can’t say for certain that Frýdlant’s castle provided the inspiration for Kafka’s novel. Some experts think it could have been the granary in Siřem, Osek Castle near Teplice, or Střela Castle in South Bohemia.

Frýdlant castle  | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

Most likely, all these places together made an impression on Kafka and combined to create the inspiration for The Castle. Moreover, the castle in the novel is not described as being one specific building, but "an extensive complex of buildings”.

But what does Jakub Žáček think about all this? Is there anything that might point towards the castle in the novel being the one in Frýdlant?

“We can’t ask authors to list their sources of inspiration down to the last detail. But the castle here is sort of closed off, it’s difficult to get into it – that is, if you don’t have a key or a ticket.

“The last owner was the Clam-Gallas family – and in the novel, Klamm is the name of the official who is supposed to be the protagonist’s contact at the castle. Also think of the meaning of the Czech word ‘klam’ – and Kafka did speak Czech in addition to German – in Czech, ‘klam’ means illusion.

“Furthermore, in the novel, the protagonist falls for Frieda, a former barmaid at the local inn. I hardly need to point out the similarities between ‘Frieda’ and ‘Friedland/Frýdlant.”

Friedland or Frýdlant?

As Žáček just hinted at, Frýdlant is located in northern Bohemia, in the former Sudetenland where before the Second World War, the majority of the population was ethnically German – hence the German name for the town, ‘Friedland’. After the war, the German population was expelled from Czechoslovakia, so Frýdlant lost the majority of its inhabitants, who were replaced by new Czechoslovak settlers.

Photo repro: Jiří Slíva,  'Franz Kafka a Frýdlant'/Město Frýdlant

Naturally, that had an impact on the collective memory of the place. After the expulsion, there was almost no one living there who remembered that Franz Kafka used to visit years ago.

Jakub Žáček recalls how foreign tourists often used to know better than the locals that Kafka was a regular visitor to the town and that it was a relatively important place to him.

“When I was working as a tour guide at the castle, one day a group of English people came and asked if we had any information about Kafka’s visits to the town. Here at the castle they said, ‘Kafka was a German writer from Prague. He was never here.' But I already knew back then from the writer Bohumil Hrabal that Kafka indeed was here. For Kafkologists that was already a relatively well-known fact.

Jakub Žáček | Photo: Klára Škodová,  Czech Radio

“It’s true that he didn’t have a permanent base or origins here, it was more of a place he visited for work and inspiration. But somehow this information didn’t get passed between the two populations, from the German population to the Czech.”

Another reason why Kafka was largely forgotten, not only in Frýdlant but also in Czechoslovakia as a whole, was that under the communist regime, although his writing wasn’t banned, it was also not published much and certainly wasn’t promoted.

Photo: Radio Prague International

However, Jakub Žáček has a humorous answer to the question of when people in Frýdlant started to realise and talk about the fact that Kafka was a part of this town.

“The first mention of it was at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute, when they said ‘So, Mr. Kafka, you are now in charge of inspections in the Frýdlant district.’ And he made the same face he always has in photographs and came here, not realising that even 100 years after his death, you won't be able to buy a mug, T-shirt or a soft toy with his face on it here, the way you can in Prague.”


The 100th anniversary of Franz Kafka's death offers the opportunity to look at Kafka's work and life from current and new perspectives. All events, exhibitions, lectures, literary links can be found on the Project Kafka2024 website.

Authors: Libor Kukal , Anna Fodor


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