IN THE first three decades of our century, the intellectuals of Central Europe were all eager and passionate readers of the Viennese magazine The Torch (Die Fackel). It was written, from cover to cover, with a whip rather than with a pen by the critic Karl Kraus.

Kraus was an Isaiah of Mitteleuropa doom, a Viennese H.L. Mencken, and a demonic Woody Allen, all rolled into one; and while his older admirers never fail to speak about his unforgettable aura, his detractors usually say that he was a ham who failed on the stage and shifted his histrionics to the literary scene. For better or worse, Kraus (like so many in Wittgenstein's Vienna) was obsessed with language and the purity of speech, and it was his glory and perhaps his grand illusion to believe that he could change society and history by worrying about how people used language, and heal moral perversion by eradicating clich,es, wrong adjectives, and foolish syntax.

He always hated with the full force of a brilliant mind and occasionally loved by inference and, in literature and politics, ultimately defended tradition. On his way, he made enemies right and left -- scorning, as he did, nascent Zionism (though he was a Jew), admiring Bismarck (though he disliked the martial Prussians), unmasking a feudal society rotten to the core (though he did not like the commercial middle class either), ridiculing the "psychoanals" studying the works of his fellow-citizen Sigmund Freud. Late in his life when concerned with the ability of little Austria to defend itself against Hitler, he sided with the Christian conservatives who had just destroyed the Austro-Marxists in the bloody Civil W of 1934, and the left (which provided him with most of his loyal readers) has not forgiven him yet.

Harry Zohn, a teacher at Brandeis University and noted intellectual historian of Central Europe, has gathered the first essential collection of Kraus' writings in English translations. In These Great Times offers a welcome opportunity to readers not conversant with Kraus' original German to judge for themselves whether it is appropriate to compare him (as many commentators do) with George Orwell or perhaps Swift. Zohn solves the nearly impossible task of making choices from avalanches of writings with circumspection and a good deal of common sense (not always rampant among the Krausians), selecting satires from at least 30 years, many of Kraus' meditative and curiously Goethean poems (the English version facing the original German), and a substantial excerpt from Kraus' famous super-play The Last Days of Mankind, too big an anti-war drama to be ever performed here on earth (as Kraus predicted) and yet, again and again, intensively attractive to innovative producers.

AMONG MY favorites in the present volume are "Torture in Austria," an irate attack against the slick fin-de-si journalists who mistreated Smetana, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf (musicians of true genius); a story entitled "The Beaver Coat" (almost as good as Gogol's); and the marvelous "Praise of a Topsy-Turvy Life Style." With piercing self-irony, Kraus here suggests how he survives the difficulties of living in Vienna simply by getting up late (all sins of commercial and political life are committed in the morning hours), by avoiding the noises of the Vienna boulevards (sounding "like a symphony on the tune of money circulating"), and wearily waiting for the moments when the street cleaners start moving.

The scenes from The Last Days of Mankind yield a taste of Kraus' total theater of our disordered universe. In his massive spectacle of 209 scenes, Kraus anticipates both the absurd and the documentary theater of our age, shows a disjointed world of brutalities and lies, and works with collages of abominable quotations from war-happy Austrian journals and official speeches. He employs a cast of many hundreds, including Emperors Wilhelm and Franz Joseph (who sings a little ditty while asleep), generals, pimps, prostitutes, hungry soldiers, fat profiteers, war correspondents, an old liberal Jew totally brainwashed by patriotic Viennese newspapers, and a wizened waiter who (after Italy has declared war on Austria) recommends "Traitors Noodles" rather than spaghetti as the daily special. Kraus himself, of course, appears as professional grumbler (in the function of the chorus) and insists that he has done the right thing: "My ear has recorded the sounds of the deed, my eye the gesture of the talks, and my voice, by merely quoting, has preserved the base chord of this era forever."

The trouble with Kraus was that his experience of society, politics, and history was constituted by reading, in his favorite caf,e, every day in the late afternoon and for more than 30 years, the hated Vienna newspapers. And while opposing their false and empty language by his language pure and full, he never left the world of newsprint; he built himself an ivory tower of paper and ink. He was proud of believing that in our modern world of signs and the media, the press alone was responsible for the "intellectual self- mutilation of mankind" because ultimately, "the echo is stronger than the deed." He was a journalist who wanted to write on marble, unlike his meretricious colleagues; and it is not easy to see the vulnerable human being behind the irascible and imperious analyst of what others said or wrote in a wrong way. (Perhaps the present volume should have included a batch of the newly discovered intimate letters written by Kraus to the Baroness Sidonie von N,adhern,y, his great love, who sheltered him, when he was tired, in the peaceful park of her Bohemian castle).

Yet history went on, with and without words, and the moment came when the aging Kraus (a few months after Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933) published his last moving poem, in which he tried to explain to his readers, impatiently waiting for a message, why he did not speak up immediately: "The word expired when that world awoke." Once more, he wrote a 300-page issue of The Torch, revealing the brutalities of Nazi Germany, but did not publish it and died (1936), despairing of mere words, in utter solitude. It will be impossible to speak about the power and the impotence of the word in the recent vicissitudes of history without listening closely to what he said, and what he did not say.