Outcasts, Underdogs and Barbarians

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Review of 'What I Saw', Joseph Roth, Granta £14.99

This is a curious little book of 34 short essays that at first appears like a cross between an urban country diary from the 'Guardian', a latter-day Mayhew's London, or Orwell's classic 'Down and Out in Paris and London'. It is an eclectic mix of observations of everyday life in Weimar Berlin that ranges from construction sites to traffic, leisure, individual profiles and finally, albeit sparsely, a political commentary on the Weimar Republic's decline into Nazism.

Joseph Roth is better known as a novelist ('The Legend of the Holy Drinker', 'Right and Left', 'Radetsky March') but was also a lifelong journalist. It is to this aspect of his career that 'What I Saw' is devoted.

Translator Michael Hoffman's introduction describes Weimar Germany as characterised by 'political violence, assassinations, inflation, unemployment, crisis, and instability. There were 17 governments in fewer than 15 years, as an anguished centre fought off numerical encroachments from both flanks.' Quoting Peter Gay: 'The Republic was born in defeat, lived in turmoil, and died in disaster.' Roth, however, only fleetingly touches on much of this--there are no indexed references to the Nazis, and just four page references to Hitler. A much more political analysis of the early period covered by this book is to be found in Chris Harman's The Lost Revolution. Nonetheless the book is not devoid of politics, which is to be found between the lines.

Roth maintained that he painted a portrait of the age, rather than writing witty columns. His portraits detail the poverty and suffering of the working class in Berlin and the (recently) impoverished bourgeoisie who were to become such a mainstay in the rise of Hitler. Hoffman maintains that 'Roth's natural sympathies were always with the outcast and the underdog', so we catch glimpses of the lives of prostitutes, beggars, thieves, alcoholics and the urban poor, especially the Jewish community--'wherever a Jew settles down, a pogrom goes up.' His hatred of the police is poetic, describing 'a policeman who fancies himself as the still point at the centre of a whirlpool of activity, and the pillar of authority--enemy to the street, and placed there to supervise it and accept its tribute in the form of good order.'

His sympathy with the refugees of Berlin is warm and unstinting: 'They were refugees. We knew them as the "peril from the East". Fear of pogroms has welded them together like a landslip of unhappiness and grime that, slowly gathering volume, has coming rolling across Germany from the East... The refugees spend weeks upon weeks here, literally dying on the charity of their fellow men before they are allowed to make themselves scarce.' His description of the lice-ridden homeless is particularly chilling. The parallels with Blair and Blunkett's treatment of asylum seekers today is palpable.

One short essay, 'The Twelfth Berlin Six-Day Races', describes the marathon cycle race of 1925 and is a clear antecedent of the marathon dance contests portrayed in the film 'They Shoot Horses Don't They'. Desperate times make people do desperate things.

The final 20 pages of Roth's book explicitly examine politics and the emergence of Nazism. Roth ironically maintains he is an 'apolitical observer', yet through his description of Jewish finance minister Rathenau's funeral we see the tension that was in the air in 1924.

The final essay, 'The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind' (1933), describes Nazi book-burning, expulsions of Jewish writers and 'all its other crazy assaults on the intellect...the technical apotheosis of the barbarians'. Roth acknowledges that Weimar's Jewish community 'has been defeated... Behind the sergeant stood the engineer who supplied him with weapons, the chemist who brewed poison gas to destroy the human brain... Hitler's Third Reich is only so alarming to the rest of Europe because it sets itself to put into action what was always the Prussian project anyway: to burn books, to murder the Jews.' It's unfortunate, if understandable, that he blames an entire people for an atrocity many risked their lives to prevent.

His final paragraph is a terrifying indictment of Nazism's genocidal contempt for the country it eulogised: 'Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany... We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why we are being burned by Germany!'