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Goodbye to Berlin

The rediscovery of Joseph Roth by the English-speaking world is almost complete. A variety of publishers in Britain and the United States have brought out his novels, in new translations, culminating last year with Michael Hofmann’s superb rendering of Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March.1 In the United States, Overlook Press has brought out much of Roth’s fiction, and this year publishes Confession of a Murderer, Flight Without End, and Job in paperback.2 Now comes a selection of Roth’s nonfiction, columns and sketches which appeared in half a dozen German newspapers in the years of the Weimar Republic.

Joseph Roth was born in 1894, into a Jewish family in the Galician town of Brody on the eastern fringe of the Habsburg dominions. As a fiction writer, he remained an Austro-Hungarian at heart, both in his choice of subjects (The Radetzky March ranks with Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities as one of the two supreme literary memorials of that time and those places) and in his darting, ironic prose manner. But in 1920 he moved from Vienna to Berlin, where he spent the next five years. From Berlin, he shifted to Paris, returning constantly to the German capital until the coming of the Nazis drove him into permanent exile. He died in Paris in 1939.

Although he is now remembered as a novelist, Roth was better known as a journalist in his lifetime, and it was through journalism that he made a living. He was a master of the feuilleton, the short sketch which has an element of reporting but which transforms small scenes into revelations about the inner nature and destiny of an entire society or regime. It’s a form invented and perfected in Habsburg Vienna (Karl Kraus was its acknowledged Weltmeister), which spread throughout Central Europe and into northern Germany. Roth himself once wrote that “the feuilleton is as important as politics are to a newspaper, and to the reader it’s vastly more important.”

His own readers certainly agreed. Roth became well-paid and famous, especially after he signed up with the old Frankfurter Zeitung. The myth of the feuilleton insists that it must be written at a café table, and Roth soon had an honored place with the other Berlin literati in the Café des Westens or the Romanisches Café, talking, drinking, and inhaling their delicious reek of leather door-curtains, rain-moist fur collars, cigar smoke, coffee, and fresh newspapers. In that sense, he was part of the Berlin scene. But at another level, he remained a fascinated and repelled stranger. Like Kraus, who sat down every day to read the newspapers he loathed, Joseph Roth went out every day to explore and celebrate the city he hated.

Berlin was and remains a raw place. Most of its people have been born somewhere else. Every fifty years or so, it goes through an earthquake of change and becomes unrecognizable (it is going through one now). Roth got it exactly right in his 1927 novel Flight Without End:

This city exists outside Germany, outside Europe. It is its own capital…. It has no culture of its own…. It has no religion. It has the most hideous churches in the world. It has no society. But it has everything that society alone provides in every other city: theaters, art, a stock-exchange, trade, cinemas, subways.

For Roth, a socialist but no “modernist,” Berlin stood for the horrific triumph of technology over humanity, an empire ruled by roaring, insatiable machines which reduced people to servile ants. This is the vision of several great contemporary films: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 Berlin documentary Symphonie einer Großstadt. If there is a theme running through these very disparate columns by Joseph Roth, it is this idea of dehumanization—a highly fashionable notion at the time, nourished by classical Marxist thinking about the relationship between base and superstructure, between changing means of production and social attitudes. His essay “Affirmation of the Triangular Railway Junction” is a real period piece, a gold mine for any student of the critique of industrialization:

Such is the realm of the new life, whose laws are immune to chance and unaffected by mood, whose course is merciless regularity, in whose wheels the brain works, sober but not cold, and sense, implacable but not rigid….

Everything human in this metal arena is small and feeble and lost…. In this world every human form of expression counts for less than the mechanical indication of an instrument. A lever is more important than an arm, a signal than a gesture….

In an earlier piece, “The Resurrection,” he visits a working-class Berliner released from prison after serving a fifty-one-year sentence. The old man has never seen a car before or ridden a subway, let alone been exposed to the din and rush of modern traffic. It is the twentieth century, but for him it is like the fortieth. And yet, meekly, he submits to this nightmare and shuffles off to look for work. “Man, surrounded by machines, is compelled to become a machine himself.”

If he had stuck with this line of melodramatic cultural pessimism, Roth would have become a bore. Luckily for the reader, he was inconsistent. He hated the taste of the young, with their glass tabletops and surgical-white walls: “For a bedroom there is a glass-walled studio. They dine in gyms. Rooms you could have sworn were tennis courts serve them as libraries…. They relax after meals on white operating tables.” But the idea of skyscrapers exhilarated him, and in a perilously whimsical piece he denied that living in the clouds was somehow against nature:

What may have the appearance of a war against the elements is in fact union with the elements: man and nature becoming one. There is freedom in skyscrapers, as much as on mountain-tops…. It is impossible for the proximity of clouds to have no effect on human beings.

Here, at least, is one tribute to the creative dynamism of Berlin in the 1920s. That piece was touched off by seeing the 1922 exhibition of designs for a building on a site near the Friedrichstrasse railroad station. Roth must have seen Hans Scharoun’s drawings for a vast “Cathedral of Consumption,” and he was surely thinking of Mies van der Rohe’s marvelous sketch of a twenty-story glass tower when he wrote: “I can see the skyscraper: a slender, floating construction…noble and delicate in its lines, whose white and gray sets itself apart from the blue sky.”

Berlin was the only European city that might have become a new Manhattan. Proposals for an ultra-modern skyscraper city abounded, and only the sloth of the authorities ensured that none of these wonderful buildings was ever constructed. Within a few years, it was too late. Economic crisis and then the arrival of the Nazis, armed with the megalomaniac neo-classicism of Albert Speer, ended the dream. Roth wrote in 1930 (in the article “Stone Berlin”):

Berlin is a young and unhappy city-in-waiting…. The wickedness, sheer cluelessness, and avarice of its rulers, builders, and protectors draw up the plans, muddle them up again, and confusedly put them into practice.

Some of his short pieces are trivial and affected. His snapshots of café life, though sharply observed, have something arch about them: feats of conventional “fine writing” done to awe a reader or impress an editor. In “The Conversion of a Sinner in Berlin’s UFA Palace,” Roth goes to a Harold Lloyd comedy and pretends to mistake the pomp of the great cinema for a religious ceremony: “No mirth shook my diaphragm. My thoughts were on death, the grave, and the hereafter.” This is the flat-footed artifice of hack journalism. But when he goes exploring the city’s low life, the hostels for the homeless or the all-night steam baths or the bars where burglars and whores drink, Roth is back in literary business. In a group of sketches put together as “The Jewish Quarter,” he wanders through streets swarming with refugees driven from Eastern Europe by pogrom and war. He was an “Eastern Jew” himself, by his Galician origin, and yet his feelings for these shabby crowds are mixed. Sometimes he uses angry irony: “It takes, I thought, a truly divine love to choose this people. There were so many others that were nice, malleable, and well trained….”

Sometimes, though, he focuses all his novelist’s compassion on a particular person. It is hard to forget the boy Geza, who fought on the wrong side in Hungary’s Communist revolution and now hopes to be a cabin boy on a Hamburg liner. Or old Mr. Schwarzbach from Drohobycz in Galicia, who has spent nine years building a miniature reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple, complete in every tiny, obsessive, and largely imaginary detail (Roth borrowed Mr. Schwarzbach for a character in his Wandering Jews, and the late W.G. Sebald took him up yet again in his novel The Emigrants). The temple, finally completed, was parked on a table in the back room of a Jewish restaurant on Hirtenstrasse. Few people bothered to look at it.

Berlin is not a nostalgic town. Roth’s contemporary, the novelist Alfred Döblin, wrote in his masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz that this impetuous city no longer needed buildings of lasting value. The new cult of speed was invoked by planners to reject the ornate style of Wilhelmine Berlin; this was to be a city for people whizzing through so fast that they would have no time to notice architectural detail and ornament. But coming from changeless Vienna, Joseph Roth allowed himself some regrets. Confronted with the stark new interiors (“they dine in gyms”), he admitted that he missed the stuffy, dim apartments of his parents’ generation. He was used to older architectural trickeries, in which classical temples turned out to be theaters and Gothic cathedrals were railway stations, but an apparent squash court which turned out to be a library was too much for him. He was sorry to see the old Wax Museum’s contents auctioned off, killed by the movies.

The new Luna Park funfair returned him to his favorite theme of dehumanization. The whirling fair machines, he fancied, were designed to humiliate people, by demonstrating their physical helplessness, rather than to amuse them. “The enjoyment here is in the mockery of human endeavor.” Even Berlin’s nightclubs suggested to him that automatism was replacing older, warmer customs. The glitz had become standardized, while the girls were all “that international, slender, narrow-hipped type of child-woman” with “mechanical smiles.” In the good old days, “the jokes were terrible, but the people were cheerful,” and the women had been “flesh and blood, and not the product of hygienic training.”

Politics, as a distinct topic, are almost absent from What I Saw. A reader hoping to find a brilliant writer’s account of the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic will be disappointed. One reason for this could be the book’s curious genesis. Michael Bienert, who made the original selection published in German in 1996, subtitled it “A Reader for Walkers”; it was intended to be a guidebook which could be carried around Berlin on a sort of “Joseph Roth Heritage Trail.” Just possibly, Roth’s political journalism did not fit into this design and was left out. Much more probably, Roth avoided overt political commentary. The point of the feuilleton was precisely that it did not march straight up to the great issues of the day, but subtly encircled them.

Roth, who was in fact a highly political creature, preferred this indirect approach. In “An Apolitical Observer Goes to the Reichstag” (1924), he says what he wants to say by concentrating on appearances and details. He records that the monstrous Reichstag building, raised in Imperial times, keeps its main doors shut, so that the bourgeois-democratic representatives come and go through a small tradesmen’s entrance at the side. He notes that there are plenty of journalists hanging around the opening ceremony of the session, but that the public galleries are almost empty. He watches the Reichstag members reducing the session to cacophony by singing at each other; the left roaring the Internationale, the right intoning “Deutschland über Alles.” The mighty chandelier above their heads weighs eight tons; their parliamentary library is supervised by kitschy allegorical statues. “Show without warmth; frozen displays of pomp. How should humanity, understanding, compassion, exist here?”

He was, of course, aware of fanatical hate politics. In Roth’s time in Berlin, the Nazis and their imitators were still on the fringes, absurd to most voters and yet impossible to overlook. A 1924 column about the elections registers the indifference of the public and the boredom of the mainstream party campaigns:

The sober bureaucracy of Berlin election propaganda (irrespective of party) confines itself to the old and unsuccessful means. It prints long communications on gray fibrous paper in small type (italic, as a rule, too)…. But with this vertiginous waste of words, not one manages to leap forth in the form of an arresting, compelling, bone-freezing optical shout.

But he contrasts this with the “optical shout” to be found on the Potsdamer Platz, in a small but noisy thicket of racist-nationalist literature and swastika posters—“you hear the repetitive hack-hack-hack of the nationalist woodpecker.” In the Berlin woods, he watches young people in uniform go marching and singing, and senses the approach of a very different Germany:

It’s a strange, baffling young generation. It covets the poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling, but not his shy piety or love of nature. You see them at railway stations, the blooming, wheat-blond girls, born to be mothers, but turning into political Furies….

Michael Hofmann’s translation is vigorous and imaginative, and he provides a masterly introduction to give the reader an idea of 1920s Berlin and to explore Roth’s underlying attitudes. While most of his footnotes are helpful, some are intrusive; if lines from Rilke or Sylvia Plath strike Hofmann as close to a thought of Roth’s, he should keep his comments for a book review. But it is not the translator’s fault that the collection is so uneven. Most of these pieces are mannered, written to entertain. But three of them, all about politics in some sense, rise to an entirely different quality of seriousness and passion.

One of these is Roth’s report on the funeral of Friedrich Ebert, the saddler’s son who became the first president of the Republic after the 1918 revolution. In “Farewell to the Dead” (1925), Roth describes a moment when Berlin’s tough indifference broke down:

This city, so heartless in its bustle, so cold in its evident urge to utility, and so often teetering on the edge of kitsch where it would be sensitive—just today this city wore a hurt, even a tragic expression on its face.

The silent crowds were pressing twelve deep around the Reichstag, and the signatures in the condolences book were those of carpenters, lodging-house keepers, pub owners, war veterans. “It is easier for grief to find its way into the hearts of such people. They are not guarded by bitter skepticism.” The coffin of Ebert, a man of the people for all his failings, stood on the street without an honor guard, covered by the black-red-gold flag of German democracy:

It’s the visual equivalent of a farewell speech. You see it, and you understand what it says.

…For the first time in years, piety—respect—has been more audible than the city’s normal clamor.

Two years earlier, a gang of fanatical young nationalists had assassinated Walther Rathenau, the foreign minister. The murder had appalled Europe. Rathenau—wealthy, cultured, and liberal—seemed to embody the promise of a new, enlightened German politics. His killers shot him as a Jew and as an accomplice in the “stab in the back” which they imagined to have brought about Germany’s defeat in 1918. He was murdered in the street outside his Berlin home, and Joseph Roth made a pilgrimage to visit the house, left untouched as a shrine guarded by his old servant.

He lived wonderfully,” Roth concluded in “A Visit to the Rathenau Museum.” Everything in the house was exquisitely arranged and classified: “A loving hand has instinctively created order here…. A brilliantly imaginative pedantry has had its way.” Roth wandered in a trance of delight among the perfectly chosen pieces of antique furniture, the paintings, and above all the books. Leafing through a New Testament in Greek with Luther’s translation, he noticed Rathenau’s notes in the margins (“discrepancies are shot down with discreet little arrows”). On a table lay a Jewish religious rule book next to an old Christian hymnal:

Pervading the house and the being of this man was the spirit of conciliation. His life is characterized by its attempt to bring together antiquity, Judaism, and Christianity…. It was the effort to bring the various instruments of different cultural worlds within the ambit of a single orchestra.

The Berliners who were to mourn Friedrich Ebert so openly were shocked by Rathenau’s death but not greatly moved. Roth saw all too clearly what Germany had lost, and would lose, if a man of such moral quality could not live there. He ended his column with luminous words. “It is not true that a murder is just a murder. This one here was a thousandfold murder, not to be forgotten or avenged.”

The final article in this book comes from a quite different time and place, and in a different tone. If the preceding pieces are in a sense chamber compositions, here in “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” is the full symphony orchestra. This is not Joseph Roth the feuilletonist but Joseph Roth the novelist, the author of The Radetzky March, summoning all his talent for a cry of prophetic anger which ought to have a place in any anthology of anti-fascist writing. Roth wrote it as an exile in 1933, a mere eight months after Hitler had taken power. It was published, not in the feature columns of some famous Central European daily paper, but in the Parisian Cahiers Juifs.

For the first time, Roth is taking a stand as a Jewish writer—a German Jewish writer. Very few people, he begins, have understood what the burning of books and the expulsion of Jewish writers really means:

Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating….

Now, as the smoke of our burned books rises into the sky, we German writers of Jewish descent must acknowledge above all that we have been defeated. Let us, who were fighting on the front line, under the banner of the European mind, let us fulfill the noblest duty of the defeated warrior: Let us concede our defeat.

Roth felt very proud that it was Jewish writers who took the first shock of the assault on all European art and literature. This is

the technical apotheosis of the barbarians, the terrible march of the mechanized orangutans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia, and nitroglycerine…. We descendants of the old Jews, the forefathers of European culture, are the only legitimate German representatives of that culture.

Bitterly, Roth asks if “German writers of Jewish extraction—or for that matter, German writers” have ever felt at home in the German Reich. All German authors, he says, have been strangers in Germany, “immigrants on home ground,” especially since Bismarck turned the nation into a militaristic empire. The drill sergeant came to represent Germany, and

behind the sergeant stood the engineer who supplied him with weapons, the chemist who brewed poison gas to destroy the human brain, and at the same time formulated the drug to relieve his migraine; the German professor… who is in fact the most dangerous (the most dogmatic) enemy of European civilization: the inventor of the philological equivalent of poison gas….

Roth’s obsession with lethal gas, nine years before the Wannsee Conference, is haunting. Hitler, he claims, is only putting into practice an old Prussian project: “to burn the books, to murder the Jews, and to revise Christianity.” He is scathing about middle-class German Jewry, reforming their faith into an imitation of Protestant Christianity so that they could “take out a lease on ‘German civilization,’” and he recites a long alphabetical list—from Peter Altenberg to Arnold Zweig—of Jewish or part-Jewish authors who have contributed to German literature. “They have all fallen on the intellect’s field of honor.”

Then comes a fascinating passage which illuminates his own concerns in this What I Saw collection:

The great gain to German literature from Jewish writers is the theme of the city…. They have discovered the café and the factory, the bar and the hotel, Berlin’s bourgeoisie and its banks, the watering holes of the rich and the slums of the poor, sin and vice, the day of the city and the city by night….

And it is precisely for this that they are slandered by the Nazis:

A Jewish writer was “remote from the soil” when he wrote about the city; a “café house writer” when he discovered bars; a “traitor to the Fatherland” when he depicted the world;…a “feuilletonist” if he happened to have charm and lightness of touch….

Here, for a brief moment, Joseph Roth has allowed his own face to appear in the crowded portrait gallery of his work. And he is defiantly proud of that work. “We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany!”

  1. 1

    London: Granta, 2002.

  2. 2

    Norton has published the Collected Stories as well as The Wandering Jews and What I Saw: Reports from Berlin. They will publish Parisian Paradise in December 2003.

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