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How Joseph Roth saw Europe’s future

The Austrian novelist had a feel for the mood of the streets – and spotted the warning signs of the Second World War. 

 

In a summer day in 1921, a year after he moved to Berlin, the writer Joseph Roth went to the barbershop. Inside the air was hot and heavy, soundtracked by the clack of scissors and a fly that buzzed lazily around the room. The atmosphere was stilled, deadened by the July temperatures.

We know how it was in the barbershop that morning because Roth wrote about it, in one of the many feuilleton articles that were published in newspapers such as the Berliner Börsen-Courier and which helped make his reputation. He wrote literary journalism; sketches, observations and reflections that combined the lyricism of the future novelist and a talented use of imagery with an eye for detail. Read at the time in the Weimar Republic, they were the stories of the here and now. Read today, in the second decade of the 21st century, they help us understand the past. Roth’s talent was both as a writer and an observer. He knew that even somewhere as mundane as a barbershop on a hot day would contain within it something worth writing about, so long as you looked hard enough. Or in this instance, listened.

It didn’t matter how hot it was, Roth wrote in “The Man in the Barbershop”, people liked to talk. On that day, there was someone who liked to talk more than the rest: “No sooner had he slung his hat on the hook, as hard as if he wanted to tear it out of the wall, then he was tapping a half-lathered customer on the shoulder, bringing the barber’s assistant up short.”

The man was excited, and what he wanted to talk about was the rising national fervour he had felt in Hamburg on a journey north. It was coming to Berlin, he told the barber, the assistant and his fellow customers, and he was convinced they would all join him with enthusiasm when it did.

“His words,” Roth continued, “rattle, clatter and bang. Batteries, mortars, rifles, running fire, all come spewing out of his larynx. World wars slumber in his bosom.”

The man was a bore, one found in any bar or indeed barbershop in Weimar Berlin. In his personality, Roth observed, he held within all the petty annoyances of a lifetime, ones that would become meaningless as soon the wave of emotion he felt in Hamburg crashed down and broke the “summery lassitude and inactivity in the world”.

“And if you,” Roth continued, “were to go south, or west, or east, it would be just the same. Whichever way you went you’d see people getting more nationalistic.”

Today, the words weigh heavy with our knowledge of what was to come. Joseph Roth had seen the danger earlier than most.

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However you read Roth, whether you start with his novels or journalism, you will discover themes that reappear time and again, in particular the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the rise of nationalist movements – and how these political shifts affected the Jews of Europe. His preoccupations had a lot to do with his upbringing. He was born in 1894 into a Jewish middle-class family in Brody, a town in the east of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. It was a childhood fairly typical for a town with a large Jewish population, although, unusually, he grew up without a father, who disappeared before Roth was even born.

On finishing his schooling Roth moved to nearby Lemberg (today Lviv) and then on to Vienna, where he combined his studies with the first steps in a fledgling literary and journalistic career. Both were interrupted with the outbreak of war, and in 1916 Roth abandoned his studies to enlist in the Imperial Army and was posted to the Eastern Front. He may have been enthusiastic to sign up, but he would also be relieved to be given a desk job, keeping him away from the front lines.

The First World War would become the defining event of Roth’s life, and the Europe that emerged from the smoke of the trenches would shape his writing until the end. For Roth, as for many Jews in Austria-Hungary, the end of the empire and its replacement with ethnically-based nation states meant the loss of a homeland; a catastrophe that redrew the maps of Europe and sent many into exile. Roth left the lands of his youth and would never properly return. Displaced people became the subject for some of his finest journalism, while the collapse of Austria-Hungary gave him the subject for his most famous work, The Radetzky March – a novel that narrated the decline of an empire through the experiences of three generations of the Trotta family.

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In that novel, published in 1932, it’s possible to get a sense of Roth’s own feelings of loss that came with the end of the dual monarchy. Throughout the book the rituals and traditions of the empire are recalled. The narrator describes the drinking games and military manoeuvres, the uniformity of the post offices and train stations, the diversity of the empire’s peoples, and the distinctive and peculiarly Austrian-Hungarian way they had of climbing down from a train, “now completely forgotten”.

Even the Emperor is a character in the book, somehow holding it all together, like the empire itself. It is at once a satire and a loving portrayal of a lost time and place, tinged heavily with nostalgia. Narrated after the fact, there are also hints of what was to follow: “The borderlanders felt it coming earlier than the others, not only because they were used to sensing future things but also because they could see the omens of doom every day with their own eyes.”

For Roth, it was not just that his beloved Austria-Hungary was lost, but what it was replaced with. By the 1930s, when he wrote the novel, it had long been clear to him what the collapse of the old order meant, not least for the Jews.

After the war Roth spent a couple of years in Vienna before moving to Berlin. From 1920 until 1925 he was based in the German capital, and would remain a frequent visitor until 1933, writing articles for newspapers in Berlin and Frankfurt and becoming one of Europe’s best paid journalists in the process. It was during the Berlin years that his first novels were published, with Job (1930) and The Radetzky March bringing him renown beyond the German-speaking world. For English readers it was as a novelist that Roth’s reputation as a writer was based, and it has only been in the past 20 years – thanks especially to the tireless and impressive work of his translator Michael Hofmann – that English readers have been given access to his journalism. Two books stand out, both translated by Hofmann: The Wandering Jews (2000), a work of reportage first published in German in 1927, and What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33 (2003).

In What I Saw, articles about life in Berlin are brought together to create a compelling and nuanced portrait of the city during the Weimar Republic. It’s a period that has been much mythologised and romanticised – but not by Roth. “It is a simplification but not much of one,” Hofmann wrote in his introduction, “to say that Roth hated Berlin but permitted it to exercise him.” In The Wandering Jews Roth asks: “Who in all the world goes to Berlin voluntarily?” Perhaps it was because he had little love for the city that Roth could become one of its greatest chroniclers.

Roth documents the contradictions of the German capital. In What I Saw the brightly lit hedonism of postwar Berlin – familiar from the works of Christopher Isherwood or any number of novels, films or television series set in what became known as “Babylon on the Spree” – mixes with the feeling of darkening days, of the rise of nationalism and the current and future fates of the exiles that had arrived come to Berlin, many of whom were Jews.

Walking its streets today, there are few traces of Roth’s city. Nearly a hundred years have passed and there is little to be found of the theme parks and race tracks, cafés and bars, parks and department stores that he brought to life. Most of all it is hard to find the Jewish city that he experienced and described. In The Wandering Jews Roth described the Jewish experience beyond Berlin to Vienna, Paris, the US and the Soviet Union, telling the stories of the communities who had been scattered across Europe and beyond by war and the end of empire. Reading the book today, it is full of grim premonitions: “There is a historical feeling,” Roth wrote, “based on plentiful experience, that the Jews will be the first victims in the event of a bloodbath.”

In Berlin, close to Alexanderplatz, Roth walked along Hirtenstraße where many of the Eastern Jews had ended up. It was, he wrote, “the saddest street in the world”, a refuge-strewn collection of hole-in-the-wall bars and bakeries, Talmud schools and prayer-houses. “It has a new, cheap, already-used-up bargain-basement quality. A street out of a department store. A cheap department store.”

Today, Hirtenstraße is a quiet residential street of ever-increasing real-estate prices, home to an arthouse cinema, an exclusive bar and club, and a few restaurants at the point where it crosses in front of Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Of its history as a focal point for the Eastern Jews who arrived in Berlin in the 1920s, there is no indication. It is this absence that makes the writing all the more important.

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It has been said that Roth’s achievement was not simply the quality of the novels and articles he wrote between 1919 and his death in 1939, but that he was able to write them at all. His own personal legend, expressed in his letters, had it that he began drinking at the age of eight. Even if this was exaggeration, alcoholism was a problem throughout his adult life. And even if it didn’t appear to impact on the quality of his writing, it certainly put strain on his relationships.

“Please take it easy,” his good friend, the writer Stefan Zweig, wrote in 1934. “Stay in bed if you must, but don’t drink.”

It was advice that Roth not only found difficult to take but didn’t seem to want to. In his translator’s note to one of Roth’s final works of fiction, The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939), Michael Hofmann wrote that Roth “advanced a sophisticated argument that while drink shortened his life in the medium term, in the short term it kept him alive – and he worked hard at testing its logic”.

The short term could only last so long though, and in his final years his body was always close to collapse, his letters to friends containing tales of liver problems and swollen limbs. In 1938 he suffered a heart attack. A year later, on hearing of the suicide of his friend Ernst Toller, Roth collapsed once more. This time he did not recover. He was 44.

Roth was, Hofmann wrote, “a man whose element was turbulence”. His personal life was as chaotic as the world around him. The only period of stability in his adult life was a few years in Berlin with his wife Friederike Reichler, whom he married in 1922. They moved together from Vienna to the German capital, basing themselves there as Roth travelled and wrote. The stability would not last long. Friederike developed schizophrenia and, unable to stay in Berlin on her own, for a while she travelled with Roth until her illness made it impossible. In 1928 she was committed to a sanitorium and in 1940, a year after Roth’s death, she was murdered by the Nazis as part of their eugenics programme.

Roth was a man without a home, moving from hotel to hotel – a state of affairs, that, with the exception of those few short years in Berlin with Friederike, was how he lived from the end of the First World War until his death. In a 1929 article titled “Arrival in the Hotel”, Roth wrote of “the hotel that I love like a fatherland”. It was the familiarity of the hallways and rooms, however different or strange the city was beyond the lobby, that gave him a sense of home once his beloved Austria-Hungary was no more:

And as other men may be happy to be reunited with their pictures, their china, their silver, their children and their books, so I rejoice in the cheap wallpaper, the spotless ewer and basin, the gleaming hot and cold taps, and that wisest of books: the phone book.

 

Roth lived out of suitcases and carried with him no books. He didn’t own any. Not even the ones he had written himself.

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Why should we read Joseph Roth today? Although articles of the style he wrote had the reputation for being “light literature”, Roth knew exactly what they were worth (and made sure he was paid accordingly): “I paint the portrait of the age,” he wrote in a letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1926. “I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist. I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.”

In those articles he explained the world, and offered stark warnings for his readers and those around him. For his biographer Keiron Pim, whose book Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth will be published in 2022, his importance is clear: “Roth was charming, exasperating, prescient, indeed too clear-sighted by half: a seer who was appalled by what he saw of Europe’s future and felt obliged to harangue more complacent peers.”

In 2019, 80 years after his death, Roth speaks to us still. “His themes,” Pim says, “resonate powerfully with modern readers. Like him, we live in a world where we’re disorientated by the decline of grand unifying projects, while amidst the uncertainty, demagogues vie for populist appeal with programmes of division and ethno-nationalism.”

In 1933, on the appointment of Hitler as chancellor, Roth made his final break with Berlin. Continuing his struggles with alcoholism, he had six more years to live, spent in flight between Belgium and France, struggling to make ends meet writing for émigré newspapers. For a while he was in a relationship with the exiled German writer Irmgard Keun and they would write together in the cafés of Ostend, matching each other word for word and drink for drink. Back in Berlin, the Nazis tightened their grip, while his works were added to the bonfire of books in front of the State Opera. Roth did not know how it would end, but he knew that it would end badly.

“It will become clear to you now that we are heading for a great catastrophe,” he wrote to Zweig, one of his initially complacent peers. “The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”

It is important to read Roth not because we should imagine ourselves in some kind of rerun or return to the 1930s, but because while history rarely repeats itself, there is some truth to the quote often attributed to Mark Twain that it can indeed rhyme. We need to read Joseph Roth to learn how to look closely, whether in Berlin or London, Warsaw or Athens, São Paulo or Washington, DC. We need to pay attention to the details and we need to hear what is being said and think about where it might lead, whether we’re on the bus or on Twitter, or sitting in a barbershop on a hot summer day. 

Paul Scraton’s books include “Ghosts on the Shore: Journeys along Germany’s Baltic Coast” and “Built on Sand”, both published by Influx Press

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer