Monday, December 1, 2014

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth, translated from German and with an introduction written by Michael Hofmann, published in English in 2008

"It’s not only what Roth sees; it’s what he sees through. And often he sees unknowingly into the future we inhabit beyond his time." from a review by Nadine Gordimer in The Threepenny Review Spring 2003
 Joseph Roth, a journalist and novelist born in Galicia in 1894, arrived in Berlin, Germany in 1920 after first living in Vienna. In this volume Michael Hoffman brings together 34 of Roth’s journalism pieces written between 1920 and 1933 which he has translated from the German. He also includes an informative introduction which includes biographical information about Roth and places him in the context of the Weimar Republic. And he provides footnotes so as to help us understand an occasional obscure reference. Also included are many photographs and illustrations.

Grouped according to subject matter in this volume, Roth’s topics give an impressionistic feel for the Berlin between the wars. His point of view is that of the outsider – someone who lives in the city and knows many of its quarters well, but at the same time he looks at the city, its residents, its architecture, its infrastructure, its cafes and night life with “new” eyes.

An assimilated German Jewish intellectual, Roth chose to write about Berlin’s Jewish quarter and he wrote sympathetically, but at a remove. He describes its residents who are refugees from the East, their difficult living conditions, and the lure of Palestine for those who wander homeless. He is quite passionate in his opinions and upset at their plight, but although he was himself born in Galicia, it is clear he sees them as “other.”

According to Hofmann’s introduction, in 1925 Roth made Paris his new base although he still spent time in Berlin and continued to write for the German newspapers until the Nazis came into power in 1933. The pieces included in this volume written starting in 1924 seem more engaged and more consistently political. One piece laments the murder of Walter Rathenau, a German Jew who, serving as foreign minister, was killed by right-wing extremists. Another, entitled “An Apolitical Observer Goes to the Reichstag,” is a cynical, critical look at the members of the German parliament. In the course of the piece he criticizes the seeming paralysis of the various political parties, each representing its own interests. And he ominously refers to “[t]he goose-stepping of the Nationalists.”

The most powerful piece in the collection because of its subject and Roth’s engaged fury is the last one included, “The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind,” published in French in the September/November issue of Cahiers Juifs (Paris). The title, deliberately echoing the barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition, is at one and the same time a piece written to protest the enormity of the burning of books of German writers who the Nazis considered “degenerate,” many of them Jewish, and to protest the expulsion from Germany of German Jewish writers (including Roth, of course). In the piece he gives a brief history of entrenched German anti-Semitism and praises the many German Jewish writers whose books were burned, listing more than three dozen alphabetically (from Altenberg to Zweig). But most importantly, he uses the piece to alert the world, to try to get the world beyond Germany to understand the implications of what was happening. This piece is horrifying to read  now, given that we know the outcome.

Roth mentions no family by name. The translator Michael Hofmann supplies some background about Roth's family in the introduction.
One piece is a tribute to Walter Rathenau.  In the final piece, as stated above, Roth lists and characterizes each of about three dozen German Jewish writers.


To watch a video about the book burning in Germany, click here.
To read a timeline that covers Berlin history and its Jewish residents, click here.

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