Reportage from the Weimar Republic

“Berlin is a young and unhappy city-in-waiting. There is something fragmentary about its history. Its frequently interrupted, still more frequently diverted or averted development has been checked and advanced, and by unconscious mistakes as well as by bad intentions; the many obstacles in its path have, it would seem, helped it to grow. 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.”

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was one of the most successful journalists of the Weimar Republic, Germany, 1918-1933. He was born in Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a Jewish family. He studied at Vienna University before he served in the army from 1916 to 1918. After a spell as a journalist writing for left-wing publications in Vienna, he moved to Berlin 1920. It was there he became one of the highest paid journalists in Germany. Roth continued to work as a journalist, essayist and novelist in Berlin until 1933, when the assumption of power of the National Socialists put in peril the livelihoods and security of Jews. He then moved to Paris, writing up until his death in 1939.

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33 and The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars are collections of Roth’s journalism, principally set in Germany. The period 1918-1939 was hugely important in European history, thick with the reverberations of the Great War and the rise of major political mass movements. The Weimar Republic is synonymous with the fragility of liberal democracy, the struggle of the population to live in straitened times, political factionalisation, governmental turbulence, female emancipation, manic hedonism and cultural decadence. There was a great flourishing of culture but not all of it healthy, as befitted a period when there was a great loosening of moral standards in the wake of the financial, commercial, military and social standards following the collapse of Germany in the Great War. Roth was witness to elements of this.

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33 consists of articles written for three different Berlin newspapers between 1920 and 1923 and then articles in the Frankfurter Zeitung up until his departure from Germany. Roth’s subjects range from the specific to the general. He visits the Jewish quarter in Hirtenstraße, off Alexanderplatz, to observe the street life. The mixture of Western and Eastern Jews catches Roth’s eye, as does the juxtaposition of legal and illegal trade and the fluid boundaries between business and social communication. “It was a hot day. All the doors were open, as were many windows. There was a reek of onions, fat, and fruit, of infants, mead, wash, and sewers.” In a nearby boarding house 120 Jewish refugees from the East are accommodated. They comprise a fraction of the 50,000 Jews from the East who moved following the Great War. He writes of the tension caused by the influence of foreigners. The German authorities face a dilemma: allow these immigrants the right to work and they will not leave (despite being largely unwanted and having few employment skills); if refused the right to work, the immigrants may leave but they may also turn to crime. In a 1933 article, Roth reflects on the rise of the Nazis, stating that their anti-Semitism was simply an extension of Prussian authoritarianism and that Christianity too was an associated target for Hitler’s new regime.

Roth went to dive bars in search of characters and stories. He found shivering prostitutes by the stove, toothless, their pimp nearby with a mouthful of fixed teeth (a treasure chest, not a mouth”). He describes the squalor and air of aimless time-filling in twilight venues with worn out whores, scarred veterans, professional housebreakers and foreign hucksters on the make. There are pairs who work as electric lightbulb thieves. One climbs on the other’s shoulders and unscrews lightbulbs from the entrance lobbies of West End houses. They then sell the bulbs to electricians. The working-class are so poor the burn fallen leaves in their stoves. It reads like Alfred Döblin’s underworld novel Alexanderplatz, Berlin or the satirical prints of George Grosz.

Roth visits a homeless shelter off Prenzlauer Allee. “Naked iron bedsteads, wire-mesh beds for penance. Every homeless person is given a think blanket of papery stuff, which admittedly, is clean and disinfected. And on these beds they sit and sleep and lie, the homeless people. Grotesque-looking figures, as though hauled from the lower depths of world literature. People you wouldn’t believe. Old graybeards in rags, tramps hauling a motley collection of the past bundled up on their crooked backs. Their boots are powdered with the dust of decades. Middle-aged men, with sunburned faces chiseled by hunger and toughness. Young fellows in baggy pants, with eyes that look at you with a mixture of fear and confrontation. Women in brown rags, shameless and shy, curious and apathetic, quivering and resigned. A hundred of them to a room. Women, grown men, and youths kept apart.”

Sometimes the respectable and the underworld mingle. Before the war, steam bathhouses were places for drinkers to rejuvenate themselves in the small hours before a day’s work. By 1920, when they re-opened after the resumption of reliable coal supplies, they became dosshouses for tramps unable to find shelter. “The grotesque spectacle of a hot room at night, containing sixteen naked homeless people, trying to sweat out the soot and coal smoke of a train journey, gives rise to a positively infernal range of interpretations. A series of illustrations, say, to Dante’s journeys in the underworld. […] I don’t know if people in hell look as ridiculous as they do here. […] I have a feeling that the witching hour does something to exacerbate the already intrinsically comical condition of nudity. It’s such a bizarre notion that between midnight and 2 A.M. there are people being steamed.”

The nameless dead are the subject of a vivid passage of description. “These dead people are ugly and reproachful. They look as they did when they were first found, mortal terror on their faces. […] Their death agonies keep their eyes half open, the white shimmers under their eyelids. […] The drowned bodies are puffed up and slime encrusted, they resemble badly mummified Egyptian kings. The crusts on their faces are cracked and split like a poor-quality plaster cast. The women’s breasts are grotesquely swollen, their features contorted, their hair like a pile of sweepings on their swollen heads.”

In less potent pieces, the traffic congestion of Berlin is described, the debate over abolishing trams – something that happened in West Berlin after 1945 but not in the East – is outlined, as are the pleasures of apartment watching from an S-Bahn train window. Many scenes revolve around Kurfürstendamm, the broad boulevard that was the centre of retail, entertainment and café culture in pre-division Berlin. Roth is fascinated by the bustle and human collisions in this street, regarding it with sardonic but affectionate eye. “A restaurant is a little piece of America, a café of France. Of course it looks nothing like New York or Paris, but it awakens a little echo of this or that. In their modesty the places think of themselves as successful copies, but in fact what they are is botched originals.”

There an elegy for Berlin’s last panopticon, which closed in 1923 and its contents and furnishings sold off in auction. The panopticon’s collection of curiosities (stuffed animals, skeletons, minerals, ethnographic oddities) and waxwork figures of notable personages – barely one step above a travelling curiosity show – was no match for the dazzling and daily-changing delights of the cinema theatre. Roth is aware that it is the end of an era. Characteristically, he cannot help noticing the inherent absurdity of the panopticon, even as he regrets its passing. “A wax mass murderer  is comical. But a wax Rothschild is also ridiculous. The medium has robbed the one of his gruesomeness and the other of his dignity.” One special curiosity is an account of a variant of the dance marathon spectacles made popular during the Depression. This Berlin variant is the six-day cycle race in a velodrome – an endurance spectacle more than a sporting contest – and it is dated 1925, a full two years after the first period of hyper-inflation afflicted Germany and also before the Great Depression. It is notable that such a humiliating spectacle was held and attended during a time when abject poverty was less prevalent. Perhaps that says something of the national character or the nature of Berlin. Roth observes the packed crowd, the barking of dogs and cries of spectators, the ripples of amusement and aggression in the auditorium. He sees the police preventing crushes and he sees pickpockets working the attendees.

Monotone illustrations – one for each article – shows a photograph (or drawing or poster) from the period, capturing a distinct and brief era in the life of Europe’s most rapidly changing metropolis.

Although based in Berlin, Roth travelled to France, Poland, Italy, Austria, the USSR, Albania and other countries. The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars is a selection of articles set outside Berlin. Roth visits the German coasts to document the impact of Hamburg’s Gold Mark currency (a foil for hyper-inflation), immigrants leaving for the USA and the delights of coastal resorts. Roth talks to inhabitants of the Ruhr Valley during mass unemployment and hears of desperation.  

There is greater variety in The Hotel Years than in the former book. There are reports of incidents and crimes. Roth tells the tale of Rose Gentschow, a 33-year-old prostitute addicted to morphine, whose modus operandi was to drug and rob clients. She worked Potsdamer Platz, a centre of traffic and commuting. One night she put too much morphine in a mark’s drink and he fell off his bar stool, dead. She put on trial for homicide. Roth does not write the outcome of the trial.  

Of Fascist Italy, Roth writes in 1928 that it was a police state, with draconian powers for law-enforcement agencies and mandatory carrying of identity papers. Foreign travel was limited by restricting the number of passports issued and heavy fines for anyone crossing the national border illegally. The category of a “citizen of ill repute” imposed the burden of surveillance and restricted opportunities. Roth does not outline what caused a person to fall into such a status – presumably acting in an anti-Fascist manner – nor does he intimate how common such persons were. All this contrasts with a common view of Fascist Italy as relatively relaxed socially.

The tours of the newly formed USSR are not as enlightening as one might like. There are a lot of tales of Russian train inspectors and customs officials, relying on Roth’s personal encounters. The best of the pieces is when Roth gets away from trains, border guards and ferries and gets into a truly distinct place. That article is set in Astrakhan. Flavoured by an albeit the easily appealing exoticism of the Orient, it is memorable and observant. “To be dressed for Astrakhan means wearing long hooded dust coats, like the horses. In the dimly illuminated night you can see ghosts being driven around by ghostly horses. […] Astrakhan has a technical college, libraries, clubs and theatres. Ice cream under a swaying arc lamp, fruit and marzipan behind bridal gauze. I pray for an end to the dust plague. The next day God sent a cloudburst. The ceiling of my hotel room, pampered by so much dust, wind and drought, promptly fell to the floor with shock. I hadn’t asked for as much as all that.”

Wherever Roth is, he finds a pungent image or crafts a startling phrase. In Tirana, “the women are quiet as wild beasts and unresponsive as the dead.” A sequence of articles cover the experience of staying at a typical hotel and the various individuals who fulfil different roles there: the concierge, the manager, the chef, the waiter, the maid. In a comic sketch, Roth describes the fearful effort of retrieving and replacing a heavy suitcase “that weighed more than I did” on an overhead luggage rack, for the benefit of an elegant woman. All the while he struggled to make the labour look as effortless as possible.

Is the comparison between Roth and George Orwell (as reporter) appropriate? Roth is certainly more a social commentator, humourist and street watcher than analyst or investigator. Hard figures are rarely found in these pieces. They were, of course, written for feuilletons (a newspaper section with commentary, sketches and cultural content rather than current events or hard news) and they have that quality of the eye in the street or the anecdotes of a flâneur, albeit more verifiable and grounded in social context. Roth shares some qualities of lightness, wit and curiosity with Billy Wilder (my review here). Readers may be a touch disappointed at the absence of quoted testimony of subjects and that the accounts are fairly short – mostly 800-2,000 words long. Some will hanker for a longer treatment, as Orwell gives in his books of reportage.

In terms of page count, The Hotel Years is better value, but What I Saw (with its single topic of Berlin and its inhabitants) is more focused as a reading experience and has illustrations, which the former book lacks. Both books have indices. Both books are good reading and recommended for anyone wishing to get a flavour of inter-war Europe, especially the Weimar Republic.

Joseph Roth, Michael Hofmann (trans.), What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33, Granta, 2003, paperback, 228pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 84708 197 1

Joseph Roth, Michael Hofmann (trans.), The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars, Granta, 2016, paperback, 268pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 78378 128 7

Special thanks to RG and JMA for the donation of these books. To fund a review visit this page.

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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