Tuesday, April 08, 2008

What I Saw, Reports From Berlin 1920-33 by Joseph Roth is a collection of articles chronicling the life and times of Berlin and its people during the years of the Weimar Republic.

Born into a Jewish family in Galicia, a province of the former Austrian-Hungarian empire, Roth served in the Austrian army during World War One. After the war he worked as a reporter in Vienna before leaving for Berlin in 1920.

The first article in the collection “Going for a Walk” written in 1921 acts as a template for Roth future work. His focus on the minute rather than the magnificent, as the following quote illustrates.

“Confronted with the truly microscopic, all loftiness is hopeless, completely meaningless”


“Whatever is heralded or touted can only be of little weight or consequence”.

In the article entitled “Nights In Dives” the reader accompanies Roth as he visits nocturnal Berlins underbelly. We visit The Café Dalles, Reese’s Corner, Albert’s Cellar and The Cigar Box amongst others. We meet the inhabitants of the divers. We observe their traits. We learn of their occupations both nocturnal and official.

But Roth is also a political animal despite his insistence otherwise. His article “A Visit to the Rathenau Museum” which, as the title states, describes his visit to a museum dedicated to the memory of the murdered German Foreign Minister Rathenau. Rathenau a German Jew was murdered by right wing militants. Roth leads us through Rathenau’s quarters and we are presented with a picture of a cultured man who lived quietly and with great dignity. Roth’s sense of loss at the murder of the Foreign Minister is unstated, but is all the more powerful for that. He finishes the article with the following….

“I walk pass the place where he met his end. It is not true that a murder is just a murder. This one was a thousand fold murder, not to be forgotten or avenged”.

The final piece in the collection entitled “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” and was written by Roth in 1933. Here Roth presents for the reader the contribution which the Jewish people have made to German cultural life. First though he admits that life for the Jewish people as they knew it in Germany is over he states simply “Let us concede our defeat”.

Roth lists for the reader Jewish writers and their achievements Bruno Frank a playwright, George Hermann a “plain and truthful novelist”, Paul Heyse the first German Nobel laureate and Alfed Kerr “A theatre reviewer of abundant imagination”. The list goes on. Roth later apologizes to any German Jewish writers he has omitted from his list.

He contrasts the German Jewish writer, who wrote about the city, with the folk literature, with its emphasis on region and landscape which touted by the nazis. He says that the Jewish writer “revealed the whole diversity of urban civilization”.

Roth ends “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” with the following quote.

“Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany. We have spilled our blood for Germany in two ways: the blood that runs in our veins, and the blood with which we write. We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why today we are being burned by Germany”.

With the coming to power in Germany of the nazi party Roth fled to exile in Paris where he died destitute in March 1939.


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