What I saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-30
by Steve Penn
[ bookreviews ]
The two words "Weimar Republic" conjure images of declining grace and beauty in the mind of the reader. Germany between the fall of the Kaiser and the rise of the Führer feels like a greasy moth, pretty yet seedy somehow, and the seediness homed in on Berlin. Here was a country ready to be defined, lurking behind one of the most terrible corners in history, just poised to turn. It was a melting pot with too hot a fire.
Into this pot is dropped a poor journalist whose gift for unusual and florid prose will make him a great spinner of fictions. Joseph Roth, famed later in life for works like The 1002nd Night, here weaving facts together in scrappy corners of newsprint. These snapshots of the Berlin nightlife, of the dives and the burglars, of the race-going hordes and the prostitutes, of children moving sand and adults making skyscrapers, all are moving in their humanity. The whole tragicomic experience of post-war Berlin is pictured in brief glimpses of its people, of the street folk, of the Jewish traders, of the nameless dead. In many ways it resembles Mayhew's epic London Labour and the London Poor, but Roth looks up where Mayhew looked down, respecting the badge of honour of the housebreaker, smiling at a girl's new stockings. There is great pathos, but little pity: Roth does not emasculate the workers of Berlin by making them victims.
Of course, anyone growing up in Germany at this time could not have failed to notice the growing number of Swastikas appearing across the nation and Roth, himself in the soon-to-be-unenviable position of being ";of Semitic blood";, is no exception to this rule. There is a horrendous voice of prophecy in his condemnation of the burning of the books, as he speaks of terrible ash heaps "in which we are consumed". The benefit of hindsight is a burden when we read this book: but it is a burden we should never lay down.
This is, above all, a great eruption of people living through a period when life was lurking between interesting and dangerous, before Germany became impossible for the street traders who talk noisily of stocks before making their way to Synagogue. When the hysterical shouts of the blond rambling girls with the banners are not yet backed by the black-clad men with guns. When one can criticise the Weimar government with out the cold knowledge of what followed it. It is a really small magic mirror, able to show the past but only tiny parts at a time. It is the history they do not teach: the history people live each day without even knowing it. I cannot give examples, as the book is too brief to cull from. I devoured it at great speed and loved every word, much as the writer clearly did. It is both art for art's sake and people for the sake of the people, and it is wonderful. The only improvement that could possibly be made is more.