Democracy without populism: Reading Joseph Roth

There are certain memories, and certain moments, that linger longer than others. I can remember clearly the first evening, some time around 2007, that I went to the Joseph Roth Diele for the first time. I was there to meet Nicky and Susanne, editors of the wonderful hidden europe magazine who would soon become my close friends. They had chosen the venue for our meeting, and for three people for whom wandering through and writing about central Europe is something of a calling, it was the perfect location.

The Joseph Roth Diele is a cafe bar on Potsdamer Straße, in Berlin Tiergarten, a short walk from Potsdamer Platz and close to where the Tagesspiegel newspaper used to have its offices. It is next door to the house where Roth – a newspaper man himself – lived when he was a working journalist knocking out page after page of incomparable prose in articles that should have been destined for the chip wrapper but which are still being read almost a hundred years after they were written.

Inside the Joseph Roth Diele there is a lot of wood; wood panelling and wooden tables, covered by red and white check table cloths. The floor is covered by black and white tiling, the walls with black and white photographs… when they are not lined with books. Those books are, of course, the ones written by the man whose name is above the awning and who used to live next door.

Joseph Roth was born in Eastern Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1894 and it was the Dual Monarchy, and its loss, that would have a profound impact on Roth’s understanding of self and belonging. He was born into an empire that, by the time of his death in 1939 – a life cut short by alcoholism – had ceased to exist for a decade and a half. He lived in Berlin, on Potsdamer Straße in the years between 1920 and 1933 to write the journalism that would be gathered together in the English-language collection titled What I Saw, and although his most famous work is undoubtedly the novel The Radetzky March, my love for Joseph Roth’s writing came first via his non-fiction. He was a man born into a world that was destroyed through the upheavals of that first, great war, and who experienced the slow descent into darkness that was the postwar Weimar Republic first hand. In his life he witnessed the collapse of European civilisation as he saw it into the barbarism of National Socialism, a fact that he understood even in the year that Hitler ascended to power. In 1933 he wrote a letter from exile to his friend and fellow writer, Stefan Zweig:

“You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.”

Roth knew then that the die was cast. Six years later, on the 27 May 1939, Joseph Roth died an early death because he had not only written through the Weimar years but he had drunk through them as well. It was a month after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and a summer before the invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War in Europe.

Josepth Roth wrote numerous novels and countless newspaper articles, many of which have been collected together. In English, the best collections of Roth’s experiences and on-the-spot analysis can be found in two collections: What I Saw and The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars. As his translator for both collections, Michael Hofmann insists that all his literary skills are present in these feuilletons; a mix of subtlety and exaggeration; humanity and irony; modesty and arrogance. Hofmann writes that he has a “sublime gift for phrasing,” and that, ultimately, “it is his mind, his graceful spirit, his leaps and flights, his noticings that he parlays into pieces here.”

Along with Stefan Zweig, the other writer with whom Joseph Roth forged a connection was Irmgard Keun, and they were lovers towards the end of his life. In Keun’s brilliant Child Of All Nations, she portrays a family in exile, headed by a charming and flawed father who was, quite clearly, based on Roth. A portrait of their relationship, as well as the friendship with Zweig – at this point fraught because of Roth’s worsening alcoholism – can be found in the recent book The Summer Before The Dark. In it, Roth, Keun and Zweig haunt the hotels, beaches, cafes and casinos of Ostend in Belgium over the summer of 1936 as the clouds gather behind them across the interior of the continent.

It is this sense of impending doom that you can read in The Hotel Years, in What I Saw, in Stefan Zweig’s travel writing collected as Journeys and in Keun’s Child Of All Nations. To read all these books now is to imagine the wave slowly building, about to crash over them, and to realise that all three writers knew what was coming but were powerless, in their imagination or otherwise, to stop it.

A few months ago another friend of mine Marcel Krueger joined me behind the microphone as we launched the third edition of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Marcel had written for the journal about Joseph Roth, and we were able to do on stage what we had done so often in the pub or walking the streets and riverbanks of Berlin… talk about Roth. So the email that landed earlier this week should not have been a surprise. There is a participatory reading event for the Berlin International Literature Festival, Marcel wrote. The title is ‘Democracy without populism’. We should read Joseph Roth.

Of course we should.

The piece that Marcel had in mind comes from What I Saw. Titled ‘The Man in the Barbershop’, it is striking when you read it, even if you do not notice the date of publication at first glance. In his review for The Guardian in 2004, Nicholas Lezard did notice the date, and the symbolism of the scene depicted on those few pages in Roth’s deceptively simple prose: “The bore in the barbershop,” Lezard wrote, “may not be a Nazi yet – it’s 1921 – but he will be soon.”

After Marcel’s email I read the piece again. The boorish man who enters the barber shop starts to dominate the conversation, and regardless of where us readers live, in which place or in which time, we can recognise the type immediately. He wants attention. He wants to own the room. And he wants agreement for his thoughts, that are immediately obnoxious:

“The farther north you go,” he says, early on in his monologue, “the more nationalist people are. In Hamburg they’re really excited about Flag Day. Well, you’ll see. It’s on its way. Can’t be stopped. On, on!”

The man dominates the conversation so much that even the fly that had previously been buzzing around the half-shorn heads and lathered jaws of the patrons is given pause to stop, still on the wall. Roth, meanwhile, makes his own contribution in response to the man’s opening salvo:

“And if you – I think – 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. Because what you see is blood…”

As a reader you imagine the scene and you can hear the voice. Only the voice we hear now is not talking about Hamburg in the early 1920s but about Dover in 2016, about an alternative for Germany or a democratic renewal in Sweden. We know this voice because he is insisting on what women wear on a French beach or imagining how to make America great again. The man in the barbershop does not belong to history. He belongs to the here and now.

This is why we need to read Joseph Roth today. In our living rooms and on our balconies, on the train carriages and hotel rooms that Roth himself loved and yes, on a Wednesday afternoon, in a small library in the north of Berlin. In her introduction to Roth’s masterpiece novel The Radetzky March, Nadine Gordimer quotes the writer Robert Musil who, when speaking about Joseph Roth, made the statement: “one can’t be angry with one’s time without damage being done to oneself.”

The damage was that Roth drank himself to death. A few years later, Stefan Zweig committed suicide, on the other side of the Atlantic from his beloved Europe that was consumed by violence and hatred. If anger was a justifiable emotion then, there are certainly ever-more-frequent moments when it feels justifiable today. I am not sure if Musil is right or whether you can be angry without damaging yourself. But if we can learn anything from reading Joseph Roth, is that if it is right to be angry then it can and should inform the words on the page, so that at the very least future readers can learn from what went before, and make sure the man in the barbershop is not the only voice that is heard.


Irmgard Keun, Child Of All Nations, Penguin Classics (2008), trans: Michael Hofmann
Nicholas Lezard, ‘Berlin Echoes’ in The Guardian, 8th June 2004
Joseph Roth, The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe between the Wars, Granta (2015), trans: Michael Hofmann
Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March, Penguin Classics (2000), trans: Joachim Neugroschel
Joseph Roth, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33, Granta (2004), trans: Michael Hofmann
Volker Wiedermann, Summer Before The Dark, Pushkin Press (2016), trans: Carol Brown Janeway
Stefan Zweig, Journeys, Modern Voices (2010), trans: Will Stone

Words: Paul Scraton
Photo Credit:  Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P014783 / Frankl, A. / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Marcel Krueger and Paul Scraton will be reading Joseph Roth’s ‘The Man in the Barbershop’ from What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33 as part of the participatory event ‘berlin liest’ that opens the Berlin International Literature Festival 2016. Marcel and Paul will be reading Joseph Roth at the Bibliothek Luisenbad on Wednesday 7 September at 4.30pm

Marcel Krueger is the co-author, with Paul Sullivan, of Berlin: A Literary Guide for Travellers

1 thought on “Democracy without populism: Reading Joseph Roth

  1. Pingback: ‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s – That's How The Light Gets In

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