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Joseph Roth’s golden twenties

When Hitler came to power, the bubble burst

Artillery Row

Today Joseph Roth is known as the author of novels such as The Radetzky March. However, for much of his life (1894-1939) he was far better known as a journalist. One hundred years ago, he was busy writing columns and making a name for himself in Berlin. “No Eastern Jew goes to Berlin voluntarily,” he wrote in his book The Wandering Jews. This Eastern Jew went there grudgingly but it turned out to be one of his better moves. It was there that he honed his craft, raised his profile and got on track to become one of the most famous — and best-paid — newspapermen of the period.

Roth arrived in the German capital in the summer of 1920 after a formative and productive stint writing for a newly launched paper in Vienna. That paper proved short-lived. Roth knew that Berlin, for all its faults, was home to a number of long-running periodicals, and as such offered greater opportunities to a man of his talents — one who was versatile and dedicated, and who had an eye for detail and a way with words. Despite his turning up with no contacts or references, it didn’t take long for Roth to find his feet and get one of them in the door of the Berliner Börsen Courier. One thing led to another, and his by-line began to appear regularly in the feuilleton sections of other dailies. Proof that he had made it came in January 1923 when he wrote what would be his first of many pieces for the illustrious Frankfurter Zeitung.

He served up vivid snapshots of war veterans shunned by society

Roth’s subject matter was varied. Much of it he gleaned by wandering Berlin and observing and recording its sights and sounds, its people and places, its good and bad. There are articles about the city’s elegant quarters and its grand thoroughfares: “In the evening I walk along the Kurfürstendamm. I slink along the walls like a dog. I am on my own, but I have a certain sense that my destiny has me on a leash.” Roth wrote about his visits to cafés, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and nightclubs; he commented on new architecture sprouting up and taking shape, from the city’s first skyscraper to its first huge department store; and he covered crowd-pleasing guidebook attractions such as museums, monuments and the Reichstag — an edifice which, from the front, “gives the impression of a vast mansion whose owners are away”.

But Roth was more interesting when he veered off the tourist trail and turned his attention to less salubrious areas and life lived in the margins. He served up vivid snapshots of war veterans shunned by society and others left destitute and dispossessed. Drawn to the Jewish quarter, he described the “strange and mournful ghetto world” which once existed a mere stone’s throw from modern, vibrant Alexanderplatz. In one piece he takes the reader into a run-down, overfull boarding-house providing temporary sanctuary to Jewish refugees: “Grotesque-looking figures,” Roth writes, “as though hauled from the lower depths of world literature.”

Roth’s trawls through the city’s underbelly for material took him into dubious haunts. In “Nights in Dives”, written in 1921, he rubs shoulders with a cast of colourful characters — Bavarian Annie, Tegeler Willy, Apache Fritz — all of whom leave their mark. Street sweepers and panhandlers come in from the cold to thaw and play skat with grimy bits of cardboard. Pimps drink with prostitutes before they start their shifts. Some of the girls have recently returned from prison; one is back from hospital. Roth notices that one girl shivering against an iron stove has no teeth; her pimp, in contrast, has a mouth full of fillings — “a treasure chest, not a mouth”.

In 1924, Roth went on assignment for the Frankfurter Zeitung. “Journey through Galicia” was his account of a tour across his native region, “a half-banished land” on what was previously the outer rim of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A year later he left Berlin and moved to Paris. His new home was more a base from which to travel far and wide throughout Europe and write other pieces on the hoof for the FZ.

“Down the Volga to Astrakhan”, written on a steamer in 1926, contains candid descriptions of towns devastated by civil war and homeless children — the “so-called “bezprizorniy” who live off wretchedness and fresh air”. A trip to Sarajevo in 1927 — “thirteen years after that first shot” — produced an article which was half-postcard of the city, half-commentary on its legacy: “All the heroes’ graves, all the mass graves, all the battlefields, all the poison gas, all the cripples, the war widows, the unknown soldiers: they all came from here.” A visit to Albania that same year spawned several pieces which, collectively, see Roth attempting to map the lie of the land and pin down its people: “Urban Albanians are strikingly timid. It takes less courage to shoot here than to speak.”

It is hard to imagine him escaping Europe

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man on the move, Roth often wrote about his time spent in hotels. This self-styled “hotel patriot” enjoyed the peace and comfort they offered but also the diverse stream of life that passed through the doors. In an early piece from 1921, “Millionaire for an Hour”, Roth sits in the foyer of an exclusive Berlin hotel watching and evaluating the ebb and flow of lawyers, senators, spivs, carpet dealers and Russian counts. Two years later, in “Hotel Kopriva”, he depicted less glamorous lodgings, a place where in almost every room “single, rivalrous, anxious” commercial travellers are forced to endure the “acoustic persecution” of a blaring gramophone. In a series of vignettes from 1929 about an extended stay in an unnamed city, he gives potted, warts-and-all profiles of the hotel staff, from receptionist to chambermaid to patron.

Roth’s fascination with hotels is also evident in his novels from the same period. His second book Hotel Savoy (1924) plays out in a monstrous establishment at “the gates of Europe”, one that is both “palace and prison”, where girls strip downstairs in the bar and bankrupt guests die upstairs in their rooms. In Right and Left (1929), one of the wealthy protagonists reveals he likes a change from a night in one of his many properties. “Sometimes he slept in a hotel. He loved strange hotel rooms, their anonymous fittings and their wallpaper that chance had glued on.” Other tropes and themes spill out of Roth’s journalism and show up in his books: mean streets, lost souls, local colour and foreign environments.

Unlike Weimar Germany’s Goldene Zwanziger which encompassed the second half of the decade, Roth’s Golden Twenties were ten whole years of happiness, stability and creative freedom. Both in Berlin and beyond, Roth the journalist was in demand and in control. At the height of his popularity, as the Frankfurter Zeitung’s star writer, he was earning the enviable rate of one deutschmark per line.

But of course the bubble burst. “I’m convinced nothing will befall the cheeky chutzpah-Jews,” Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig in August 1932. When Hitler came to power, Roth lost his prestigious job and any possibility of returning to Germany. His final years were spent writing for émigré publications, drowning himself in drink, running out of money and options and moving from one hotel to another, rootless and rudderless. It is hard to imagine him escaping Europe and joining the likes of Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht in exile in America. As his translator Michael Hofmann puts it, “His world was the old one, and he’d used it all up.”

Fortunately for us, his insightful articles, impressionistic sketches and sharp squibs illuminate key elements of that old world. Roth recreated memories and captured moments. He prioritised absurdity and triviality. He transmuted humdrum fact and everyday occurrence into something newsworthy. As ever, he sums it up best: “I don’t write ‘witty glosses’,” he told his editor. “I paint the portrait of the age.”


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