01 November 2017

The indefatigable reporter Joseph Roth was an observer of everyday life in Germany during the interwar years.

By Philipp Hindahl

A man smokes in Romanisches Café in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district. Next to him is a cognac (although it is still morning), in front of him a notebook. Only yesterday he may have been in Vienna, Frankfurt or Paris, so frequently does he travel. His profession? Reporter. His name? Joseph Roth. Although he has tried, he is entirely unable to write about the life and the daily goings-on of Germany’s interwar period, known as the Weimar Republic, in an editorial office. The noise in the café doesn’t bother him. On the contrary, when the conversation around him breaks off, he asks: “Haven’t you got anything to say? Nothing to talk about?”

Image via public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in the Galician shtetl of Brody. He went to Lviv to study, then to Vienna. When World War I broke out he was a pacifist, but later enlisted voluntarily to serve in the press corps of the Austro-Hungarian army. After the War, Roth went to Vienna: “I became a journalist one day out of sheer despair over the utter inability of all professions to fulfill me.”

Red Joseph and the monarchy

In 1920 he wrote to his cousin Fritz Grübel: “In the summer I’m going to Berlin, because in summer you can sleep on a park bench and fill your stomach with a bag of cherries.” With nowhere to really call home, Roth also felt ill at ease in an ideology. Although in the beginning – while he was still in Vienna – he wrote for socialist papers (under the pseudonym Red Joseph), he later became a monarchist. At the end of his life, he dreamed he was back in the years of the “k.u.k” or “Imperial and Royal” monarchy.

It was in Berlin and elsewhere that the modern movement was constructed after the fall of the Kaiser. Or, more precisely, in the chaotic Republic various versions of modernity appeared possible, as the sovereignty over interpretation was disputed: in parliament and in galleries, right against left, reactionaries against progressives. Roth had little interest in the major political topics, however. “I am a writer, not a columnist”, he said in a letter to Benno Reifenberg, editor of the cultural section of Frankfurter Zeitung.

Efficiency at the bar

Yet in spite of this, he found the big themes of the day, but in the small things. “Berlin’s amusement industry” was the title of one article, written in 1930. Roth portrayed the nighttime loiterers of Berlin with ageless faces, combed-back hair and “strictly typified, supremely simple needs, which are to be satisfied according to supremely simple rules”. The modern age was efficient, including at the bar and on the dance floor, wherever “vice and training” came together. It was at night in the bars and pubs of Berlin that the hedonists were handled as on an assembly line.

All drunks are equal – you could say: “A landlord is nowhere to be seen, as if the bars don’t actually belong to anybody, as if they are public establishments of luxury (…).”And yet the west of Berlin catered to a sophisticated public, further out there was the cultured middle class, and in the east the so-called lumpenproletariat. Or, to put it in drinks, “from champagne and cocktails to cognac, to cherry brandy, to sweetened liquor, to beer from the Patzenhofer brewery.” Roth made this journey through the city’s nightlife, and if efficiency is a yardstick of the modern age, then he found it here. And he wrote it all down.

Grand hotel on the brink

When we think of the Weimar Republic today, we think about certain types of people. There were the stout right-wing radicals in the drawings by George Grosz, the eternally outdated officers in the volunteer corps and the disabled veterans of Otto Dix, the coke-nosed dandies with their monocles, the communist, cigar-smoking boxer Bertolt Brecht. And there were the hotel residents, always outsiders, who left no traces behind them.

Indeed, the hotel featured prominently in the Weimar Republic: It was a particular location for intellectuals. Siegfried Krakauer elevated the hotel lobby to the modern form of society, full of people who have been lifted out of their actual lives. As if the place in which one could only live for a temporary period represented the perfect image of these years. Naturally no one could have known that this was the period between two World Wars. But perhaps they could have guessed.

Europe commits suicide

Among those who were uprooted, Roth was an extreme case – between the Imperial and Royal monarchy and the Jewish shtetl. Both belonged to the past: “We are all fragments, because we have lost our homeland.” Roth calls to mind a sailor who, after years at sea, can no longer find his home port. He lived with his wife Friedl for only a short time before having to leave his home once again. As a correspondent for various newspapers, he lived in hotels in Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin, conveniently next to the zoo and very close to his favorite café in Charlottenburg.

On January 30, 1933, Roth left Germany for good, on the day the Nazis seized power. A few weeks later books were being burned throughout Germany, and Roth’s novels were among them. He continued to work in exile in Paris. “Europe is committing suicide”, he wrote to his friend Stefan Zweig. At the beginning of 1939 Roth, the eternal migrant, was still considering relocating to America, but on May 27 he died in Paris from the effects of his alcoholism. 

Looking at those who attended his funeral at the Cimetière Thiais, one thing was clear above all: Now everybody wanted a piece of Joseph Roth. The mourners included Catholics and Jewish emigrants, social democrats, communists and Austrian monarchists. He had not sought modernity, the essence of his time, in grand ideologies, nor was he an avant-gardist. Rather, he was a participating observer. Barely had he arrived somewhere and he was already ready to leave.