Issue 274 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Books

Review

   

Trading on tragedy

Fallout
Juan Gonzalez
Verso 10.95


Twin towers

When the World Trade Centre collapsed, the pulverised remains formed a torrential dust cloud that rapidly dispersed into the atmosphere over Manhattan. But this was no ordinary dust. It contained many highly toxic substances. This book, by New York journalist Juan Gonzalez, is a shocking account of the failure of the authorities to safeguard the health of the residents and workers of Manhattan and the rescue workers who toiled in the disaster zone. Gonzalez also shows that there was a conscious attempt by the authorities to suppress the truth once the full scale of the environmental catastrophe began to emerge.

The equivalent of a small city went up in flames on 11 September 2001. The fire that destroyed the Twin Towers spread to neighbouring buildings, causing their collapse, and igniting a huge underground oil reserve that lay below the World Trade Centre complex, put there, ironically, to be used in the event of an emergency. The ignition of this reserve of over 100,000 gallons of oil helped fuel fires that lasted for several months.

The fumes and smoke from fires in modern office buildings are highly toxic. This is due to widespread use of heavy metals and plastics. Vast amounts of these burned on 11 September, releasing such poisonous by-products as dioxins, which cause cancer. Anything from 200,000 to 400,000 pounds of lead were also present in the personal computers that were destroyed in the disaster. There was also as much as 1,000 tons of asbestos in the Twin Towers.

Faced with such a lethal cocktail, one would have expected the authorities to evacuate downtown New York and not allow anyone back until a full decontamination had been carried out. In fact, on 17 September, less than one week after the disaster, with half a dozen uncontrolled fires still burning in the debris, tens of thousands of office workers returned to their jobs after receiving the go-ahead from safety officials. On 18 September Christie Todd Whitman, head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, gave her official statement of approval. 'I am glad to reassure the people of New York...that their air is safe to breathe,' she announced.

In fact, the agency's own tests were showing dangerously high levels of asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins, benzene and other noxious substances. But they held back these findings. By the third week after the disaster, however, thousands of people who had returned to work, to school, or to their residences near the disaster zone had started to complain about serious respiratory problems. It was then that a few journalists began to challenge the official story. They met a barrage of outrage from the city's political and business elite, who sought immediately to discredit the reports, and brought pressure to bear on the journalists concerned. Gonzalez was one of the few who managed to carry on publishing articles about the health risks.

A particularly negative role was played by New York mayor Rudi Giuliani. By classifying the clean-up operation as an emergency rescue effort, Giuliani allowed the city to ignore proper health and safety procedures. This meant that thousands of workers who toiled away for months in the disaster zone did not have proper protection. Gonzalez provides some harrowing stories of individuals whose lives have been ruined by work for which they were originally lauded as heroes.

Today thousands of apartments, schools and offices across Manhattan near the disaster zone have still not been decontaminated. Private surveys show high levels of toxic substances remain. Growing numbers of people are demanding an inquiry into what has really been going on and for a proper decontamination programme. But much of the damage to health has undoubtedly already occurred. So next time you hear that a war is being fought in the names of those who perished on 11 September, remember that the US establishment is quite capable of treating its own citizens with the same contempt that it shows to those elsewhere in the world.
John Parrington


IN BACKALLEYS AND PALACES ALIKE

The Land where the Blues Began
Alan Lomax
The New Press 19.95


The Land where the Blues Began

The blues of the Mississippi Delta, together with its close neighbour, gospel music, has been at the heart of western popular music for the last 70 years, and the well shows no signs of running dry. From the 1930s swing bands, through rock and roll, soul and on to rap and house music, black American rhythms and sensibilities have provided much of the soundtracks of our lives. Alan Lomax's indispensable book provides one of the best accounts of the richness and diversity of that tradition.

Lomax, who died last year, was a musicologist, firmly on the left, with a passion for folk and blues music. In 1942 he made a recording trip to Mississippi with a racially mixed team (in itself a dangerous thing to do), and this book lays bare both the raw brutality and the resistance he found there. More importantly, it gives a voice to the voiceless. He's a powerful writer, passionate and deeply observant, but what stays with you is the voices of the people who opened up to him.

Lomax is unflinching in describing the deep and all-pervading racism of the American South, and the vicious exploitation of both farmers and wage-workers. He shows us a deeply intertwined society, where oppressor and oppressed lived side by side and knew many of the most intimate details of each other's lives. But his focus is the many ways in which the black population coped with and resisted their oppression. Music and the church were central to this as means for people to share, express and overcome their pain. Time and time again the music demonstrates their passion to hang on to and affirm their humanity in a society that constantly denied it.

In one early scene he tells of coming across a meeting for black draftees. They listen sullenly to the patriotic speeches, refuse to join in 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, as they march off, a black minister begins singing 'Down by the Riverside': 'The whole crowd swung in behind him. Even the inductees, to a man, opened up and sang as they marched off to the station, until the words could be heard a mile away:

Although the blues was his ruling passion, Lomax also documented and recorded church music, field hollers, prison songs, and the many other streams that flowed into the blues. In particular, he shows how many musical forms have direct roots in African music. In many cases, his trip marked the first time that such forms had been recorded, and many of his most powerful moments come from hearing the childhood music of old men and women.

For the South was changing. The war had taken many men away, but it had also brought more jobs, more money, and greater opportunities to move up north. The jukeboxes in the bars were ringing with recordings made in Chicago and New York, rich with the promises of new opportunities. And the absolute hold of the old power structure was visibly waning. For much of the book Lomax is documenting ways of life that had already gone, and in the process giving a powerful sense of the South as a land in constant transition.

Why, though, should a music born out of such specific conditions flourish when the soil it grew in no longer exists? Lomax answers this, and explains why his book is so important, in the introduction: 'This song arose in a period much like our own. Our species has never been more powerful and wealthy, nor more ill at ease. Homeless and desperate people in America and all over the world live in the shadow of undreamed-of productivity and luxury... Most earthlings, most nations, are distanced from technological luxury, and that imbalance is presided over by armed forces capable of destroying the planet itself. Rage and anxiety pervade the emotions and the actions of both the haves and the have-nots. And the sound of the worried blues of the old Delta is heard in backalleys and palaces alike.'
Charlie Hore


START WORRYING AND LOATHE THE BOMB

The New Nuclear Danger
Helen Caldicott
The New Press 10.95


The New Nuclear Danger

While the war on Iraq focused attention on conventional weapons, the US continues to develop its Star Wars programme. With the 'war on terror' replacing the Cold War, it might seem logical that nuclear weapons would lose some of their strategic importance. But George W Bush's recent hike in the US military budget did not neglect nuclear projects.

Helen Caldicott's book looks at the nature of the US nuclear arsenal and how the military has continued to design new nuclear weapons despite the agreement to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Each of the agreements signed by Russia and the US on reducing the number of nuclear warheads left more than enough weapons in place to destroy the planet. Nevertheless the race to develop new bombs continues despite there being no other country chasing the US.

Caldicott puts the US nuclear programme in the broader context of the arms industry. The three largest arms corporations--Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon--won over $33 billion worth of Pentagon contracts in 2000. Each time a cruise missile is fired, Raytheon can bank $1 million for its replacement. The financial links with the ruling class run in the other direction too, through lobby firms and donations to political funds.

Caldicott argues at one point that these corporations can be more powerful than the US state, though this seems a bit overdone. She claims the expansion of Nato was driven not by politicians but by the arms companies, on the grounds that new member states would then have to buy US armaments. But US political leaders knew they could ignore any previous assurances that they would not expand Nato up to Russia's borders.

On the other hand, it is clear that the arms makers wield enormous power. During the 1990s a series of mergers between weapons makers were driven through by the US state machine in an effort to bring down costs. But by the end of the process, the overall cost to the Pentagon of these contracts had risen rather than fallen.

The book shows both the terrifying and surreally comic sides of nuclear weapons. On 25 January 1995, the world was only three minutes away from nuclear attack. The Russians had lost the record of being notified of a US satellite launch and assumed the launch to be the start of a nuclear attack. It was only when the US missile veered off course--as Boris Yeltsin sat at a computer, being advised about how to launch a nuclear war--that the Russians realised they were not under attack.

The targeting of US missiles could have been lifted from the script of the film Dr Strangelove. As ever more warheads were manufactured, US military planners had to find new targets to aim their bombs at. Rather than admitting that any of the warheads were unnecessary, they simply fabricated new targets. By 1986, the list of targets included 16,000 Russian 'nuclear facilities'. Many of these facilities were invented.

Caldicott writes clearly and with passion. She shows how nuclear weapons have 'leaked' into the conventional arsenal. In both Kosovo and Iraq, Britain and the US have used depleted uranium shells, leaving a radioactive legacy that will remain long after the wars have ended. This book shows these links and can be a valuable resource in building the anti-war movement.
Nicolai Gentchev


DYING FOR A SMOKE

Cigarettes
Tara Parker-Pope
The New Press 9.95


Cigarettes

'I'll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty.'

So said investment tycoon Warren Buffet. With damages payouts against tobacco companies now becoming commonplace, it is easy to forget that until nine years ago the companies making up the huge US tobacco industry, intensely competitive as they are, were united on one important point--they all insisted categorically that nicotine was not addictive and that the link between smoking and cancer was unproven.

It was in April 1994 that Merrell Williams, a low-paid paralegal at the law firm which represented Lucky Strike makers Brown & Williamson, stole a pile of top secret B&W memos and reports going back decades. The documents revealed internal discussions about carcinogenic ingredients, attempts to make a 'safe' cigarette, movie 'product placement' and marketing at non-smokers. Their publication blew the tobacco industry's cover: they proved that executives had known of the addictiveness of nicotine as early as 1963. They proved that despite a strategy of ignoring and countering scientific evidence about health risks, manufacturers knew full well their product was--and is--a killer. This book brilliantly and lucidly exposes the lies, cover-ups, devious marketing and political manipulation which characterises the tobacco industry.

A historical expos of any key industry will uncover exploitation and dirty tricks. But the story of tobacco is particularly shocking because of the extreme conflict between safety and profit. Most large-scale consumer products generate 15-20 percent profit margins--cigarettes make 40-50 percent. The legal settlements companies now regularly pay out have not dented this margin because consumers foot the bill through huge price hikes. Millions of workers and thousands of businesses rely on tobacco for their livelihoods and tobacco taxes make vast contributions to government coffers. Governments tell people to stop smoking whilst simultaneously pushing the nicotine drug through tobacco subsidies, tax cuts, and, most repulsively, sending cigarettes as relief aid. Desperate for cash, many poor countries have switched from growing food to growing tobacco. To protect this cash crop, western tobacco companies have coughed up big money to fund farming costs. Now exposed irrevocably as capitalism's worst bad guys--along with oil magnates and arms dealers--cigarette makers spend a fortune to counteract this image of themselves and their product.

The selling of cigarettes is a labyrinthine web of sociology and semiology; advertisers have consulted psychologists and even psychoanalysts to fully plumb the murky depths of the desire to smoke.

But now the truth is really out you might think it wouldn't be possible to 'spin' away the horrible reality of this lethal drug. The author explains that people who continue to smoke now enjoy a sense of daring, they don't 'bow down' to PC health campaigns or smoking bans, they are defiant in the face of authority.

Cigarette manufacturers have to admit there is a risk attached to smoking but they are turning this to their advantage by making 'responsible' contributions to health campaigns and funding their own safety research programmes. In Europe the tough health warning 'Smoking kills' has done nothing to put people off smoking. The author suggests this is because the habit is so difficult to get rid of, and the image of smoking so resilient.
Nicola Field


PROGRESSING EVER UPWARD

A Renegade in Springtime
Edward Upward
Enitharmon 15


A Renegade in Springtime

Edward Upward, now approaching his 100th birthday, is the last of the 1930s generation of British left wing writers. This selection of short stories spans his entire output from the late 1920s to the 21st century.

The novelist Christopher Isherwood and the poets W H Auden and Stephen Spender are generally well known. Their work has often been taken to define the literature of the 'red decade'--that period when the triumph of fascism in Germany and the Spanish Civil War politicised a generation of writers who had come to maturity after the First World War.

Upward, on the other hand, is scarcely known at all. Literary histories of the period tend to consign him to a footnote. If he is remembered it is as a warning of what happens when writers supposedly become 'too political'.

For Upward not only joined the Communist Party, he was also an activist who decided that politics had to shape his writing. Other 1930s left wing writers flirted with the party, some even joining for a short period, but quickly moved out of its orbit by the late 1930s, disillusioned in their hopes for the Spanish Civil War and by the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact.

Auden and Isherwood bemoaned the 'low dishonest decade' and like other writers of their generation abandoned left wing politics altogether. Upward, on the other hand, remained true to his left wing aspirations throughout this period. When he did eventually break with the Communist Party in 1948 it was not because he was turning to reformism or right wing politics. It was because the CP had ceased to be the genuinely revolutionary force he was committed to.

This involved him in some very painful rethinking of the Stalinist heritage--not just in respect of the future of socialism but in respect of his role as a writer. You did not have to write in the drab, official manner demanded by Stalin's literary hacks. You could be committed to writing as a living, critical form, as well as to politics. Imagination and realism could be allies, not enemies.

The first story in this selection is 'The Railway Accident', written in 1928, but not published until after Upward's break with the CP. Circulated widely among friends, on whom it made a great impact, it marks Upward's first engagement with the relationship between inner feeling, the world out there--and class. Upward never wrote in quite the same way again, partly because he seemed unsure about how well he had handled the theme of neurosis, partly because of the pressure of Stalinism.

Of the other short stories, two date from the 1930s, and the rest from the 1980s. Often closely autobiographical and reflective in form, they explore Upward's engagement with the demands of writing and the role a politically conscious writer should play. What is impressive is the honesty and the hope, the scrupulous realism and the imaginative engagement that characterise them.

Edward Upward is a vital, living link between us and the 1930s, without whom our sense of the past and hope for the future would be the poorer. Every socialist should be demanding that bookshops and libraries stock his work. As he approaches his centenary the finest tribute we can pay him is to read and to learn.
Gareth Jenkins


EMPIRICIST AGAINST IMPERIALISTS

Power and Terror
Noam Chomsky
Seven Stories Press 7.99

American Power and the New Mandarins
Noam Chomsky
The New Press 12.95


American Power and the New Mandarins

The publication of Chomsky's latest book, Power and Terror, and a new edition of his first major political work on the Vietnam War, American Power and the New Mandarins, could not be more timely. They span his remarkable 36 years as the US's foremost intellectual and anti-imperialist champion. During that time he has written extensively about all the major US imperialist adventures and has demonstrated an admirable level of consistency in his principled opposition to them.

Chomsky's style is familiar. He provides a forensic analysis of US foreign policy through the speeches and texts of its own ideologues. He trawls through establishment sources like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the speeches of State Department apologists and condemns them out of their own mouths. This approach lends weight to his judgements. The day after the attack on the Twin Towers he pithily observed that if the US wanted to fight terror it should stop participating in it.

Power and Terror is an extended interview and his delivery is almost conversational and very matter of fact. There are no great rhetorical devices and no underpinning theoretical framework. Unlike much of his work on linguistics, which originally established his intellectual reputation, his political writing is accessible and proves that compiling a significant weight of empirical evidence doesn't necessarily lead to dull prose.

Re-reading American Power and the New Mandarins after 34 years was as refreshing for me as the first time when it inspired my involvement against the Vietnam War. Indeed there are some horrifying echoes today. When Bush and Blair say that they have to bomb the Iraqis in order to free them they are not saying anything new. They are repeating the apologia for the US military tactics in Vietnam--'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.'

We are also re-introduced to some familiar names like Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who Chomsky cites as among the most prominent of those of the so called 'liberal' intelligentsia who provided ideological cover for the most barbaric of military actions. Brzezinski pronounced the death of liberal intellectual dissent arguing that they had been incorporated into the apparatus of the state, and Huntington argued that, 'if our involvement was to succeed', policy had to be supported by 'scholarly objectivity'. Thus the barbarity of imperialist carnage was dressed in the clothes of philanthropy towards backward nations.

The search and destroy missions against the National Liberation Front and the 'pacification' of Vietnam were wrapped in the cloak of the benevolence of the US and the correctness of its vision of world order. Chomsky understood only too well that the state needs its high priests to provide justification for its military actions.

The Vietnam debacle left the US badly scarred and forced it to impose its will in subsequent years by proxy. In the second section of Power and Terror Chomsky rehearses the barbarity of US complicity and sponsorship of terror in the Middle East, Latin America and apartheid South Africa. He highlights the double standards involved in the way this terror is labelled: 'When our enemies use terror it's "terror"; when we or our allies use it it's "counter terror or a just war".' He has an excellent passage on the privatisation of terror, particularly in Colombia, where multinationals like DynCorp employ US military personnel free from any official political scrutiny.

Both these books are invaluable weapons in our armoury and Chomsky is rightly hailed as an inspiration in the swelling ranks of the anti-capitalist movement.
Shaun Doherty


A BETTER VIEW THAN BUENA VISTA

Tropical Animal
Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Faber 7.99


'Filth, stink, disregard, neglect, everywhere you look. I do what I can to escape from this apocalypse. At least mentally and spiritually. My material, though, remains anchored amid the wreckage.' For some readers, the surprise will be that the human flotsam who populate Pedro Juan Gutierrez's novel live in Havana, Cuba. The fleeting sex in half-ruined buildings, overcrowded, noisy and competitive; the half-lit world of prostitutes, rent boys, petty thieves and peanut sellers are the setting of what Gutierrez calls his 'dirty realism'. It is a style that won him a number of supporters--as well as some pretty severe criticism--with his first novel Dirty Havana Trilogy. His is a brutal way of writing, sexually explicit and relentlessly unsentimental. It is compelling and shocking at the same time.

The narrator of the first book also tells the story in Tropical Animal. In both cases he speaks in the first person throughout and is called Pedro Juan. Does that make these books autobiographical? Gutierrez avoids the question, but there is a very close parallel between his life and his fiction. A student of architecture, ice-cream seller, four years a soldier and later a journalist on Cuban radio and television, he was limited in what he could say by tight state control of all communication. He began to write novels in the early 1990s, the time they are set in.

A personal crisis coincided with the economic and social crisis in Cuban society. The withdrawal of Soviet support and aid after 1986 plunged Cuba into a period called 'a special period in time of peace'. By 1989, shortages of food, energy and foreign exchange produced a time of scarcity. Tourism was the solution the Cuban government turned to, while opening the economy to foreign companies at the same time. The US economic embargo was still in place, 40 years after it was first imposed.

While most Cubans continued to live in primitive conditions, the tourist areas were improved and refurbished--and the new industry produced its first millionaires. For most ordinary Cubans, the reality was that the only way to buy anything beyond the most basic provisions was to get hold of dollars. If you didn't own a taxi, or a hotel or a restaurant, prostitution was the other route to the greenback.

So in this crumbling city of the 1990s, the struggle for survival was obsessive and desperate. That's the reality of Gutierrez's world. In his second novel, Tropical Animal, the narrator finds himself torn between two worlds--Havana on the one hand, and Stockholm on the other, where Agneta has organised a three-month writer's bursary for him. She has read his first book, and wants to try his sexual skills for herself.

Stockholm has everything--silence, abundance, resources. But the protagonist is drawn back to Gloria, his bad-mouthed Havana prostitute. The city is chaotic, sensual, living on the edge of disaster, but it is fascinating and alive, and Pedro Juan goes back to the noise and the ruins. This is a Cuba far from Buena Vista and the airbrushed 1950s Cadillacs people may be used to seeing. But it is far closer to the reality.
Mike Gonzalez


NOT SO GENTLE

Get Your War On
David Rees
Soft Skull 7.99


March 28, 2002
March 28, 2002

David Rees's clip art cartoon strips first appeared just a month after the attack on the Twin Towers. In this world US office workers phone each other to laugh at Operation Enduring Freedom, the War on Drugs, the War on Terrorism, corporate condolence adverts and hysteria over suspected terrorists. Nothing escapes their notice--Bush, Ashcroft, Cheney, Enron, Sharon and Palestine. All the political hypocrisy that makes us retch is skewered here. Their laughter is as black and bitter as bile so they comfort themselves with booze, internet porn and skiving--as one man says to his boss, 'If you want me to hand over the planning report you're welcome to bomb my cubicle.'

But beneath the foul-mouthed cynicism their sympathies lie with Afghan refugees, minefield victims, Iraqis and Palestinians. In particular the epilogue is gobsmacking and explains why Rees is donating his royalties to the anti-minefield campaign.

With Bush's new war Rees's anger is as pertinent as ever and very, very funny but not a gentle read if you have delicate sensibilities. You have been warned.
Sarah Ensor


PERON'S PERFIDY

The Real Odessa
Uki Goi
Granta 9.99


The Real Odessa

In the twilight of the Second World War hundreds of Nazis fled to Argentina. The fugitives included some of the vilest figures of the 20th century: the architect of the Holocaust Adolf Eichmann, Auschwitz's 'angel of death' Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke and Klaus Barbie.

The Real Odessa, written by the Argentinian journalist Uki Goi, soberly and meticulously exposes the network that spirited these war criminals away from international justice. He uncovers a trail that leads from Berlin to Buenos Aires; implicating Argentinian president Juan Pern (a national hero to some Argentinians), the Vatican and to a lesser extent even the Allies. This thoughtful book shows that the flight of Nazis to Argentina was no accident, but rather was the culmination of a sinister relationship that had developed over many years.

Goi's starting point is the wartime Argentinian regime, which was for the most part sympathetic to fascism. Prominent German Argentinians secured strong links with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Indeed a deal was struck with the German Nazis giving their agents freedom of movement in Argentina, false IDs and use of the Argentinian diplomatic pouch. Furthermore the Casa Rosada shared a profoundly anti-Semitic world view with the Third Reich--Jewish immigration, as Goi reveals, was effectively blocked as early as 1938.

It was, of course, still possible to buy entry into the country. Many corrupt immigration officials extorted vast quantities of money from terrified refugees. Goi's own grandfather, a diplomat at the time, was struck by the desperation of the applicants. A young woman once offered herself to him after her life savings failed to make a difference. He turned her down. Scrupulous perhaps, but he left her facing almost certain death.

In 1943 Juan Pern and his fellow generals emerged from the background of Argentinian politics and seized power. They immediately busied themselves cementing the alliance with European fascism. After the war the chief of the SS Foreign Intelligence, Walter Schelnberg, explained that Pern's government was 'based upon a worldview similar to ours'.

When defeat for the Nazis appeared inevitable Pern sent emissaries to Spain to help the growing number of fugitive fascists escape to Argentina. His motivation was twofold--firstly his politics converged with theirs (especially the Catholic-tinged fascism of the Italians, Spanish and Croatians) and secondly he believed their skills and knowledge would benefit Argentina. Naturally though the US acquired the cream of Nazi talent--including the likes of Wernher von Braun, the V2 designer.

Argentina was not alone in providing refuge for the fascists. Goi reveals, in the latest edition of his book, that the Catholic hierarchy were up to their ecclesiastical collars in the transatlantic trade in war criminals. Not only did Pope Pius XII make appeals on behalf of those condemned by Nuremberg, some of his closest associates actively assisted the Ustashi, the Catholic fascists of Croatia, to escape justice. This was no small misdemeanour--the activities of the Ustashi shocked even the SS. Goi remarks that, 'Unlike their Nazi masters the Croatians carried out their Holocaust in broad daylight.'

Allied intelligence agencies were guilty of turning a blind eye. Britain and the US, in the first twangs of the Cold War, preferred the Nazis to escape than to fall into the hands of the Red Army.

The Real Odessa brilliantly pieces together one of the most disquieting episodes in European and South American history. Almost no one emerges with honour. The Catholic Church and Pern united to rescue some of the world's most depraved criminals--with the full complicity of the Allies. Uki Goi does history a great service by exposing the squalid truth.
Tom Wall


OUTCASTS, UNDERDOGS AND BARBARIANS

What I Saw
Joseph Roth
Granta 14.99


What I Saw

This is a curious little book of 34 short essays that at first appears like a cross between an urban country diary from the Guardian, a latter-day Mayhew's London, or Orwell's classic Down and Out in Paris and London. It is an eclectic mix of observations of everyday life in Weimar Berlin that ranges from construction sites to traffic, leisure, individual profiles and finally, albeit sparsely, a political commentary on the Weimar Republic's decline into Nazism.

Joseph Roth is better known as a novelist (The Legend of the Holy Drinker, Right and Left, Radetsky March) but was also a lifelong journalist. It is to this aspect of his career that What I Saw is devoted.

Translator Michael Hoffman's introduction describes Weimar Germany as characterised by 'political violence, assassinations, inflation, unemployment, crisis, and instability. There were 17 governments in fewer than 15 years, as an anguished centre fought off numerical encroachments from both flanks.' Quoting Peter Gay: 'The Republic was born in defeat, lived in turmoil, and died in disaster.' Roth, however, only fleetingly touches on much of this--there are no indexed references to the Nazis, and just four page references to Hitler. A much more political analysis of the early period covered by this book is to be found in Chris Harman's The Lost Revolution. Nonetheless the book is not devoid of politics, which is to be found between the lines.

Roth maintained that he painted a portrait of the age, rather than writing witty columns. His portraits detail the poverty and suffering of the working class in Berlin and the (recently) impoverished bourgeoisie who were to become such a mainstay in the rise of Hitler. Hoffman maintains that 'Roth's natural sympathies were always with the outcast and the underdog', so we catch glimpses of the lives of prostitutes, beggars, thieves, alcoholics and the urban poor, especially the Jewish community--'wherever a Jew settles down, a pogrom goes up.' His hatred of the police is poetic, describing 'a policeman who fancies himself as the still point at the centre of a whirlpool of activity, and the pillar of authority--enemy to the street, and placed there to supervise it and accept its tribute in the form of good order.'

His sympathy with the refugees of Berlin is warm and unstinting: 'They were refugees. We knew them as the "peril from the East". Fear of pogroms has welded them together like a landslip of unhappiness and grime that, slowly gathering volume, has coming rolling across Germany from the East... The refugees spend weeks upon weeks here, literally dying on the charity of their fellow men before they are allowed to make themselves scarce.' His description of the lice-ridden homeless is particularly chilling. The parallels with Blair and Blunkett's treatment of asylum seekers today is palpable.

One short essay, 'The Twelfth Berlin Six-Day Races', describes the marathon cycle race of 1925 and is a clear antecedent of the marathon dance contests portrayed in the film They Shoot Horses Don't They. Desperate times make people do desperate things.

The final 20 pages of Roth's book explicitly examine politics and the emergence of Nazism. Roth ironically maintains he is an 'apolitical observer', yet through his description of Jewish finance minister Rathenau's funeral we see the tension that was in the air in 1924.

The final essay, 'The Auto-da-F of the Mind' (1933), describes Nazi book-burning, expulsions of Jewish writers and 'all its other crazy assaults on the intellect...the technical apotheosis of the barbarians'. Roth acknowledges that Weimar's Jewish community 'has been defeated... Behind the sergeant stood the engineer who supplied him with weapons, the chemist who brewed poison gas to destroy the human brain... Hitler's Third Reich is only so alarming to the rest of Europe because it sets itself to put into action what was always the Prussian project anyway: to burn books, to murder the Jews.' It's unfortunate, if understandable, that he blames an entire people for an atrocity many risked their lives to prevent.

His final paragraph is a terrifying indictment of Nazism's genocidal contempt for the country it eulogised: 'Many of us served in the war, many died. We have written for Germany, we have died for Germany... We have sung Germany, the real Germany! And that is why we are being burned by Germany!'
Roger Smith


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page