Monday, 22 November 2010

Scum of the Earth

Just read Scum of the Earth by Arthur Koestler, 1941 -- nice edition by Eland, 1991. Can’t quite remember why I decided to get it - I think Koestler was in the papers recently, was it a new biography, him screwing the wives of lots of famous people? Anyway, it’s the Fall of France, an episode that interests me, and he just got out of it by the skin of his teeth having been arrested, though Hungarian, before hostilities started, along with many other exiles, including from Germany -- the French ruling class, as he calls them, preparing to do what Hitler wanted before he even attacked.

So, first imprisoned and throughout in diplomatic and bureaucratic limbo, Koestler joined the Foreign Legion hoping to be posted to Africa, was re-arrested and shipped to Le Vernet, a horrific French concentration camp in the Pyrenees, already full of survivors, now reduced to the state of typical camp inmates, from the International Brigade -- fighters who’d escaped from Spain. This was in undefeated France still, note.

The Germans easily knock out the French army, refugees from the north jam the roads to the south, the country is divided into occupied and Vichy, led by the ancient Pétain for whom Koestler expresses unmitigated contempt)... Koestler in the end he escapes via Marseilles and ‘two African ports’ (he’s revealing no secrets -- in 1940-41 when he was writing others might be trying to use the same route) to Lisbon (‘the last open gate of a concentration camp extending over the greater part of the Continent’s surface’ - 242) and finally England where he’s interned in Pentonville and then joins the Pioneer Corps. Meanwhile the democratic German exiles who were his friends, including his Paris neighbour Walter Benjamin, commit suicide or are handed over the the Gestapo and killed.

Most shocking is the near connivance of the French ruling classes, even before the defeat, in the takeover by Hitler.

The ruling class, Koestler said, scared by the coming to power of the Popular Front in 1936, had decided that ‘the barbarians’ (Germans) ‘had begun to develop truly civilised ideas: the abolition of trade unions, the dissolution of the Left-wing parties. Hitler’s only fault was that he was a German. Otherwise he would be a better “guarantee or security” for vested interests than an unruly French people in arms’ (239). And the bureaucracy reflected that position.

With their concentration camps -- not as murderous as the German ones but brutal and sadistic nevertheless -- they (certain politicians and the bureaucracy) were more or less anticipating the Nazi regime.

Those who prepared the way for Vichy had put these men in camps....For every ignominy they made the, prisoners suffer, they comforted them with the argument that the ignominies of the Gestapo would be worse; and when the cock had crowed thrice, they delivered them properly and solemnly into the Gestapo's hands.
In the days of the French collapse there was a last chance of saving those martyred men by shipping them to North Africa or, if that was too much to ask, by giving them a chance to escape. They refused. They left them in their barbed-wire trap, to hand them over complete, all accounts properly made out, all confidential records of their past (given trustingly to the French authorities) neatly filed. What a find for Himmler's black-clothed men ! Three hundred thousand pounds of democratic flesh, all labelled, alive, and only slightly damaged. (140)

Also very interesting on the communists with their virtues and blind adherence to the party line, right or wrong, which left them in a hopeless state when Stalin suddenly became Hitler’s ally (Koestler had been a communist but had left).

And on the chaos of the desperate escape from the north of France to the south: ‘It was a particular sadistic irony of Fate, to have turned the most petit-bourgeoise, fussy, stay-at-home people in the world into a nation of tramps’ (165) -- and then the adverts in the papers, thousands each day, from families seeking news of their children: Paris-Soir ‘Says there are thousands of “globe-trotters aged six and eight on the roads of France”’ (225); ‘André Roure, who disappeared June 17th near Azay-le-Rideau, please communicate with parents via Le Temps Clermont-Ferrand.’

Despite the rush in which he says he wrote the book, the writing is often terrific and moving. On leaving Marseilles and France finally on a ship: ‘The lighthouses emerging from the black water, with slowly turning green and red beams of light, were the last outposts of Continental France, sleeping under the stars in her enormous, dishonoured nakedness, humiliated, wretched and beloved’ (235-6).

That theme of sexual humiliation -- interesting in view of what that biography reported -- is deployed to powerful effect in his summing up of the state of a France that has put a psychological ‘Chinese Wall’ around itself, refusing to acknowledge the new reality of Europe:

Inside, on a brittle Louis XIV chair, sat an elderly, sharp-faced Marianne, her once lovely chestnut hair replaced by a toupet. Scared to death by the noise of the people Outside the Wall, she waited for the barbarian prince to save her. She knew, of course, what price she would have to pay; and while trying to convince herself that he would behave like a gentleman, she waited with a shame-faced curiosity for her dishonour. And when it had happened, and the saviour had knocked off her Phrygian helmet and her wig, she looked into the mirror with horror, and the world looked with horror at her face. (240)

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