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Scum of the Earth [Hardcover]

Arthur Koestler
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jun 1968
This was the first book that Arthur Koestler wrote in English. It starts at the beginning of World War II when he was living in the South of France, working on "Darkness at Noon". After retreating to Paris, he was imprisoned as an undesirable alien. Even though he had been a crusader against fascism, he and many other anti-Nazis, were treated as enemies and their internment was brutal. The worst of his imprisonment was at Vernet, where prisoners had to sleep without blankets in 20 degrees of frost, and where he finally collapsed during a session of forced labour. Some of his fellow internees were eventually handed over to Nazi executioners. Koestler ponders on the collapse of pride and honour in France and he asks "Was the tragedy of France merely accidental, due to an unfortunate constellation? Or was it due to the still undiscovered, secret laws of the rise and decline of races and nations?"
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 287 pages
  • Publisher: Hutchinson; Danube ed edition (Jun 1968)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0090872800
  • ISBN-13: 978-0090872800
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,432,873 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


A powerful and moving story. -- Charles Osbourne, The Sunday Telegraph

By far the best book to come out of the collapse of France. -- The Guardian

Koestler’s personal history of France at war…is, I think, the finest book that has come out of that cauldron. -- The New York Herald Tribune

Some of the finest reportage of the century. -- Adam LeBor, The Literary Review

This is a book in a thousand. -- Byron Rogers, The Standard --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905, son of Henrik Koestler, industrialist and inventor. He was educated at the University of Vienna where he became involved in the Zionist movement, travelling to Palestine in 1926 where he worked as a farm labourer and as Jerusalem correspondent for a number of German newspapers.
Koestler was a member of the German Communist party until 1938, but left during Stalin’s purges. He fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, was captured by Franco’s forces and sentenced to death, a sentence averted by the intervention of the British Foreign Office. He was interned in France at the start of the Second World War, but escaped to England where he worked for the BBC, becoming a British citizen in 1945.
Koestler had several books published in the thirties but made his international breakthrough with Darkness at Noon (1940) a novel set during Stalin’s reign of terror. He went on to produce many other works of fiction, autobiography, on Communism, science, philosophy, the drug culture and Eastern spiritualism. Arthur Koestler died in 1983, taking his own life in the face of terminal illness. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
94 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prison camp psychology and the Fall of France 4 Feb 2002
This is one of the strongest books I have ever read. It details Koestler's internment in France as an "undesirable alien" in the early part of the war, and then his struggle to keep out of the clutches of the Gestapo as the Germans march in and the country collapses in 1940.
It begins almost as travel writing, with Koestler and his girlfriend lazing around in pleasantly bohemian fashion on the Riviera, the increasing tension in 1939 Europe seemingly a million miles away. But back in Paris, Koestler is arrested by the increasingly paranoid French authorities and interned at Le Vernet along with a ragbag collection of other foreigners. Mostly leftists, intellectuals and Jews, they include Spanish Civil War veterans, Russian émigrés, German refugees and sundry unlucky Eastern European immigrants and petty criminals. His description of the people and the hardships encountered during his three months of internment with the dregs of the European Left stands comparison with any other prison camp autobiography, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. These are the beaten and bloody remnants of the once heroic International Brigades, betrayed by Stalin, by France and by each other -the titular Scum of the Earth.
The rest of the book follows Koestler through his release, his return to Paris, his attempts to leave for England legitimately, and his final chaotic escape through a disintegrating France. Again, the observations on the mentality of the French people and the French state faced with Hitler are incredibly acute and clear-eyed. However the most vivid feeling you take from the book is the hysterical fear, despair and disgust that grows on Koestler as the Nazis advance.
I'd recommend this book to everybody .
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A band on the run 10 Feb 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm aware that telling readers that before they dip into this book, they should read other works by the author, but to really understand Scum of the Earth properly, one has to read some more Koestler of this period. I apologise !

The background of Scum of the Earth is pure autobiography, with only some names changed for protection (including that of his then partner, the Englsh sculptress Daphne Hardy) To put it simply, Koestler was caught in France by the outbreak of war and, as a foreigner (a Hungarian national) and a known anti-Fascist, was promptly arrested and interned by the Daladier Government. He spent the first nine months of war mostly in a prison camp, then, during the collapse of France, escaped and travelled by devious routes to England. These included the remarkable device of enlisting in the French Foreign Legion on the very day of the French surrender, hoping to use his new status to piggy back to French North Africa.

But it is not just this simple. Koestler was known to the French (and to the government of many nations - including Nazi Germany) as a Communist, and a Communist who had taken part in both revolutionary activities and journalism - a dangerous combination.

Indeed, Koestler knew very well what his fate was to be if the German caught him, for some years before he had been imprisoned and sentenced to death as a spy by Franco's rebel Spanish administration, He had been caught 'bang to rights' as he had been using his cover as the British News Chronicle reporter in Nationalist Spain to spy on what was happening behind the lines - including gaining entree to Franco's own HQ - and then passing on the information gleaned directly to the Comintern in Moscow.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History Come Alive 8 April 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have just rediscovered Koestler and I'm glad I did. Apart from reading the two volume autobiography, I read this in between. What started out as a browse before finishing my other Koestler volume, I found that I was unable to put this book down. Koestler is so eloquent and is a delight to read. His description of the fall of France in 1939/1940 as an alien is unbelieveable. It appears that foreigners in France at that time were treated abominably. Not only was this reportage of events in France at that sad time, it was also a highly readable adventure story.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Forgotten classic of wartime 21 Mar 2002
By A Customer
..What lends this book its immediacy is that it was written, and published, while the war was still in progress and the good guys weren't winning; also that instead of the usual Nazis v (mainly) Jews, it is French v (mainly) leftists of all descriptions. But this doesn't convey the book's flavour. It's a human story, rich in resonances. Even if you don't read 'war books', ignore the rather off-putting title and get swept away! Then for a more soothing view of the tail-end of the war, read Love and War in the Appenines.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A very personal perspective 16 July 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Hungarian born journalist, writer, sometime communist and anti nazi Arthur Koestler, charts the outbreak of the Second World War through his own experience. Because it was written before the end of WWII, without the benefit of hindsight or retrospection, it has a very different feel to other factual or biographic accounts from the same period. Koestler, along with other anti nazis communists and various persecuted groups from all over Europe, find themselves rounded up and interned by the French. Koestler, only by the most drawn out and unlikeliest of escapes, avoided the inevitable fate of many of these unfortunate prisoners and managed, eventually, to get to Britain. The story gets bogged down in parts with detailed accounts of the chaotic politics of the time and Kafka-like bureaucracy as the French establishment melts down in the months preceding invasion and the desperate confusion before final capitulation. Great if you are an historian of the period; slightly laborious if you are not (in parts). However, this does not detract from the sense of injustice conveyed, the prejudice encountered by these 'undesirables' at the hands of the French and I found myself educated by a writer who skilfully kept me engaged even through the most convoluted intricacies of European pre-war politics. Glad I read it. Might read it again.
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