on 4 February 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 . It should be read anyone interested in 1930s radicalism and it's destruction on the anvil of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and by anyone interested in how and why France was invaded in 6 weeks in 1940. But it has strong draws on other levels as well. It deals fascinatingly with Koestler's favoured theme of Ends vs. Means, and with the psychology of political prisoners, but then it is also a skewed travelogue of France as Koestler staggers round the South West disguised as a Swiss Foreign Legionnaire trying to dodge the Panzers.
Koestler's reputation as a man has (rightly) taken a battering after David Cesarani's recent biography but nonetheless this is a very fine book. I would say it is the equal of his great novel, Darkness at Noon - it deals with similar themes but in a more direct, conversational way. Like his friend George Orwell, Koestler had the ability to write about politics with enormous common-sense and without catcalling or bandying jargon around. He refuses to be a propagandist and he gives all the people and points of view he encounters a fair and compassionate hearing, however blinkered, prejudiced or stupid they may be.
on 10 February 2012
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.
He was nearly shot out of hand, then spent some months imprisoned in a fortress, listening every night to the roar of rifle fire as batch after batch of Republicans was executed, and being most of the time in acute danger of execution himself. To this day he remains the only author of the recent past known to this writer who has been under sentence of death.
The book that Koestler wrote about this, Spanish Testament, has remarkable passages, In the prison scenes Koestler successfully establishes the nightmare atmosphere he and his fellow prisoners had to live through every day and the resignation that can make even the prospect of facing the firing squad a pleasant relief. On that basis, Koestler adapted well to his renewed French imprisonment as described in Scum of the Earth. To appreciate this, a reading of Spanish Testament is recommended.
The great irony in this is that Koestler was not a Communist who had left his brain and critical faculties in the tender care of the Commissars. From the mid 1930's on he had started to have severe doubts about the direction of Communism and the international Communist movement under Stalin's tutelage. The Moscow Trials had started these doubts, and it was the final signing of the Hitler - Stalin pact which precipitated the Second World War which was the breaking point.
So by the time the French imprisoned this seemingly implacable Communist, he had already recognised the reality of the God that had failed him.
They would have known this if they were interested or intelligent to have read his latest work, Darkness at Noon. This book, the story of the life and the end of an old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who first denies and ultimately confesses to crimes which he is well aware he has not committed, reflects both the reality of the Moscow trials (Rubashov is a thinly disguised Karl Radek) and also Koestler's newly acquired knowledge of the psychology of the condemned cell.
He shows graphically how, in Orwell's words, 'actuated by despair, mental bankruptcy and the habit of loyalty to the Party', people like Rubashov, the bravest of the brave when engaged in the fight against a boss class, can capitulate totally.
Again, Darkness at Noon is required reading to see how Koestler was adapting to new realities, new politics and new accommodations (Koestler had by then determined to flee to Britain to carry on the fight against Nazism, despite the ingrained Communist view of Britain as one of the citadels of world capitalism.) Koestler, like others in his position, saw it as his job to bring the realities of Nazism to the western nations that were by and large still unaware of the sheer degree of horror - as in the famous lines between sam and Rick in 'Casablanca' Sam "It's December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York ?.........Rick 'I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America'.
This now brings us back to Scum of the Earth. The book is a valuable piece of reportage and one written by a trained journalist.
One valuable asset of the book is that is probably the best example of how a society (in this case, France) can simply collapse from within, and with rapid suddenness. His observations showed that intelligence reports relayed back to Churchill on the morale of French society and which concluded that up to forty per cent of the French population was either actively pro-German or completely apathetic were not that wide of the mark. It spread across the political system. The old clerical right simply hated the new assertiveness of the French working class and preferred German 'order' to a repeat of the popular front, whilst the French
Communists, who were effectively pro-Nazi and did their best to sabotage
the French war effort, were now as likely to abandon former comrades like Koestler to the tender mercies of the Gestapo as were the Vichyists.
Although the book ends with a hurried chapter which says that Koestler eventually did get to England (although details, as expected in a book written in 1942, are scant) he does describe what happened to him at that time and afterwards in a final book (and one that is hard to find now) Arrivals and Departures. This is Koestler thinly disguised as a young ex-Communist who has made his escape from Hungary finding himself in Portugal, where he hopes to enter the service of Britain, at that time the only power fighting against Germany. His enthusiasm is somewhat cooled by the fact that the British seem uninterested in him and almost ignores him for a period of several months, during which his money runs out and other astuter refugees escape to America. The core of the book is a series of discussions between the fictional Koestler and representative propagandists of both Facism and Soviet Communism - a device that allows Koestler to finally rationalise his new outlook and direction in a world that he would never had previously thought of inhabiting.
In practice he cannot abandon the struggle - but this will be a struggle that will be cleaner and more accommodating to Western democracy, a cleanness reflected in the cold night air he feels around him as - in the final pages - he is floating down in a parachute over the dark landscape of his native country, where he will be employed as a secret agent of the Western Allies.
Read Scum of the Earth - but also the others. Together, they sum up the great dilemmas of the left in the middle of the twentieth century.
on 8 April 2009
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.
on 13 October 2010
Arthur Koestler was a known Communist that turned anti-Communist and anti-Fascist. He wrote several works that acted as memoirs from various time periods in this life. This particular book was written just after his harrowing time in and out of prisons and concentration camps in France just before and after the Germans invaded in 1940.
The story begins in an idyllic French countryside town just before the Germans begin to invade Czechoslovakia. Koestler is an Hungarian citizen living in France and writing of his time on death row in Spain. As a political activist he seems to take these things as normal, although not without fear. Since Koestler was known as anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist, one would think that he would be cleared of any issues when the round ups began. But it was because of the Vichy French selling out the country that anyone that was anti-Nazi was corralled and placed in a concentration camp. This was the first time that I had heard of the French concentration camps and if Koestler can be believed, they were every bit as horrific as the German concentration camps. While people were not gassed, they were worked to death and given little to eat so that starvation and disease were rampant.
Koestler gives quite an interesting essay on the breakdown of French morale and citizenship leading up to the invasing. Unfortunately, the reader has to wade through quite a bit of day to day minutiae of Koestler's life at that time to get to these nuggets. It is not that these daily stories are boring, but at times, they do get redundant and self centered - after all, they are his memoirs.
I found Koestler to be refreshing and since this was written before the wonderful time of political correctness, true honesty and commentary can be found. Additionally, because this was a memoir and written in 1941, there was not any revisionist history that retold the story. This book is often startling in its candor and I was shocked at the conditions that were portrayed. I would recommend this book to any WWII history buff that wants to look inside France during this important time frame in world history.
on 3 October 2009
The feeling of being hunted....the germans closing in.....few autobiographical accounts seem as devoid of hope as this classic account of novelist Koestlers attempts to flee the occupying Germans in the summer of 1940.
At the outset,he is another emigrem,supposedly safe in France from the fascist hordes on all three sides but then the Germans are coming, flight to Spain is out of the question, the Italians are expected in Provence where he is staying, so he sets off for Paris...
From then on its amazing stories of the appalling treatment of France's refugee class even before surrender to the Germans. Koestler waits for days to be spoken to, sleeping in a barn ,waiting with hundreds of other anti-facists,.
Then the incarcerations begin, the tone becomes heavier, the germans start to over-run France, the allies are in tatters and Koestler is on the run again, remembering Spain where he saw the Fascists win a few years before.
Well worth reading as another viewpoint on the disasters of 1940...
on 21 March 2002
..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.
on 10 November 2015
By describing his own experiences of internment and harassment during 1939 and 1940, Koestler reveals the circumstances that led to the collapse of France in the face of Nazi invasion. He describes the reluctance, of French army conscripts, asked to fight and perhaps die in yet another war against the Germans. He asks how it is that he and others, committed anti-Nazis, are persecuted by the French authorities, instead of being welcomed as allies in the struggle against the Germans. Koestler points to the moral and political bankruptcy of the upper echelons of French society at the time, and the near-Fascist opinions of so many of its functionaries, which eventually led to the dismaying horrors of the Vichy regime. Amongst other things, this state of mind, even before the German invasion, involved extreme paranoia about foreigners, especially those, such as the Hungarian, Jewish ex-communist Koestler, with a history of left wing activism, so that they were rounded up, interned, imprisoned, hounded, tormented and finally, handed over to the Gestapo.
Koestler’s particular story involved internment at Le Vernet camp, near the Pyrenees, designed for those, like him, considered particularly dangerous or unruly. A punishing regime, involving forced labour, sometimes brutal guards, inadequate food, shelter and medical care, resulted in great suffering and many deaths, although Koestler was protected from the very worst of this by virtue of his contacts outside the camp. They sent him food and, ultimately, were able to lobby successfully for his release. After that there were uneasy weeks in Paris, always risking re-arrest and another internment, waiting for the Germans to come, negotiating unsuccessfully with the Kafkaesque French bureaucracy to depart for Britain, where he hoped to join the British armed forces in struggling against Fascism. When the invaders reached Paris, he fled south, just in front of the Germans, and eventually made an adventurous escape from the country, with the new identity of a French foreign legionnaire.
During much of this time, incredibly, he was writing his book Darkness at Noon, which many consider to be his masterpiece. How he managed to focus on this work in the midst of the eventful life he was leading is beyond me, but write it he did, and when he eventually got to Britain, he immediately dashed off this work, Scum of the Earth, which was first published in 1941, earning him enough to live on for the initial period of adjustment to life in England.
The book provides more than just insights into the mentality of the French ruling class, or the attitudes of conscripts. In fact, the majority of such insights concern the mental and emotional effects of persecution and imprisonment, in many cases on men who have experienced this in one country or another for years on end, so that they have become, and all too often think of themselves, as the ‘scum of the earth.’ Koestler is an expert on the psychology of the persecuted, both by virtue of his own experiences, and his acute capacity to observe the people with whom he shares his fate. He notes the corrupt hierarchies that emerge within the inmate population, the continuation of ideological squabbles between communists and other elements of the left, the fate of idealism when faced with the gnawing demands of hunger and the struggle for safety and survival.
The book is dedicated to a number of exiled writers, including Walter Benjamin, who took their own lives as France fell. Throughout, Koestler reminds readers of the people who, unlike him, failed to get away, many of whom will have ended up in the German concentration camp system by the time the book was published. A preface, though, written in 1968 in the edition that I read, records his continuing friendship with one ex-internee, who like him, escaped.
I found this book taught me a great deal about aspects of world war two that I had only sketchily known about before. I found it instructive to compare Koestler’s camp experiences with the situation of people in migrant and refugee camps today, thinking about both points of difference and of similarity. I can recommend it to anyone interested in the period.
on 16 July 2014
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.
on 17 April 2014
Of course this is a classic. The actions and thoughts of the French in the run-up and invasion in 1940 are better shown here than in any other writing I think. .. That they hated the English, seeing "the nannies and their bald-kneed children chaperoned past them., but when England was bombed, the English had suffered, then they considered justice had been done". Not enough has been written about just what the French did in that period.
on 4 October 2014
Incredible book. Gives you an amazing insight into France's capitulation to Germany during world war II from the view point of foreigners there at that time. Written at the time, an excellent primary source.