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Scum of the Earth Paperback – 24 Oct 1991
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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
Koestlers 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
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 Stalins purges. He fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, was captured by Francos 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 Stalins 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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
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.
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.