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.