Regrettably history is not among the core subjects now prescribed by the government’s umpteenth overhaul of the national curriculum. The omission is a foolish one, given the nation’s unquenchable enthusiasm for the past in whatever form, serious or ‘lite’. Does the official mind scent potential troublemakers among those inquisitive as to the fate of vanished civilisations or exuberantly misbehaving royal dynasties? Most people, as it happens, enjoy history not so much for its lessons, hints and warnings as for the how-different-from-us factor, the armchair schadenfreude enhanced by our comforting remoteness from the miseries and privations its pages evoke.
More precious still are the abundant opportunities given to us to be wise after the event, muttering piously that the poor darlings never stood a chance. Weimar Germany, indeed, might have been designed by a committee for such smug headshaking. How we love its air of fiddling while Rome burns, its manic modernism, its unending parade of trangressive circus acts, ‘this witches’ Sabbath in the Babel of the world’, as Stefan Zweig called it, where the Germans ‘brought to perversion all their vehemence and love of system’.
Babel itself was the Berlin whose excesses are forever enshrined in the pages of Herr Issyvoo and the movie version of Cabaret. Readers expecting more of the same from Joseph Roth’s newspaper articles gathered in What I Saw, expertly translated by Michael Hofmann, will be disappointed. One of the most gifted novelists of the interwar period, Roth was a Galician Jew who had studied in Vienna before serving in the Austrian army on the Eastern Front. The cultural trauma created by the Habsburg empire’s implosion, reflected in much of his work, isn’t so much apparent here as his self-conscious alienation from the world he describes.