By Marie Miguel
There are certainly more than enough horrific tales of how the persecuted lived under fascism in the middle of the 20th century, and indeed dozens of books with “Koestler” on their covers.
“Scum of the Earth” is a unique kind of autobiographical adventure, a guide to suffering atrocious treatment with as much good humor as possible. The book also describes how a totalitarian regime can subvert the morals of both states and individuals.
For someone who wasn’t actually a criminal, Arthur Koestler certainly saw the inside of a large number of cells. Reprising this aspect of his personal history is possibly the best way to explain what the reader can expect from “Scum of the Earth.”
Having traveled extensively in Europe and Asia, by 1933, Koestler found that Germany was not the best place for a Jewish Communist to return. A well-known journalist by this time, he settled in France instead. It was during this period that he spent some time covering the Spanish Civil War, while also pursuing a sideline as an anti-fascist spy, which eventually led to his capture and death sentence. Fortunately, before he could be executed, he was exchanged for an enemy prisoner. Although Koestler survived, this experience naturally had a major effect on him. He would later draw on his experience in “Dialogue with Death” and “Darkness at Noon,” the latter being a not-so-subtle attack on Stalin’s Russia.
The events of “Scum” start off as Koestler is busy writing “Darkness” in the south of France. War breaks out, so he and his English girlfriend return to Paris. First he tries to join the French army since, albeit Hungarian by birth, he sees no problem with risking his skin for the country that has played host to him for several years. His application is rejected, and even though he’s known as an enemy of fascism – and therefore the enemy of the enemy of France – he ends up in a French-run concentration camp until the British government insists on his release (while still refusing him a visa).
He’s eventually freed — although under effective house arrest, with the possibility of being handed over to the Gestapo never far off — escapes to North Africa, joins the French Foreign Legion, deserts, attempts suicide, and finally makes it to Britain, where he’s once again thrown in jail as an alien. To be fair, this connoisseur of incarceration has only good things to say about English prisons, as well as the fact that the British at least gave him a fair trial. After this, he joins the British army.
The most moving aspect of this great book isn’t the action, but the pathos evoked by incidents, such as Koestler’s girlfriend driving him to the police station, not knowing whether she’ll see him again, or the secret policeman who gets him out of his own bed before sunrise to sign one of the books he’s written. The moral corruption of French society at that time is also portrayed vividly: soldiers are not interested in fighting, policemen are all too willing to follow whatever orders they’re given, while civil servants don’t mind at all converting their government to a fascist one.
Koestler was a secular Jew, having been born into a Jewish family but showing no inclination to practice the religion. In fact, his imprisonment in France had nothing to do with his cultural identity – he was simply an “undesirable alien,” and an author with socialist leanings. Judaism is hardly mentioned in “Scum of the Earth,” if at all.
As is the case with many secular Jews, and quite reasonably for someone who suffered under the Nazis, Koestler was a Zionist. He lived in Israel for some time prior to 1948, as well as during the 1948 war, working mainly as a journalist. His support for Israel wasn’t entirely without qualification, though: he famously said about the Balfour Declaration that “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third,” and argued that Jews who are unwilling to live in Israel should totally embrace the culture of wherever they find themselves. Since he was an iconoclast, intellectual and free thinker who had the courage of his convictions, it would be surprising if he did not hold one or two controversial opinions.
Koestler and his wife committed suicide together in 1983, as he was ill with both Parkinson’s and leukemia. He was 77 years old.
Editor’s note: Koestler’s quote about the Balfour Declaration is only partially accurate. He said that “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.” However, by the date of the Balfour Declaration, the British were in control of much of Palestine and anticipated the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the remainder.