Joseph Roth on conduct in the Reichstag (1924)

Joseph Roth was an Austrian-born journalist of Jewish heritage and liberal political views. He lived in Berlin for much of the Weimar period, arriving in 1920 and leaving after the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Roth wrote prolifically about different aspects of life in the Berlin capital. In this extract, Roth describes visiting the Reichstag in mid-1924 – but he is less than impressed with the behaviour of its elected members:

“The great edifice will be 30 years old in December. It has irritated people of taste and democratic inclinations for the better part of three decades now. Over its entrance is inscribed the dedication ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ (‘To the German people’). But on its dome, 75 metres above street level, is a huge golden crown, a massive weight, completely out of scale with the dome and utterly at variance with the dedication.

One could be forgiven for thinking this was the front entrance… for assuming the magnificent facade with the six great Corinthian pillars is there to greet the representatives of the German people… But this is not the front entrance. The great doors are kept locked. It’s to the side, through a small tradesmen’s entrance, that the representatives of the people take themselves to their work. It’s impossible not to see this as a symbolic leftover from the times of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Bronze casts of four German emperors stand in the entrance hall, as though to review the parade of delegates…

Today, on the opening day of the Reichstag, they have been packed since two o’clock… Here in the German Reichstag, each party has not only its own political convictions but also its own ritual. There is no sense of overall decorum. The 79-year-old veteran president, who has a weak voice, receives a call from the right to “Speak up!”… And where have I heard that whistling coming from the communist benches? It was in high school, wasn’t it, in my junior year? Is it that I’ve outgrown it because I’m apolitical?

Foreign ambassadors… are sitting in the box. The eyes of America, France, and Italy are directed at the representatives of the German people. And what do they see? The goose-stepping of the nationalists. Wrangling among the communists. Ludendorff in dark glasses. The apolitical observer cannot understand why, more than any other professional grouping in the world, German politicians are so driven to make asses of themselves before they’ve even embarked on their politics, which are a further reservoir of absurdity.

Now they’re singing ‘The Internationale’ on my left and ‘Deutschland über Alles’ on my right. Simultaneously, as if it didn’t make more sense to sing them consecutively. Why not have music, my friends? Why shouldn’t politicians sing? Why will the one side not hear the other out? Isn’t it possible that both songs have something to be said for them?”

weimar reichstag
The slogan “Dem Deutscher Volke” inscribed over the entrance to the Reichstag building