Friday, 9 January 2009

Kurt Tucholsky and the financial crisis

On our last day in Berlin at Christmas, we walked back to our hotel along the banks of the River Spree. In doing so we crossed the Tucholskystrasse, named after the pre-Second World War left-wing writer and satirist whose works were banned by the Nazis and who died in exile in Sweden. Imagine then Dr B's surprise when on the train back to Switzerland, he opened the financial section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung and found an article by Kurt Tucholsky where otherwise you might expect to read an editorial. The Frankfurter Allgemeine is anything other than a left-wing or satirical magazine. Its conservative outlook is reflected right down to its use of typography and it has the reputation of being the literary expression of finance capital.

The article reprinted in the Frankfurter Allgemeine is called "A short description of macroeconomics" and was first published in 1931 in the left-wing Weltbühne magazine: "Macroeconomics is the metaphysics of the poker player," wrote Tucholsky. "Every economy is based on the credit system, or, in other words, on the erroneous assumption that the other person will repay the money that they have been given. If they don't do that, there is then a so-called "support action", in which everyone, except the state, can make money. You can recognise when such a crash takes place in that people are called upon to have confidence. In any case they usually don't have much else. If the entrepreneur has placed all of the money abroad, then this is usually referred to as representing the 'seriousness of the situation'."

Reading through the Wikipedia entry on Tucholsky I was struck by how he was an exact contemporary of my Berlin grandfather - both fought for in the German army during the first world war and both studied law in Berlin. Both will also have experienced the hyperinflation of the 1920s.
I was also moved by the story of Tucholsky's struggles against political tyrrany and with chronic illness. He took his own life in 1935. If you get the chance to visit the Tucholsky museum in the castle in Rheinsberg I'd recommend it, an easy day trip from Berlin. Tucholsky also worked behind the scenes to get the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Carl von Ossietsky. Many of these people are forgotten outside the German-speaking world.
The final entry in wikipedia also left me pondering a translation conundrum. Tucholsky's gravestone, put up after the end of the second world war, has as its inscription "Alles vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis" , which comes from Goethe's Faust part II, Wikipedia then gives the translation into English:"All that is transitory is but a symbol". Of course "symbol" scans better than "parable" which is the word I would choose for Gleichnis ... but somehow I rather like the idea of all that is transitory being but a parable ... perhaps a useful economic reflection as well.