Arthur Koestler had a knack for getting himself locked up. For several years in the 1930s and ‘40s, he took an inside tour of European prisons and concentration camps in Spain, France, and the UK. (Strangely, my edition of this book was published by a travel book publishing company, but I can’t think they would recommend this particular itinerary). Koestler’s friend George Orwell attributed his predilection for incarceration to his “lifestyle,” which is a bit unfair, but there is no doubt Koestler was often in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe the right place from a literary point of view, since he had plenty of life experience from which to draw in writing his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon, about a Russian revolutionary in prison.
In Scum of the Earth
, Koestler recounts his experiences of being interned in a concentration camp in France. Koestler, a Hungarian living in France working as a writer and journalist, was rounded up along with other “undesirables” shortly after France entered the war against Germany in 1939. They were a ragtag group, outcasts who “could be divided into two main categories: people doomed by the biological accident of their race and people doomed for their metaphysical creed or rational conviction regarding the best way to organise human welfare” (p. 93). His fellow prisoners included refugees who had fled from country to country as the German forces advanced across Europe as well as socialists and Communists. Ironically, almost all of them were fiercely anti-Nazi, sometimes much more so than the French police and soldiers they dealt with. Many, including Koestler, were Jewish, and many of them had volunteered to fight in the French army against Germany.
Koestler’s camp, Le Vernet, was one of the more unpleasant ones. Koestler and his fellow ethnic and political outsiders had no legal protection of any kind, with no official charges against them and no due process. They were kept in miserable conditions doing unpaid hard labor. He writes,“In Liberal-Centigrade, Vernet was the zero-point of infamy; measured in Dachau-Fahrenheit it was still 32 degrees above zero. In Vernet beating-up was a daily occurrence; in Dachau it was prolonged until death ensued. In Vernet people were killed for lack of medical attention; in Dachau they were killed on purpose. In Vernet half of the prisoners had to sleep without blankets in 20 degrees of frost; in Dachau they were put in irons and exposed to the frost”
Koestler points out that the pro-Nazi prisoners in France, who were taken elsewhere, were often treated better due to oversight by the Red Cross and the fear of German retaliation against French prisoners of war. He describes seeing photographs of the conditions for actual Nazi prisoners of war in France, who lived in comparative luxury, “We saw them having a meal in a tidy refectory, and there were tables and chairs and dishes and knives and forks. And we saw them in their dormitory, and they had real beds and mattresses and blankets” (p. 117).
Koestler managed to be released from Le Vernet before France capitulated to Germany, but most were not so lucky. The Gestapo took over the French concentration camps without missing a beat. Helpfully, the French supplied the Gestapo with records and dossiers on the prisoners, so that there was no doubt about their anti-Nazi activities.
Koestler writes vividly of the chaos in France following the capitulation. Caught in a bureaucratic nightmare, he and other undesirable foreigners tried to escape from the country before being captured by the Germans. Many of Koestler’s friends and acquaintances, including fellow writers and intellectuals, commited suicide to avoid being captured. After a lot of complicated maneuvering, Koestler managed to make it to England, where he was promptly imprisoned for six weeks, but at least in relative comfort compared to his experience in France.
Before and during World War II, there was an epidemic of nationalistic and xenophobic feeling. Hitler and Stalin win the dubious prize for infamy with their death camps and gulags, but it was a fairly shameful time in history for “the good guys” as well, with American internment of Japanese-Americans, the concentration and forced labor camps in France described here, and numerous other instances of officially sanctioned persecution of “foreigners” (including citizens of “foreign” descent) in the US, Canada, the UK, and the British colonies. Scum of the Earth
provides a disturbing example of how, given the right mixture of xenophobia and national security concerns, a supposedly democratic nation can willingly sacrifice the civil rights, liberties, and due process of its own people and legal visitors.