Title: Elliptical Treadmill
Author: Egon Erwin Kisch (translated from German by Graham Davis)
Publisher: Graham Davis
Year: 1924 (translation 2014)
What it is: A translation of a 1920s piece of classic reportage, telling a story from the 1923 Berlin Six Day Race
Strengths: At the same time that men like Albert Londres and Ernest Hemingway were getting interested in cycling in France, in Germany - cycling's forgotten heartland - Egon Erwin Kish was drawing inspiration from track racing and crafting an article that has a timeless quality to it
Weaknesses: At eighteen hundred words (plus an introduction) it's probably the shortest piece yet reviewed here on the Café Bookshelf
"Whoever wants to see the Berlin people in a fever, do not miss the chance to see a part of the 144 hours dedicated to those who ride on an inclined wooden track, the riders of the six-day races, making their circuits of the great hall. In the central circle and the reserved boxes of the hall, one will see the cream of society and celebrities with their beautiful shoulders draped in Sable and Fox fur. You will want to sit amongst the true connoisseurs, the super-Berliners, but in your sweaters and your jackets you must mingle in the gallery. No racing position or change of lead is ignored, everything is criticised or applauded in the most enthusiastic fashion."
~ Franz Hassel, 1929
Berlin Six Day Race 1929
The Berlin Six Day Race - even when overshadowed by the more popular Sixes - is the doyenne: the oldest, if not the most prestigious Six still surviving. In 2009 the race celebrated its centenary, and two years later it was able to celebrate its one hundredth staging. Those are impressive numbers, when you think that the Tour has only just staged its one hundred and first edition and the Giro d'Italia is on ninety-eight not out.
They're also impressive when you consider the years in which the Berlin Six was absent: born in 1909 (the same year as the Giro) it ran through to 1914 and the outbreak of war. In 1919 it resurfaced, but only fleetingly, and it wasn't until 1922 that it got back on track, and then ran through to 1934, when the rising tide of Nazism derailed it. It was 1949 before the Berlin Six returned, and ran right through to 1988 uninterrupted, only to find itself derailed again in 1989 as the Wall fell and a city came together. Fleetingly, it returned the following year and then disappeared again, not resurfacing until 1997, since when it has been able to run without interruption. All told then, that's eighty years in which the race has been staged. How, then, can it have already passed one hundred editions? By being so popular that, in some years, it's been possible to stage two - or, as happened in 1926, even three - editions of the race in the one year.
Six Day racing started in the UK in the 1870s and became massively popular when it was picked up in America, where it became the norm to run the races continuously, typically starting just after midnight on a Sunday and running through to 10.00 pm the following Saturday. Madison Square Garden became the beating heart of the American Six Day circuit, and reports of those races were partly responsible for inspiring the first Tour, a Six Day race on the roads of France. But, despite their popularity in America, and despite the popularity of reports about them in Europe's sporting press, Six Day racing took its time before taking off in cycling's traditional heartlands. In the autumn of 1906, a Six was organised in Toulouse and then another in Zürich at the end of the year, but then it was another three years before anyone managed to make a real success of the format, and that race was the first Berlin Six.
Why was Six Day cycling able to take off in Germany when it had failed in France? Partly it is down to the popularity of track cycling in Germany, something which is often over-looked because of Germany's relative lack of success on the road. But it was also partly about the home fans having a hero to cheer for: Walter Rütt, who had won the Garden Six in 1907. He was forced to miss the inaugural Berlin Six because he'd skipped out of doing his military service. But such was Rütt's popularity that even such a lack of patriotism could be forgiven, though doing so did require the intervention of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, who had attended the 1909 Six and was a fan. When Rütt turned up for the 1910 Berlin Six he had added a second victory in the Garden Six (in 1909) and set about delivering the home fans exactly what they wanted: German dominance. Rütt won, beating riders of the calibre of Bobby Walthour, Marcel Berthet, Maurice Brocco and Eddy Root (he also beat a now-forgotten pioneer of British cycling success, Tommy Hall).
Rütt won again the following year and a year after that, won twice more, the Berlin Six already having become so popular that it could be staged twice in the one year, in February and again in March. Even when Rütt slipped off his throne - after his double-success in 1912 he didn't win there again until 1925 - the Berlin Six survived without him. War and the Nazis interrupted its run, yes, but the Berlin Six had become a part of the city's cultural life.
Egon Erwin Kisch
That, then, is the race written about by Egon Erwin Kisch in 1923, in an article he titled Elliptische Tretmühle (elliptical treadmill). Born in Prague in 1885 to a German-speaking Jewish family Kisch earned his journalistic spurs in his native Czechoslovakia before moving to Berlin after the end of the First World War (during which he had served as a corporal in the Austrian army). Initially in his writings Kisch was a follower of the likes of Émile Zola and Charles Dickens, a man with a social conscience and a desire to see justice done. As he matured, Kisch - like his contemporary, George Orwell - developed a form of reportage in which the writer became the story, a part of the narrative, did not stand aloof and strive for impartiality. During this time he earned the nickname der Rasende Reporter (the Raging Reporter). During this time he also became a follower of communism and an outspoken critic of fascism.
When the Reichstag was burned down in 1933, Kisch was among those rounded up and imprisoned. He was then deported back to his native Czechoslovakia. Graham Davis - who has translated Elliptical Treadmill into English and written about its author for a recent issue of Rouleur magazine - shared with me recently this anecdote about Kisch:
"A group called the Movement Against War and Fascism in Melbourne were looking for a European speaker to invite to raise awareness of the fascist threat in a country which was largely unaware. Kisch got the nod, despite being virtually unknown in any English language circles. But for the Australian government, he was a 'dangerous communist,' and therefore persona non grata - he was refused permission to disembark when his ship arrived in Melbourne. Kisch though was not to be stopped, and jumped from ship to shore, breaking his leg in the process. This was his first leap on a journey from utter obscurity to minor celebrity to important cause.
"The next stage came when the government then raised the stakes and subjected him to a notorious test - the so-called White Australia test of ability in a European language, designed to control immigration into Australia. He failed - but given that they deviously made him take the test in Scottish Gaelic, the ridiculous result and process were rejected by the appeals court. Kisch ended triumphant, addressing crowds of 20,000. He not only wrote the story, he became it."
After having been kicked out of Germany Kisch made Paris his base. He reported on the Spanish Civil War. Come the Second World War he fled to Mexico, not returning to Europe until 1946 when he settled in Czechoslovakia, where he died two years later. After his death, in the newly created East Germany Kisch's writings were embraced, he exemplifying what a good communist should be. In the other Germany, Kisch's continuing influence on his trade was shown in 1977 when Stern launched a journalism prize bearing his name. Even today, young journalists in Germany are encouraged to read Kisch's articles, including Elliptical Treadmill.
The Time And The Place
Berlin of 1923 is a city that's hard to pin down, a city on the cusp of two eras. The quintessential Berlin of the Weimar Republic - the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Marlene Dietrich, the Berlin of Sally Bowles and the Blue Angel - was still on the far off horizon. The Berlin of 1923 was in many ways more like something out of FW Murnau's Nosferatu or Fritz Lang's Dr Caligari (both of which were released the year before): a diseased and haunted city, a city haunted by its past and diseased by a blindness to its present state. The new republic was limping into its fourth year, French and Belgian troops were occupying the Ruhr and the country was entering the era of hyperinflation.
(A loaf of bread had risen in price from 50 pfennig at the end of the war five years earlier, through four marks at the end of 1921, past 163 marks in 1922 and was at 250 marks in January 1923. As the hyperinflation crisis spiralled out of control that climbed to 463 marks in March and 1,465 in June. Monthly after that it went past 3,465, 69,000, 1,512,000, 1,743,000,000 and 201,000,000,000 marks at the height of the crisis in November, at which point prices were doubling approximately every four days.)
Hyperinflation did not hurt all equally, and for some life went on as it always had. Kisch gives a hint of this in his article about the 1923 Berlin Six, which was staged at the end of February that year:
"From morning until the middle of the night the place is full, and from the middle of the night until the morning the occasion is even better. A bridge soars high over the track and leads to the central area; to cross will cost you two hundred marks per person. Inside the track are two bars with jazz bands, where a glass of champagne will set you back three thousand paper marks and a bottle twenty thousand. Underdressed ladies in evening gowns sit there, criminals in their work attire (tails and ballroom shoes), chauffeurs, blacks, foreigners, officers and Jews. They donate prizes. When the spurt is over, their attention turns from the curves of the banking to the curves of the lovely neighbour. She leans in attractive pose on the barrier, her knights stare at her neckline, right, left, right, left. It is the Six Day Race of nightlife."
Running repairs during the Berlin Six Day Race 1923
"For six days and six nights the thirteen riders look neither right nor left, but only straight ahead, as they strain forwards, yet remain all the time in the same place, always on the oval of the track, on the long straights or the near vertical curves, incredibly packed together, sometimes at the head of the herd, sometimes at the tail and sometimes - and then you hear it from the crowd 'Hip! Hip!' - a few meters ahead; but after one or two more laps the rider comes back to where he was and returns to the herd of the thirteen. And so they all stay in the same place as they rush forward, while at mad speed they cover distances equal to crossing Europe diagonally, from Constantinople to London, or from Madrid to Moscow. But they do not get to see the Bosphorus or Lloyd George; no Escorial nor Lenin; nothing of a harem nor a lady riding in Rotten Row in Hyde Park, and no Carmen seducing a Don Jose, nor any socialist with short black hair and Marx`s Theories of Surplus Value in her overcoat pocket. They remain on the same spot, on the same lap, with the same people - a carousel of murder and death. And when it is all over and the hundred and forty four hours are behind them, the winner falls babbling from his bike with victory won but delirium tremens incipient, a paragon of fitness."
Like Albert Londres at the Tour de France in 1924, Kisch looked at the 1923 Berlin Six Day Race with a bemused wonderment. Londres championed the cause of the riders and condemned the Calvary of suffering the Tour had become in the name of commerce. Kisch on the other hand paid scant regard to the riders - this is a story of cycling as spectacle, not sport - and instead focused more on the audience cramming the Sportpalast in Potsdamer Strasse, for whom the race was "a symbolic pressure gauge of a mankind fuelled by a craving for material satisfaction but needing to protest against alienation and mechanization." You may not learn much about the actual racing reading Kisch, but you will get an invaluable picture of how popular it was.