Harry Alverson Franck.

Vagabonding through changing Germany online

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and faces; moreover, the German point of view would be
laid before me frankly, without any mask of "propaganda"
or suspicion.

Memories of France had suggested the possible wisdom
of reaching the station well before train-time. I might,
to be sure, have purchased my ticket in leisurely comfort
at the Adlon, but for once I proposed to take pot-luck with
the rank and file. First-hand information is always much
more satisfactory than hearsay or the dilettante observa-
tion of the mere spectator — once the bruises of the experience
have disappeared. The first glimpse of the station interior
all but wrecked my resolution. Early as I was, there were
already several hundred would-be travelers before me.
From both ticket-windows lines four deep of disheveled
Germans of both sexes and all ages curved away into the



farther ends of the station wings. Boy soldiers with fixed
bayonets paraded the edges of the columns, attempting
languidly and not always successfully to prevent selfish
new-comers from "butting in " out of their turn. I attached
myself to the end of the queue that seemed by a few inches
the shorter. In less than a minute I was jammed into a
throng that quickly stretched in S-shape back into the
central hall of the station.

We moved steadily but almost imperceptibly forward,
shuffling our feet an inch at a time. The majority of my
companions in discomfort were plainly city people of the
poorer classes, bound short distances into the country on
foraging expeditions. They bore every species of receptacle
in which to carry away their possible spoils — ^hand-bags,
hampers, baskets, grain-sacks, knapsacks, even buckets
and toy wagons. In most cases there were two or three of
these to the person, and as no one dreamed of risking the
precious things out of his own possession, the struggle for-
ward suggested the writhing of a miscellaneous scrap-heap.
Women were in the majority — sallow, bony-faced creatures
in patched and faded garments that hung about their ema-
ciated forms as from hat-racks. The men were little less
miserable of aspect, their deep-sunk, watery eyes testifying
to long malnutrition; the children who now and then
shrilled protests at being trodden underfoot were gaunt and
colorless as corpses. Not that healthy individuals were
lacking, but they were just that — individuals, in a throng
which as a whole was patently weak and anemic. The
evidence of the scarcity of soap was all but overpowering.
Seven women and at least three children either fainted or
toppled over from fatigue during the two hours in which
we moved a few yards forward, and they were buffeted
out of the line with what seemed to be the malicious joy
of their competitors behind. I found my own head swim-
ming long before I had succeeded in turning the comer

1 60


that cut off our view of the pandemonium at the ticket-

At eight- thirty this was suddenly closed, amid weak-
voiced shrieks of protest from the struggling column. The
train did not leave until nine, but it was already packed to
the doors. Soldiers, and civilians with military papers,
were served at a supplementary window up to the last
minute before the departure. The disappointed throng
attempted to storm this wicket, only to be driven back at
the point of bayonets, and at length formed in column again
to await the reopening of the public guichets at noon.

The conversation during that three-hour delay was inces-
santly on the subject of food. Some of it was good-natured;
the overwhelming majority harped on it in a dreary, hope-
less grumble. Many of the women, it turned out, were
there to buy tickets for their husbands, who were still at
work. Some had spent the previous day there in vain. I
attempted to ease my wearying legs by sitting on my ham-
per, but querulous protests assailed me from the rear. The
gloomy seekers after food seemed to resent every inch that
separated them from their goal, even when this was tem-
porarily unattainable. One would have supposed that the
order-loving Germans might have arranged some system of
numbered checks that would spare such multitudes the
necessity of squandering the day at unproductive waiting
in line, but the railway authorities seemed to be overwhelmed
by the "crisis of transportation."

From noon until one the struggle raged with double fury.
The boy soldiers asserted their authority in vain. A mere
bayonet-prick in the leg was apparently nothing compared
with the gnawing of continual hunger. Individual fights
developed and often threatened to become general. Those
who got tickets could not escape from the crushing maelstrom
behind them. Women were dragged unconscious from the
fray, often feet first, their skirts about their heads. The



rear of the column formed a flying wedge and precipitated
a free-for-all fracas that swirled vainly about the window.
When this closed again I was still ten feet away. I con-
cluded that I had my fill of pot-luck, and, buffeting my
way to the outer air, purchased a ticket for the following
morning at the Adlon.

A little episode at my departure suggested that the ever-
obedient German of Kaiser days was changing in character.
The second-class coach was already filled when I entered it,
except that at one end there was an empty compartment,
on the windows of which had been pasted the word "Be-
stellt." In the olden days the mere announcement that it
was "engaged" would have protected it as easily as bolts
and bars. I decided to test the new democracy. Crowding
my way past a dozen men standing obediently in the corri-
dor, I entered the forbidden compartment and sat down.
In a minute or two a seatless passenger put his head in at
the door and inquired with humble courtesy whether it was
I who had engaged the section. I shook my head, and a
moment later he was seated beside me. Others followed,
until the compartment was crowded with passengers and
baggage. One of my companions angrily tore the pasters
from the windows and tossed them outside.

"Bestellt indeed!" he cried, sneeringly. "Perhaps by the
Soldiers' Council, eh? I thought we had done away with
those old f avoritisms ! "

A few minutes later a station porter, in his major's uni-
form, appeared at the door with his arms full of baggage
and followed by two pompous-looking men in silk hats.
At sight of the throng inside he began to bellow in the
familiar old before-the-war style.

"This compartment is hestellt," he vociferated, in a crown-
princely voice, "and it remains bestellt! You will all get
out of there at once!"

No one moved; on the other hand, no one answered back.





The porter fumed a bit, led his charges farther down the
train, and perhaps found them another compartment; at
any rate, he never returned. "Democracy" had won.
Yet through it all I could not shake off the feeling that
if any one with a genuinely bold, commanding manner,
an old army officer, for instance, decorated with all the
thingamabobs of his rank, had ordered the compartment
vacated, the occupants would have filed out of it as silently
and meekly as lambs.

The minority still ruled in more ways than one. A placard
on the wall, forbidding the opening of a window without
the unanimous consent of the passengers within the com-
partment, was strictly obeyed. The curtains had long
since disappeared, as had the leather straps with which one
raised or lowered the sash, which must now be manipulated
by hand. As in the occupied zone, the seats had been
stripped of their velvety coverings, suggesting that this
had been no special affront to the Allies, but merely a sign
of the scarcity of cloth for ladies' blouses. It was a cloudless
Sunday, and railway employees along the way were taking
advantage of it to work in their little vegetable gardens,
tucked into every available corner. They did not neglect
their official duties, however, for all that. At every grade
crossing the uniformed guard stood stiffiy at attention, his
furled red flag held like a rifle at his side, until the last coach
had passed.

At Spandau there lay acre upon acre of war material of
every species, reddening with rust and overgrowing with
grass and weeds. The sight of it aroused a few murmurs of
discontent from my companions. But they soon fell back
again into that apathetic silence that had reigned since our
departure. A few had read awhile the morning papers,
without a sign of feeling, though the head-lines must have
been startling to a German, then laid them languidly aside.
Apparently the lack of nourishing food left them too sleepy
12 163


to talk. The deadly apathy of the compartment was quite
the antithesis of what it would have been in France; a
cargo of frozen meat could not have been more uncom-

The train showed a singular languor, due perhaps to its
Ersatz coal. It got there eventually, but it seemed to have
no reserve strength to give it vigorous spells. The station
we should have passed at noon was not reached until one-
thirty. Passengers timibled off en masse and besieged the
platform lunch-room. There were Ersatz coffee, Ersatz
cheese, watery beer, and war-bread for sale, the last only
"against tickets." I had not yet been supplied with bread-
coupons, but a fellow-passenger tossed me a pair of them
and replied to my thanks with a silent nod. The nauseating
stuff seemed to give the traveler a bit of surplus energy.
They talked a little for the next few miles, though in dreary,
apathetic tones. One had recently journeyed through the
occupied area, and reported "every one is being treated
fairly enough there, especially by the Americans." A
languid discussion of the Allies ensued, but though it was
evident that no one suspected my nationality, there was not
a harsh word toward the enemy. Another advanced the
wisdom of "seeing Germany first," insisting that the sons
of the Fatherland had been too much given to running about
foreign lands, to the neglect of their own. Those who car-
ried lunches ate them without the suggestion of an offer
to share them with their hungry companions, without even
the apologetic pseudo-invitation of the Spaniard. Then
one by one they drifted back to sleep again.

The engine, too, seemed to pick up after lunch— or to
strike a down-grade — and the thatched Gothic roofs of
Mechlenburg soon began to dot the flat landscape. More
people were working in the fields; cattle and sheep were
grazing here and there. Groups of women came down to
the stations to parade homeward with their returning soldier



sons and brothers. Yet after the first greeting the unsuc-
cessful warriors seemed to tire of the welcome and strode
half proudly, half defiantly ahead, while the women dropped
sadly to the rear.

Where I changed cars, four fellow-travelers reached the
station lunch-room before me and every edible thing was
bestellt when my turn came. With three hours to wait I
set out along the broad, well-kept highway. A village hotel
served me a huge PJannkuchen made of real eggs, a few
cold potatoes, and some species of preserved fruit, but
declined to repeat the order. The bill reached the lofty
heights of eight marks. Children playing along the way,
and frequently groups of Sunday strollers, testified that
there was more energy for unnecessary exertion here in
the coimtry than in Berlin. The flat, well-plowed land,
broken only by dark masses of forest, was already giving
promise of a plentiful harvest.

The two women in the compartment I entered at a station
farther on gave only one sign of life during the journey.
A railway coach on a siding bore a placard reading, * ' Vber-
gabe Wagen an die Entente." The women gazed at it with
pained expressions on their gaunt faces.

"It's a fine new car, too," sighed one of them, at last,
"with real leather and window-curtains. We don't get
any such to ride in — and to think of giving it to England!
Ach! These are sad times!"

The sun was still above the horizon when I reached
Schwerin, though it was nearly nine. There was a signif-
icant sign of the times in the dilapidated coach which drove
me to my destination for five marks. In the olden days
one mark would have been considered a generous reward for
the same journey in a spick-and-span outfit. The middle-
aged woman who met me at the door was by no means the
buxom matron she had been ten years before. But her
welcome was none the less hearty.

i6s ,


''Bist du auch gegen uns gewesen?" she asked, softly, after
her first words of greeting. "You, too, against us?"

"Yes, I was with our army in France," I rephed, watch-
ing her expression closely.

There was regret in her manner, yet, as I had foreseen,
not the faintest suspicion of resentment. The German is
too well trained in obedience to government to dream that
the individual may make a choice of his own international
affairs. As long as I remained in the household there was
never a hint from any member of it that the war had made
any gulf between us. They could not have been more friendly
had I arrived wearing the field gray of the Fatherland.

A brief glance about the establishment sufficed to settle
once for all the query as to whether the civil population
of Germany had really suffered from the ravages of war
and of the blockade. The family had been market-gardeners
for generations. Ten years before they had been prosperous
with the solid, material prosperity of the well-to-do middle
class. In comparison with their neighbors they were still so,
but it was a far call from the plenitude of former days to
the scarcity that now showed its head on every hand. The
establishment that had once been kept up with that pride
of the old-fashioned German as for an old family heirloom,
which laughs at unceasing labor to that end, was every-
where sadly down at heel. The house was shedding its
ancient paint; the ravages of weather and years gazed
down with a neglected air ; the broken panes of glass in the
hotbeds had not been replaced; farm wagons falsely sug-
gested that the owner was indifferent to their upkeep; the
very tools had all but outlived their usefulness. Not that
the habit of unceasing labor had been lost. The family
sleeping-hours were still from ten to four. But the war
had reduced the available helping hands and the blockade
had shut out materials and supplies, or forced them up to
prices which none but the wealthy could reach.




Inside the house, particularly in the kitchen, the family-
had been reduced to almost as rudimentary a life as the
countrymen of Venezuela, so many were the every-day
appliances that had been confiscated or shut off by the war-
time government, so few the foodstuffs that could be
obtained. Though other fuel was almost unattainable,
gas could only be had from six to seven, eleven to twelve,
and seven to eight. Electricity was turned on from dark
until ten-thirty, which at that season of the year meant
barely an hour. Petroleum or candles were seldom to be
had. All the better utensils had long since been turned
in to the government. When I unearthed a bar of soap
from my baggage the family literally fell on my neck; the
only piece in the house was about the size of a postage-
stamp, and had been husbanded for weeks. Vegetables
were beginning to appear from the garden; without them
there would have been little more than water and salt to
cook. In theory each adult member of the household
received 125 grams of beef a week ; in practice they were
lucky to get that much a month. What that meant
in loss of energy I began to learn by experience; for a
mere three days without meat left me weary and ambition-
less. Those who could bring themselves to eat it might
get horse-flesh in the markets, without tickets, but even
that only in very limited quantities. The bread, "made
of potatoes, turnips, and God knows what all they throw
into it," was far from sufficient. Though the sons and
daughters spent every Sunday foraging the country-side, they
seldom brought home enough to make one genuine meal.

The effect of continued malnutrition seemed to have been
surprisingly slight on those in the prime of life. The
children of ten years before, men and women now, were
plump and hardy, though the color in their cheeks was
by no means equal even to that of the grandfather — sleep-
ing now in the churchyard — at the time of my former visit.



Of the two granddaughters the one bom three years before,
when the blockade was only beginning to be felt in these
backwaters of the Empire, was stout and rosy enough;
but her sister of nine months looked pitifully like the waxen
image of a maltreated infant of half that age. The simple-
hearted, plodding head of the household, nearing sixty,
had shrunk almost beyond recognition to those who had
known him in his plump and prosperous years, while his
wife had outdistanced even him in her decline.

Business in the market-gardening line had fallen off
chiefly because of the scarcity of seeds and fertilizers. Then
there was the ever more serious question of labor. Old
women who had gladly accepted three marks for toiling
from dawn until dark ten years before received eleven
now for scratching languidly about the gardens a bare
eight hours with their hoes and rakes. Male help had
begun to drift back since the armistice, but it was by no
means equal to the former standard in nimibers, strength,
or willingness. On top of all this came a crushing burden of
taxation. When all the demands of the government were
reckoned up they equaled 40 per cent, of the ever-decreas-
ing income. The war had brought one advantage, though
it was as nothing compared to the misfortunes. For gen-
erations two or three members of the family had spent
six mornings a week, all summer long, at the market-place
in the heart of town. Since the fall of 19 14 not a sprig of
produce had been carried there for sale; clamoring women
now besieged the gate of the establishment itself in far
greater numbers than the gardens could supply.

The hardship of the past four years was not the pre-
vailing topic of conversation in the household, however,
nor when the subject was forced upon them was it treated
in a whining spirit. Most of the family, like their neighbors,
adroitly avoided it, as a proud prize-fighter might sidestep
references to the bruises of a recent beating. Only the



mother could now and then be drawn into specifying details
of the disaster.

"Do you see the staging around our church there?" she
asked, drawing me to a window one morning after I had
persisted some time in my questions. "They are replacing
with an Ersatz metal the copper that was taken from the
steeple and the eaves. Even the bells went to the cannon-
foundries, six of them, all but the one that is ringing now.
I never hear it without thinking of an orphan child crying
in the woods after all the rest of its family has been eaten
by wolves. Ach! What we have not sacrificed in this
fight to save the Fatherland from our wolfish enemies!
We gave up our gold and our silver, then our nickel and
our copper, even our smallest pots and pans, our alumi-
num and our lead, our leather and our rubber, down to the
last bicycle tire. The horses and the cows are gone, too — I
have only goats to milk now. Then the struggles I have had
to keep the family clothed! Cloth that used to cost fifty
pfennigs a meter has gone up to fifteen marks, and we can
scarcely find any of that. Even thread is sold only against
tickets, and we are lucky to get a spool a month. We are
far better off than the poor people, too, who can only afford
the miserable stuff made of paper or nettles. America also
wants to destroy us; she will not even send us cotton.
And the wicked Schleichhandel and profiteering that go
on ! Every city has a hotel or two where you can get any-
thing you want to eat — if you can pay for it. Yet our honest
tickets are often of no use because rascals have bought up
everything at wicked prices. If we do not get food soon
even this Handarbeiter government will recommence war
against France, surely as you are sitting there. The young
men are all ready to get up and follow our generals. The
new volimteer corps are taking on thousands every day.
Ach! The sufferings of these last years! And now our
cruel enemies expect our poor brave prisoners to rebuild



Europe. But then, I have no right to complain. At least
my dear own boy was not taken from me."

The son, whom we will call Heinrich, I had last seen
as a child in knickerbockers. Now he was a powerful, two-
fisted fellow of twenty-one, with a man's outlook on life.
Having enlisted as a Freiwilliger on his sixteenth birthday,
at the outbreak of the war, he had seen constant service in
Russia, Rumania, and in all the hottest sectors of the
western front, had been twice wounded, twice decorated
with those baubles with which princes coax men to die for
them, and had returned home with the highest non-com-
missioned rank in the German army. What struck one
most forcibly was the lack of opportunity offered such men
as he by their beloved Fatherland. In contrast with the
positions that would have been open to so promising a
youngster, with long experience in the command of men, in
America, he had found nothing better than an apprentice-
ship in the hardware trade, paying forty marks for the
privilege and bound to serve three long years without pay.
Like nearly all the young men in town, from grocery clerks
to bankers' sons, he still wore his uniform, stripped of its
marks of rank, not out of pride, but because civilian clothing
was too great a luxury to be indulged, except on Sundays.
I was surprised, too, at the lack of haughtiness which I had
fancied every soldier of Germany felt for his calling. When
I made some casual remark about the gorgeous spiked hel-
met he had worn, with its Prussian and Mechlenburger
cockades, which I took for granted he would set great store
by to the ends of his days, he tossed it toward me with:
' ' Here, take the thing along, if you want it. It will make a
nice souvenir of your visit." When I coaxed him outdoors
to be photographed in his two iron crosses, he would not put
them on imtil we had reached a secluded comer of the garden,
because, as he explained, the neighbors might think he was




"I should gladly have died for the Fatherland," he
remarked, as he tossed the trinkets back into the drawer
full of miscellaneous junk from which he had fished them,
"if only Germany had won the war. But not for this!
Not I, with no other satisfaction than the poor fellows we
buried out there would feel if they could sit up in their
graves and look about them."

There were startling changes in the solemn, patriarchal
attitude toward life which I had found so amusing, yet so
charming, in the simple people of rural Germany at the time
of my first visit. The war seemed to have given a sad
jolt to the conservative old customs of former days, particu-
larly among the young people. Perhaps the most tangible/
evidence of this fact was to see the daughters calmly light
cigarettes, while the sternly religious father of ten years
before, who would then have flayed them for sneezing in
church, looked idly on without a sign of protest. They were
still at bottom the proper German Frduleins of the rural
middle class — though as much could not be said of all the
sex even in respectable old Schwerin — ^but on the surface
there were many of these little tendencies toward the

When it came to discussions of the war and Germany's
conduct of it, I found no way in which we could get together.
We might have argued until doomsday, were it fitting for a
guest to badger his hosts, without coming to a single point
of agreement. Every one of the old fallacies was still swal-
lowed, hook and line. If I had expected national disaster
to bring a change of heart, I should have been grievously
disappointed. To be sure, Mechlenburg is one of the
remotest backwaters of the Empire, and these laborious,
unimaginative tillers of the soil one of its most conservative

Online LibraryHarry Alverson FranckVagabonding through changing Germany → online text (page 14 of 29)