Harry Alverson Franck.

Vagabonding through changing Germany online

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THE terms of the Peace Treaty having broken upon
Berlin without arousing any of the excited scenes I
had expected, I decided to go away from there. General
apathy might be ruling in the provinces also, but at least
I would be "on my own" if anything happened, and not
where I could dart under the protecting wing of the Ally-
housing Adlon at the first signs of storm. I laid a plan
that promised to kill two birds with one stone. I would
jump to the far eastern border of the Empire, to a section
which Paris had just decreed should be handed over to the
Poles, and I would walk from there into a section which
the Poles had already taken. In other words, I would
examine side by side an amputated member and one which
the consultation of international doctors about the operating-
table on which Germany lay had marked for amputation.
Luckily I took the wrong train on the teeming Friedrichs-
strasse Bahnhof platform next morning, or I should have
been sent back before reaching my goal. I learned jUst
in time to drop off there that travelers into Polish territory
must have their passports viseed in Frankfurt-am-Oder.
There was a considerable gathering of nervous petitioners
about the door of the haughty German officer who repre-
sented the Empire in this matter, at one of the huge bar-
racks on the outskirts of town. But the delay was not
correspondingly long, thanks not only to the efficient system



of his office, but to the fact that many of the applicants
remained only long enough to hear him dismiss them with
an uncompromising "No!" All men of military age — and
in the Germany of 19 19 that seemed to mean every male
between puberty and senility — ^were being refused per-
mission to enter the amputated province, whether they
were of Polish or German origin. My own case was dif-
ferent. The officer scowled a bit as the passport I laid
before him revealed my nationality, but he stamped it
quickly, as if in haste to be done with an unpleasant duty.
Whether or not this official right of exit from the Empire
included permission to return was a question which he
curtly dismissed as no affair of his. Evidently I was burn-
ing my bridges behind me.

Frankfurt-am-Oder pulsated with soldiers, confirming
the impression that reigned in khaki-clad circles at Coblenz
that the German army had turned its face toward the east.
Food seemed somewhat less scarce than in the capital. A
moderately edible dinner cost me only eight marks. In
the market-place, however, the stalls and bins were patheti-
cally near to emptiness. A new annoyance — one that was
destined to pursue me during all the rest of my travels in
Germany — ^here first became personal. It was the scarcity
of matches. In the days to come that mere hour's search
for a single box of uncertain, smoke-barraging Streichholzer
grew to be a pleasant memory. Not far from the city
was one of those many camps of Russian prisoners, rationed
now by American doughboys, some of whose inmates had
nearly five years of German residence to their discredit. If
the testimony of many constant observers was trustworthy,
they dreaded nothing so much as the day when they must
turn their backs on American plenitude and regain their
own famished, disrupted land. True, they were still
farmed out to labor for their enemies. But they seldom
strained themselves with toil, and in exchange were they



not growing efficient in baseball and enhancing their Tataric
beauty with the silk hats and red neckties furnished by an
all-providing Red Cross?

The station platform of Frankfurt, strewn pellmell with
Polish refugees and their disheveled possessions, recalled
the halcyon days of Ellis Island. A "mixed" train of
leisurely temperament wandered away at last toward the
trunk line to the east which I had fortunately not taken
that morning. Evidently one must get off the principal
arteries of travel to hear one's fellow-passengers express
themselves frankly and freely. At any rate, there was
far more open discussion of the question of the hour during
that jolting thirty miles than I had ever heard in a day on
sophisticated express trains.

"The idea," began an old man of sixty or more, apropos
of nothing but the thought that had evidently been running
through his head at sight of the fertile acres about us, "of
expecting us to surrender this, one of the richest sections
of the Fatherland, and to those improvident Poles of all
people! They are an intelligent race — ^I have never been
one of those who denied them intelligence. But they can
never govern themselves; history has proved that over
and over again. In my twenty-three years' residence in
Upper Silesia I have seen how the laborers' houses have
improved, how they have thrived and reached a far higher
plane of culture under German rule. A Polish government
would only bring them down to their natural depths again.
They will never treat the working-man as fairly, as gener-
ously as we have.

"But," he continued, suddenly, with increased heat,
"we will not see the Fatherland torn to pieces by a band of
wolfish, envious enemies. We wiU fight for our rights!
We cannot abandon our faithful fellow-countrymen, our
genuine German brethren, to be driven from their homes
or misruled by these wretched Poles. It would be unworthy



of oiir German blood! There will be a Burgerkrieg — a
peasants' war, with every man fighting for his own sacred
possessions, before we will allow German territory to be
taken from us. I will sacrifice my entire family rather
than allow the Fatherland to be dismembered."

Our fellow-passengers listened to this tirade of testy old
age with the curious apathy of himger or indifference which
seemed to have settled upon the nation. Now and then one
or two of them nodded approval of the sentiments expressed;
occasionally they threw in a few words of like tenor. But
on the whole there was little evidence of an enthusiasm
for rescuing their "genuine German brethren" that prom-
ised to go the length of serious personal sacrifice.

All Germany was in bloom, chiefly with the white of early
fruit-trees, giving the landscape a maidenly gaiety that
contrasted strangely with the fimereal gloom within the car.
Gangs of women were toiling with shovels along the rail-
way embankment. The sandy flatlands, supporting little
but scrubby spruce forests, gave way at length to a rich
black soil that heralded the broad fertile granary which
Germany had been called upon to surrender. Barefoot
women and children, interspersed with only a small per-
centage of men, stood erect from their labors and gazed
oxlike after the nmibHng train. Here and there great
fields of colza, yellow as the saffron robe of a Buddhist priest,
stretched away toward the horizon. The plant furnished,
according to one of my fellow-passengers, a very tolerable
Ersatz oil. Fruit-trees in their white spring garments, their
trunks carefully whitewashed as a protection against
insects, lined every highway. Other trees had been
trimmed down to mere trunks, like those of Brittany and
La Vendee in France, as if they, too, had been called upon
to sacrifice all but life itself to the struggle that had
ended so disastrously.

In the helter-skelter of finding seats in the express that



picked us up at the jiinction I had lost sight of the belligerent
old man. A husband and wife who had formed part of his
audience, however, found place in the same compartment as
I. For a long time I attempted to draw them into con-
versation by acting as suspiciously as possible. I took
copious notes, snapped my kodak at everything of interest
on the station platforms, and finally took to reading an
English newspaper. All in vain. They stared at me with
that frankness of the continental European, but they would
not be moved to words, not even at sight of the genuine
cigar I ostentatiously extracted from my knapsack. At
length I gave up the attempt and turned to them with some
casual remark, bringing in a reference to my nationality
at the first opportunity.

"Ah," boasted the woman, "I told my husband that you
looked like an EngHshman, or something. But he insisted
you were a Dane."

"I wonder if the old fellow got a seat, and some one
else to Hsten to him — with his Burgerkrieg," mused the
husband, a moment later. "We Germans have little to
boast of, in governing ourselves. Germany should be
divided up between Belgitmi, France, and England, or be
given an EngHsh king. " Apparently he was quite serious,
though he may have been indulging in that crude sarcasm
to which the German sometimes abandons himself and
which he thinks nicely veiled. "We are not ripe for a
republic. What we are evidently trying to do is to make
ourselves a super-repubHc in one jump. The Socialists
were against the Kaiser because he put on too much pomp,
but we Germans need that kind of a ruler, some one who
will be stem but kind to us, like a father. The Kaiser
himself was not to blame. At least half, if not a majority,
of the people want him back — or at least another one like

"We surely will have our Kaiser back again, sooner or



later," cried the woman, in a tone like that of a religious

Just then, however, the pair reached their station and
there was no opportunity to get her to elaborate her text.
They shooks hands heartily, wished me a "Gluckliche
Reise,'^ and disappeared into the night.

Sunset and dusk had been followed by an almost full
moon that made the evening only a fainter replica of the
perfect cloudless day. Toward nine, however, the sky
became overcast and the darkness impenetrable. This was
soon the case inside as well as out, for during an unusually
protracted stop at a small station a guard marched the
length of the train, putting out all its lights. It seemed
we were approaching the "danger zone." I had been
laboring under the delusion that the armistice which Ger-
many had concluded with her enemies was in force on all
fronts. Not at all. The Poles, it seemed, were intrenched
from six hundred to three thousand yards away all along
this section of the line. They had been there since January,
soon after the province of Posen had revolted against
German rule. Almost every night they fired upon the trains,
now and then even with artillery. Sometimes the line was
impassable. German troops, of course, were facing them.
Trench raids were of almost nightly occurrence; some of
them had developed into real battles.

Now and again as we hurled on through the night there
were sounds of distant firing. It was only at Nakel, how-
ever, that we seemed in any personal danger. There the
Poles were barely six hundred yards away, and between the
time we halted at the station and got under way again at
least a hundred shots were fired, most of them the rat-a-tat
of machine-guns and all of them so close at hand that we
unconsciously ducked our heads. The train apparently
escaped unscathed, however, and two stations farther on

the guard lighted it up again, with the announcement that



danger was over. We rumbled on into Bromberg, where I
descended toward midnight. Soldiers held the station
gate and subjected every traveler — or, more exactly, his
papers — to a careful scrutiny before permitting him to pass.
My own credentials they accepted more readily than those
of many of their fellow-countrymen, some of whom were
herded into a place of detention. As I stepped out through
the gate, another soldier thrust into my hand an Ausweis
permitting me to remain on the streets after dark, for
Bromberg was officially in a state of siege.

When I entered the nearest hotel I found that unofficially
in the same condition. A drunken army officer, who was
the exact picture of what Allied cartoonists would have us
believe all his class, was prancing about the hotel office with
drawn sword, roaring angrily and threatening to spit on
his needle-pointed saber every one in the room. The pos-
sible victims were two half -grown hotel clerks, ridiculous
in their professional evening dress, and a thin, mottled-faced
private soldier, who cowered speechless in different comers.
I was inside before I noticed the disturbance, and pride
would not permit me to retreat. I took station near a
convenient stool and studied the exact degree of uncertainty
of the bully's legs, with a view to future defense. But for
some reason he took no notice of me and at length lurched
out again into the street, cursing as he went.

I owe it to the goddess of truth to state that this was the
one and only case I ever personally saw of a German officer
living up to the popular Allied conception of his caste.
On the contrary, I found the great majority of them quiet,
courteous and gentlemanly to a high degree, with by no
means so large a sprinkling of the "roughneck" variety as
was to be found among our own officers in Europe. Which
does not mean that they were not often haughty beyond
reason, nor that they may not sometimes have concealed
brutal instincts beneath their polished exteriors. But



while we are on the subject, let me read into the record the
testimony of their own fellow-countrymen, particularly
that of many a man who served under them.

"Our active officers," would be the composite answer
of all those I questioned on the subject, "were excellent.
They still had something adel about them — something of
the genuine nobility of the old knights from which the
caste sprang. Their first and foremost thought was the
fatherly care of their men — rendered with a more or less
haughty aloofness, to be sure — that was necessary to dis-
cipline — but a genuine solicitude for the welfare of their
soldiers. Above all" — and here, perhaps, is the chief point
of divergence between them and our own officers of the same
class — "they were rarely or never self-seeking. Our reserve
officers, on the other hand, were by no means of the same
high character. One so often felt the Kaufmann — the soul
of a merchant underneath. Many of them were just
plain rascals, who stole the presents that came addressed
to their soldiers and looted for their own personal benefit.
Then there were many who, though honest and well-
meaning enough, had not the preparation required for so
important an office. They were teachers, or scholars, or
young students, who did not realize that a quiet voice is
more commanding than a noisy one. The great drawback
of our military system, of our national life, in fact, under
the monarchy, was the impenetrable wall that separated
us into the compartments of caste. Old Feldwebels who had
served in the army for twenty years were refused positions
which they could have filled to excellent advantage, in
war-time, because they were not considered in the "officer
class"; and there were set over them men half their own
age, school-boy officers, in some cases, who were barely
eighteen, and who naturally could not have the training
and experience which are required of a lieutenant. Sixty
per cent, of our active officers were slain, and many others



were not able to return to the line. Only 30 per cent, of
our reserve officers were killed, with the result that before
the war ended a man was lucky to have a superior whom he
could honor and imquestioningly obey."

It was in Bromberg that I came into personal contact
with more of the class in question than I had in any other
city of the Empire. Not only were soldiers more ntmierous
here, but I purposely "butted in" upon a half-dozen military
offices, ostensibly to make sure that my papers were in
order, really to feel out the sentiment on the peace terms
and measure the sternness of martial law. But though I
deliberately emphasized my nationality, not once did an
officer show any resentment at my presence. In fact,
most of them saw me to the door at the end of the interview,
and bowed me out with all the ceremony of their exacting
social code. If the verdict that had just been issued in
Paris had burst like a shell among them, they showed no
evidence of panic. The official day's work went deliber-
ately on, and the only comment on the peace terms I suc-
ceeded in arousing was a quiet, uncompromising "Quite
unacceptable, of course."

The city itself was as astonishingly placid in the midst
of what an outsider woiild have supposed to be exciting
times. Being not only in a state of siege, but having just
heard that it was soon to transfer its allegiance to another
race, one was justified in expecting a town as large as
Trenton or San Antonio to show at least some ripples on
its surface. I looked for them in vain. It was Sunday,
just the day for popular demonstrations in Germany, yet
not only was there no sign whatever of rejoicing among
the Polish population, but nothing even suggesting the
uprising of protest among the German residents which had
been so loudly prophesied. The place resembled some
New England factory town on the same day of the week.
Groups of Polish-looking young men, somewhat uncom-



fortable and stiff in their Sunday best, lounged on the street-
corners, ogHng the plump Polish girls on their way to
church. Strollers seemed interested only in keeping to the
shaded side of the street, youths and children only in their
games. Tramways rumbled slowly along as usual — and,
before I forget it, their female conductors wore breeches;
such shops as were habitually open on Sunday seemed to
be doing their customary amount of business. The whole
town was as staid, heavy, and unenthusiastic as the German

In the face of a wide divergence of opinion among its
own inhabitants it was hard for a stranger to decide which
of the two races predominated in Bromberg. The Germans
asserted that only 40 per cent, of the population were
Poles, and that many of them preferred to see things remain
as they were. The Poles defied any one to find more than
twenty Germans among every hundred inhabitants, or to
point out a single member of their race who sincerely wished
to keep his allegiance to the Fatherland. Street and shop
signs were nearly all in German, but that may have been
due to legal requirement. The rank and file of the populace
had a Polish look, yet they seemed to speak German by
choice. Moreover, there is but scant difference of appearance
between Teutons and Poles, particularly when they have
lived their entire lives together in the same environment.
On the wall of a church I dropped into during morning
service there were five columns of names, forty-five each,
of the men who had "Patriotically sacrificed their lives
for a grateful Fatherland." At least one half of them ended
in "ski," and in one column alone I counted thirty unques-
tionably Polish names. But then, it was a Catholic church,
so there you are again. Perhaps the most unbiased testi-
mony of all was the fact that the little children playing in
the park virtually all spoke Polish.

I drifted into conversation with an intelligent young



mechanic taking his Sunday ease in a Bierhalle. He turned
out to be a Pole. As soon as he was convinced of my
identity he shed his mask of commonplace remarks and
fell to talking frankly and sincerely. I do not speak
Polish, hence the rulers of Bromberg might have been
startled to hear the statements that were poured into my
ear in their own tongue. Yet my companion discussed
their shortcomings and the war they had waged, quite
openly, with far less circumspection than a similar criticism
of the powers that be would have required in France or the
United States at the same date.

"You don't hear much Polish on the streets, do you?"
he began. "But if I could take you into the homes you
would find that the street-door is the dividing line between
the two tongues. In the family circle we all stick to the old
language, and the memory of the ancient nation that is
just being resurrected has never been obscured. We are
not exactly forbidden to speak Polish in public, but if we do
we are quite likely to be thumped on the head, or kicked
in the back, or called "dirty Polacks." Besides, it is never
to our advantage to admit that we are Poles. You never
know, when you meet a man, whether he is one or not. I
feel sure the waiter there is one, for instance, yet you see
he carefully pretends to understand nothing but German.
We are treated with unfair discrimination from the cradle
to the grave. When I first went to public school I could
not speak German, and there was hardly a day that a gang
of little Deutschen did not beat me to tears. I used to go
home regularly with lumps as big as walnuts on my head.
Even the teacher whipped us for speaking Polish. When
it came time to go to work we could only get the hardest
and most poorly paid jobs. The railways, the government
offices, all the better trades were closed to us. If we applied
for work at a German factory, the first thing they asked
was whether we were Catholics and Poles. In the courts



a "ski" on the end of a name means a double sentence.
Our taxes were figured far more strictly than those of the
Germans. In the army we are given the dirtiest jobs and
most of the punishments. At the front we were thrown
into the most dangerous positions.

"The Germans could have won the Poles over if they
had done away with these unfair differences and treated
us as equals. They are an efficient people and some of
their ways are better than our ways, but they cannot
get rid of their arrogance and their selfishness. They are
short-sighted. I spent four years at the front, yet I never
once fired at the enemy, but into the air or into the ground.
The majority of Poles did the same thing. You can imagine
the ammunition that was wasted. There is not much
work at home, yet you will not find one Pole in a hundred*
of military age in the German volunteer army. You see
many of them in uniform on the streets here — all those red-
headed young fellows are Poles — ^but that is because they
are still illegally held under the old conscription act. Short-
sightedness again, for if trouble ever starts, the garrison
will eat itself up without any one outside bothering with it.
No Pole of military age can get into the province of Posen,
not even if he was bom there. In Berlin there are thou-
sands of young Poles wandering around in uniform, half
starved, with nothing to do, yet who are not allowed to
come home.

"No, there has been very little mixture* of the two races.
Intermarriage is rare. I know only one case of it among my
own acquaintances. It is not the German government
that is opposed to it — on the contrary — but the Church,
and Polish sentiment. The Catholics are against the old
order of things and want a republic; it is the Protestants
who want the Kaiser restored" — here one detected a re-
ligious bias that perhaps somewhat obscured the truth.
"The old-German party wants to fight to the end. If



they had their say Poland would never get the territory
that has been awarded her. Sign? Of course they will
sign. They are merely stalling, in the hope of having
the blow softened. Nor will the government that accepts
the treaty be overthrown. The Social Democrats are
strong, very strong; they will sign and still live. The
Poles? With very few exceptions they are eager to join the
new empire. Paderewski has become a national hero. Es-
pecially are the peasants strong for the change. For one
thing, it will fatten their pocketbooks. The Germans
pumped them dry of everything. They had to deliver so
many eggs per hen, buying them if the fowls did not lay
enough. Or the guilty hen had to be turned over for
slaughter. It usually went into the officers' messes. Each
farmer was allowed only one rooster. The same exactions
ruled among all the flocks and herds. Thousands of girls
were sent into the pine forests to gather pitch for turpentine.
No, I do not believe they were mistreated against their
will, except perhaps in a few individual cases, no more
than would happen anywhere under similar circumstances.
Nor do I think the Germans wantonly destroyed trees by
'ringing' them. What they did, probably, was tap them
too carelessly and too deep.

"All this talk about Bolshevism overspreading Germany

Online LibraryHarry Alverson FranckVagabonding through changing Germany → online text (page 17 of 29)