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Straws in the German Winds

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

My business in Germany this summer is fairly simple; to go straight to Breslau, where my publishing firm is having an enchanting little song-book of German folk-songs done in offset. The book has sold nearly fifty thousand copies here in Germany, a remarkable record for a children’s book. Last week I should have taken the train; today I should have taken the airplane.

But I cannot leave Berlin, nor can I say why I stay on. I talk with publishers. This one who sells chiefly to working people reports a halving of business. “The people have not enough to eat,” says one of their editors, “and so, though we sell at one and two marks for a book, they cannot buy.” Still, the illustrated communist weekly published by her firm has four hundred thousand circulation. Their best seller is the old dictionary of political terms and of the basic German language, originally compiled under August Bebel and now revised. We discuss a translation of “Weeds” which she is proposing to her firm, but we discuss it over coffee at the Hotel Bristol, with an orchestra playing and chic Swedes and motoring English around about us, I try to think of some other book which will tell German workers what the bottom layer of life in America is like. I suggest her enquiring about Morris Ernst’s primer of American facts which is forthcoming. “No,” I say, “Sinclair Lewis will probably never write his novel on the American working class, and anyway he has commitments to a bourgeois publishing firm in Germany.” She smiles. Her firm has taken over “Main Street” for their very cheap communist edition.

Berlin was never so lovely. The sun shines. Unter den Linden as always is like a village street. Barelegged Bavarians with walking sticks jostle hatless American student tourists. Phillip Moeller of the New York Theater Guild sits in the lobby of the Bristol, saying with gusty content that Berlin is the only modern city in the world, and the most comfortable. Between Friedrichsbahnhof and Wann-see there seem to be miles of new workers’ apartments, each with its balcony, and on every balcony a window box of petunias, those most grateful and gay flowers; great bands and festoons of flourishing pinks and purples make a spotless hanging gardens of Babylon of the friendly suburbs. I have not ridden on this train since the autumn of 1923, the terrible year of the inflation, when paper marks in millions and trillions were printed and yet there seemed to be no money. How empty, the streets used to be then, how empty the vast restaurants. Sometimes Sandy and Kate and I would walk for blocks and never see a soul on the Berlin streets; only an armoured car rushing through the dusk bound for Alexanderplatz, where starving women had broken a foodshop window.

It is strange. In the sunshine, and in the crowds, something of the feeling of 1923 is here. Only different. The uncertainty is the same, but there is an undertow of expectancy, something different from terror; a curious tension. Then it was as if running from danger were the only thing to do, only there was no place to run; now there is an air of waiting, waiting for something, anything.

The day I left London, before there were any headlines, only dispatches in the financial columns, the foreign editor of one of the big English newspapers had said to me casually, “The Creditanstalt is going broke next week. There may be revolution in Vienna. If you are going to Breslau, be prepared to jump to Vienna and write for us.” I murmured about my song-book. I even sang him one of the songs, It’s raining, it’s raining, It’s raining on the town. And when the rain has rained enough It stops from coming down.

“I’ve gone simple,” I said, “and only tend to my song-books. I wouldn’t know how to write about a political crisis.

Today I saw an old friend, a prominent woman doctor from Munich, daughter of one of the old-time German consular officers and diplomats. I remember how almost hysterical she had been in 1923, and how estranged from me because I travelled so often to Russia, and came back excited and replenished, glad to be alive. Now she enquires of me not if, but when, there will be a revolution in Germany. She does not even think it odd that she asks. “I don’t know,” I say, “or even if.” But what I think is that half a revolution has already occurred. She criticizes a fellow doctor for saying this or that is so, of Germany. “What does he know of working-class Germany?” she asks me, and “If you do not know our working people, you cannot speak of Germany.” That is new, new in the world, that awareness by other classes of the workers. My friend’s clientele is mostly among upper-middle-class intellectuals. The uncertainty, and strain has meant that few people have paid bills. Most of them have no money; the rest are in the web . . . tomorrow all may be different, and no books kept. We speak of Lilly. Her husband is a painter and he has had for some years a small sum of fifty dollars a month, a sort of state pension, but now that has been withdrawn. Lilly had been hysterical yesterday. What comforted her was that they still had gas without a coin meter. At first I do not understand. That meant they could always kill themselves.

The poor always have coin meters; and no coins now.

We go to drink coffee on Kurfurstendamm. A—— is inclined to think most of the people are foreigners, but that is not so, though we catch Swedish and Italian and Hungarian as we sit. She is very busy on a committee of German women engaged in campaigning for legal status for abortion. “Who can be pious about birth control, when life is so insecure?” She talks quite as the Russians talk, sitting there in her dark dress and white collars and cuffs, like the widow of a clergyman, prim and earnest. She is quite unaware that all she tells me I have heard many times before, from communists. She reads very little Russian news; she has never even thought of visiting Moscow. Her drawing room is draped in pink chiffon like a garden party marquee, the oddest of German middle-class customs, yet she pares the pfennigs on her household food, and says quite calmly that surely there will be a change; Nazi, first, perhaps, and then most likely communist Germany. It is not prophecy, I do not know if this will happen. But I see that here is no opposition to revolution; here is no force for or against; here is a very tired but busy woman, who cannot plan anything for her family’s future, nor for her patients. All is so uncertain.

We walk down Kurfurstendamm. All the swank shops are having sales, That is odd. Formerly that was the distinction that made a shop, that it never marked things down, I say that price cutting is what is happening in New York, too.

From Vienna comes news that the Creditanstalt has indeed failed; almost; foreign loans steady it.

There are four million unemployed in Germany. They eat, nearly all of them, but less and less. The unemployment dole must be cut.

I have tea at one of the many cafes off the Tiergarten. The young Ph.D. from Frankfort who has been a year in Russia, studying agrarian problems, is being feted by some communist friends. He is gay at being back in his own country. But “An ugly people,” he admits as he sees my eye wandering about over other tables at the fat necks and the bullet heads, looking for all the world like Georg Grosz’ paintings and cartoons of Schieber. Paul devours the pair of wursts and drinks the beer with pleasure, but his face darkens as his friends discuss the growing unemployment. They say, that there is real fear of rioting over the cuts in the dole; that the custom now is to give a man an hour and minute when he can call for his money, and he is fined a few pfennigs if late. That is to avoid queues; to avoid men’s getting together and being aware of the numbers of the aggrieved. M- arrives. A communist. He has lost his job with one of the big German-Russian trading corporations, whether wholly because they are cutting their staff or because he is more useful “among the workers” I cannot tell. He is going off to study working-class temper in the Rhine-land. His wife will support him.

Finally I go to Breslau, and there it is we get the news of the Hoover moratorium, and rumor that the big Danat bank is going to fail. The Breslau newspapers dutifully are jubilant; you could not say they keep their hats in their hands and do not toss them, and yet even the man who wrote the “Praise Hoover” editorial in the largest newspaper seems a little dazed. “My private feeling is,” he says, “that it is too late for the country, or in any case whatever good comes of it, there will be nothing left over for Breslau.”

Breslau is beautiful and old, with the Oder flowing through the town. Here there is no sun, and we go about in a closed car through a downpour looking at ancient churches.

Wertheim’s, the big Berlin department store, has put in an ostentatious chain on the corner opposite the opera house. I observe that the windows are full of cheap and shoddy goods. The native business man vents a little of his spleen. Many of the oldest and finest stores in Breslau are being forced out of business. The chain stores are beating them down. I tell him it is the same the world over, only in some places the old stores are no good, and the chain is a step up.

There are seven hundred thousand people in Breslau. Seventy thousand have had no work for months; we pass the cigarette factory, from which twenty-five hundred workers were dismissed last week. We see fifteenth-century churches, fourteenth-century churches, town halls. I murmur that my real interest is in model housing. But first we finish the churches; and the suburbs.

“Here the people live who are not yet bankrupt”; and then through long and pleasant streets, with petunias, and roses, and shaded walks; but all these middle-class people are bankrupt, he says.

The workers’ houses, built to the plans of the city’s architectural commission, half with private funds and half on a state loan to private owners, are as fine as any in Germany outside Frankfort. They have solved here a problem of standardization, with subtlety, not by bringing together a babel of varied bricks in the American fashion, but by quiet differentiation in doorways and windows, cunning inlay of ceramic. I am delighted; delighted, too, at the scrubbed baby faces on the balconies.

Only, so many of the flats are empty. And that is because of unemployment. It is raining and I cannot be taken to see the camp for unemployed; and my, host has no answer for me when I comment on the absurdity of a socialist government, a social democratic government, which backs a housing program, but cannot let workers use the houses without rent. It is neither one thing nor the other. Only in Breslau they do have the houses. In Moscow they have the will to distribute but no houses yet to distribute. Is this the cart before the horse? Will a bold move be made tomorrow?

We talk about the song-book; about the porcelain manufacturer who wants to put the pictures of the singing birds on porridge bowls; and the textile man in Silesia who was to have made little aprons with more of the illustrations stamped on them, only his mill is now closed. I am a little dizzy. Almost to fancy stamped aprons; then halt; no aprons at all, and no money for children’s mothers to buy any aprons. And yet a sweet, silly little song-book has sold more than any single children’s book in America in the same year. I do not understand.

The publisher brings an Englishwoman to my hotel for coffee, and we have it under the twice-life-size oil painting of Hindenburg, who always looks more to me like the statue of himself we drove nails into in the winter of 1916 than he does like a human being. The Englishwoman’s father had worked for a German electrical firm before the War, and she had lived with an aunt in Breslau during the War, and these last ten years she has given English lessons, though year by year her English is more like German. She is worried. The hard times have hit her, too. There are no pupils.

I start to counter their stories of foreclosed mortgages on farms around Breslau with the seventy-seven columns of real estate to be sold for taxes in a recent copy of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, but I halt, because although misery is said to love company, these people would prefer to think that America is rich; that one day they may still go there.

How pleasant it is to be back in Berlin; though certainly the Danat bank is going to fail. The talk is all of which German city is the most in debt; how the soup kitchens are >to go on. The German stenographer in F——’s office has only come back from South Africa four years ago. All during the War, her husband was interned. She thanks God that her boy is in Canada and not in Berlin, where she is sure there will be fighting in the winter. She and her husband have put all their savings and the mortgage on their house in a small office furniture business, which has suddenly slumped to nothing. The bankruptcy comes next week.

R—— is here from Copenhagen, and we go to the restaurant at the Zoo, with its band and orchestra and charming balustrade. Nearly four thousand people can eat here, and dance. Two nights ago I had beer and wursts with my communist friends. Tonight we have lobster and champagne on the terrace, but the music is the same, and the swans on the lake, and the mannerly quiet, and the modern pillars of glass for colored lights, and the indirect lighting of the trees, as pleasant as Kyoto, as formal as Versailles. “The place doesn’t look poor, does it? It has a magnificance, and an air of good social planning.” R—— nods. We both know that the hungry are not here. The four million are still unemployed, but we also know that this German land is social, that Berlin would be shocked at the cheesy exclusiveness of the Casino in Central Park. Berlin may be pleased enough at the Walker personality, but his works it would call stupid. Nearly four thousand people, jolly and decorous, can enjoy the Zoo.

An American business man on his regular trip to study, the German locomotive works, his competitor, sits up all night to discuss, not if there is to be a change, but what forms the new state-directed industry is to take. . . .

Prime ministers are visiting back and forth. They seem to me like stage hands changing the scenes, but not like the actors, even, much less the playwright.

I depart for Franzensbad. All the Balkan gentry are here, merchants and their wives. There are dozens, no, hundreds of manicure shops, and modistes, but no amount of toilette care can prevent a dismal sense of so many men and women too fat, who have loved too much, or not enough, or badly; and again one wishes to be back in Berlin. Nobody here but the bank cares that the German banks are taking a holiday.

From a little village in Southern Germany I get a letter from my friend who has been in Russia and has come home to his German village: “Here in G——, I find a changed life. Outside, nothing or almost nothing has happened. Father and mother are older. . . . My sister is an unhappy girl of thirty-two. Peasants are peasants as before. But even this little village is politsiert von mten bis ober. Fascism and communism, both in a crude, primitive, instinctive form, are possessing the countryside. The peasant youth is mostly ‘Hitler’; very poor peasants, half-proletarians, maids, unemployed, and so on, are communists. Very bitter fights are a daily occurrence. There is a most ardent interest in Soviet Russia. U.S.S.R. is the great example for, and against, communism, and the opinions and ideas about it are often more funny than serious. I am an authority, of course, having been there, a specialist in soviet questions. . . .”

News of a tax of twenty-five dollars on Germans going abroad stuns Franzensbad. At last the Czechs here worry about their neighbor, as cancellations for rooms arrive by every mail.

Frantic advisers urge me not to travel by way of Germany. Hitler threats are in the paper. Yet back in Berlin, how pleasant and quiet the town is. The sun is shining, and in the sunshine, I read of the possibility of a rise from four to seven million in the winter’s unemployment. Htalks of stocking his house with canned goods; the doctor “prefers” to be paid in American dollars; Reinhardt has done better than ever in the new operetta, “Schoene Helena,” gay, ribald, magnificently, cast. The Sunday-night audience has a smart opulence. L—— tells me she has lost her job. . . . She used to write the Berlin letter for an American society journal. “You see,” she says, “there really isn’t any society in Germany any more. I have had nothing to write of really but art for a long time.”

Some of the shops are empty. Some buzz with sales.

I get a letter from a friend begging me to set down my “impressions,” and I weep. What is so stupid as “impressions”? There ought to be a way of knowing, of foretelling, of forestalling, of creating social conditions. I have no impression but of a rolling, pitching ship of state, of Hitlerites who scratch “Deutschland, Awaken” on walls and piers and sidewalks (a legend forbidden by law), and who march with banners and repudiate reparations; and communists who march, too, and have their papers suppressed, and who do not know whether the army is for them or against them. There is a government, steering the boat, for what port nobody seems sure. “The extremists” describe their several ports, but whether they can steer, and whether their ports exist, who knows? Many people long for change, any change whatsoever. Energy twists, turns, leaks, decays. This Germany could be so much stronger, so much more beautiful. Whether a revolution is half over, or only just beginning, I cannot tell. . . . I feel that a revolution is midway, but the moment of terrible relief and burst of energy has not yet come. There are seven beer-gardens along In den Zelten and they all play jazz. Nobody is drunk, I observe: maybe my judgment is not sober.


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