Returning to Berlin from the German East front on the evening of January 31 last, I awoke the next morning to find the temperature six or eight degrees below zero, my ears, nose, and fingers kissed by frost, and the newspapers gaudy with announcements of the uneingeschränkten U-boat war. An historic, and, for all the cold, a somewhat feverish day. The afternoon conclave of American correspondents in the hotel Adlon bar was never better attended. For once the customary stealth of the craft was forgotten, and as each man came in with his fragment of news from the Wilhelmstrasse, from the Embassy, from the Military Bureau, from this or that officer, or politician, or door-keeper, or headwaiter it was fraternally pooled for the information of all. A newcomer myself, for I had got to Germany less than three weeks before, I chiefly listened, and the more I listened the more I heard a certain Awful Name. As witness my mental notes:—
'Jetzt geht's lost! The jig is up. They will never turn back now, Wilson or no Wilson. Bethmann-Hollweg is probably still against it, but who cares for Bethmann-Hollweg? When the jingoes won Ludendorff they won Hindenburg, and when they won Hindenburg the fight was over.... The whole thing was settled on the Kaiser's birthday at Great Headquarters. Did you notice that Helfferich and Solf, who are strongly against it, were not asked? Nay, it was a military party, and Ludendorff was the host. Of course, Bethmann-Hollweg was there, too, and so were the Kaiser and Kaiser Karl of Austria. All three of them hesitated. But what chance did they have in the face of Hindenburg—and Ludendorff? Ludendorff is worth six Bethmann-Hollweg, or ten Kaisers, or forty Kaiser Karls. Once his mind is made up, he gets to business at once. Hindenburg is the idol of the populace, but Ludendorff has the brains. Hindenburg is a man, and a professional soldier by nature, and a Junker to boot—he despises politics and diplomacy and all that sort of thing. All he asks for is an army and an enemy. But Ludendorff has what you may call a capacious mind. He has imagination. He grasps inner significances. He can see around corners. Moreover, he enjoys planning, plotting, figuring things out. Yet more, he is free of romance. Have you ever heard of him sobbing about the Fatherland? Or letting off pious platitudes, like Hindenburg? Of course you haven't. He plays the game for its own sake—and he plays it damnably well. Ludendorff is the neglected factor in this war—the forgotten great man. The world hears nothing about him, and yet he has the world by the ear. If he thinks Germany can get away with this U-boat War, and he undoubtedly does—well, don't put me down for any bets against it.
And so on and so on, while the German bartender mixed capital Martini cocktails, and all the fashionables of Berlin drank synthetic coffee in the great lounge outside the American bar. All that day and the next, the name of Ludendorff kept coming up. And the next, and the next, and the next. Zimmermann and Gerard were the leading actors in the week's comedy; apparently unaided, they fought the memorable battle of the Wilhelmstrasse; but behind the scenes there was always Ludendorff, and now and then his hand would steal out through a rent in the back-drop, and the traffic of the stage would be jerked into some new posture. It was curious, and even a bit startling, to note the perfection of his control, the meticulousness of his management. The main business before him was surely enough to occupy him: he was hurling a challenge, not only at the greatest and most dangerous of neutrals, but also at all the other neutrals, and meanwhile he had the Franco-British push on his hands, and a food situation that was growing critical, and a left-over fight with anti-U-boatistas who still murmured. And yet, in the midst of all this gigantic botheration, he found time to revise the rules governing American correspondents, and to hear and decide an appeal from those rules by the last and least of them.
I know this because I was the man. Up to the time of the break a correspondent had easy sailing in Germany, despite the occasional imbecilities of the censor. He was free to go to any part of the Empire that intrigued him, barring military areas. He was taken to the front as often as he desired, and towed to see practically everything, and entrained as the guest of the army from Berlin back to Berlin. He had ready access to all the chief officers of state and to most of the commanders in the field; the Foreign Office arranged credit for him with the wireless folks; his mail dispatches were sneaked to the United States by government couriers; he saw maps and heard plans; special officers were told off to explain things to him. The one definite limitation upon him was this: he could not leave Germany without the permission of the military authorities, and this permission was invariably refused during the two weeks following his return from any front.
The regulation was reasonable, and no one caviled at it. But on the day of the U-boat proclamation there arrived an order from Great Headquarters—that is, from Ludendorff—which jumped the time to eight weeks. A different case; a harsher tune! Every correspondent in Berlin thought that the United States would declare war in much less than eight weeks; some put it at four or five weeks. To most the matter was academic; they had orders to cover the current news until the last possible moment; and besides, but three of them had been to the front within eight weeks, and these had but a few weeks to serve. But I was in a different situation, for on the one hand my commission was such that. its execution had been made impossible by the break, and on the other hand I had just got back from the front. Accordingly, I asked the Military Bureau of the Foreign Office to waive the rule, that I might, leave at some earlier time. The gentlemen there, as always, were charming, but they held up their hands.
'Waive the rule!' exclaimed the first one I encountered. 'But, my dear Mr. Mencken, it's impossible!'
'Don't you know who made it?'
The drama was contagious. I gasped. Was it Hindenburg, the Kaiser—Bismarck, Frederick the Great?
'The rule,' came the reply, 'was made by Excellenz Ludendorff Himself!' — 'The rule' (pianissimo) — 'was made by' (crescendo) — 'Excellenz Ludendorff' (forte) — 'Himself '— (fortissimo, subito, sforzando).
I retired abashed; but, later, the Military Bureau, ever eager to please, called me up and suggested that I apply formally, and offered to indorse my application with certain flattering words: to wit, that I was of a rugged honesty and would betray no secrets; secondly, that I knew nothing of military science, and had none to betray.
The document went to Great Headquarters by wire. Two days passed; no reply. Several fellow correspondents interested themselves, some testifying that I was honest, others that I harbored no secrets. On the third day a member of the Reichstag added his certificate. He was a man of great influence and his imprimatur penetrated the citadel. On the morning of the fourth day I was hauled out of bed by a telephone message from the Military Bureau. Come at once! I went—shivering, breakfastless, frost-bitten—and behind the door I heard the Awful Name again. Excellenz had stooped from his arctic Alp. I was free to go or to stay; more, I was a marked and favored man. All the way to Zurich I paid no fare.
I rob my forthcoming autobiography of this feeble chapter to show two things: first, the vast capacity of this Ludendorff for keeping his finger in a multitude of remote and microscopic pies, and secondly, the powerful effect of his personality upon the better-inforced and more sophisticated classes of Germans. To the populace, of course, Hindenburg remains the national hero and beau ideal; nay, almost the national Messiah. His rescue of East Prussia from the Cossacks and his prodigies in Poland and Lithuania have given him a half-fabulous character; a great body of legend grows up about him; he will go down into German history alongside Moltke, Blücher, and the great Frederick; monuments to him are already rising. His popularity, indeed, it would be impossible to exaggerate. Nothing of the sort has been seen in the United States since the days of Washington. He not only stands side by side with the Kaiser—he stands far above the Kaiser; ten of his portraits are sold to one of Wilhelm's; a hundred to that of any other general. His promotion from Oberbefehlshaber Ost—commander-in-chief in the East—to supreme command on all fronts was made, almost literally, by acclamation. 'If it had not been made,' a high officer told me, 'there would have been a revolution—and not the mythical revolution that the English press agencies are always talking of, but a very real one. The people unanimously demanded that he be given absolute command; there was not a dissenting voice. Go to any Biertisch and you will find a severe critic of almost any other general in the army, but I defy you to find a single critic of Hindenburg. You have just seen a proof of his influence. A great many Germans were opposed to the ''sharpened'' U-boat war. Some thought it would fail; others thought it unnecessary. But Hindenburg's simple assurance to the Chancellor that it was necessary, that it would succeed, that the army was ready to face its consequences, was enough. The people trust him absolutely. In sixty-four words he disposed of the opposition.