Preserving the Past

THE past is not inviolable. We have a casual way of assuming that it is, and that events and relationships of by-gone years can never be taken away from us. We consider the record as closed; whatever the future may reveal, at least we may hold secure the pleasant memories of days gone by. Then suddenly we find ourselves betrayed. For there is one tragedy that lays violent hands upon the past.

That tragedy is not Death. Death may sadden our memories, but it cannot ruin their grace. A certain great man dies. His past is as safe now with us as so perishable a treasure well can be. Conversations with him are rich within our thought. The humor of his stories is unspoiled. We like to remember him as we saw him one evening, holding his smallest grandchild on his knee while the one tiny candle on her first birthday calm was being lighted; the hale old man and the dark-eyed little baby leaning forward together to watch the taper burn. A death like his only directs our affection with a gesture, as it were, to the past.

Not even unnatural death can really spoil old times. One of our young men is lost in airplane battle somewhere in the sky. At once our lightest memories of him are poignant with distress. The happier and more boyish the incidents we recall, the more painful they seem in the face of this. Glancing at one of his childhood pictures, for instance, we remember in a flash how he used to protest when his mother brushed his hair, and how desperately he urged his persecutor at least not to ‘make a hen on it.’ A ‘hen’ was his technical term for that jaunty but emasculate style of hairdressing t hat strokes up the hair too jauntily about the brow. A close-shaved head, airy and unpretentious, was always his longed-for ideal. Well, at least he attained to that! We put away the picture. We cannot bear to spoil that merry past with irony. Later we shall take out the wholesome thoughts again and put them to rights in our lives. A death of this kind gives to the young past an abnormal and grave significance; it touches it with strange shadows and incongruous pain. But it does not rob us of our right to love our memories.

Death never deals in treachery; and treachery alone despoils the past. After t he final crash between lovers, when dishonor is revealed and injury recognized at full, gifts and letters may be returned; but what shall we do with our memories? The finest moments of that ruined friendship are all spoiled. The tragedy of our present is like some dark poisonous substance that persistently flows back along the entire fabric of our relationship, defiling every thread. We feel vaguely the pity of this; surely we might remember nobly the hours of perfect understanding and eager companionship when both of us were ourselves. But over that notion too falls the shadow: perhaps even then we were deceived, and treachery lay hidden amid the beauty of what we loved.

My love was Germany. What shall I do with my past?

This problem of mine concerns itself with nothing material. I have no German blood, no German relationships or companions, unless one counts my oldtime music-master and my ’cello. Yet I am asking a question with a real need to prompt it: the German policy has made it comparatively simple to decide what we must do about her, but meanwhile what shall we think about her? Have I a right to what I always considered a swift and delightful response to the essential spirit of that land, as I found it in the language, the people, the music? I liked the way the people built their roofs, and brought up their children, and wrote their books. I felt secure with Germany. Now, was this a sentimental and defrauded whim of mine, and was treachery always latent in the spirit that I ignorantly loved?

Of all the curious phrases of the war, there is one that arrests my attention. ‘Nicht ärgern; nur wundern’ (Rage not; only wonder). That legend, they say, the retreating Germans, methodically destroying villages and population, left as a message in the midst of young orchards of felled trees. I suppose that the message originally contained no especially subtle thought. Probably the faithful translation of that use of wundern is simply ‘be amazed’; ‘stand transfixed with astonishment’; a sort of ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Probably it is only another example of the exaggerated bombast and heavy solemnity with which the German appeared to regard his ponderous vandalisms. And yet, I wonder. My wonder is translated into an uncertain attempt at analysis; a persistentand perplexing query. Was I always wholly deceived about my great-hearted, honor-loving Germany? Oh, grand old rumbling ‘Deutsche Treue,’ — where is it now?

Of course there is an easy loophole for me if I want it. I can assume that all frightfulness and scorn of covenant is Prussian. It is significant to watch us all as we fall back upon Prussianism, and the war-party, the Uhlan, the Junker, the Kaiser — anything to protect us from believing ill of the essential German people. How thoughtfully our President excepts them from his indictments against their government! Yet at the very moment when we are warmly applauding that wise insight, we are informed that the people of Germany resented that exception; that they, with only the ‘Hymn of Hate’ for music now, are at one with their mad rulers.

Well, perhaps they are. It is one of the miracles of the time that we have never believed it. In spite of wrack and ruin, crude duplicity and cunning cruelty, we are still to be convinced that the plain people whom we used to find in Heidelberg and Leipzig and on the long pathways of the Rhine country are frightful at heart.

In any case, this question is beside the point for me. I have no way of assorting Prussian and German, plotter and tool, fiend-like ‘officer’ and helpless recruit. We all know a thousand stories to illustrate the hollow mockery of German breeding in general; we know a series of others where systematic obedience to military orders is held responsible for every sort of outrage. I have no idea how much or how little can be laid to the Kaiser, or to that unusual portent, his peculiar son. I must leave that tangle to those who know. My one question concerns the essence of those German spiritual forces which I myself have deeply felt, and about which I therefore know. Must I let Germany’s strange obsessions and heavy-lidded hate destroy for me her beauty?

The simplest of German songs goes drifting through my mind, — the little poem that haunts the pages of Theodor Storm’s Immensee.

Heute, nur heute,
Bin ich so schön:
Morgen, ach morgen
Muss alles vergeh’n!
Nur diese Stunde
Bist du noch mein;
Sterben, ach sterben
Soll ich allein!

For only a day, so beautiful; to-morrow, all that gone by, dying alone. Not Germany? The real Germany which was so beautiful surely cannot be dead, cannot hate us all; and we shall find her again. Sturdily our common sense reiterates it; stubbornly, in spite of all blighting evidence which points to degeneracy of soul. We are slow to doubt the past.

I glance over at the corner beyond my desk where I see my ’cello standing, the lamplight reflected in little gleams upon his great brown pegs. A thorough German, that ’cello; maybe from the Black Forest; rich with shadowy depth of color, the dark shell vibrant in its day to how many a forgotten chord! I can never dissociate the character of the ’cello from the memory of my first music-master, he, too, a thoroughbred. I can see him playing opposite me — head bent, with now and then a kindly gleam through shaggy eyebrows when a passage was going well, and with an interlude of torrential explanations when I failed to negotiate my bow in proper fashion across the strings.

‘Not as if with an umbrella!’ he would implore. ‘Ach! But you must station your soul upon your wrist!’

A little while ago I heard him play again. He had grown very old. ProGerman? How can he say? What are you ‘pro’ when your heart is broken? He is German.

At one of the latest Symphony concerts of last spring there was a programme of more than ordinary interest — compositions by Debussy at his most erratic, followed by Schubert in his prime. America had recently declared war against the Imperial German Government. A glance through the names of the members of the orchestra as they appeared on the programme was certainly like reading the roll-call of the European belligerents. But these were not belligerents. They were the exquisite human medium for that most peculiar and non-materialistic art of music. They represented in perfection a most elaborate and visionary expression of highly developed human imagination.

As the programme went on, it became more and more interesting to watch the conductor’s scholarly handling of Debussy’s whimsical passages. A ripple of responsive amusement stirred the audience now and then, when the composer’s daring experiments with harmony produced a more than ordinary surprise. It was enjoyable, but the elaborate trifling with the combinations of tone did not quite content the mind. The composition seemed somewhat futile and unworthy in the shadow of world-war. After all, what kind of occupation for grown men was all this playing with frail toys when the skies were falling?

But, just then, the orchestra swung grandly into the final number — Schubert and the homeland of the soul. The noble harmony dwarfed all forms of hopelessness and strife. One could rest upon the assurance of those great chords. If men can fall, yet surely they can also rise. That marvel of tone and dream and lofty progression of cadences shamed me for thinking meanly of any human spirit. The most enchanted words of Germany came one by one into my mind: HeimwehAbendliedÜber allen Gipfeln ist Rull!

At exactly this point in my thought, I can persuade myself very reasonably that all German beauty is for me changeless. Intellectually, I have a right to that intrinsic charm. I have experienced, I have loved, I have a right to honor the ‘typical German’ of five years ago.

The typical German. But we have seen him goose-stepping.

If we could only forget that picture! A simple-hearted and serious character cannot afford to be ludicrous; cannot afford to be ferocious. His nimblerspirited neighbors can never blot out from their minds that shocking spectacle. Suppose a great-hearted gentleman of sturdy virtue and mighty genius turns pompously against the world, takes himself with awe-struck seriousness, announces gorgeous and implacable hatred, and then does the goosestep solemnly, and pours preserved fruit into grand pianos! If he would only deal blank death and slaughter and go cleanly off; but he has left us our scorn.

And for this we shall for some time be in trouble; not with the deeply cut issues of national warfare and adjustment, but with the subtler problem of racial thought. We read Mr. Britling and Rupert Brooke, and understand exactly how they felt about Herr Heinrich and little Streckmann, the pianist. What are we to think of them? We do not hate them. The idea! We knew them!

It all comes down to this conclusion for me: logically I can argue myself into a state of mind where I can still accept Germany’s good qualities at their face-value. But in startling fashion, just when I am reminding myself of those old days of confidence, some German outrage shoots up like a periscope on the surface of my thought, and all my careful logic is capsized. Sardonic laughter haunts the air whenever we think about our old ideal of that noble Fatherland we thought we knew.

There is a wistful refrain in one of their old melodies: ‘Ich kann es nicht verstehen!’ The hesitating music of the song runs in my head. ‘I cannot understand. ’ In spite of everything, we long to preserve our past with Germany — those memories that she herself has ravaged. We cannot understand it, but we are slow to be finally convinced of enduring racial depravity anywhere. With the mal-instructed hordes of German common people, then, we have not been fully angry, though we certainly have wondered. Germany has forced her lovers toward one of two opinions: she has made it appear that the rank and file of her people are either grandiose bordervandals, or dupes. And we who know her detest the necessity of accepting either horn of that dilemma. We cannot endure the thought of leaving that steadfast people in the rôle of outlaw nation, even in our thought.

Every once in a while we used to hear somebody talking about going back to the ‘status quo ante bellum.’ As if we could, spiritually! Only in dreams, dear Germany. That is all. Germany with ruthless hand has shelled the careful structure of her past. Other peoples’ cities she has destroyed, but her own traditions. Surely she will build them again, but such ruins are slow rebuilding. The cathedral of her honor; the lighted dwelling-places of her quiet charm! Auf Wiedersehn, great German soul astray, Auf Wiedersehn!