The Decline of the Berliner
“In spite of the ‘Über Alles’ refrain, Pan-Germanism never did have a hold on the lower class. The common people were too completely shackled by the rigorous regulations of the despotic nationalism, to dream of ‘places in the sun’ or colonies across the sea.”
Strangely enough, on the steamer returning with us to America were the two American newspaper correspondents upon whom Germany most relied to mould public opinion in this country. Although we were given to understand that these gentlemen represented the combined newspapers of the United States, we have since learned that they represented rival interests. For months after the outbreak of the war the foreign correspondents was a persona non grata in Germany. Then the German government awoke to the harm it was doing itself by letting the Allies monopolize the front page, and the newspaper correspondents were welcomed. Nevertheless, they were not wholly trusted, and a close watch was kept on them at the front or in the cities by the authorities, and their reports were closely censored.
The two correspondents who crossed the sea with us were greatly favored. One had succeeded in obtaining an interview with the Pope, and his report, most favorable to the Germans, gained for him entry into the offices in Wilhelmstrasse and absolute freedom of the wires. The other, whose name has since been connected with the Count von Bernstorff exposures, was perhaps nearer the government and learned more of its movements. Certainly he maintained the same intimate relations after Mr. Gerard’s departure, and as he did not leave Berlin until late in July, he must have acquired some interesting information, which, though we have sought it eagerly, we have not seen in print.
We had met the first-mentioned correspondent many times in the house of a relative. Indeed, upon our arrival in this country, the first person to greet us on the pier was this gentleman’s wife, who came to meet him and who expressed great surprise at seeing us on this side, as she knew of our long residence in Berlin and thought that we had forfeited our American citizenship.
It is amazing how much the German government depended on the reports of these correspondents to dispel the evil impressions caused by its flagrant violations of international law and the laws of humanity. The reports of other correspondents were rigidly censored; but the messages of these two were cabled as written, sometimes without being passed upon by the censor. We have heard one of them boast of it time and again. Obviously the reports were handed to the Berlin editors at the time of cabling; for the moral effect that it was hoped these messages would produce was dwelt upon daily by the leading newspapers of the city.
In the stormy days before the severing of relations with this government the influence of these two men, greatly overestimated, was almost childishly relied on to avert the break. After Mr. Gerard’s departure their cabled reports were depended upon to disseminate the bitter feeling that had been aroused by the severing of relations. In other words, in the propaganda which followed, the saintly rôle was played, the German government posing as much misunderstood, and relying upon the correspondents to convey that impression to the host of German sympathizers in this country, with the hope of embarrassing the authorities in Washington.
It was one of these men who figured in the Skager Rack incident, I which Scheidemann, the Socialist leader, openly accused the government of duplicity. The correspondent was taken aboard the so-called victorious fleet, and it was rumored—yes, it leaked into print—that an old ship was painted to resemble the battleship Moltke, reported by the English and denied by the Germans to be lost, and pointed out to him as the victorious hulk riding upon the waters. Thereafter a message was cabled ridiculing the British claims of victory.
It was this tendency to dissemble, to conceal or pervert the truth, which awakened us to a new phase of German character. It was the eagerness to absorb the slightest report of victory, whether verified or not, and the elation which followed; the malignant satisfaction evinced at the tales of cruelty; the delight in the extreme suffering of the unfortunate people who stood in the way of the desired end, which amazed and revolted us. Living among them so many years, we had always found the Germans, and especially the Berliners, so meschlich, so eager for the good opinion of the outside world, and their home life so gemütlich, that we could not credit this radical and amazing change of character.
In the twelve long years previous to the outbreak of the war, during which we had resided in Berlin, we had not encountered this spirit. We had been always kindly received and had appreciated to the utmost the hospitality extended to us, which, as everybody knows who has resided in the city for any length of time, is boundless to the stranger upon whom the burgher centres his affections. Those characteristics which lie so near the surface, and which have been transmitted from generation to generation until they have bee allied with the natural designation of Deutsch: cleanliness, fearlessness of expression, candor, der Mut (moral courage), probity, and an inherent love of justice had endeared them to us. From a mere formless plan, casually conceived, arose an overwhelming desire to dwell among these people, because of their rugged instincts, their admirable characteristics. The passing years did not weaken the early impressions, but rather deepened them, until the esteem in which we held them had ripened into a strong and enduring affection.
It would have been difficult to keep from loving these people as we first knew them. A certain blandness; an ingenuousness, actuated by noble candor and love of truth; a lovable simplicity in the greatest of them; a modest disavowal of accomplishment! — Ach, bewahre! — in those who had achieved something of value; a respectful awe of the progressiveness and the vast resources of the great country we had just left, in which so many of their own people had found happiness, charmed us and drew us closer to them. In turn, our fondness for them inspired a respect which endured until the white heat of resentment arising from defeated purpose and imaginary wrongs caused them to turn from us. To minds so deeply impressed as ours the reaction was doubly great, the awakening very bitter.
Hitherto, it was only in military circles that one heard the refrain chanted of ‘Der Tag’ and ‘Über Alles,’ and all they implied. But with the outbreak of hostilities new traits began to be perceptible even in the gentlest and most refined—student, philosopher, and the most phlegmatic of burghers alike—that distressed the most casual observer. A nebulous moral turpitude befogged their mentality. Duplicity and perfidy were the gods of the hour. The men degenerated into savagery; the women became unsexed. The national honor was swept away with one brief word of command.
In the almost tigerish rage which followed the Belgian opposition, the Germans became a people characterized by cruelty almost maniacal in its ferocity. Centuries were bridged, and the savageries of the early days of the Christian era came trooping over the span. Thumbs were turned down and kept down. A deaf ear was turned to the cries of distress which followed the accumulated wretchedness that the decision entailed. What psychology can analyze the mentality of a peaceful, law-abiding people suddenly imbued with a lust for blood?
With the greatest sorrow we had witnessed the orgies that followed the sinking of the Lusitania. Horror-stricken Americans in Berlin were compelled to sit in silence while some burgher, suddenly transformed from an amiable, jovial being into a gloating fiend, would tell of the greater horrors yet to come. Christianity, even civilization itself, could receive no greater setback than the mighty roar of acclaim which arose from the jubilant crowd on the arose from the jubilant crowd on the occasion of the parade of the crews of the submarines through the streets of Berlin to celebrate the resumption of Schrechlichkeit.
The Americans witnessed these hideous demonstrations in wonderment, sick at heart, amazed at the callousness of a hitherto God-fearing people reveling in the reports of wholesale murder. Still less could they understand the savage resentment displayed to another body of men from the U-boats, again paraded to impress the Berliners when it was demonstrated that the much-heralded campaign was doomed to failure. As early as May of the present year rumors had been seeping into Berlin of the navy plot, the discontent and the threats of mutiny in Kiel, Cuxhaven, and Wilhelmshaven. In consequence, this body of men was received in coldness and silence, and in the poorer quarters vile epithets were hurled at them and accusations of treason. The people would have rent them limb from limb, nothing but a display of authority by the officials keeping them within bounds.
It seemed as if in his rage the German was lashing about in a fury that would destroy all within reach, for the sinking of neutral vessels was an occasion for even greater rejoicing. The destruction of anything carrying cargo that might interfere with the success of the Germans was demanded. No nation or people on earth had the right to stand in the way of victory. The land and the sea were created for one purpose—to further the success of the Vaterland.
These were the policies advocated by the mad philosopher Nietzsche, which, however, had for a time relaxed their hold on the average mind, and had receded into the past when Pan-Germanism was forgotten amid overwhelming prosperity and commercial expansion. Suddenly his ‘science of things possible, inasmuch as they are possible,’ became the law. The ‘little lambs fattening in adjacent meadows’—as the mad philosopher styled the small nations—must be devoured, fleece and all. Although the feast had long since been prepared by official Germany, it could not be conceived that the menschliche Leute, who prated eternally of peace, would absorb the plans so eagerly.
In the months before war was declared, we had noted with amazement the increasing affection of Germany for her unspeakable ally—Turkey. It was a well-known fact that the country was financing the Empire of the Crescent, and was, for reasons since revealed to the world, hobnobbing very affectionately with her. In intellectual circles we had also noted a tendency to apologize for the actions of the Turks, and in some instances to condone them, by people who have since denounced and condemned the suffering Belgians for the cruel deeds of their former royal master in the Congo. According to uttered and published statements, the Turk in his worst days had been misunderstood. We have even heard seemingly intelligent people willfully deny that the various massacres of the Armenians were inspired by government officials.
At the house of a friend, an American physician, we met a close relative of Enver Bey. The tales that this man told of the wholesale massacres of Christians who did not approve of Turkey’s entrance into the war were blood-curdling. Yet they were listened to with glee by people who were mourning for their own dead; by women who a few months before made great ado if their children so much as cut a finger; by men who daily sank on their knees to pray for their own boys at the front.
The massacres which this Turk spoke of would have been greater but for the man whom, upon learning our nationality, he particularly described to us in his quaint English, as ‘ned-a-i-r-e Protest-a-h-n-t, Catolica, but vaht you call Israel-e-e-t.’ He meant Israelite; and the man was Abram I. Elkus, American minister to Turkey.
We positively could feel the resentment radiate from the people present as the Turk dwelt at length and with fiendish indignation upon Mr. Elkus’s successful efforts to shield the unfortunate Armenians from an aroused and cruel government. It was one of the few times when we were publicly affronted, or when we suffered for our relationship to the ‘indirect enemy.’ But the anger of the guests of the American physician at the interference of Mr. Elkus was white hot, and numerous uncomplimentary remarks were audibly uttered. Two or three of the guests abruptly rose and left the house, without a word of farewell to their host. The remaining guests drew away from us and gathered about the Turk, to listen eagerly to other tales of horror.
Our host was most embarrassed and apologized in a low voice, in English, for the rudeness of his guests. But we were too full of sorrow to resent the incivility, and we soon left, wondering whether, if our own country, grown more dear to us as we realized the blood-madness of that other country, were drawn into the fray, we should degenerate into brutal, ferocious, savage creatures, demanding the destruction of our fellow men. There were some people in the room who refused to speak to us afterwards, and who strenuously objected to our presence even at Red Cross meetings.
Pan-Germanism’s stronghold is in the aristocratic class, the military contingent, and among the upper middle class—the class whose minor titles roll so grandiloquently on the tongue, who have grown rich on war-profits. In spite of the ‘Über Alles’ refrain, Pan-Germanism never did have a hold on the lower class. The common people were too completely shackled by the rigorous regulations of the despotic nationalism, to dream of ‘places in the sun’ or colonies across the sea. They were taught to obey, not encouraged to think of something bound to come to pass by God’s natural law and the Kaiser’s. It was not until the first stages of the war, the almost successful dash to Paris, that the common people began to slap one another on the back and predict German supremacy. Then one hear on the streets the computations of time when the mailed fist would subjugate the world at large. Paris in six weeks; Russia in a couple of months; the hated Island Kingdom in mere days; and then, — who could tell? — the rest of the world, inspired by fear, would submit willingly.
The spirit of intolerance was still abroad in the third year of the war. An American, a buyer for a larger millinery house, came to Berlin. The firm that he represented had a permanent office in the city, which had been closed for a long time. Foreign offices were a source of great revenue to the government, some of them paying as many as six different kinds of taxes. Three months is the time allotted in Prussia for a foreigner to remain in the country without sanction of the state; and in adjoining commercial states the time is even shorter. Our friend evaded the law by taking the train to Denmark or Holland, and absenting himself from the country for forty-eight hours.
As we dined together one evening in a well-known restaurant, we were conversing in English. Seated at the next table was a quartette of officers, home on furlough. Presently a waiter stepped up to us and said that the officers objected to our speaking the English tongue. Knowing that we were well within our rights, we refused to discontinue our conversation. The four officers then rose, stood stiffly at attention, and demanded that we be ejected from the restaurant. It was a very unpleasant and humiliating experience; but, as we look back, we cannot fail to see the humor of it, with the men standing so ridiculously straight in the centre of the place. The American, as host, approached the group and endeavored to explain; but he was swept aside with haughty gestures. When he returned to the table, the proprietor informed him that he would be unable to serve the rest of the meal, and we were compelled to leave the restaurant.
The incident leaked into print and caused considerable discussion. The verdict, however, was in favor of the officers, and their very rude and uncalled-for action met with universal approbation. Soon after, it was discovered that our host of the evening was married to a Frenchwoman and resided in Paris. An inquiry followed, and the members of every household in which this gentleman visited were closely questioned. Fortunately, we were still in good standing, and our word did much to reassure the authorities. But a day or two later the American visited us, bringing with him the various samples left in his office by the firms that he dealt with. The paper stems of the artificial flowers had been unwound and subjected to acid baths; and even the composite ends of feather-trimming, manufactured to comply with the rigorous importation laws of this country, had been slit, to see if they contained information of value to the enemy. A week later he received official notice to leave the country, and never to return to it. After his departure, the doors of mutual friends were closed to us, no explanation being vouchsafed for the sudden termination of friendships that we had come to value.
There is no doubt that our good standing was the only thing that saved us from receiving similar notice; for the offense which finally brought us into official disfavor was most trivial. By this time, however, our social circle had narrowed perceptibly, as the head of the house put it, to mere Red Cross acquaintances. Very reluctantly we accepted the few invitations extended to us; for we could not understand the radical change in some of the gentlest and most hospitable of our friends, and it distressed us to see it. The war seemed to have brought out all evil traits. As shocking deed after shocking deed was perpetrated, we listened in vain for one dissenting voice.
Months before, we had been greatly disturbed by the fierce outburst of joy at the introduction of gas, so much like the ‘grand Titanic outburst of laughter,’ of which Thomas Carlyle speaks in his history of the French Revolution. The report of the number of men suffocated by this fiendish innovation was greatly exaggerated. But the greater the number reported dead, the higher mounted the hysterical outcry of approval. German science would conquer the world, it was predicted. ‘The war would be won by chemistry alone.’ ‘The miserable dollar-loving American would be ruined by the amount of ammunition left on his hands.’
Nowhere was heard a word of pity for the poor wretches caught unawares, beating the air in their agony, gasping their lives out beneath the dense clouds of pitiless, poisonous fumes. There was a hideous clamor for the trial of other similar formulas which filled the Berlin newspapers. Cruelty, lust for human life, everywhere, sickening the heart.
In other cities, chastened by sorrow, where the bitter hatred of all humanity had been dulled by the suffering of the people, we heard that there were many protests lodged against such cases as that of Edith Cavell, the ruthless discrimination against the English prisoners, or the drowning of neutrals—but not in Berlin. The women worked fast and furiously at the Red Cross meetings, for but one purpose: to aid in the healing of the wounded so that they might return sooner to the front.
In the pulpit also was heard the clarion voice, profaning the Creator’s name by inciting to kill. What had become of the sweet, simple faith which breathed the spirit of a beautiful, peaceful garden? What had become of the homely people, abiding in that faith, at peace with their fellow beings and God? One could not believe that the restless, brutal, bitter, merciless, blood-crazed multitude were the cultured, a short time before, had lived according to the simple word preached by their beloved pastors. How different now was that word! The simple word had given way to the clarion tones of the half-mad fanatic, who had turned his back on God. ‘A torpedo, striking home, bears the message of God,’ was the sacrilege uttered by a well-known pastor in Berlin.
‘The German God—the God of the Old Testament; a God that dealt in realities, stern, severe, uncompromising; the God of the warrior, favoring Zebadiah the son of Ishmael, Joshua, and Judas Maccabæus,’ was the impious statement of a preacher famous for his eloquence and the profundity of his sermons.
‘Would that the just God in his righteousness might bestow on the bullet speeding from the German gun the magic power of the jawbone of the ass, and slay ten thousand of the enemy with each bullet,’ was the fervent prayer of another well-known minister of the gospel.
In no city or country would such denunciations, such violations of the tenets of religion, be tolerated. But when it is realized that churches are liberally endowed by the state, this singular freedom of speech is understood. In the episcopal oath of fidelity to the Crown, which all must take who seek to preach the divine word, the solemn oath is administered.
‘I will be submissive, faithful, and obedient to his Royal Majesty, — and his lawful successors in the government, — as my most gracious King and sovereign; promote his welfare according to my ability; prevent injury and detriment to him; and particularly endeavor carefully to cultivate in the minds of the people under my care a sense of reverence and fidelity toward the King, love for the Fatherland, obedience to the laws, and all those virtues which in a Christian denote a good citizen; and I will not suffer any man to teach or act in a contrary spirit. In particular, I vow that I will not support any society or association, either at home or abroad, which might endanger the public security, and will inform His Majesty of any proposals made, either in my diocese or elsewhere, which might prove injurious to the state. I will preach the word as His Gracious Majesty dictates,’ — and so forth.
The sympathy which once knitted pastor and flock together has entirely disappeared. The congregation, misled, fast becomes rebellious. Germany is reaping the whirlwind. Militarism was her god. As a profession, the clergy has always been looked down upon—fit for the sons of tradesmen, artisans, small dealers, and minor professionals. All others with any pretense to ambition turn to the military, as a means to the greater end. The profession of religion demands equality and the Germans are fundamentally opposed to equality.
In consequence of the strange words uttered in the pulpit, the people, half aroused, distrust the church. They fear that it has been subordinated to the political system. Even on religious days, for which Germany is noted, religious fervor was strangely lacking, and the spirit of good-will had wholly disappeared. Now, in the hour of her travail, Germany looks in vain for the consolation of religion, which would assist her to bear the great affliction that oppresses her.
What can possibly become of this people led by the perverters of the divine word? We have met women entering the church for solace, who have come forth with a sullen hatred for all mankind in their hearts. Unhappy creatures, they have been deprived of the one staff on which they could lean in the hour of utter desolation.
In contrast to the Emperor’s smug and almost sacrilegious claim of intimacy with the Deity, one is almost horrified by the wave of agnosticism that has swept over Berlin. There is a greater increase of the other and worse extremists, who, with mocking and contumelious language, neither assert nor deny the existence of the Deity because of the limits of human intelligence or of insufficient psychical evidence, but who absolutely deny and scoff at the existence of God. This scourge of the disconsolate must not be confounded with the infidel, who denies Christianity and the truth of the Scriptures. And Heaven knows that there are hosts of them in Berlin; blasphemous hordes who attack the very tenets of Christianity in public places, without molestation by the authorities.
What can stem the tide of blasphemy which is sweeping over Germany? For the unbeliever there is hope—for the blasphemer, none. In the past year the Berlin newspapers gave a great deal of space to several undoubtedly brilliant writers. While our own papers were discussing the more vital questions of the moment, — the problems of peace before and after the war, — these writers consumed space in a debate on the predilection of the Divine Presence for either combatant. The discussion called forth a lively reply in the Morgenpost, from the noted free-thinker Schlunsen. ‘Of what use is a debate on the existence of the Deity,’ he wrote. ‘The invisible can assume no earthly obligation, can bear no mortal burdens. One might as reasonably say that the ether bore a message; that there was Divine ordination in the soughing of the night-wind over the battlefield; that God was a mere road to some desired end; that peace could be found only at the termination of that road. There is only one God—fear. There is another God—annihilation. Expediency is the intercessor and completes the Trinity. Germany’s one hope lies in that Trinity.
‘All hope in invisible intercession must be put away. Fear of the doom that awaits them must be inspired in the breast of all who oppose Germany. In that lies her salvation. She must trust in no other. The struggle for unity would be its own compensation. When that is accomplished, Germany can dispense her favors and can defy her enemies—and the invisible God.’
And what has been the result of this religious relapse?
The terrible record of suicides which appeared daily in the newspapers, especially of women. According to statistics, secretly passed about in medical circles for fear of repression by the government, suicides have increased to 40.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in Saxony alone; and throughout the Empire to 24.5 per 100,000, — an increase of from 15 to 18 per cent.
Deprived of their faith, and in despair, these nervous, highly strung people relaxed their hold on life, when perhaps a word uttered in the right spirit would have saved them. People forbidden to mourn in public for their dead crowd the cemeteries, which do not contain the remains of those they mourn, but which are the only places where they may seek relief from their grief. The portals of the Church are open to them; but the spirit they seek is not there.
In great sadness, day by day, we had watched this bitterness of spirit grow. Hitherto we had found the Berliner so lustig, so gemutlich, that it distressed us to see the change. Whatever charge you might lay against the Berliner, you could not say that he nursed a grudge for any great length of time. They were an attractive, genial, forgiving lot, with an inextinguishable sense of humor, not always in good taste; taking their pleasures rather seriously; extorting much joy from life in ways not always conducive to the comfort of their neighbors; optimistic to the point of inconsideration. But they were a chivalrous set, hospitable to strangers, making a fetish of social forms, correct to a fault, somewhat stilted in manner, with a hearty welcome for the stranger upon whom they centred their somewhat demonstrative affection.
Now they had grown like creatures of the wild, beasts of ravenous instincts. The doctrines they advocated were appalling. From a fairly liberal interpretation of the Golden Rule, they suddenly narrowed to ‘Do what I say and in such way as I please.’ The whole world must bend to their will; and in the effort to enforce that will they would wreck the whole world. Treitschke’s motto, ‘German every fibre,’ became the watchword. They had coarsened, brutalized. It was no longer a pleasure to meet them.
‘No hatred is so bitter as enmity against the man who has been unjustly treated,’ wrote Treitschke in 1870; ‘men hate in him what they have done to him. That is true of nations as well as individuals. All our neighbors, some time or other, grew at Germany’s expense; and to-day, we have smashed the last remnants of foreign domination and demand reward for righteous victories. Especially do those small countries, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, complain loudly that an arrogant pro-Germanism has destroyed our people’s sense of fairness. It is hatred that vents itself in the charge. Therefore, we shall pick up the gauntlet, and visit upon them the hatred that such expressions incur.’
The Berliner of the day has gone Treitschke one better.
The indefatigable labors of a relative and our own modest efforts among the poor of the city spared us many unpleasant and humiliating experiences. Any one who labored gratis must have the interest of the Germans at heart. But there were Americans, long residents in Berlin, who came to us appalled by the change in the people whom they had learned to love; and in many cases some were very much frightened. They were being strafed in every sense of the word.
As they had been kindly received for years, they had felt safe in visiting those whose hospitality they had enjoyed. They were unable to understand the psychology of a people who told with shudders horrible tales of the throat-slitting of the Senegalese soldiers, calling down curses on the head of the nation that utilized its fighting strength, and in the next breath hysterically lauded the efforts of their own sons of Kultur, who herded helpless, shrinking, despairing Belgians in the squares of hostage-burdened towns, and shot them down by the hundreds.
Sickened with the horror of it all, in the thick of it and yet not of it, in those first years of the war many of the American friends were driven from houses for some mild protest against outrageous violations of the laws of civilization, by people who had reduced the killing of their fellow beings to a science. These Americans were being continually reported as anti-German by their most intimate friends. They were compelled to pay large fines, and in some cases were given jail sentences. Afterwards their lives were made miserable by the continuous procession of inspectors who descended upon them unawares and fined them for the least violation of the law.
We have been repulsed in households, and our services rejected by people who were in sore need of them, because we spoke the language of the common enemy. We knew physicians who refused to attend patients in houses where English was spoken. There were times when the restrictions grew so rigorous as to become irksome, and the temper of the populace made us so uneasy that we asked what had come over these people, hitherto so kindly and appreciative?
Secretly we were revolted by the pettiness, the grasping at straws, the impugning of the noblest of motives, the peevish narrowness. Daily it grew more repugnant to us, this debasement of a people heretofore devoted to God and the spiritual life, now rendered iniquitous, vicious, venomous, radically depraved, by an ignoble ambition.