Tribus Germanicus: Personal Experiences With Tribal Psychology


IT was one of those rare days in June when the subtlety of the last urge of spring and the first effulgence of summer, blended and borne softly through the open windows, went to my head like wine. The ugly walls of the schoolroom blurred before my eyes. I seemed to hear in the drone of the children’s voices the sound of a brook I was planning to explore after the school-bell rang for the last time.

I remember that I had my big geography propped up, and in its shelter I was drawing plans of a duck-boat that spelled untold adventure for me. My fancy took me far afield, for these schemes for camping and hunting were the obsession of my days and the dreamstuff of my nights.

In the midst of my feverish reveries I gradually became aware of a thin small voice far away, for all the world like the voices in old-fashioned phonographs. But the small voice was insistent; it grew stronger as it raced over the leagues that my fancy had put between the teacher and myself; it finally burst in upon my consciousness with a clamor, and I found myself the object of my teacher’s withering glance while the tittering of the boys near me increased my confusion.

‘Are you aware, Philip, that the second form has commenced its geography recitation?’

I stammered acknowledgment of the fact implicit in her question.

‘What people is to-day’s lesson about?’ she continued.

As I hung my head in ignorance, my eyes fell upon my geography, still open and shielding my precious duck-boat. In that moment of imminent failure I noticed the right-hand page, a map,— a sprawling thing in sickly green, — and printed in large letters, the legend, ‘ Germany.’

‘The Germans,’ I blurted, grasping at any straw.

But with those eyes still leveled mercilessly upon me, I saw that I was not to be let off thus easily.

‘Tell me what you have learned about the German people,’ came the second question, in a soft even voice.

I felt the way a thoughtless wild thing in a trap must feel; those velvety tones fell upon my ears like the soft measured tread of the trapper, soft with alertness, measured because confident of his prey.

Thinking hard and fast, I suddenly remembered a text from a recent lesson in my copy-book. In that moment of trial that text came back. It diffused a warmth of confidence in me like the bright light which fell about the stricken stag in the miracle story, and saved it from the huntsman’s fatal thrust. So I repeated boldly and word for word that which I had written over and over in my copy-book: —

‘The German people are a strong race, obedient, industrious, and filled with national pride.'

The years rolled by; the schoolhouse, the duck-boat, were all but forgotten in the busy scramble of early manhood. But still, on looking back, I can remember that, when my schooling was finished and I set out to earn my living, my concept of the world at large and of its peoples amounted to little more than the epigrammatic phrases in my old copy-book. I recall, too, that nearly all my contemporaries shared my own hazy detached ideas about what lay beyond the borders of ‘these United States.’ But the time came when I felt impelled to push out my horizons. I ‘kicked over the traces,’quit my job, and started off with a slender purse of savings and a knapsack on my back, ‘the world for to see.’

The steamer on which I was a steerage passenger, ran aground in Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, near Kiel. It was a Russian ship, bound from London to old St. Petersburg, in the summer of 1913. Our pilot had given too wide a berth to one of the Sunday excursion steamers, and he put our ship fast on a bank of ooze.

While a bevy of tugs tried vainly to pull the Tsarevitch Alexi off, some of the passengers were taken in a launch to a suburban park, where a regular ferry-boat connected with the city. I remember sitting on the top deck, opposite a row of chattering schoolgirls in their ’teens. As soon as they heard me address a fellow passenger in English, they began talking about me, and went into gales of laughter over my clothes. I could appreciate their ridicule, because my tramp through Holland and England, sleeping one night in a boxcar and the next in a hay-mow, had doubtless made me look like a scarecrow. So I smiled back at the young ladies debonairly, admitting that I appreciated the joke.

When we landed at Kiel I was among the last to get off. Imagine my surprise, while crossing the gangway, to hear these German girls, freed from the confines of the ferry-boat, pointing at me and yelling, ‘English swine, English swine! ’


I left the Germans to their vaulting pride in themselves and contempt for others, and sojourned among more lovable folk. The Russians took me to their heart, and made of me a son in their midst. Never extolling the great attributes of their race, — perhaps unconscious of them, — they would enumerate their faults with charming naïveté, and ask with childlike simplicity if Americans were as bad as they. I slept in their rude huts, and sometimes broke the last crust of bread; but when I went on my way, they clasped me in their arms, men, women, and children alike, and kissed me on both cheeks.

Even among the Kurds, those mongrel waifs who live by brigandage, I fared well. Disarming their acquisitiveness by my poverty, I found them very human. Ignorant beyond words, and heirs to a bigoted religion, still they ware less tribal in their thought than I had imagined. Coming among them as a friend, with no ulterior motive, I was received by them as such. Even when a Turkish garrison, sent to extort taxes from their wild Kurdistan, arrested me for a Russian spy, a Kurdish chieftain interceded for me. He succeeded in getting permission from the military to keep me as his guest. While being fêted by several chiefs in turn, my Turkish guards ate what was left from our feasts, in a courtyard with the horses and mules. When we parted company, my host gave me his prayerrug, his precious pipe, a pair of stirrups, some metal plates and carved spoons, to show my American tribe-fellows what the Kurds could make in return for the coveted automatic revolvers which we send to them.

Pressing ever farther afield, I came in time to the Arabs. Among the nomadic tribes I found a kind of democracy that I had heard of before only in fairy tales. I have sat cross-legged with an Arab chief, an aristocrat by blood and wearer of the revered green turban, sign of his lineal descent from Mohammed. Sitting with us in a circle around a common tray of food wore negroes from Nubia, coreligionists of the Arabs and black enough to put ebony to shame. Here I found the same naïveté as among the Russians, the same readiness to regard human accomplishment as well as human shortcomings as a sort of inter-racial fund from which we all draw, each nation lending to its acts the color and characteristics of its peculiar genius. An Arab would never think of holding us Americans in contempt because, as a people, we lack what Bergson calls the sixth or ‘transcendental’ sense. Forgetting that he excelled us in that sphere, he would be lost in admiration of our pragmatic mind, which grapples so successfully with the problems of the physical world. But when we, emboldened by success in our material field, would with carnal senses enter the realm of metaphysics and hitch our wagon to a rational god, our Arab friend has to cover his gleaming smile with a thin brown hand.

I recall a delicious dig that one old patriarch got off on me. He turned the catechetical conversation to religion, favorite topic in Arabia. Noting my increasing discomfort, he finally gave me his coup de grâce. He said, ‘Why do your countrymen send missionaries these thousands of miles to persuade us of the divinity of that saint, Christ, before they have even convinced the chief of your own great land?’

This subtle reference to our Unitarian President, William H. Taft, from a Bedouin of the desert was too much for me. I saw there was no use trying to convince him of Western consistency, so I got on to firmer ground and told him about four-track subways, with two hundred and forty ten-car trains per hour.


One fine day, I found myself on an ass en route from the pilgrim city of Kerbela to the ruins of Babylon. German archæologists had been busily uncovering that jumbled mass of crumbling glory for more than ten years. Beside the ancient bank of the Euphrates they had built a great brick pile around a court, which they called the ‘Castle.’ Here they lived.

After the day’s work in the excavations or over the drawing-tables, they would foregather in a common diningroom for the evening meal. Dinner finished, we would sit around the long table for several hours, smoking and chatting at random. My host, Dr. Koldewey, was quite loquacious, but with the happy faculty of making all his remarks interesting. He was the director-general of all the archæological work, and one of the world’s authorities on Babylonian research. Having the additional distinction of working under the personal patronage of the Kaiser, his opinions on all subjects were given the more weight.

I remember one evening’s conversation in particular, not only because I was listening to a savant of international reputation, but primarily, I think, because it was one of the milestones in my emergence from American provincialism.

To contribute my share to the exchange of ideas, I recall dilating upon my recent experiences with the Turks.

I told of their backward ways in government and business, citing some amusing peccadillos of which I had been the victim.

But Dr. Koldewey could hardly wait for me to finish. Nodding assent to all that I had implied, he said with an inclusive gesture of his arm, —

‘Yes, yes, you cannot surprise me with any tales about these people. They are played out I tell you, quite finished, all of them, these Turks, Arabs, and other odds and ends of nations hereabout. I call them a “ museum people.”By that I mean to say that they should be thrust aside, put in a glass case as it were, for the entertainment of curious tourists. And a strong efficient race must come in and take the reins of government and put these people in the glass case where they belong.'

While still marveling at the stark boldness of his theory, and before I could formulate a defense for the peoples thus summarily disposed of, he continued, —

‘Now take the French, for instance. There is another ganz-kaput race, decadent, effete.’

He took a draught of wine from a silver beaker; he leaned forward and reached his long arm out over the dinner-table. Speaking with slow precision and punctuating each word with a tap of his forefinger, he said, —

‘Mark my word! The next time we go into France, we will take it all, all I say, to the Channel and to the Mediterranean. But we may give back Paris, perhaps, for to Germanize it would spoil it.’

I agreed with gusto to his last statement. Then he hastily resumed, set teeth showing through his smile, ‘Yes, we will draw a circle around Paris, and keep it tout-à-fait Parisienne—a place where we can amuse ourselves when our serious work is done.’

My astonishment was doubled when I noted the exuberant approbation on the faces of all his colleagues. Had Dr. Koldewey spoken only for himself, I would have put him down for a crank; but I saw that he voiced the desire of all these archæologists and architects, men who, I had supposed, were freed by their science from the jungle code of the militarists.

Later in the evening, one of the younger men, Herr Bunte, and I went for a walk. As we strolled along the Euphrates bank, soft moonlight slid down the fronds of graceful palms and latticed the ground with a gentle glow. The quavering wail of a song came over the velvety air from an Arab hut, an oar plashed nearby, sending a phosphorescent ripple over the river’s bronzy face. Everything was so quiet and peaceful; who could have held a bellicose thought?

This young scientist, Bunte, had already shown me the picture of his fiancée, a pretty German girl; but now he was expatiating upon the horrible summer climate of Mesopotamia, telling me how enervating it was. Thinking to dispel his pessimism, and especially his thinly veiled apprehension at the thought of bringing a blooming bride to this fever-ridden country, I casually remarked, —

‘Your life-work is here; you say this is the original hell in summer and that white women fade out here in no time. It seems to me that you have the perfect bachelor’s job. Why do you get married, anyway?’

Now Herr Bunte was a most placidlooking young man — short, pudgy, phlegmatic, with small pale-blue eyes. The very last thing I ever thought to do was to strike fire in so prosaic a morsel of human clay; but my thoughtless question seemed to electrify him. The blood rushed up the back of his neck, the straw-colored hairs on it seemed to bristle, he flung out his fist toward the unoffending palms, and answered me in almost savage stentorian tones, —

‘Why am I going to get married, you ask? To make soldiers for my Kaiser.'


The world war came on apace, and a year after my visit with the Germans at Babylon, I found myself in charge of the feeding of the French civil population in the Department of the Ardennes in the invaded part of France. My headquarters was at CharlevilleMezières, with the ‘Grosses Hauptquartier,’the German General Staff.

One evening in particular stands out in my memory. I was the only foreigner sitting at a long table of staff officers: old generals with the Pour le Merite of Frederick the Great hanging from their collars, colonels and majors with the Iron Cross. Although I was there representing a work of inestimable value to Germany, the free feeding of the people she had rendered destitute, I gradually found myself the butt of innuendo and subtle disparagement of my country. But several months in the society of German officers and under their vigilant surveillance had taught me a measure of self-control.

I had become accustomed to hearing America held in contempt. The only way I preserved a calm exterior was by constantly holding in my mind an image of the French people whom I was there to serve. My task was made the easier because most of the German insults, veiled and otherwise, were on the lowest plane. That is to say, physical considerations alone were the criteria by which we were judged. Because we were ridiculously small, as soldiers and cannon are counted in Europe, by the same token we were despised, even taunted.

Toward the end of that interminable dinner of angular rigidity and clicking of spurred heels, an orderly brought in the evening’s communiqué. My host read it aloud, while everyone listened intently. First came the military news: a succession of victories in Russia — countless thousands of prisoners, hundreds of cannon, mountains of booty. A whole Russian army had disappeared, it seems, in the Masurian swamps. I noted that chests were thrown out a trifle more, fingers reached for the slender stems of champagne glasses, and the eyes of the orderlies standing behind our chairs bulged with happy comprehension.

But there was more to come: my host held up one hand to postpone the toast to the victorious Hindenburg, and continued. A new note had been received by the Imperial government from President Wilson. It was the result of the taking of more American lives on the high seas. But this last note was more than a protest: it was sharper in tone, it contained a distinct warning.

My host, a German count, laid aside the communiqué which he had just finished. Leveling his malevolent eyes upon me, a guest and a foreigner, he said in a ringing voice, —

‘Come on, America, weakling number seven; we will finish you up in two months!’

Still one year later, in the summer of 1916, I found myself in a tiny Russian village just below the Arctic Circle. Our ambassador had sent me off into the interior, to distribute relief-money which had come from Austria and Germany to the American Embassy. This monthly stipend of ten to twenty roubles was frequently all that stood between the unfortunate German and Austrian civil prisoners and starvation.

My secretary and I were sitting at the head of a long deal table, taking receipts for all the relief distributed, and also receiving innumerable complaints. When the routine work was finished, the German chairman said that he and his companions would like to have me tell them about what I had seen behind the German lines in Belgium and Northern France. They said that the stories they read in the Russian press were incredible, and they wanted to hear from an eye-witness.

I admitted that the stories coming to the outside world from those wretched countries were incredible. But I further admitted that they were for the most part true. As I went on, describing the country roads lined with the charred walls of peasants’ cottages, some with ugly splotches on them where whole families had been lined up and shot down by the ruthless invader,

I saw that my words gave them little comfort. But I could not resist the temptation to give these people a little of the unvarnished truth, hoping that something might penetrate their national conceit. I thought their blind bigotry all the more paradoxical since many of them, having been born in Russia, spoke Russian better than German, had intermarried with Russians, and some of them had never even set foot on the soil of what they called their fatherland. And yet they nourished that vaulting pride in their nationality, a pride which permitted these otherwise intelligent adults to ascribe to their own race all the virtues, while imputing all the vices to those among whom they had cast their lot.

When I had finished my dissertation on German frightfulness, the chairman of the Hilfs Komitet said, —

‘It is with deep regret that in listening to the American gentleman’s remarks we have had our own worst fears confirmed. Here in our isolation we had hoped that all the tales we heard against our countrymen were the calumnies of our enemies. Now we see that the exigencies of war have compelled the Fatherland to thrust aside any small considerations of sentiment, so that no obstacle would stand between her and the fulfillment of her divine mission. If our guest and benefactor here has ever traveled in Germany, he will be the first to admit that we, as a people, have the most highly developed and perfectly formed Kultur that the world has ever known. Having received this heritage by virtue of the struggles and sacrifices of our fathers, it is our duty to spread it all over the world, until less fortunate peoples have come under its influence.

‘Imagine the inestimable boon which our Kultur will bring in the trail of our victorious armies! Take these benighted Russians, for instance—filthy and ignorant, they are mere animals. They will not understand until years later why we have come to them, and what our nation, under the beneficent guidance of our Kaiser, has to give them.

‘ Or again, regard with pity and loathing that ungodly and immoral people, the French. Only after their wicked pride is broken by Germany’s mighty sword, only after they have expiated their sins in years of bitter suffering, will they find the wisdom to come humbly and learn from us.

‘ But it is in the case of England that the hand of destiny is most clearly to be seen. Here we have a small people, small numerically, small of soul and small of mind, who, with the cunning of knaves have played the part of corsairs and buccaneers for centuries. Mimicking our noble tongue, they affect the role of “gentlemen,” while they are in reality robbers at heart. But they will learn, as the whole world will learn, that Germany is the scourge of God, which will purge the earth of its corruption.

“ We Germans have come to realize that we are a chosen people. We have been chosen to bring to a vicious world the perfect flower of our Kultur. If other nations will not cast the scales from their own eyes, we must strip them off for them. I swell with pride each time a new foe joins the ranks of our enemies, for then I realize how universal a blessing our eventual victory will be. We cannot fail, our God is with us. He will bring us through triumphant.’


That expression, ‘our God,’ has some very interesting connotations. In many respects it is the keynote of the primitive paganism which has produced the tribal psychology of the German people of to-day. Many of the Kaiser’s speeches, and the discourses of his ministers in the Reichstag and Prussian Diet, have wound up with a grandiloquent reference to ‘our God,’ who will see them through to victory, or to ‘the old German God,’ who confounds their mutual enemies. It is the concept of a distinctly tribal divinity, not a universal god. Their God is not the same one who presides over the destinies of their enemies. It is not the God of all mankind before whom they lay their cause, basing their hope for success and for divine assistance upon the inherent justice of that cause. No, it is the god of a tribe who fights with them and for them, who holds up their right arm in battle and punishes the wicked enemy.

It is one of the great paradoxes of history, that the barbarian Teutonic tribes, after the sack of Rome, should have adopted the Christian deity as their tribal fetish. It would have been so infinitely more in keeping with Germany’s ‘world-mission,’ and with German philosophy, if they had remained true devotees nominally, as they have remained true spiritually, to Thor or Odin and the whole hierarchy of warrior gods.

Ever since the first day of the war, and even long before, the general tenor of statements from publicists and statesmen, from scientists and literati, in the press and the pulpit, has been the same. It has been the attitude of ‘we Germans’ as opposed to the Philistines, a chosen people pitted against a world of inferior and apostate tribes.

Meeting Germans individually, like the various persons quoted herein, one finds nothing abnormal about them until some subject is broached which has international implications. At that point an American or Russian or Arab has to part company with the German, for the former invariably finds that the German has a different set of morals for the state, or rather for his tribe, as distinguished from that code-which is applicable to the individual. We can go hand in hand up the rungs of the ethical ladder, from the first rung of the little amenities of individual intercourse, on through the varying degrees of family association, as groups of friends in clubs and societies, as larger communities in towns and cities, on up to the larger group of the whole race bound up in the nation. Up to that point, we all subscribe in a general way to the same moral code; in any event, we can always find some common premise on which to build up an understanding.

But it is the step next beyond, the concept of national morals, in which the German differs from the rest of the world. It is that last and highest rung on the ethical ladder, the sphere of international relations, where the German stands forth in the eyes of all mankind, morally nude.

Notwithstanding all their accomplishment in the sciences and in the arts; notwithstanding clean streets and garden tenements, the hall-marks of modern advance, the German people are still, to-day, absolutely tribal in their psychology. That is why they are out of joint with the times. Other nations regard them as backward in their evolution toward an international point of view, while the Germans neutralize or kill all attempts to draw them closer to a mutual understanding by their colossal and bombastic tribal conceit.

This tribal quality of German national psychology has this significance for the rest of the world. If the government of any of the internationally minded nations commits a crime against the comity of the world, or against the spirit of a Teague of nations,’ that government, and inferentially the people which it represents, is sinning against light. In plain language, they are breaking the Golden Rule, and they know better. But with the German it is different . He acknowledges the Golden Rule in principle, as affecting the individual; but the state, that embodiment of him and his fellows in the tribe, is subject to no moral code, human or divine. In fact, some of Germany’s greatest spokesmen have taken great pains to instruct the world that the German state is superior to ethics, or rather, that she makes her morals to suit the exigencies of her desires. In other words, the state can do no wrong.

Now the rest of the world has not the slightest objection to the German people preserving a fifth-century psychology under the camouflage of a twentieth-century suit of clothes. That is preëminently the German’s own business. No one wants to drag him into the family of nations by the scruff of his neck. But the rest of the world does strenuously object, to the point of resisting with all its physical and moral strength, when the Germans presume to carry their Kultur beyond their own borders and superimpose it by force upon their neighbors.

When the idea once begins to penetrate the thick hide of German conceit, that the rest of the world repudiates their culture, that its spirit is universally regarded as an anachronistic survival of tribal days; when that time comes and an austere introspection lays its merciless scalpel upon the German national character, a new light will illumine the mind of that great people. They will storm the door of the House of Nations, and millions of scarred hands will knock furiously for admittance.