The Wonder of It

AT Péronne the retreating Germans left a large wooden sign on the ruins of the Hôtel de Ville. The sign read:

NICHT ÄRGERN, NUR WUNDERN

After three months in Germany, I realize how universally applicable the sign is. The whole character of the people, their outlook on life, and their social relations, were so unlike anything I had ever dreamed of, that I could not analyze the soul beneath it all. Before it one stands aghast, perplexed over the possibility of its being real. Of this German soul, as well as of its works on the field of battle, one can only say, ‘Nicht argern, nur wundern!’ Every German should wear those words embroidered on his coat, or carry them like a sandwich-man, to be seen on his approach and on his departure.

I

‘I wish,’ said the general, ‘you would draw up a general order for the governance of this delightful suburb of Coblenz. The adjutant will get you all the necessary material, and you can, by stealing the ideas of others, work out a scheme for running B—, which will not only reflect glory on the brigade and its beloved commanding general, but perhaps instill a little milk of human kindness into the Boches.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said his aide-de-camp; and not being a decorative aide but a working aide, he set to, and had completed by the next morning a municipal memorandum which would have brought tears of envy to the eyes of Von Bissing. He had neatly codified all the functions of the utopian city, and had a military official to perform each of them. He had provided for everything called for in G.H.Q. instructions and a lot besides. It was a work of art, and written in that peculiar military style which seems quite precise and is about as definite as the oracle at Delphi.

The general O.K.’d it and signed it, and it was immediately noted by his command and filed.

The general’s aide had had a certain experience as zone-major in France. He had billeted, it seemed to him, almost two thirds of the A.E.F. He used to say that he knew all the peculiarities of one corps commander, six division commanders, and eighteen brigade commanders. He maintained that he could tell to a centime how many fruit trees had been robbed by any American division in France; and as for fields of wheat, barley, alfalfa, luzerne, rye, hay, and oats which had been trampled on by troops during drill, manoeuvre, and friendly promenade, that he was a living card-index. He was known in fortytwo villages in the Haute-Marne as a tight-fisted, capitalistic tyrant, and at the same time as a charitable friend.

Monsieur Arsene War in of A—tells to this day how the espece de chameau refused to honor his reclamation for a sanglant ten ares of grass-land on the ground that it had already been paid twice. But while Warin laments, Madame Veuve Bergerin-Huot throws her hands in the air at the mention of the aide’s name and says he is a veritable saint. ‘Oh, qu’il est gentil!’ she cries; ‘qu’il est doux, qu’il est bon, le petit lieutenant!’ And, wiping her eyes, she says that all Americans are angels.

This is what the aide said about himself and what others said about him. Hence it was but natural that the general should appoint him Ortskommandant of the town. The appointee begged to be relieved, but it was written that this particular A.D.C. should be a ruler and a boss. ‘ Kismet! ’ he said, and went down to see the Burgermeister.

The Burgermeister of Bam Rhein was a person who looked like a white rat that had been thoroughly soaked and shaved. And he had the faculty, which all male Germans have, of congealing his cords and muscles at a moment’s notice, and could assume the rigor of an epileptic in the presence of superiors. To watch him slide into your office, uncover his teeth, espy you, and suddenly straighten himself up in obedience to an unspoken Achtung, was an impressive experience. The aide often wondered why the arrest of every vital function and the elimination of all emotion should be considered polite. He distrusted that German salute. It was too much like playing ’possum.

When the Burgermeister came into the Ortskommandantur, the aide told him that, in so far as he behaved himself, he would have nothing to fear from the American army; and that in so far as it did n’t interfere with the satisfaction of American interests, he was to continue governing the town as usual.

The Burgermeister stiffened himself and withdrew.

The aide was pleased. His first official act, he felt, had been kindly yet firm, just but not harsh. If he had his way, B— would not suffer as northern France had suffered. He was going to show these Boches that the Americans were n’t there to terrorize, or to Americanize, but simply to occupy territory according to the terms of the Armistice.

But he could not see the scene in the Bürgermeister’s office overhead — the holding of cheeks in hands, the striking of chests, the weary and rapid breathing of bewilderment, the groans of despair. And the next morning, when he went to the Ortskommandantur, he was met by a request that he grant an audience to his German colleague. It was 10 A.M., the exact hour of yesterday’s meeting.

He granted the request, and in a moment the shaved rat slid in through a slit in the open door and ran his tongue over his pink lips. His little black eyes shone like shoe-buttons, and he kept scratching the palms of his hands.

He wanted to know if the Herr Oberleutnant had any orders for him.

The Herr Oberleutnant wanted to know why.

‘Ach!’ cried the Burgermeister, ‘before the Americans came, we had a government. Now we have none. How then can I run the town of B-as I used to run it? There is no one to tell me what to do. If only the Herr Oberleutnant would express his wishes!’

The aide narrowed his eyes and looked at him in disgust.

‘Have the streets cleaned,’ he said, and turned to his work.

The face of the Burgermeister was radiant. He had found a boss.

In less than thirty minutes a platoon of Boches was assembled in the street before the Ortskommandantur. Every other man carried a broom at rightshoulder-arms and the man at his side a shovel. The Burgermeister stood on the steps of the building, with a pencil in one hand and a long list in the other, and checked off their names.

Then, ‘Hup!’ said the Burgermeister. Out of the ranks jumped four men, saluted, and faced the platoon.

‘Hup!’ said the first of the four; and a little squad of broomers and shovelers faced to the right and marched off briskly northwards.

‘Hup!’ said the second of the four; and another little squad trotted off, to the east.

‘Hup!’ said the third, and ‘Hup!’ said the fourth, and soon all points of the compass had received their squads. And the voice of the Gefreite was heard in the land. Clouds of dust hung over Bam Rhein, shovels clanged on the cobble-stones, brooms scraped the roadways. The town was being cleaned.

The Burgermeister stepped into the Bürgermeisterei and jabbed his pencil three times into his right ear. ‘So-o-o,’ he said with pride and satisfaction.

And from that day on the aide gave him orders punctually at 10 A.M.

II

The Inferior Provost Court was in session. The aide sat in his office behind his table, his interpreter on his right, the Burgermeister on his left. The first person on the docket was Herr Anton Kahn; charge: violation of billeting orders. Kahn had kept a whole room from occupation by the American army, on the ground that his sister was coming to occupy it. After waiting three weeks for the sister to come, the American army decided that her visit was indefinitely postponed.

Kahn was brought in.

The interpreter was asked to ask the Burgermeister to explain the crime to the accused.

The accused, on hearing of his vile deed, assumed an air of injured innocence.

‘But I could not know, Herr Oberleutnant, that the American army wanted rooms to be by my female relatives occupied.’

‘Tell him,’ said the aide to the interpreter, ‘that the room had no female relatives in it, and that he had better

admit at once that none were coming.’

‘Ach, Herr Oberleutnant, it is true that my sister to B——has not as yet come; but if she will come is also an undetermined point.’

The aide lost his patience. He had no leisure for the delicate and the scholastic.

‘You had an empty room, didn’t you?’ he asked.

‘A now-empty-but-soon-to-be-occupied room, Herr Ortskommandant.’

The Burgermeister look worried.

‘Kahn,’ he said, ‘ um Gotteswillen, be polite.’

‘An empty room,’ thundered the aide.

‘Ja, Herr Oberleutnant.’

‘You told the billeting officer that it was occupied.’

‘About to —' He looked at the BUrgermeister. ‘ Ja,’ he said quietly.

‘Then you concealed billeting space. Go into the other room.’

He saluted and withdrew.

‘Ask the Burgermeister what he thinks of the case,’ said the aide.

The Burgermeister moistened his lips.

‘It is clear that he is guilty,’ he said.

‘And the sentence?’

‘One hundred marks for concealing the room and twenty-five marks for lack of discipline.’

‘No,’ said, the aide, ‘fifty marks for everything.’

The accused was brought in and the floor given to the Burgermeister.

‘For concealing space from the billeting officer of the American army, the Herr Oberleutnant, Ortskommandant of B-, has decreed that you

the sum of fifty marks in notes of the Reichsbank to him shall pay. The fine must in the Ortskommandantur by six o’clock to-night be. Do you understand ? ’

Herr Kahn looked white. His starch was gone. Gone was that martial air he wore on entering the tribunal, and gone that tendency to argue.

‘Jo,’ he said in a weak voice. ‘I understand.’

He saluted and turned to go. But when he reached the door, he formed a great resolution; he drew himself up, turned, and said, ‘May I have a word with the gracious Herr Leutnant?’

Oberleutnant,’ said the Bürgermeister.

‘Pardon — Oberleutnant.’

‘Surely.’

‘ It is true that I concealed an aboutto-be-occupied room from the Herr billeting officer, which the Herr Ortskommandant had decreed was empty. So I am willing to pay the fine. But Peter Gunther has an empty room and he pays nothing.’

‘Where does he live?’

‘Number 72 Bachstrasse, by the Colonialwaren-shop. He has a fine empty room on the second floor, which he is keeping from the Herrn Americans — much nicer than mine. Why does n’t he pay?’

‘He shall. Take this down, Roesselmann,’ to the interpreter.

‘And Frau Gustave Werner, of number 64, or is it 54, Hauptstrasse, she too has an empty room. And the Lutheran priest has a room, and Hermann Werner on the Marktplatz has a room, Herr Oberleutnant.’

‘Fine; they shall all be investigated.’

‘No need to investigate. The rooms are there.’

‘They shall be investigated. Have you anything else to say?’

He stood as if waiting for a tip, and then, seeing that his fine was neither remitted nor decreased, left in a daze.

The aide put his head in his hands. He saw the German Captain Milnos, Town-Major at Autreville, whose first official act was to have some prisons built. He wondered for a moment if German rule in France had not been formed on the basis of German character; if in their supreme egotism the Germans had not seen their own type of mind in the souls of all the world; and if he was not making the same mistake in treating these disloyal people as if they were Americans. When the Germans went to France, no doubt they thought it was immoral that the French did not furnish them with whatever information they needed. It is not surprising then that they killed Edith Cavell for refusing to give over to them wounded Belgians and British. They would have done it in her place. To the German High Command her act was a defiance of international morality, just as at Chauncy it was against their law to carry a watch that did n’t tell German time. Kahn was being true to type. And the Burgermeister approved of what he did.

The aide soon discovered that he had only to catch one rascal to catch all. Every time a man was convicted on any charge, he gave away everyone else who might be culpable. And when these others were convicted, they too had information to disclose. It was never necessary to cross-examine them; it was enough to convict them.

And thus the American Secret Service built for itself a tremendous reputation in B—— am Rhein.

III

Can a people which is unable to move without an order, and which is disloyal to itself, be self-governing? Can a people meet in town council and pass laws and initiate politics, when all its independent ideas have been crushed out? Those Germans of B-were unable to move when given the use of their limbs. They were like mechanical toys which had run down. They had no doubt a vague feeling that they should like to be free, but they did not know how to be free.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night in my stateroom aboard a transatlantic liner. The white wall was covered with black dots I had never seen before. I reached out to touch one, and immediately all the dots moved rapidly away. So it was with the Germans. They stood motionless over the landscape, and when a powerful finger was put down among them, they moved. In that, they might be like everyone else; but it must not be forgotten that they have never had a successful revolution. They are at this moment in as bad straits as the Russians—no, worse. For the Russians know what they want. The Germans seem willing to take anything.

But even if their spiritual paralysis were cured, their disloyalty would remain. One of the first souvenirs they sold to the Americans was the Iron Cross. You could buy Iron Crosses of every grade, not only in Coblenz, but in every city and village. Imagine Americans selling Distinguished Service Crosses to the Germans, had they been our conquerors. There actually was offered for sale in Coblenz — the sale was stopped and the merchant prosecuted — a watch-fob of black-andwhite ribbon, holding an Iron Cross, and on the ribbon above the decoration two crossed American flags in enamel. It is incredible. For it was not done through a sense of defeat, through hatred of the government which produced the Iron Cross, through admiration for America, but through a desire to make money, unhampered by good taste. Before the end of February, helmets, belts, sabres, bayonets, epaulets, every insignia and decoration known, were on sale openly in the shops. A few newspapers protested without effect.

Can such a people have a popular government? Their solidarity seems to have been made of their wholesale love of the Kaiser’s person, and in no way of their love for Germany. There is no denying that they loved and still love the Kaiser. Catholic and Lutheran alike satisfied all their needs by revering him. Americans marching from Luxembourg to the Rhine saw lithographs of him, of his wife, of the Crown Prince, in every inn and in every cottage, and photographs in every chateau. None of these were destroyed or removed after the Armistice — at least, not by the Germans. They did show a certain dignity in sticking to their guns in that instance, toy guns though they were.

But to have a popular government, more than that is needed. And a people which cannot hold together in adversity, with an enemy army occupying their country, cannot expect much success in a venture whose very service is self-sacrifice and a regard for common rather than special interests.

But this little paper has grown too solemn. Let it end with one more incident from the Ortskommandantur at B—.

When the aide took over his office, there were no orders published for the disposal of moneys collected as fines. The Bürgermeister was naturally interested in this matter, and it was arranged by the general and the division commander that the funds should be used for the town’s running expenses.

The Bürgermeister was informed.

The next day Ehefrau Gertrude Muller was arraigned for stealing a ham and can of lard from A Company’s kitchen. Of course, she pleaded not guilty; but fortunately for the sake of justice, her former servant asked to be allowed to testify. She informed the court that not only had the Müller woman stolen the said food-stuffs, but also that she had sold a bottle of cognac at 8 P.M. to a soldier.

The aide gave a withering glance at the culprit, who swore before heaven that it was a lie. But alas! the very name of ‘ fat ’ (like the syllable Om) was a magic name, the hearing of which caused the Teuton heart to beat abnormally and the Teuton breath to pant. Women in the occupied zone would go to any lengths for the sake of soap; and who could doubt that Gertrude Muller had fallen for a ham and a pail of lard ? Her kitchen was across the yard from A Company’s. She saw the good things daily. She had to cook with Schweinefett-ersätz, and ate nothing choicer than a Schincken-ersatz sandwich, and those pig-dog Yankees had huge pans sizzling every day with real white lard. It would not have been human to resist. So there was every reason to think that she was guilty.

But when Cook John Hanson swore that the aforesaid servant had shown him the wrappings of the ham hanging on Frau Muller’s clothes-line after the sacred grease — and printer’s ink — had been boiled out of it, the court and the Bürgermeister decided that there was no doubt whatever of her guilt.

When it came to the fine, the court thought she should be fined one hundred marks for stealing food.

‘Two hundred and fifty marks, Herr Oberleutnant,’ said the Bürgermeister sternly.

‘And one hundred marks for the sale of cognac to a soldier,’ added the court.

‘And fifty marks for lying,’ said the Bürgermeister.

‘And close her place to soldiers for thirty days for selling liquor after hours,’ said the court, as if they were doing responsive readings.

‘ May I suggest something to the Herr Oberleutnant?’ said the Bürgermeister.

‘Certainly.’

‘Let us fine the woman five hundred marks — that is a round figure. What business is it of hers how it is divided?’

But the aide, though he could see the humor of the situation, could not see its justice. Frau Muller was a thief and an all-round bad character, but that was no reason why her sentence should not be explained to her.

’Also,' said the Bürgermeister, as if making a concession, ‘two hundred and fifty marks for stealing, two hundred for selling the cognac after hours, and fifty for lying.’

‘No, her lie consists merely in pleading not guilty. She had that right. We shall fine her four hundred and fifty marks.’

After the case of Frau Müller, the Kommissar kept bringing in case after case. The Bürgermeister showed himself fearless and inventive in fining them. He objected strongly to any finding of not guilty. Never in the history of B—had so many fines been

collected. The Bürgermeister began to lose his ratty look and took on the appearance of a pampered dog. He wore a scarlet satin tie, his collars grew higher and shinier. He stopped scratching the palms of his hands.

But at the climax of this effulgence, at the height of his parabolic flight, an order arrived from G.H.Q. saying that all fines collected in provost courts must be sent to Treves weekly. And the order was retroactive.

Need I say more? Need I point out that, from that day on, a more clement Bürgermeister did not exist than Herr Winkel of B— am Rhein? He called his colleagues together, and made up the sum required, and became a charitable and kind-hearted man. No official was more tender toward those who sinned, no pastor more earnest in reclaiming the strayed sheep. Whereas previously he had laid all crime to innate viciousness and disregard for the law, now he laid to it hunger, to cold, to the sorrows of defeat.

And, needless to say, crime dropped seventy-five per cent in this lovely Rhineland village within a period of three days, and within a week it was almost nothing.