The Man Behind the Goose-Step

By Gilbert Hirsch

[The Nation; June 22, 1916]

I was walking through the Brandenburger Thor at dusk. The excessively sharp outlines of the Berlin scene, so marked in the daytime, had given way to vague masses of blacks and purples. The Reichstag was only a dim silhouette, its roof hardly to be distinguished from the deep blue of the sky. The peculiarly Prussian character of the city had disappeared.

In front of me walked an officer, his violet-gray cloak swinging with his stride. As he passed the stacked guns of the "Wache"—for the Brandenburger Thor is still, in theory, the gate of the city—he raised his hand to his cap. The solitary soldier behind the iron rail, who had been slouching picturesquely, stiffened, clicked his heels together, put his hand to his gun, his gun in front of him, then to his breast, again in front of him, back to his shoulder, down to the pavement with a thump.

For the moment he had ceased to be a man, and had become an automaton. His eyes were staring straight ahead, and his features were absolutely wooden. But the instant after the officer had passed, the soldier's muscles relaxed, and he turned and glared at me. He seemed to be aware that I had taken him for an automaton. His resentment was not mechanical, but entirely human.

I have had much the same experience with all Germany. There is something so perfect and so conscious in Germany's present organization and self-discipline that there are times when you wonder whether it is a country or a machine. It seems, somehow, not human. To an American it often seems inhuman. The Germans point to it with pride as something almost superhuman.

Just as you are about to poke your finger at it to see if it is alive, it turns and looks at you with complete understanding, and not a little resentment. Germans have a sense of humor—Meredith to the contrary notwithstanding. It may for a time be put into abeyance by the instinct of self-preservation. But it is never quite extinguished. Today Simplicissimus is not devoted, as formerly, to satires on the wooden perfection of the goose-step, the foppishness of the young lieutenant, and the exceeding paternalism of the Kaiser. But no one who has seen the German cartoons of France, England, and Russia—of Poincaré, Grey, and the Czar—can deny the vigor of contemporary German humor.

If Germany's lampoons on its enemies often seem too violent, too bitter and brutal, it should be remembered that Germany's lampoons on itself have always had the same qualities. German self-criticism has in times past amounted to a disease, whose symptoms, in personal life, have been a morbid philosophical pessimism and a heightened rate of suicide; and, in national life, a tendency to schism persisting in an age when other nations had attained unity. Goethe's reflections on his country were surpassed in bitterness by Heine's, which, in turn, sound like praise when you compare them with the diatribes of Nietzsche. North Germany has been resented by South Germany, Prussia disapproved of by Hanover, Bavaria by Baden, and the German Empire by the Social Democrats, who not so many years, ago threatened a revolution which should overthrow it. And Bismarck tried to get the Kaiser's consent to a counter-revolution, which should overturn the Reichstag, and bury the Social Democrats under it.

It was a Frenchman, I think, who said that when the Germans learned their own strength they would be like the gods. He said it at a time when the Germans were seeing only their own weaknesses, and were wasting their energies in inner strife and in imitating the "Kultur" of other nations. A hundred years ago every educated German wished to be taken for a Frenchman. More recently the ideal was to be English. Not a little of Germany's present bitterness towards England is a half-conscious effort to root out of its soul a lingering admiration for the land of "sport," of "the club," of "the gentleman"—words which the Germans have incorporated into their everyday speech.

Prussia found the remedy for this lack of national self-esteem. To some the remedy may seem worse than the disease. But not to the Germans. To them the one intolerable thing has been their haunting sense of national inferiority—that tyrannical inner compulsion to see themselves as others saw them, instead of looking confidently out upon the world through their own eyes. To-day they have learned to see themselves as Prussia sees them; and this makes them immune to the criticism of the rest of the world. That perfect sentryman at the Brandenburg Gate is willing to be ridiculous in the eyes of the foreigner if he can be efficient in the eyes of Prussia. For, under Prussia's guidance, he has already humbled two of the nations that once laughed at him—Austria and France. And he is convinced that the end is not yet.

The pact between Germany and Prussia, signed in 1871, has been renewed, and again sealed with blood. That is not merely because Prussia still has the "will to power," but because the rest of Germany still has the will to obedience. The war, when it first broke out, was just as popular in Stuttgart, which had nothing to do with the making of it, as in Berlin, where it was declared. And Württemberg voluntarily sent a larger number of troops, in proportion to its size, than Prussia did.

England has said that she will fight as long as it is necessary in order to "free Germany from Prussian domination." But the longer the war lasts the more completely Germany comes under the spell of the idea of fighting against "a world of enemies," and the less she is tempted to rebel against those forces within herself which are in control. It is true that the South German states have at least once during the war protested against the usurpation of power by Prussia. But such protests are like Faust's sporadic outbursts against Mephistopheles's ascendency over him. They express real irritation; but not a desire to get free.

Those who would free Germany from Prussia must, therefore, expect no gratitude from the Germans. To the sentimentalist who judges a country by its poetry, its music, its philosophy, and its ruins, the Germany of the eighteenth century appears more beautiful and more free than the Germany of today. And the Germans of the eighteenth century, being themselves sentimentalists, certainly would have agreed to this. They persuaded themselves that the ruins of the castles along the Rhine, which had been ruthlessly destroyed by the French invaders, were more beautiful than the castles themselves. Robbed of all their political freedom, they expressed, in philosophy, poetry, and music, their longing for freedom in the abstract, and then—being adept at auto-suggestion—they persuaded themselves that to express a longing for freedom is in itself freedom of a very superior sort. The hero of Schiller's "Räuber" was a slave to the desire to appear free in the eyes of his followers. He murdered the woman he loved simply to win their approval. Yet the German audiences of those days, when they heard his cry of ''Freiheit!" echoed in bass growls by his bandit followers, believed themselves to be witnessing the very ecstasy of freedom.

German audiences still applaud the "Räuber." But the applause is less for freedom than for Schiller, and less for Schiller than for Reinhardt. German professors still talk with conviction about "inner freedom." But they are no longer taken very seriously. The German renounced the illusion of freedom when he took up the struggle for power. Most nations are unwilling to admit to themselves, until after they have attained power, that the effort to attain it is the most abject form of slavery. But the German's slavery to his national ideal is voluntary. All the passion which he once expended on the dream life within him he now devotes to the dream of that national life for which he is striving. To-day the German makes his demand for freedom, not upon himself, but upon the future of his country. "When Germany has won this war," then—according to the Chancellor—the tyrannical Prussian electoral law will be modified. When Germany has won the world's last war, then, and not till then—so the German believes—all tyrannies, all slaveries, will be abolished.

That is the romanticism of the German today. He likes to call it realism. But, just as in the novels of Balzac money has a much greater and more lively reality than in the calculations of a financier, so in the imagination of the German nations and armies, diplomacy, battle, and conquest have much more vitality and color than in the reckonings of more cold-blooded and matter-of-fact peoples.

And this explains the sentryman at the Brandenburger Thor. I found him ridiculous because he was like an automaton. But he knows that no mere automaton could be so completely, and marvellously automatic as he. Slavery to the need for coördination and coöperation is to the German of to-day not merely a habit, but a passion, an ideal. For he sees it as the road to national power. And beyond national power, far off in the dim future, he sees the mirage of that absolute freedom of which his poets sang.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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