What an American Saw in Germany

By Alfred L. Kroeber
(Professor Of Anthropology, Affiliated Colleges Of San Francisco)

[The Outlook; January 12, 1916]

The traveler who to-day crosses the German border, whether going into or out of the country, finds himself subject to procedures that otherwise would be his lot only if the heavy hand of the criminal law had fallen upon him. He is searched, as often as not stripped. Every piece of paper, except credentials and railway ticket, is taken from him, to be laid under the more leisurely scrutiny of the censor and to follow by mail. Even visiting-cards and letters of credit go by this disconcerting route, and bank notes are examined for concealed memoranda. Cigarettes, being rolled in that ultra-suspicious article paper, are taboo; and there remains only the politely put but empty alternative of shipping them back to the starting-point or donating them to the leisure hours of the inspecting military. A box of Swedish matches has the print on the cover painstakingly scratched off by the penknife of a stolidly amiable soldier; and, if you carry two or three medicaments in your belongings, you are likely to take quinine instead of aspirin for your next headache, for the labels on the pill-boxes have gone the way of all ink on paper in this acid test.

If the crowd of travelers is great, you may miss your train waiting for your turn; but once the silent officers have begun on you, the process is as rapid as thorough. In twenty minutes your pockets and body are searched, every article in your baggage inspected, and your passport read, entered, stamped, and returned two or three times.

And no questions are asked. You are manipulated like a steer in the slaughterhouse chute, and you have about as little conversation addressed to you. If your papers and belongings are in order, you go through; if they are not, you go out; and the German figures, what is the good of wasting talk about it? If you come on legitimate business, well. If on pleasure, that is also legitimate. If you care to take your pleasure under such circumstances, it is your affair, reasons the Imperial Government; and should you turn your pleasure trip into something forbidden, it depends on the police to catch you at it. Probably the police would; and, if they did not, the man who got by the frontier inspectors again with anything but lawful information, and that entirely in his memory, would be earning his pay, however high.

Whoever wishes to see a vast administrative machine running rapidly, silently, and untiringly should take the trip across the German border, if only to come back again the next day. There will be no question about efficiency after you have been through it. But there is also no question that, if you have never felt depersonalized, if you do not know the sensation of being treated as a non-human being by men who are not human beings while at work, you can get the experience in the same twenty minutes. You will know what a thinking orange would have in its mind as it rolls into the grader in the packinghouse. And you will be able to imagine, without the necessity of enlisting, precisely the mental and emotional operations of the German soldier at war.

Not that there is any brutality, or even discourtesy, about the process. The officer and soldier who paw you over are both correctly polite and laboriously civil. You can even by an offhand remark that is not too ill-seemingly light break through the crust that hides the man underneath and raise a genuine smile, a real smile such as you might encounter in America. But only for a moment; the machine must run like a machine. And if you try a compliment about the smoothness of the mechanism, features and bearing stiffen instantaneously. It seems suspicion; but perhaps it is only the conscious modesty of pride before unexpected praise.

Even the proverbial pedantry steps out of the lurking background. You may have the remnants of a fifty-pfennig package of pipe tobacco. The wrapper is a lithograph. So it must be condemned and destroyed. The contents may be worth three or four cents. As a wasteful American, you assume them confiscated with the bag; but the scrupulous soldier hauls out a sheet of paper—an official customs blank or something—wraps up your precious crumbs over your protest and offer of them to him, places the new package back into your suit-case, and retires with the nice red lithograph. It is a safe bet that if you insisted on the tobacco in your cigarettes they would be torn open and the tobacco handed to you. But the paper in which each one is rolled becomes the property of the German Government.

They do differently in England. They request your papers, but they do not go into your pockets. No hand is laid on your person, even ever so lightly. Your baggage is examined with a laxity born of a free-trade country. If an examiner now and then begins a real search of the contents, he is likely to open your case of shirt-studs and begin to read the letters that lie on top; but he will stop and turn to some one else without having got more than half-way to the bottom of your satchel.

But they ask you questions in England. They want to know your birth, your residence, your business, your relatives, where you have been and where you are going, the hotel at which you will stay, where you expect to be next week, whom you know in Great Britain and how you came to know them. They inquire, with genuine apologies, whether you could not do your business just as well or better after the war, and talk over your proposed itinerary in detail and with the proffer of helpful suggestions. After having been made to feel at Bentheim or Cranenburg that you are not a person at all, it is flattering to be treated at Tilbury as if you were a notability being plied with intimate questions by crowding reporters. The Englishman certainly carries being an individualist to the point of recognizing your individuality even in time of war; and he is most forbearing. But he is apt to be an hour and a half over it; and he surely gives you a chance, if you want to take it, to carry written information bearing on military matters in or out of the country, because he persists in treating you as a gentleman without knowing whether or not you are. And, with all his questions, he leaves the impression that if you have framed a plausible story and stick to it with aggressive tenacity you will get by him. It is all very pleasant and lovable, not to say hospitable, after the shriveling indifference of the German military; yet to the unprejudiced mind it doesn't altogether seem to get results. It may be ungrateful to say this after experiencing the fine courtesy of England; but there is a difference that will not down in the mind. And this difference is a symbol of the entire German and English methods of running a country at war.

The first impression as one steps off the train into the Friedrichstrasse is that Berlin looks and sounds as a metropolis should which is still a going concern. Observation number two is that the city manages to preserve this air with scarcely any automobiles in its streets. Third, one is astounded at the number of young men, apparently able-bodied and not in uniform, who are in view. The first impression sticks without wearing particularly thin. Nor does it seem to be a case of window-dressing to delude the outsider. To begin with, I do not believe that the Government of Germany at the present moment has the least interest in what the foreigner thinks of Berlin, or of Germany, or of anything else, or, for that matter, in what he does, so long as he obeys the military law and minds his legitimate business.

Further, one can run a theater, but one cannot make unwilling or poor people go to it. To bring a play to its hundredth performance in houses filled night after night on paper is as impossible in Berlin as in New York, and there are shows now running that have passed this mark. Besides, one has only to stand five minutes at the box-office or to step into a theater ticket agent's to be convinced that the public is paying its money. How far the money is real money is another question.

Nor can cafés and restaurants be run full on a complimentary basis. Any doubter has only to walk into Kempinski's or Kranzler's or a dozen others between half-past seven and eight without a previous reservation, and see what luck he has in finding an empty table. Berliners complain that the war has damped the night life of which they were proud. The outward night life probably has been considerably curtailed; but the fastidious can still see more of it than may be agreeable, and that without looking for it.

In the cities of the second rank, such as Leipzig, Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne, conditions are much the same relative to peace times. There is, however, a smaller proportion of young male civilians about than in the capital and in the country, as Germans themselves frequently say, there are practically no young men. Now and then a husky youth may be seen doing his mother's winter plowing, but your fellow-passengers in the train are likely to explain that he is probably home on a fortnight's furlough.

There is no doubt that these continuances of the normal activities of life are watched and, where necessary, directed by the Government. But it is an affair of carefully judged protection, not of artificially unsound stimulation. At every point where it possibly can the Government leaves its hands off. This is contrary to current ideas of how Germany is run. Possibly the current ideas are right as regards Germany in peace times. But for 1915 the current idea is unqualifiedly wrong. Like a skillful physician, the Government gives nature a chance to do its best. Five times out of six things adjust themselves. The sixth time, if the matter is not too crucial, the municipalities are given a chance to handle the case. Only when they fail does an edict come from the central administration. This may or may not relieve the situation; but it relieves the German mind. It is said that the German has unbounded faith in edicts. Perhaps he has. But I should rather put it that he has an unbounded faith in the infallible wisdom and unlimited capacity of his Government, a faith that is as unshakably and unreasonably fanatic as our American faith in democracy. At least, when the edict has come, everything has been done that can be done, and the fussing and discussing, of which there have been plenty before, subside.

There is undoubtedly an acute shortage of some foods in Germany. Fats, in particular, have soared skyward in a way that distresses the frugal native. It was while I was in Germany that Bulgaria's dramatic entry into the war made the open road to Constantinople imminent and filled the popular German mind with Alexandric and Napoleonic visions of Egypt and India. Yet in those same days I heard as much talk of the high price of butter as of Bulgaria.

It was in those same days that the first of the food riots occurred in Berlin. There were two. In each case a housewife started it. She walked into a shop to buy her slab of butter, was outraged at the price—outrage is a frequent sentiment—spoke her mind to the shopkeeper, who replied in kind. The bystanders joined in, somebody used her hand, the provisions began to be wrecked, people crowded in from the street, and the police arrived.

Not a word appeared in print in all Germany about these heroic happenings. But the next day the newspapers announced that the price of butter had been fixed by the municipality of Berlin at two marks eighty a pound.

It may comfort those who chafe at British tardiness and official incompetence to learn that a few weeks later I found this story known with all its details in London.

As to the subsequent "riots" in Leipzig and other cities I cannot speak with personal knowledge. From what I saw of German temper and of public conditions, I should judge that they were of a similar character.

Of course, as the available supply of fats diminishes still further, the price of butter will go up again, and more people will eat their war bread dry. Then there will be renewed talk about middlemen and speculators, and perhaps further demonstrations; and the Imperial Government may have to step in. Probably it will then requisition all fats in the country, supply its armies, and dole out a scant remainder to the larger hotels and restaurants, reminding the population that these are war times and every one must make sacrifices. And the population, having had the matter handled by its court of last resort and unerring wisdom, will acquiesce and eat its bread dry, not only willingly, but with ostentatious pride. But in part it will jammer about it too—which is something that is neither quite deploring nor complaining, and yet a good deal of each.

This may sound illogical, but it is German. The typical Berliner could not take, his darkened city with the unalloyed cheerfulness and genuine zest of humor of the Londoner. He would alternate between boasting how little it bothered him and scolding that the inconvenience was not put an end to.

The great and undoubtedly correct aim of the German Government is to preserve the stream of normal life and industrial activity unbroken, however thin it may run. This, indeed, is an absolute necessity; Germans themselves say that, once the industrial threads begin to snap, the game is up for them. As to the result of the endeavors, there can be no question that to date they have been wholly successful. It must also be admitted that it is hard to see now any specific reasons why they should not continue to be successful.

The vital threads of national life, then, run on unbroken in Germany. They are not materially frayed. Where the pull has stretched them thinnest the Government eases the tension as best it may. There is a readjustment here, a hurried, quiet repair there. But the plant is running on. And it is running at the end of 1915 substantially as it must have been running in the middle of 1914. Whoever believes the contrary has not been in Germany, or has looked at her, not as she is, but as he wishes her to be. The organization of England has undoubtedly gone ahead tremendously since peace was broken. But just as surely Germany has not gone back.

Of course mere maintenance of normal conditions of internal life will never bring victory. But, on the other hand, it obviously makes defeat impossible as long as the frontier can be held.

An eminent authority has said that the side that can raise the last million men and the last billion of money will win. I do not believe it. I do not even believe that it will come to a question of who can raise the last square meal. Prophecy being in order, I would say that the war will be won, if it is won at all, by whoever wins the last battle.

I gained this conviction in Germany, where I believe that any impartial neutral could not help gaining it; and in London I came to the conclusion that, whether or not England is ready to avow the principle as true, she is with grim determination shaping her course to accord with it.

There is nothing revolutionary in this view. Most past wars have been settled by battles, and by battles alone. History is never alike; but its deeper currents have a way of running in the same direction for a long time.

The German attempts to hamstring British trade by submarines and to terrorize England with air-thrown bombs have already broken down. The British starvation and paralysis blockade of Germany seems as surely destined to failure. They are both miscalculations—one method flagrantly offensive to all sentiments of humanity, the other of an indirect cruelty veiled only by its non-success; but both below the best instincts of each great people. Neither method has paid. In that futility at least the world is fortunate. We can hope that the next great war—if there is one—will be fought out cleanly, sword to sword, on the battlefield, and there only.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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