|Freiheit (Freedom) |
by Constantin von Mitschke-Collande, 1919 ©LACMA
And then came the sight that caused many in the crowd to weep. Men as well as women, moved by the feeling of humanity’s common fate, remembering the long war and all the dead. Did the people see the troops? They were looking at the long war, at victories and at the defeats. Before them a piece of their own life was marching past, with wagons and horses, machine-guns and cannons.*
Everywhere in Europe, the old life was gone, never to be recovered, but perhaps nowhere was this more evident and mourned than in Germany. An estimated two million German soldiers died in the war, and Germans on the home front endured years of hunger and disease. The German national debt, which stood at 5 billion marks in 1913, had soared to 153 billion marks by the war’s end.**
|I can give him another injection; in the state he's in, |
he won't notice anything at all.
In 1929, amidst soaring unemployment, social unrest, and political instability, German author Erich Kästner wrote a poem that imagines a different version of reality.
The Other Possibility
If we had won the war with waving
of flags and roaring, if we had
then Germany would be past saving,
then Germany would have gone mad.
One would attempt to make us tame
like savage tribes that one might mention.
We’d leave the sidewalk if a sergeant came
and stand attention.
If we had won the war of late
we’d be in a proud and headstrong state
and press in bed in our dreams
our hands to our trouser seams.
Women must bear, each woman serves
a child a year. Or calaboose.
The state needs children as preserves,
and it swills blood like berry juice.
If we had won the war, I bet
that heaven would be national,
the clergy would wear epaulets,
God be a German general.
Trenches would take the place of borders.
No moon, insignia instead.
An emperor would issue orders.
We’d have a helmet and no head.
If we had won, then everyone
would be a soldier; the entire
land would be run by goon and gun,
and all around would be barbed wire.
On order, women would throw twins,
for men cost hardly more than stone,
and above all one cannot win
a war with guns alone.
Then reason would be kept in fetters,
accused and always on the spot.
And wars would come like operettas.
If we had won the last war—but
we were in luck and we did not.
—Erich Kästner, translated by Walter Kaufmann
Kästner’s alternate version of events produces a fiercely nationalist, militaristic, rigidly patriotic country, a German society in which everyone is always under orders and no one is valued, for “men cost hardly more than stone” – they are cultivated like cabbages for cannon fodder. Kästner had fought in the First World War as a young artillery gunner, an experience that shaped his pacifist views. His poem re-invents the close of the Great War while simultaneously anticipating and warning against future threats.
* Alfred Döblin, November 1918, iii, Heimkehr der Frontruppen, Deutscher Taschenbuch Vergag, 1978, pp. 152-153, cited in Richard Bessel’s Germany after the First World War, Clarendon Press, 1993, p. v.
** Philipp Blom, Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938, Basic Books, 2015, p. 75.
° Richard Bessel’s Germany after the First World War, Clarendon Press, 1993, p. 102.
°° Article 231 of the treaty specified: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”
°°° David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, WW Norton & Company, 2014, p. 131.
† John Maynard Keynes, Economic Consequences of the Peace, Macmillian and Company, 1920, p. 209.
†† The Long Shadow, p. 133.
††† Marcel Reich-Ranicki, quoted by Jacob Comenetz, “German Embassy’s ‘Erick Kästner Days’ Celebrate Beloved Author,” archive.li/8vZ0P, Accessed 19 Mar. 2018.