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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Other Possibility


Freiheit (Freedom)
by Constantin von Mitschke-Collande, 1919 ©LACMA 
In his multi-volume novel November 1918, German author Alfred Döbler describes the return of the defeated German army to Berlin in December of 1918:
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 Germany after the First World War, Richard Bessel notes, “Post-war German governments, whatever their political complexion, faced the task not of how ‘to bring culture and prosperity to the working people’ but of how, in effect, to distribute poverty.”° The Versailles Treaty had assigned Germany and its allies blame for the damages caused by their war of “aggression,”°° and in 1921, the Allies presented Germany with the bill for reparations: 132 billion gold marks.  In practice the figure was adjusted to 50 billion marks over thirty-six years—still an enormous sum.°°° British economist John Maynard Keynes protested that the terms of peace were in actuality a “policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation” thereby causing “the decay of the whole civilised life of Europe,”† while a German official labeled the reparations as “the continuation of the war by other means.”††

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.
Berlin bookburning, 1933

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. 

Erich Kästner
Just three years after “The Other Possibility” was published in the collection Ein Mann gibt Auskunft (A Man Gives Information), Kästner stood in Berlin’s Opernplatz Square and watched as a mob of over 40,000 people burned the books of fourteen undesirable authors. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Erich Maria Remarque were among the banned authors – as was Kästner himself, who had chosen not to flee Germany, but to remain and chronicle events.  During the Second World War, he was refused admission to the compulsory Nazi writers’ association and interrogated several times by the Gestapo; his career never recovered from the self-censorship required for his personal survival.  Shortly before Kästner’s death in 1974, his friend Marcel Reich-Ranicki described him as “Germany’s most hopeful pessimist,” writing that “he belonged to the moralists that are at the same time jesters.†††
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* 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.


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