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Monday, December 15, 2014

Chapter 5-1

Berlin. July 25th, 1914 The Cycleworks, like many more desirable employers, had a shorter work day on Saturdays, reducing the usual eleven hours to only eight. This had allowed Paul and Berta’s weekend excursion to catch the 6:10 local. The third class carriages were packed, forcing the group to disperse and find seats in ones and twos. Walter was squeezed onto one of the wooden benches next to two farm wives returning from a day of marketing. They eyed him suspiciously as he sat down next to them and settled his knapsack between his feet. When he showed no immediate signs of trying to snatch their purses, however, they returned to discussing the prices for eggs, poultry and feed, and exchanging anecdotes about the regular sellers and buyers at the market.

After a long wail from the train’s whistle, it began to chuff up to speed. Buildings slid by outside the windows. There were two more stations before the local cleared the city, and then stops slowed to every fifteen or twenty minutes. With each stop the benches thinned out. Trees and fields and steep-roofed farmhouses slid by outside with a speed that was fascinating to watch. With stops every block or two, the streetcars never much exceeded a running pace, but with four or more miles between stops Walter guessed that the local at times neared twenty miles an hour. He wished he could get forward into the engine and see the crew at work, managing machinery so much more powerful than anything he touched in the factory. The engine powering the locomotive was doubtless larger than the one which powered all the drive belts in the factory, and the power was all poured into moving the big steel wheels.

The shadows were lengthening when they pulled into yet another rural station, and Berta stood up and led the way out of the railroad carriage. The eleven of them, seven men and four women, assembled on the covered platform with their packs on their backs. Then Paul and Berta led the way down the road past the church, whose clock showed the time as just after eight o’clock, leaving them with an hour and a half of daylight on the late July evening. The cobbled roads gave way to dirt, and they were walking among fields. Harvest was still some weeks away, and fields of oats or barley, gradually turning golden brown, alternated with others filled with long rows of leafy-topped turnips or sugar beets.

Fields which had flashed picturesquely by the train passed much more slowly and more tediously on foot, and it wasn’t long before one of the men pointed out that their packs would be lighter if they stopped and ate first and then hiked afterwards.

“After eating you won’t want to walk anymore,” Berta predicted. “Think how good those sausages and bottled beer will taste in an hour or two. Besides, there’s nowhere to stop here and it would get dark. About four miles up the road there are some large farms which let weekend hikers stay. That’s where we’ll have dinner and spend the night.”

The announcement of four more miles walking raised several complaints.

“It will pass quickly,” Berta promised. “We can sing while we hike. That will pass the time.”

This led to a discussion of what to sing, which was cut short when Willi, a huge man who worked in the warehouse and the Cycleworks, and who was also the organizer of the Workers Chorale, which met twice a week to practice for an hour after work and gave concerts on holidays, began to lead The Internationale:

Stand up, damned of the Earth
Stand up, prisoners of starvation!
Reason thunders in its volcano
This is the eruption of the end.
Make a clean sweep of the oppressors!
Enslaved masses, rise up, rise up!

Walter knew the song in somewhat the same fashion which he knew the hymns which he heard on the occasions when his mother decided the family should go to church. Asked to write down the words, he would have been at a loss, but he could follow along with a sort of wordless hum and then come in strong with the last word of each line. Several of the others seemed to be much like Walter in their knowledge and ability which they brought to the song, but Paul and Berta and a few others joined in strongly enough that Willi could depart from the melody at times to provide little flourishes in his rich bass voice.

After the last chorus of how the Internationale would be the human race, Willi led off on Die Wacht am Rhein. When they had rolled through five stanzas of promising the Rhine that it would remain as German as their hearts, Paul remarked a little caustically that when the Internationale really was the whole human race there’d be no need for this chest thumping nationalism, but Willi shrugged the criticism off.

“I can’t help that it’s a good song. Maybe we can get some clever fellow like you to write better words for it. How about ‘The Watch on the Boiler Line’. That could be a good workers’ song. The steam, the steam, the steam is fine; to fill our pipes and power the line!” he belted out in deep notes which made the words more ludicrous.

“Oh fine, joke away. Next you’ll have us singing hymns.”

Willi shrugged good naturedly. “I don’t have to believe in any big boss up in the sky to sing a good hymn. I always put one of those first in the holiday concerts so the authorities think we aren’t dangerous.”

“Can we sing ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’?” asked one of the women.

By way of reply, Willi began belting it out, and after the first few lines everyone else joined in as well, except Paul who folded his arms and glowered at the dirt road as the hiked along, tight lipped but unable to avoid stepping in time to the singing.

This was followed by several more hymns and folk songs. Willi’s repertoire was clearly large, but the number of songs that all of them knew was limited, and the group gradually became strung out along the road with fewer and fewer singing along.

Berta was in the lead, and Walter, who for some time had found himself watching her silhouette as he walked behind her, took the opportunity to catch up and fall into step next to her. She looked over and gave him a quick smile as he came even with her, but she made no effort to begin conversation and seemed focused on the fields around them and the lines of trees that divided them. The singing behind them became more quiet, and Walter struggled in his mind for some good way of beginning a conversation.

“This was a wonderful idea. It’s so pretty out here, with fresh air. I don’t know how long it is since I’ve gone for a long walk outside the city.” As soon as he said this he realized that the last time he’d walked this long along rural roads, he’s been wearing a field gray uniform and listening to the barked orders of the sergeants during his two years service, but he felt that was not the right memory to bring up with Berta.

This gained a smile from her. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I tell Paul that this kind of thing, worker fellowship, is just as important as formal organizing. One of the ways they keep us an oppressed and child-like class is by keeping the men in the beer halls at night, and the women fearing their men. That way they take money from us and destroy our social relations as well. If religion is the opium of the people it’s only because alcohol is already the alcohol of the people.”

This line of thinking made Walter intensely aware of the two half liter bottles of beer that were in his pack, but he knew that Paul had two as well and said nothing.

“Whereas out here,” she continued, spreading her arms as she walked and encompassing the whole of the scenery. “The professionals and the middle classes go out here on holiday as if they own it, but what are farmers but another kind of workers? These fields are more of our world than the bourgeois world.”

“I’d rather be here than in some smoky beer hall where the owner looks at me like I might break something,” Walter said, thinking this last would make the sentiment particularly acceptable.

“Exactly.” She drew in a long breath and let it out in a kind of happy sigh. Something about this sigh made Walter look over at her, her round cheeked face and blonde hair streaked with brown pulled back in a bun, and then turn away, afraid that by looking at her he somehow gave away what he thought when seeing her.

They walked in silence for a few minutes.

“I still have the choice of whether to take that foreman’s job at the Cycleworks,” said Walter at last, consciously keeping his eyes on the road ahead. The promotion had been much on his mind the last few weeks. He had received his first week of higher pay, and he had stayed late after work several days to look at Herr Meyer’s diagrams for the new line that would be arriving. As yet, however, the new line had not yet been completed. His foreman duties had not yet started, and so he had taken the easy road of not telling Paul that he had accepted Herr Meyer’s offer. Yet something about the afternoon and Berta’s tone of voice made him think that he could convince her that accepting the offer would be the right thing to do. Perhaps she would even be impressed by the sort of man who would make a good foreman: a worker’s foreman, not a boss.

“They’re tempting you, Walter.” She fixed an earnest gaze on him for a moment, and he was forced to look away.

“But if I accepted, with the higher pay, my mother could stop working as a night charwoman as well as teaching her music lessons. And surely… Surely workers need a good foreman. A workers’ foreman instead of some fool who wants to lord it over them all.”

She shook her head. “You’re trying to convince yourself, Walter, but you know it’s wrong. This is precisely the lie they tell us, that we need bosses. But the need for bosses is an illusion. Have you ever read about ants or bees? They are the hardest working creatures and they build intricate cities while caring for each other, but they have no need for bosses, for parasites who live off the work of others and do none themselves.”

“No, you’re wrong. I remember reading about ant colonies, and they have a queen. Surely a queen is even more what you oppose than a foreman.”

“Certainly, but to call it a ‘queen’ is to paint it with human colors. The queen of an ant colony is simply another worker. Her work is to lay eggs to make the next generation. She’s nothing like the capitalists and aristocrats and politicians in a human society.”

“Well, maybe. But we’re not insects, after all. Humans have always had rulers. And if we’re going to have rulers, isn’t it better to have good ones? If all the good people hold themselves apart and refuse to participate, it’ll be only the bullies and scoundrels who take the jobs as leaders and foremen.”

“But the past is not the future, Walter.” It was the third time she had used his name, and it made him look over to meet her eyes. He was conscious that if Paul had argued with him this long he would have found an excuse to change the subject or end the conversation. Her softer voice was no less earnest than her brother’s, but it made him want to agree with her. “Haven’t scientists learned that not so long ago our ancestors were dumb brutes who did not even walk upright? If man used to be a solitary brute, he is becoming a social creature. That change is brought about by the development of our modern cities and factories. As this change becomes complete we are becoming like the bees: a society of workers. There will no longer be any need for bosses or rulers of any kind. And as society completes this evolution, those who have tried to set themselves up in these positions will be seen as the parasites that they are and cast down from their pedestals.”


The sun was beginning to set when they reached a farm: a large, white-walled farmhouse with a steep wood shingled roof, surrounded by several outbuildings and haystacks. The group approached the farmhouse, and Paul and Berta spoke to the middle aged man who came out to speak to them. The conversation appeared to become increasingly animated, and at last the brother and sister returned to the rest of the group.

“He says he doesn’t like the look of us. He only lets church groups stay,” said Berta.

Paul added something under his breath, then shrugged and said in a normal voice. “Can’t be helped. There are several farms near here that the hiking association said allow people to stay. Let’s go find the next one before it gets dark.”

Fifteen minutes later, just after the sun had disappeared behind the horizon but while the sky was still light, they came upon another farm and this time found much better luck. The farmer’s wife offered that the women could come in and stay in a spare room in the farmhouse for the night, and in return for splitting some wood the farmer said they were welcome to build a fire in the open yard near the barn.

By the time it was fully dark they were sitting around the fire passing around sausages, cheese, rolls, and for dessert a large bar of chocolate from which everyone broke off pieces until it was gone. Willi led another round of singing and then several took turns telling ghost stories. It was almost midnight when Berta stood up from the circle and announced that it was time that the women retired to the farmhouse to sleep.

As soon as the women were gone, as if by unspoken agreement the topic had been held back until it could be broached in strictly masculine company, a man named Ernst asked, “What do you think of this news in the papers? Will Russia attack?”

Pipes were lit, more bottled beer was taken out of packs, and the topic was discussed from all sides.

“Why should Russia attack us just because the Austrians punish the Serbs?”

“But they say that if Russia attacks Austria, we will defend them.”

“That’s precisely why Russia won’t attack. They don’t want a war with us.”

They may not want a war with us, but you can bet their army and their industrialists want a war. And so do ours. They won’t have to do the dying, after all.”

“Of course the generals and the industrialists want war,” said Paul. “But they won’t get it. We’ve passed the point where there could be a European War. It won’t happen.”

This drew several objections. “What do you mean there can’t be a war?”

“Just that. Think about it: The Kaiser declares war against Russia. What’s the first thing that they do? They ship millions of soldiers east on trains, and they tell the factories to start turning out guns and shells. But who does that put in charge?”

“The army.”

“No, the workers. The trains only run if the railroad workers shovel coal and load cargo. The factories only produce arms if the workers agree to make them. But why should the workers agree to fight fellow workers in another country? The kings and emperors still appear to rule Europe, but it’s really the workers in charge. There won’t be a war unless we allow it. And we won’t.”

“What’s this they’re saying about France attacking us? Why would they do that?”

“Because they have a treaty with Russia,” Willi said. “The papers say if we fight Russia, then France attacks us from the other side.”

“The papers are trash,” Paul assured. “France has the biggest Socialist movement in the world after ours. If there’s one country we’re safe from, it’s them. I’m telling you: we’ve passed the point where there can be a major war in Europe. The generals and the crowned heads know it, and they’re afraid. If they tried to start a war, they would just bring down the revolution on their necks now instead of later.”

They continued to argue the question until the beer was finished and the fire burned low. Then at last, they retired to the barn and laid blankets down on the hay to make their beds.

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1 comment:

  1. I am merrily arguing in my head with Berta as I go along. It must have been a glorious (sort of glorious) thing to be a Communist in the early parts of the twentieth century. A pure vision, unclouded by attachment to the pragmatic, which assumed the total brotherhood of the human race. Such an uncomplicated view of life.