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Monday, December 22, 2014

Chapter 5-2


Tuesday, July 28th. The air was already sticky with humid warmth as Walter hurried to the Cycleworks on Tuesday morning. Sunday, as they had been returning from their hiking trip, it had begun to rain, soaking them as they trudged back to the rural rail station. The rain had continued Monday, and Walter had wished angrily that the sun would return. Now it had, but the combination of wet and warmth was far more oppressive than the rain had been.

The newsboys were out in force in the streets, calling the day’s headline, “Serbia Offers Partial Capitulation!” With the mounting international crisis, and rumors of war now increasing daily, the news sheets were doing a brisk business: morning, afternoon and evening editions all had their readerships.

“Have you heard the latest?” were the first words Walter heard as he entered the workers room at the Cycleworks and hung his coat and cap on one of the forest of pegs.

“I saw the headline this morning was that Serbia agreed to Austria’s ultimatum.”

“Does that mean it’s all over? Danger past?”

“Not yet. They didn’t accept every demand. We have to see if the partial agreement is enough.”

“Austria ought to be satisfied with this. How much more do they expect?”

A week before there had been no talk of Austria and Serbia and world affairs. Now it was a source of commonality between friends and strangers alike. What’s the news? Have you heard? The crisis provided the first topic on all occasions, and like any other topic which draws all those in a large city together -- whether a sports championship or a natural disaster -- this shared experience provided a sort of closeness which was itself an attraction. Fear drove the interest, fear that war would break out. And yet, the excitement of the crisis was such that people did not quite want it to end.

The workers room hummed with news and speculation until at seven the starting bell sent everyone scurrying for their assigned places. Then the day became like any other, ruled by the rhythm of the assembly process.

Walter was at his station, welding the stays of a frame into place, when Kurt approached him.

“Meyer wants you. In his office.”

Walter went up the now familiar metal staircase to find Meyer waving a piece of paper.

“I’ve got it. At least this war scare is good for something. I’ve got the first order.”

“For the bicycles, sir?”

“Yes. Two hundred bicycles, payment upon delivery. I was half afraid the actual order would never come through -- anything relating to the government is so slow -- so I’d been holding off delivery of the new machinery until I had the first purchase order in hand, but here it is.”

Walter realized this meant both that he would soon have the satisfaction of actually running the line, and also that the weeks of hiding the promotion from Paul and Berta would come to a necessary end. Each time he tried to broach the topic with Berta he was convinced that from her, at least, he could win an admission that the job would be good for him and for the workers under him -- perhaps even some hint that she admired the ability which had brought the offer to him. Yet each time this satisfaction eluded. Now he would have to simply admit the facts, and perhaps in the end that was for the best. Surely once she saw he had the job but had not himself changed…

Meyer was looking at him, expecting some sort of answer. He realized that, wrapped in his own thoughts, he had lost track of the owner’s words.

“I’m looking forward to starting the new duties,” he said, assuming this must be close enough to the point to serve.

“Good. Good. Monday it is, then. We’ll be getting the first machinery delivered and you can help set up the line. I expect you to know every detail of this line and be able to work every part. It’s more complicated than most, with the folding frame. That’s why I need a foreman who is mechanically inclined, even if you don’t have experience in management.”

“I am grateful for the chance, sir.”

“You can have up to four men off the existing lines, and I’ll advertise to hire another four. I can’t have all the best workers going to this or the commercial lines will suffer. At least this is government work and we can take our time about it if you need some learning time.”

Walter nodded, though sure in his own mind that Meyer did not, in fact, consider slowness while learning acceptable. He would figure it out. He would not be marked down a failure from the start.

“Give Kurt a list of the names by Thursday. So long as he doesn’t have any objections, you can have your pick.”

“Thank you.”

“Now so long as we don’t actually have a war… My God, that would be all kinds of trouble. Chrome comes from overseas. And the seat leather from Russia. Prices would be up on everything. Still. Mustn’t borrow trouble. Today’s problems today, and there’ve been worse scares before now but no war since I was a child.”

***

The noon headlines the newsboys were hawking in the street screamed, “WAR PANIC! STOCKS COLLAPSE! Britain recalls navy to prepare for war!”

“There’s the joke for you,” Paul said, as the two of them loitered in the street eating the lunch they had bought from a food cart. “The capitalists try to start a war so they can profiteer, and they end up losing money instead.”

“Maybe they don’t want a war either, then,” Walter ventured.

Paul snorted. “Some of them may not anymore, though I bet the really rich ones knew about this crash before it happened and found a way to make money on it. But the industrialists and financiers are still pigs at the war trough, you can be sure of that. They’re all slavering to make money on weapons and munitions. There’s even a rumor going around that old Meyer got his grubby hands on some sort of a military contract.”

Walter looked away towards the newsboy and said nothing, hoping that it looked as if he were trying to see the headlines more clearly. Before Paul could continue on the subject they were joined by several other men, including Willi.

“Paul! Have you heard there’s an anti-war march planned tonight?”

“No. When? Where?”

“Eight o’clock, from the Reichstag to the Stadtschloss.”

“I’ll go straight there after work. You too, Walter, right?”

“Well… I suppose. Yes, I’ll come.” Walter had no deep interest in a march, but then, “And Berta?” he asked. “Will she come, do you think?”

“Of course! Everyone will be there. This is our chance to show the militarists the power of the worker!”

***

When the final bell sounded at 7:30, Walter put his station in order quickly and met Paul outside the factory gates. Together they caught a street car, which with several transfers allowed them to make their way in from the factories and tenements of their north-eastern part of the city to the very center.

By the time the streetcar neared the Friedrichstrasse railroad station it was packed and full of the smells of tobacco smoke, grease, and sweat, as workers who had spent their hot, humid day in workshops and factories stood pressed shoulder to shoulder, those who could not reach the handrails held up by the pressure of others around them. At the Friedrichstrasse they all poured out, leaving the streetcar almost empty, and joined the milling crowd making its way towards the Reichstag.

The crowd was already large by the time they reached the Konigsplatz, the big open square facing the Reichstag. A speaker was standing on the Bismarck memorial and addressing the crowd. From the way he was moving his arms and body Walter was sure he must be shouting, but it was impossible to draw close enough to hear what he was saying. The crowd was noisy. With more people arriving constantly, there was always someone coming up and asking those already there what was happening, who was speaking, and when the march would get moving. Some people were shouting names, looking for people they had expected to meet or had become separated from. A few food sellers and newsboys worked the outside of the crowd, calling their wares and adding to the din. Walter quickly realized that although Berta might well be there, if they met it would be a matter of utter chance. The crowd was far too large to be sure of meeting any one person.

Walter could see the distant speaker gesturing with his arms, as if the crowd were a giant orchestra. The indistinct noise of shouts and talking began to resolve into a single, wave-like voice: a surge of noise, then quiet, then another louder surge, then a deeper quiet. As more and more of the crowd joined in, the distant speaker because audible between the surges.

“Who are we?”

“THE WORLD’S WORKERS!”

“Will we allow our sweat and toil to build weapons and to carry troops to the slaughter?”

“NO!”

“Will we allow ourselves to be drawn into the tempest of war by Austrian militarism?”

“NO!”

“Do we desire war with our fellow workers in France and Russia?”

“NO!”

“What do we ask of our Kaiser?”

“Peace!”

This last response, it seemed, was not as immediately obvious to much of the crowd and the response was ragged. The speaker asked it of them several more times until the word PEACE boomed forth from the whole crowd with the ferocity of a battle cry. Walter had not been joining in the responses, though he could hear Paul’s voice shouting them out. However, this repeating of the one word, louder each time until the crowd seemed to sway with the strength of putting forth the cry, had an intoxicating effect. Walter could feel the shout from thousands of voices, which seemed to echo right down into his chest.

Then the speaker struck up the Internationale and the whole crowd joined in. At the south side of the Konigsplatz people had begun to move, marching towards the Brandenburg Gate. The crowd was large enough that the leading members of it were passing under the massive columns of the gate and into the broad Unter den Linden before those where Paul and Walter stood began to move. By then, the Internationale was in its second run through, and some of the marchers had given up on signing and returned to walking quietly among themselves.

As they neared the Brandenburg Gate, with the protest stretching out far before and behind them, Walter craned his neck to see the winged figure of Victory, holding her standard in one hand and the reigns of the four horses pulling her chariot in the other. He was seldom in this part of the city, with its monuments and public buildings. The crowd, the largest that Walter had ever seen of people gathered to a single purpose, seemed an awe inspiring sight on its own, but the monumental columns of the Brandenburg Gate were impressive in another, more solid fashion. Watching the march file through the Gate, it seemed clear that even these ten or twenty thousand people were a small thing in comparison to the official weight of the empire. This crowd was larger than any formation of soldiers Walter has seen in one place during his two years service, but then, how many other regiments were there? And how many other divisions? Did it, in the end, matter to the empire at all what these few thousands of Berlin workers thought about the prospect of war?

As the march made its way down the Unter den Linden, Walter allowed himself to drift a little way from Paul in the crowd. He could still see his friend, and did not want to become separated completely lest he be unable to find him again in the press of people, but by letting a few others come in between them he felt more able to spend his time looking around at the ornate stone facades of the public buildings on either side.

The crowd was still gathering size, with men flowing in from side streets to join the march, but although it was one of the widest boulevards in the city, the layout of the Unter den Linden, with its double row of trees shading a wide pedestrian walkway in the middle, and wide cobbled roadways on either side for vehicles, naturally broke up the marchers, with some advancing down the pedestrian way while others walked in the roadways on either side, or on the sidewalks beyond those.

At last, the trees and the central pedestrian way ended at the monument to Frederick the Great, and the crowd flowed together into a single mass which filled the street from side to side. Up on the left he could see a surge and snarl in the flow of the march. The University of Berlin formed a horseshoe of pale grey stone buildings on the north side of the street, and in the open square formed by that horseshoe a crowd of students, wearing straw boaters in contrast to the workmen’s caps of the marchers, was gathered. One student stood on the pedestal of a statue in front of the square and harangued the crowd as it passed.

“You demand peace as if it is Germany that wants war. Is it not our enemies that have trapped us in a ring of iron? The French threaten us from the West, and their barbarian hirelings the Russians threaten us from the East. Do you think they will give us peace? Will you sit on your hands and say ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there are Russian Cossacks riding through Prussia burning our homes and assaulting our mothers and sisters? Will you stand by while the Asiatic horde defiles our Fatherland?”

Walter could not tell which side made the first move, but at this point someone threw a punch and the crowd of students rushed forward towards the marchers. The fight was near him. He was pushed back and then forwards as people struggled to get into the fray or away from it, but he himself was out of reach of what was happening. People surged back and forth. He saw a student staggering back away towards the college, blood streaming down his face from a wound in his scalp. There were more shouts and he saw students and workers both begin to throw stones, glass bottles, anything they could lay their hands on.

Then the whole forward progress of the march ceased, and he could hear shouting from up ahead. He struggled to see what was going on, and over the heads of the crowd he recognized the spiked helmets and blue tunics of several mounted policemen. They were wielding wooden batons, their arms rising and falling as they scattered the marchers before them with blows that fell upon heads and shoulders. The students saw what was happening as well and cheered to see that the workers were getting their due. With shouts of “Hail Kaiser” and “For the Fatherland” they threw themselves with redoubled effort into the melee. The crowd of marchers began to melt away into side streets.

Walter pushed his way over to Paul’s side and grabbed his friend by the shoulder.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

Paul shook him off. “No! They can’t do this. We have as much right to march to the Kaiser’s palace and express our feelings as any other Germans. We’re not a tyranny.”

“The police are breaking up the rally, and I don’t intend to get cracked on the head.”

“That’s coward’s talk. We should fight back.”

Walter pointed out the fruitlessness of fighting back without no weapons against mounted police with batons, not to mention sabres and carbines. At last, Paul relented, and the two joined the other groups of workers who slipped away via side streets.

***

When Walter arrived home that night, Frau Heuber had already left for her evening charwoman work, and Erich was sitting at the table reading a copy of The Good Comrade, a magazine specializing in illustrated adventure stories for boys.

“Did you already eat?” Walter asked, as he hung his coat and hat by the door.

Erich nodded with the muteness of the absorbed thirteen-year-old.

“I’m sorry to be so late.”

“I traded with Robert to get this copy. It’s from last year, but it could be taking place right now. Look!” He held up the cover, which showed a sandy-haired boy pointing out the way for two handsomely square-jawed army officers. “The Lost Dispatch Book!” read the title. “It has French and Russian spies,” explained Erich. “I wish I could be a soldier. If there’s a war, do you think you’ll get to go?”

Walter shrugged, and with the question realized that he had never seriously considered the crisis leading to any kind of military action serious enough to involve him. “I don’t know. It would depend whether the reserves were called up. I’m only two years out, so I suppose if anyone gets called up I will.”

“Do you think they will? Will you be angry if the reserves don’t get to fight?”

Walter spread butter over a thick slice of heavy, dark bread and levered the cap off a bottle of beer, which immediately began to foam, the tepid beer which had been sitting in the tenement all day unable to hold its carbonation. Walter swore and sucked foam away until the bottle ceased overflowing, then took his dinner to the table.

“The army wasn’t much like your adventure stories. We spent most our time cleaning: making our beds just the way the sergeant liked them, polishing our boots and our buttons till they shone, scrubbing the barrack floors, cleaning and oiling the rifles. Other than that we marched.”

“But that was in peacetime. This is war! Listen:

‘Leutnant Muller let Johann follow him as he inspected the men, each standing by his neatly made bed with his carefully organized pack on top of it.

‘Why do they have to spend so much time being neat?” Johann asked. ‘Those are the same things my mother makes me do at home.’

The handsome, officer smiled kindly. ‘These men know that in battle their lives may depend on obeying every order precisely and doing every job right. They are proud to learn this discipline for the Fatherland.’

“So you see, all that neatness is important. I’m going to start folding my blankets neatly every morning so that I’ll be ready to be a disciplined soldier.”

“Well, I’m sure Mother will like that.”

When Walter lay down to go to sleep, Erich was still sitting up, reading his magazine. That bit Erich had read him had been so comically earnest it was hard to imagine that even at thirteen the story didn’t seem contrived. But then, perhaps the army was at least something it was possible to be earnest about. Did anyone write inspiring adventure stories about factory foremen?

***

The next morning was sunny again, though less humid than the day before. As he walked to the Cycleworks, Walter was trying to decide whether he should tell Paul that he’d accepted the job, or simply wait for him to find out. He passed a newsboy in the street whose paper screamed in large block letters, “AUSTRIA DECLARES WAR ON SERBIA!” This one more step in the unfolding crisis seemed to provide no answer to the question of whether his own country would be drawn into a war.

Far away to the south and east, Austrian gunboats on the Danube began to shell Belgrade that morning.



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3 comments:

  1. Does anyone write inspiring adventure stories about factory foremen?
    Tune in next time to find out. Haha.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "What’s the news? Have you heard? The crisis provided the first topic on all occasions, and like any other topic which draws all those in a large city together -- whether a sports championship or a natural disaster -- this shared experience provided a sort of closeness which was itself an attraction." Yup.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like the self-awareness of the main characters, who want to be swept away by things, but have a little bit of their minds detached and saying, "Really?" and observing with detachment.

    ReplyDelete