To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Chapter 5-3

Friday, July 31st. Walter arrived in the workers’ room at six-forty and found it already bustling. He was not the only one who had had the idea of arriving early in order to see the headlines. There were knots of people scattered around the room, each crowded around a newspaper. Walter looked around for people he knew.

Strange how in such a short time -- what had it been, ten days, perhaps? -- new routines had grown up around the endless need for news. Already the crisis seemed to have become a constant. Get up early, eat while walking to the Cycleworks, see and discuss the headlines with the other workers. The normalcy made it seem as if it would go on and on, and that itself was in a sense a comfort because it meant that war would never actually come.

Kurt was sitting atop one of the tables, a short stemmed pipe clamped between his teeth, holding up a paper and reading snatches from it. Walter drew closer to that group and scanned the headline: “RUSSIA MOBILIZES, Government Demands Russia Stand Down”

“Russia claims that it’s only a partial mobilization along the Austrian border,” Kurt said. “The Kaiser and the Tsar both say they want peace.”

“What do they mean partial mobilization?” one of the onlookers asked. “Are they mobilizing or aren’t they?”

Kurt shrugged. “Doesn’t say. The Chancellor demands that they fully cancel the mobilization.”

“Are they attacking Austria?”

“It just says mobilizing.”

“God, what’s wrong with these Russians? Do they want a war?”

Kurt continued to read, summarize and answer questions until the bell rang for the shift to start, when he knocked out his pipe, folded the paper, and headed rapidly for the production line. The groups broke up as well and workers drifted to their stations, though talk continued on the floor.

When Walter reached his station he found a folded piece of paper with his name on it waiting for him. He opened it and read the brief instruction, “Come see me immediately. Meyer.” He folded the paper up, shoved it into his pocket, and headed back across the floor to the iron stair. With others just starting to settle down to work this drew more notice than usual, and one acquaintance at the enameling station shouted, “How’d you get in trouble this early, Walter?”

Meyer was sorting mail at his desk, tearing open letters, scanning them, and then dropped them into different baskets.

“I got your note, Herr Meyer.”

“Good. Sit down. I have something I want to discuss with you.”

Walter sat, and Meyer continued to sort until he had worked through his stack of mail. Then he lined the baskets up neatly on the left side of his desk and turned his attention to Walter.

“I have a form here that I want you to sign.” He pushed a piece of paper with large, official looking, Gothic lettering across the top. “It’s a request for exemption from reserve service due to essential war work. Most of my men here were never selected to serve their two years active duty -- the army doesn’t want a bunch of socialist agitators any more than I do -- so they don’t have anything to worry about unless the Landsturm is called up. More’s the pity. Marching every day under the orders of a good sergeant would make them realize how good they have it here. You, on the other hand, are still active reserve. If there’s a mobilization order, which judging by the papers could happen any day, you’d likely be called up immediately. And you I don’t want to lose. I’ve talked to a friend in the Ministry of War, and he says that if I have you file the appropriate paperwork, even if it’s not processed in time you can simply not show up at mobilization and once the paperwork clears your exemption will be granted. But we need to get it filed now. We can’t wait till you’re already called up, or I’ll have to let you go and then try to get you sent back. So,” he nudged the paper close to Walter. “Fill it out: Your depot. Your regiment. Your Company. Your name and military identification number. Sign at the bottom, and I’ll get it filed and stamped today so that whatever happens we’re in the right.”

Walter tried to skim the block of legal text filling the top half of the form as Meyer spoke but found it impenetrable to his half attention. The excuse seemed an attractive prospect. Certainly, the memories of his two years in uniform were not particularly fond, especially the chronic shortage of food which could only be made up by begging his mother to send packages from home. And yet there was something about Meyer’s assumption that he would apply for the exemption, that he was Meyer’s man rather than the Kaiser’s, which sat poorly with him. Just as the Brandenburg Gate had stood above the peace march three days before, huge and indifferent to the protest of the workers passing below it, there was at least some sense in which the army and the empire was something which stood above and aloof from the divide between management and workers, between Meyer and the Ehrlichmanns.

Ever since the offer of the foreman job people had been demanding that he take sides. Side with Meyer or side with Paul. A future with more responsibility and better pay, or a future in which he had a chance with Berta. Perhaps this other, higher road provided a way to satisfy all of these. Earn responsibility and leadership. Satisfy his mother’s desire for a more respectable occupation. Excel in a way that Berta could still find attractive. What would Berta think of a soldier? Or with a little time, and luck, perhaps a sergeant?

And this paper Meyer was pushing towards him meant turning away from that higher allegiance and taking Meyer’s side in the smaller conflict between bosses and organizers. If only there were more time to think it all out.

“Do you think there really will be war?” he asked. “Or that they’ll call up the reserves?”

“Who knows? I think it’s just as likely it will all blow over. But if so, there’s still no harm in getting this filed. Why have the possibility of being called up hanging over you? You’re not just an East Prussian village boy anymore. You’ll be managing a manufacturing line. That’s important work. They can always get peasants to carry rifles.”

“Protecting the Fatherland is important work.”

Meyer flushed slightly, and Walter realized this last must have sounded as if he were questioning the owner’s patriotism. “Of course it is! But see here: They’ll have five million men carrying rifles if they mobilize the reserves. How many of those men can build a folding bicycle? If war comes that test order for two hundred bicycles will turn into orders for thousands. We’ll run shifts around the clock. Think what a bicycle trooper can do compared to an infantry man on foot! He could cover sixty miles a day instead of twenty. If you want to serve the Kaiser, you’ll do it better here.”

“I understand that, but-” From what came after that there could be no return. He hesitated on the brink.

“But what? There’s no call even to be discussing this. Sign the form, I’ll have it filed, and there’s an end to it. It would be foolishness for you to be marching with an infantry regiment -- marching on foot -- when you could be building bicycles which will help move the army into the future.”

“Sir… Sir, I don’t want to sign the form. I don’t want to shirk from service.”

“It’s not shirking, boy, any more than I’m shirking.”

“I know. But if I’m called up, I want to serve.”

Meyer got up from his desk, and Walter stood as well. He shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot as Meyer paced to the far side of the office and back, his hands behind his back, coming to a stop just a pace away from Walter.

“My boy, I’ve seen quite a future for you here. I want to do everything I can for you. But I don’t run a charity. If you run off to the army just as I’m getting busy with this new line, I can’t hold that job open for you.”

He paced away, letting that thought sink in. As he walked, one large hand reached up to ruffle his short-cropped fringe of steel grey hair which ran from ear to ear. When he turned back to Walter it was with a sigh.

“I respect your feelings, and I’d never fire a man for wanting to serve the Fatherland. So if there’s no mobilization, no harm done. But if you won’t sign this, and you are called up, I’ll have to choose another man as foreman. What happens when you come back? Even if there is a war, it won’t be long. Six months from now you’ll be back and I can’t fire whoever I hire to fill this foreman’s job. And if I’ve had to staff up for war work, I may be letting people go, not hiring. Even your old job won’t be there. Are you prepared for that? Now think about it.” He paced back to the desk and picked up the form. “Think about it, Heuber. Think about your mother and your future and the chance you build bicycles. Wouldn’t it be better just to sign the form and stay here?”

It was impossible for Walter to forget the experience of his first month in Berlin, walking from one factory office to another, at each greeted with the angry and suspicious gaze with which people protected themselves against those they were about to do an ill turn. “No, there are no jobs here.” And the silent accusation: Why do you need one? What is wrong with you that you are looking for work?

Was that the future he was choosing?

He met Herr Meyer’s gaze, and for a moment that possibility of being back at the beginning, unwanted, unemployed, was more terrifying than any vague idea of battle or death. His resolve wavered, but as it did so the fear gave him a label to apply to it.

Was he to stay and work for Meyer because he was afraid? Too much of a coward to answer the call of Kaiser and Fatherland?

He squared his shoulders and told himself this too was a test of courage that it was necessary to pass. “I understand sir. But if I’m called up I believe that I should serve.”

Meyer dropped the form into one of the baskets on his desk. “Well. All right then.” He returned to his chair and sat down.

“Perhaps there won’t be any mobilization,” Walter ventured, unsure whether at this point he hoped for that or not. With Berta despising him if he became a foreman, and Meyer mistrusting him because he had not chosen him above the army, surely it would be simpler to put on the grey uniform and spiked leather helmet of a soldier again and march away from all this.

“Maybe not. Maybe not.” Meyer waved him away. “Off you go, Heuber. You change your mind, come and see me. Otherwise, we’ll have to see what the news brings. I said that I won’t penalize you if nothing comes of this, and I’m a man of my word.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m disappointed, young man. But… Well, there’s duty. Perhaps it’s for the best. We shall see.”

He turned back to his work, and Walter left the office. Outside the routine of the factory lines had fallen into place, oblivious to the drama taking place in the small office above. Walter, however, remained distracted and shaken. At the end of an hour he was behind his usual rate, causing Kurt to stop by and demand to know what was slowing him down. “Sorry. No excuse. I’ll do better.”

Kurt harumphed. “Half the line seems to be musing about war instead of work this morning. Get your mind out of war and back on welding.”

“Yes, sir.”


The evening editions were out as Walter and Paul left the Cycleworks that night. RUSSIA CONTINUES MOBILIZATION: Government Declares ‘Threatening Danger of War’

“Do you still think the international workers will stop it?” Walter asked.

Paul shrugged. “Russia won’t go to war without France’s support, and France has the next largest Socialist party after ours. There’s hope. I think the army is just trying to scare us. Fear gives them power.”

“They don’t seem far from starting an actual war.”

“Even if they do, it won’t go anywhere. They can wage war, but we can wage general strike.”

For a moment, Walter imagined being stuck on a stopped train, full of soldiers but abandoned by the train crew, without supplies. What would they do? March on? Walk home? Starve?

“Could be rough on the soldiers,” he said. “Being left without supplies or transportation.”

“It’s better than being shot at for the benefit of the militarists,” Paul replied. “The generals might be disappointed, but I bet the soldiers would rather be short of supplies than be in battle.”

They’d neared the streetcar stop, where a number of other workers from the Cycleworks and other nearby factories already stood waiting.

“What do you think?” asked Paul. “Do you want to go to Steiber tonight?”

Walter had been planning to, already had the taste of Steiber lager hovering, half tasted, on his tongue. But at the moment he was asked he realized that he didn’t feel like spending the evening out, at least not with Paul.

“I need to head home tonight. I’ll pick up something from a street cart to have with Erich.”

Paul shrugged. “Good idea. Berta’s always telling me I spend too much money at the beer halls anyway.” He slapped Walter on the shoulder. “See you in the morning.”

“Goodnight,” Walter said, as Paul climbed aboard the crowded streetcar. Normally spending time with Paul left him feeling energized. The man had excitement and purpose to spare, even when the topic was one on which Walter wasn’t sure he agreed with him. Now, though, the blithe talk of general strike leaving the soldiers trapped and hungry for their own good touched off in his stomach the same gaping hollowness which had for a moment invaded it with Meyer’s warning that answering the call up could lead to the endless, humiliating search for work again.

As the streetcar moved away, its wheels rumbling over the tracks and its electrical contacts sparking and crackling on the wires overhead, Walter found himself for a moment standing in isolation on the otherwise crowded street, yet in the isolation felt less alone.

The wider city seemed to come into focus. The factories, hulking brick figures behind their iron-gated yards, smoke stacks releasing their columns of smoke into the evening haze. Tenements with their ordered ranks of windows, floor on floor. Shop windows and street sellers. And the press of people who brought this panorama of industry to life. Men and women hurrying up and down the street. Trucks and carts rumbling over the wide, cobbled street. The squawk of car horns and the cheerful ting-ting of a bicycle bell. Across the street, down by the white stone columns of the post office he could see two distinctive figures in long grey coats, their spiked leather helmets making them instantly recognizable.

Like the classical edifice of the large post office building itself they were an intrusion from a higher plane, the empire made manifest in the world of factories and street sellers. Walter stood and watched them until they disappeared into the post office, wondering if he would indeed be called from this world into that one, and if so what would follow.

The two figures gone, the everyday and its requirements closed in again. He set off down the street towards home.

Walter arrived back in the tenement and set two neatly wrapped bundles from a hot sandwich cart down on the table, greasy stains and the smell of meat and melted cheese seeping through the butcher paper. Erich quickly pushed away his magazine.

“I didn’t think you’d be home so soon!”

“Well, here’s a surprise for you then. Is there any bottled beer left?”

“Two. I didn’t have one when I got home from school.”

“Well, have one now, then.”

Walter popped the tops off two bottles and for a moment they were both silent, sipping the foam off the bottles before they overflowed.

“How was your day at the factory?” Erich had unwrapped his sandwich and felt some form of gratitude was due as he inhaled the wafting aromas of the generously piled sandwich.

The question caught Walter mid-bite. He held a finger up as he swallowed and then wiped his chin. “I had a difficult conversation with Herr Meyer. He wanted me to file for an exemption so that if there’s a war I would stay at the factory instead of being called up.”

“Oh.” Erich looked down at the sandwich as if it were the wages of treason.

“I told him that I wouldn’t sign it. If I’m called up, I’ll serve the Fatherland.”

A smile flashed back onto Erich’s face and his gaze bounced back up to meet Walter’s. “You stood up to the owner of the whole factory and said you’d rather to be a soldier?”

“Well, I said that if I’m called up I’ll go.”

“Walter, you’re a hero!”

After Herr Meyer’s dark predictions of unemployment and Paul’s talk of starving the armies into peace, this unalloyed praise, no matter how naive, was a precious encouragement. Erich continued, on saying he hoped that there would be a war and expressing his confidence that his older brother’s intelligence and bravery would be immediately recognized. Walter knew this mix of adventure story cliches spiced with schoolboy confidence could have little to do with the future, but at the moment he could have hugged his younger brother for the feelings of pride and relief that his words gave him.


Saturday, August 1st. When Walter came down the tenement stairs the next morning, he found Paul standing in the street with a copy of the Worker’s Daily News.

“I didn’t expect to see you here.” His voice was slightly muffled by the piece of bread he’d come down stairs eating. Since he’d shifted his routine to coming into the Cycleworks earlier, the two had met less frequently in the mornings.

“They’ve killed Jaures!” Paul exclaimed, shaking the paper at Walter.

“Who?” Walter set off down the street. Whatever workers’ hero it was whose death had outraged Paul, he still wanted to get to the workers’ room in time to hear any news of impending war before the bell sounded.

“Jean Jaures.” Paul fell into step beside him. “Only important Socialist leader in France. One of the most important in the world. And those goddamned reactionaries have shot him, shot him in cold blood while he was eating dinner!”

They were walking down the street together, Paul still half reading his newspaper. He seemed to be giving at best half attention to where he was walking, but those going the other way parted in front of them rather than be bowled over by the excited young man with his paper.

“You know I don’t read the party papers, Paul.” There was as yet no distinct break with his life of the past two years, but already the workers’ politics he had spent time listening to Paul explain seemed part of an older world. “Break it down for us children among the masses. What happened?”

Paul charged ahead, impervious to any sarcasm in this. “Jaures saw that everything was moving towards war. He said he was going to write a denunciation of the militarists which would be a new, international J’Accuse. He went to dinner with his supporters to discuss the pamphlet. And, while he was there in the cafe, he was assassinated. These militarists shot him. Here, read all about it!” He folded the newspaper and shoved it into Walter’s hands. “My God, if there was someone I could fight right now! You see what this means?” Walter didn’t reply immediately but Paul did not seem to need a response. “The French have gone nationalist. They don’t care about the workers anymore. And they’re going to use the Russian tyranny to crush Socialism in Germany as well.”

“So France wants to destroy us and has allied with Russia?”

Paul nodded vigorously.

“Isn’t that what everyone has been saying for the last week?” Was war unimaginable up until the moment that some Socialist leader off in France got killed? Paul’s anti-war principles had not overly impressed Walter up until this point, but he had at least believed that they were based on something more than the threat of war simply not having touched his own concerns yet.

“No, this is different. This is so much worse. France has been the light. We may have the biggest Socialist party now, but France has been fighting autocracy since their revolution. They beheaded their king! That’s revolution. And that country, the one country that should have been seeking the peace of international workers in union against oppression, is now shooting the Socialists and getting ready to unleash the Russians against us. Germany will have to fight if Socialism is going to survive.”

“Weren’t you telling me yesterday that there would be a general strike that would stop the railroads and the supplies in order to end a war? Is that off now?”

“No. I mean, the principle still applies. But, if we wage a general strike while the French workers support the war, all we’ll do is cripple our own country and allow foreign nationalists to wipe out the best hope for workers’ advancement here in Germany.”

“So if workers need to defend their own country in order to protect their unions and their political parties, I don’t understand how socialism leads to pacifism.” Paul’s world seemed so laden with the jargon of ideology, Walter had always assumed there must be complex laws of which he did not know that made the whole system work. Now, of a sudden, it seemed possible the entire thing was a childish miscalculation.

“Because workers have no desire for war! No profiteering, no nationality. The natural state of the worker is peace with other workers, the only struggle is against oppression. But if everything that workers have accomplished is in danger of being wiped out by tyranny… We may need to allow war in order to preserve Socialism in Germany, if every other country has turned its back on the workers.”

“So, if there is a mobilization, would you say that German soldiers are protecting workers? And that workers should support them?”

“With the French and the Russians both out to crush us? Yes. Neutrality in the face of this kind of militarism and barbarism would not be pacifism, it would be an act of war.”

They were approaching the factory gates, but Walter was no longer rushing ahead. A satisfying scene was playing out in his mind, in which Berta praised him for marching off to the protect the German workers.


The final bell clanged at four-thirty, but Walter kept working for another ten minutes until the frame he had been working on was complete. Then, at last, he put his work area in order, taking a last look at everything before slinging the completed frame over one shoulder and carrying it over to the rack by the enameling station. The boys were moving around the production floor with their big push-brooms when he hung it in place with the clang and stepped back: the last bicycle frame he would build on the one line. Monday he would be working on the new line for the folding bicycles.

He took one last look around, expecting that he should feel something more at this moment, but the factory looked as it always did when activity had wound down, leaving only a large and grubby building inhabited by lines of quiet machinery. With a sigh he headed for the workers room, where his cap and coat were some of the last ones still hanging on the rows of pegs.

Paul, Willi and several other workers were lingering just outside the factory gates, eating sandwiches from a food cart.

“The Kaiser addressed the crowd outside the Stadtschloss last night,” Willi said, as Walter joined the group. “Said the sword of war was being forced into his hand. Do you want to go down there tonight and see if he gives another speech?”

“The Kaiser is a figurehead,” said one of the wheelmakers.

“Not if there’s a war, he isn’t. Then it’s the Reichstag that becomes the figurehead.”

“These foreigners are turning back the clock fifty years by driving us into war. We should be getting rid of kings.”

Walter bought himself a sandwich and listened, half interested, to the discussion. It was the workers’ party, he was now convinced, that was along for the ride. All this complicated talk about solidarity and the future masked a basic lack of power. He resolved that whatever the rest of the group decided he would go down to the Stadtschloss and see if the Kaiser spoke to the crowds again.

He continued to listen with half an ear to the political arguments while eating his sandwich, but he had allowed his gaze to wander, watching the crowd and the vehicles down the street. In the distance there was a chorus of shrill car honks and horns, and a crowd seemed to be thickening. He ceased to follow the political conversation at all and as two horsemen appeared, mounted Guardsmen with plumed brass helmets and polished breastplates which caught the westering sun. They guided their horses down the street at a trot, and a crowd followed with them.

They came to a halt in front of the post office, and there was a flash as one of them raised a bugle and blew a call. The crowd that had been following them gathered around, and it grew rapidly as passers on the street and workers coming out of the factories joined it to see what the meaning of the spectacle was.

“There are two horse guards making an announcement down by the post office. Let’s go see what it is,” Paul said, interrupting the group’s political discussion, as a second bugle call rang down the street.

They joined the crowd as the horseman blew a third blast on his bugle. The crowd grew and jostled, spilling out into the street, where some cars honked at it and drove around, and others stopped in order to see what the commotion was about.

As people jostled and pushed around him, Walter felt almost alone among the sea of people. For Paul and the others this would be news, but if this was an announcement of mobilization or war, for him it would mean far more. He felt excitement rising and pressing in his chest and realized that he desperately hoped that these days of waiting and uncertainty were coming to an end, that it was in fact war. Whatever it held for him personally, war would bring clarity.

The second of the horse guards, without a bugle and with the gold braiding of an officer on his shoulder, consulted his wrist watch, an intrusion of modernity contrasting with his blue uniform tunic, white trousers, and the shining brass of his plumed helmet and cuirass breastplate. Then he stood up in his stirrups and projecting his voice across the suddenly quieted crowd announced, “His Imperial and Royal Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm II has today ordered a full mobilization of the Imperial German Army beginning on Sunday, August 2nd. All leaves for active duty troops are hereby cancelled. All active reservists are to report to their depots. The classes of 1911, 1910, 1909, 1908 and 1907 are to report to depot no later than August 4th. Those in the first levy of the Landwehr are to make themselves ready for imminent call up. Notices will be posted at all public buildings as soon as possible.”

For a moment after he was finished speaking there was silence. Then from somewhere began a cheer, which was picked up and echoed until the crowd seemed to shake with it. Walter realized that he was not only shouting but jumping up, waving his cap in the air. The energy of the crowd seemed to flow through him like an outside power that enlivened and half controlled him, and somehow it was utterly intoxicating.

The second horse guard gave another bugle blast, and then the two horsemen nudged their mounts forward, parting the crowd before them. They had a list of buildings to give their announcement before. The crowd began rapidly to disperse.

Walter didn’t see where the other men from the Cycleworks went, but he hardly cared. His mind was already racing forward. At the depot by August fourth. What was it, six or seven hours by train from Berlin back east to his old depot? And the trains would be crowded. He would need to leave Monday, first thing. That hadn’t just been his last bicycle frame on the old line. Perhaps it was his last bicycle frame ever. One day before he left. What did he need to do in that time? At least tomorrow was Sunday. Not that work mattered now. Perhaps he could see Berta before he left. What would she think? Paul had changed on the topic. Surely she would be proud of him. Perhaps even…

He was walking down the street, in the direction of home, and in his mind variations on the parting with Berta played out. Would she promise to write? Cling to him? Should he take hold of her and kiss her?

A slim figure in a white blouse and dark skirt. He realized that he had stopped in front of a shop window, in which a wooden mannequin was dressed in the same colors he had last seen Berta wearing. Arrayed elsewhere in the shop window were a variety of feminine objects: hats, scarves, soaps, mirrors, and glass cases containing lockets and other jewelry. He could buy something to give Berta when he saw her tomorrow.

He reached for the shop door, then hesitated, looking up and down the street, suddenly feeling a consciousness of walking into a women’s shop. People continued up and down the street, seemingly unaware of the step that he was preparing to take. He pushed the door open and heard a bell cheerfully jangle as he went in.

The shop was small and dimly lit. It was only a few steps from the door to the counter, which was a waist-high glass display case in which all manner of strange and dainty products were displayed.

A young woman stepped out from the back room to the counter in answer to the jangling bell and smiled at him.

“What can I do for you?”

She seemed to look him up and down, and Walter became acutely conscious that his clothes made him obviously a worker from one of the nearby factories. What did she think of him? Could he even afford anything here? Instinctively he reached into his pocket and felt his wallet. Since his increase in wages it had been getting gradually thicker, as he didn’t trust his money anywhere but on him. With this week’s pay, which had been given out at the midday break, there must be… almost sixty Marks. He didn’t need to save for the bicycle now. Surely there must be enough to buy something.

The shop girl was looking at him questioningly, her head slightly to one side and a hesitant smile on her lips. Her pale hair was piled on top of her head, held in place by a pair of combs decorated in mother of pearl, and a locket was pinned at the throat of her high-necked blue dress. He realized that he’d never seen Berta wear any kind of jewelry.

“They’ve just announced mobilization of the army,” he said, finding his words, awkwardly. The questioning look did not leave the woman’s face. “I need to leave for the army on Monday, and I wanted to--” Describing what he wanted seemed suddenly difficult, almost indecent. “There’s a woman. My friend’s sister. I want to buy her… something.”

“You want to buy a farewell present for a lady friend of yours?” Her questioning look was replaced by a smile, and suddenly Walter became sure this was the right thing to do.

“Yes. Something, you know, to remember.”

“Of course! Well, we have a great many things. What kind of thing were you looking for? We have perfume. It is…,” her tone turned apologetic, “It is French perfume. Perhaps not that. Silk handkerchiefs. Handkerchiefs are always welcome. Or we have jewelry. Lockets, necklaces, ear rings, combs. What does she like to wear?”

Walter’s eyes were again drawn to the shop girl’s own jewelry. Giving Berta something beautiful that she would wear seemed the perfect idea.

“I don’t think she has any, but I was thinking, perhaps something like those,” and he pointed to the combs in her own hair.

“Combs? That’s a very good idea. We have a lot of designs over here.” She led him to a section of the glass counter. “All kinds. How much were you thinking you might spend?”

Walter tried to spy some price without being seen, but none were in evidence. He tried to think how much he would need to leave with Mother. Army pay was lower than what he’d made at the factory, and during his two years service it had also been slow to start.

“I think I could spend up to twenty marks,” he said. “Is that enough?”

“Oh, we have some very nice things you could get. Let me see.” She leaned down and examined the contents of the case. “Ah, this would be very nice.”

She pulled out a pair of combs, shining silver tracery with three small garnets set in each one. “These are thirty Marks, but very nice. Silver plated. I think your friend would be very happy to wear these and think of you while you are gone.”

He left with the silver and garnet combs, wrapped in a small flat package of white tissue paper, tucked in the inner pocket of his coat, where he could feel them bump gently against his chest as he walked.

Read the next installment.


  1. I'm finally getting around to reading this- I've been meaning to but life kept getting in the way. I love it! Keep up the great work!

  2. Thanks, Anna. I'm glad you're enjoying it and appreciate the comments!

  3. Poor Walter! He should have saved his money.

  4. I like Walter. Giving up something he wanted (guaranteed position as foreman at the factory) for another he thought was right (service to the Fatherland), I think is admirable. Hope Berta does not break his heart before he goes to war.

  5. Oh I have a terrible foreboding that Berta is not going to give Walter the reception he hopes for. Clever shopgirl to get him to spend a whole 10 marks more than he thinks he can afford. I'm so mad at her. His mother is going to need that money.

    The announcement by the soldiers is a great scene. The pacing on this section is good. I like the tension between his desire for the foreman's job and his fear of getting trapped by it. His desire for Berta and his disinterest in the socialist agenda. And wow Paul comes off as so very naive. His declarations about what workers want, how detached he thinks they are from nationalism, it reminds me of your recent posts about projecting the group on the person. Fun to see how those ideas are embodied in the characters, the interplay between blog and story.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Catholic Bibliophagist, Anon and Melanie. It's always enjoyable to hear people responding to an installment.

    Paul's opinions on the war are closely based on socialist leadership opinion and newspaper writing during the July Crisis. There was indeed a large peace rally in Berlin on July 28, and the murder of Jaures (he was shot by a radical Nationalist who was concerned Jaures would oppose the war) did indeed send shockwaves across Europe. Socialist leaders in multiple countries, but especially Germany had talked about preventing any war by declaring a general strike and freezing up transportation and production, but there was a sort of last minute swerve were people realized that if only their country did the strike, their socialist parties would be crushed by the invaders at the same time as the rest of the country. In the end, opposition to the war when it broke out was minimal. The German government had had a plan for arresting hundreds of socialist politicians and union leaders in order to stop anti-war unrest, but they ended up not executing the plan because anti-war agitation stopped as soon as war was declared, and it would be a couple years before it picked up again.

    One of the challenges with writing a "big history" novel is that part of what I'm trying to achieve is to get across a lot of the historical trends and ideas of the time, but I want to have believable and human characters, not just mouthpieces for period trends. So I hope that I've successfully threaded of the needle of having interesting characters formed by the real trends of the time, who nonetheless seem like people in their own right with their own interests and conflicts to keep the story going.

  7. Hurray! I have finally caught up. Being confined to bed all day creates the time.

    Poor ole Walter. Just trying to be reasonable and do the right thing while everyone around him works their agendas. I'm sad to say I foresee a future for him as cannon fodder.

    I agree with Melanie that it's fun to see current threads interwoven into the story. Berta reminds me a bit of Julia in 1984.

  8. I should clarify to say that I think that Julia was a true-believing plant so that's where I see the resemblance. A true-believer.

  9. I'm with Melanie. I think Walter's hopes are misplaced with Berta. But I like him a lot. He and Josef and both struggling for clarity, although at least Walter has some obligations and skills that help make his life more meaningful.

    I like his moment of epiphany that there isn't some amazing set of complex laws that Paul hasn't mentioned that will make the Socialist utopia possible.

    1. Kyra, Yes, that's one of my favorite moments as well.

  10. Hello! Nice read! Interesting characters and serious conflicts. As being German my attention is focused on Walter and Josef. Your picture of the German working class background is well researched and credible. There are only some minor details I could object from mĂ˝ point of knowledge. Just one little pedantic detail I am in doubt about: The horseguards announcing mobilization. The uniform you describe seems a mix of Guard Dragoons and Garde du Corps to me. Or was it some other unit you had in mind ?

    1. Alexander,

      Thanks for reading!. I'm glad that you're enjoying it, and I especially appreciate getting feedback from a German perspective.

      On the horse guard question: I believe at the time I was writing this chapter I was working from a photograph from the day of mobilization (which was necessarily black and white) and a bit of description that I found somewhere online. I since got hold of a guide to Imperial German Army uniforms, and I see that what I should have had was a Garde du Corps uniform which would have both a white tunic and white pants with the brass helmet and cuirass. I'll have to fix that in revisions.

      Feel free to mention anything else that strikes you in terms of plausibility either here or via email (my email is listed on that Author page).