The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 9 (December 1, 1939)
The Real Germany — On the Eve of War — As Seen by a New Zealand Railwayman
It is very easy to say the things about Nazi Germany which are usually said—in books about that country—and if you go there you can see them for yourself. Yes, Germany is a tidy nation. The children are tidy as are the parks, streets and backyards. Slum conditions in the ordinary sense do not seem to exist and beggars and paupers are not seen. Nevertheless, some people — many people—seem to have an exceedingly poor standard of living and certain foodstuffs are undoubtedly scarce. Jack and I have covered the greater part of Germany by car, have travelled in the trains and buses in various parts and have stayed in the best hotels and the humblest pensions (a pension in Europe is about equivalent to our simplest guest-house or boarding-house). No guides have shown us just what visitors are shown. Within the limits of our meagre knowledge of German we have chatted with waiters, clerks, hotel porters, road menders, University students and anyone else we could enter into conversation with. Some of them spoke English quite well.
Examination of Luggage.
In the last month we have crossed the German frontier four times and our luggage and personal effects were searched only once—and that was on our first entry from Denmark towards Hamburg. The Nazi officers, in their smart uniforms, were satisfied with a superficial search, but there happened to be in that Customs Office a plain-clothes gentleman—very rare in German officialdom. We had reason to believe that he was a member of the Gestapo. Our British passports were taken to an inner room for about ten minutes and the plain-clothes man started in on our luggage. I had been collecting technical information from the Scandinavian countries about railway problems, and in my bags were some blue prints and other technical information. These he seemed to find interesting. Then we all had a fair amount of private correspondence and this was carefully scrutinised. No one in the place seemed to be able to speak more than a word or two of English and I should not imagine that this man could read it. No doubt he had his orders to look at everything—and was doing it. Several times we were asked our professions. There were three of us, a lawyer, a banker and an electrical engineer—and the information was in our passports.
Perhaps they thought that if we were asked often enough we would say we were spies!
In one of the bags was a copy of the journal of the New Zealand Presbyterian Bible-class movement and in this was a photograph of the last Easter camp held in Hunua, near Auckland. The rows of tents caught the official's eye and he studied the photograph for some time and then gave it up with a shrug of the shoulders. Finally, we were allowed to proceed on our way. It had not occurred to these smart fellows that we had a luggage compartment behind the back seat. The bags in it were not disturbed—not that we would have minded!
A Swastika-ed City.
In Hamburg there was being held a grand rally of the Workers' Union and Field Marshal Goering was there to address them. The city was swastika-ed at every conceivable place. Many of the flags were bigger than a New Zealand Railways tarpaulin—and that is a fair size! All German towns have flagpoles and standards permanently fixed on all public buildings, in the streets in myriads, and on many private buildings.
On the least provocation a town is simply covered in swastika flags and many shops and business-houses fly large swastika flags permanently.
It probably pays businesses to support the Nazi party just as it pays individuals to belong to the Nazi party—even with the subscriptions as high as they are. In Hamburg, due to the workers' festivities, every hotel seemed full, but finally we found a room with three beds, in the Atlantic Hotel—one of the best in the city.
In most parts of Germany it is impossible to camp as there is not an inch of vacant land.page 23
“Embellished and Blighted by Nazism.”
Berlin is a beautiful city, being at the same time both embellished and blighted by Nazism. The streets, the parks, the fine lakes, the rich art treasures, the magnificent monuments and the fine buildings are of the old Germany. Now the city is being modernised on a grand scale. There is tremendous building and roading activity. Two of the recent buildings, the new Chancellery and the Air Ministry, are colossal and were put up in a few months. One of the main streets runs in a straight line for eighteen miles, and for most of its length it is wide enough for about twelve streams of traffic. The famous “Unter den Linden” is a section of this street. It is interesting that the name means “under the limes” but the original lime trees that grew there have been cut down because their roots interfered with the underground railway under the street. New trees have been planted but, for the most part, they are only a few inches high.
“Full of Brown Shirts.”
The city was en fete the week-end we were in Berlin, because there was a sports meeting at the Olympic Stadium to find the best brown shirt in Germany. The city was full of brown shirts—party members in uniform—and we went to the stadium for a couple of hours to see the athletics— and were not particularly impressed. Some friends in England had asked us to look up their daughter who was a student at the University of Berlin and she was our guide and expert interpreter for an evening. With her we sampled Berlin night-life and in one place we visited that night we saw some very excellent entertainment.
Apart from an argument with some brown shirts in a barber's shop about “encirclement” we were very well treated in Berlin.
The Heil-Hitler Greeting.
An interesting thing about the Nazi regime is the way the old German greeting “good day” has disappeared. Now it is all “Heil Hitler” (usually slurred over) and used as a greeting, a farewell and even as an “excuse me.” It is quite universal and only the old people seem to slip. A very fine old lady with whom we stayed in Munich forgot and said “Guten Tag,” but corrected herself with an apologetic “Heil Hitler.”
The Language Difficulty.
Our second entry into Germany was made going up the Rhine from Holland. Passing the frontier was no trouble. A few miles in from the border we were stopped by the barrier which blocks road traffic at level crossings when a train is due. Being interested I got out of the car and took a snapshot of the barrier just as the train was passing. At the next town, called Wesel, a Nazi policeman met us at the outskirts, just about dusk. He stopped us, looked at the car's number-plate and demanded our cameras. He also wanted a movie camera but we satisfied him we had none. He spoke no English, Indicating that we were to follow him, he rode off on his bicycle with the cameras to the police station where our passports were taken. No one in the station among the many on duty could speak English or French and our German was too scanty for us to explain anything vital. A local shopkeeper was said to speak English and he was got out of bed—and all the English he knew was harmless. For over two hours we sat at a table with the Nazi officials making meaningless noises at one another.
It was pathetic. One official whom they summoned from his home was a nasty piece of work and seemed to think the louder he shouted in his gutteral and excited German the more we would understand. Next morning our cameras were returned to us (without the films) and we were told that the films would be developed by 10 a.m. In each case they were only half used. When the developed negatives were produced, still wet, every photograph was identifiable as being of Amsterdam—except the one photograph I had taken and it was so under-exposed that it was quite unidentifiable. At about 11 a.m. our passports were returned and we were free to go. The negatives were still wet and they promised to post them to us in Vienna, after I had page 24 given them a stamp for the purpose. About a week later when we called at Vienna the photographs were not there.
Rather more Friendly.
The people of Southern Germany we found rather more friendly. It is not generally realised that South Germany is strongly Roman Catholic. In Cologne the population is over 90% Roman Catholic and all through the countryside are well-cared-for shrines and crucifixes on the roadside. The State has almost stopped its persecution of the Church although it has undoubtedly put the Church out of politics. As far as we could see church services are well-attended in Germany. In one church in Munich we had to stand at the back as every seat was taken, and in Berlin a church we attended was packed.
Petrol Virtually Unprocurable.
In Salzburg we ran into a petrol famine, and without the help of an Englishman—the chauffeur and gentleman's gentleman of a Cuban diplomat —a real Jeeves, we would have been really in a fix. He knew the ins and outs and back-places of this lovely Austrian centre of culture. The music festival was on and the place was full of Nazi, Hungarian, Italian and other diplomats all busily conferring, and Herr Hitler himself came down from his Chalet in Berchtesgaden nearby from time to time. Petrol was virtually unprocurable and the famine was rapidly spreading all through Southern Germany. With the help of Jeeves and by quick action we got some tins of different kinds and managed to get a few litres here and there from out-of-the-way places. Bribery, begging and bluff were necessary, but we scraped together just enough to get us out of Germany, into Switzerland.
At one place where there was a long queue getting small rations of petrol from a little store, a German behind us tried to persuade the storekeeper not to supply us because we had an English car. Jeeves managed him masterfully. Things began to look ugly. Petrol famines are serious—far more than one imagines.
We rented a lock-up garage and placed our car and precious supply of petrol behind its sturdy door. Then we took a train to Vienna for a day and returned to Salzburg at 4.30 in the morning and made for the Swiss border through the Austrian Tyrol.
All the way, for something like 150 miles, every petrol pump was placarded Kleen (empty) or Nix Benzin. We limped into Switzerland with our petrol indicator showing “empty” and the electric petrol pump making nasty warning noises.
At a lonely little frontier station where the officials happened to be stamp collectors, the stamps on an envelope Jack had in his hand won us their friendship. There was a fee to pay and we had no money. Actually the last four litres of petrol we had bought were procured by being very nice to a girl in a garage and giving her all our small change together with a New Zealand threepence I happened to have in my pocket. The German officials accepted an English shilling I found in another pocket—and we were safe in Switzerland—and only just in time.
An Affable German Student.
We spent the early crisis days in Geneva, staying at the International House for Students—along with Germans, Hungarians, English and Americans. One student we met—not staying at the Maison Internationale—was a German economist who had been in U.S.A. and spoke English in perfect American. He also spoke French well. We had some very interesting talks with him about the Nazi system. We will call him Hermann. I have a feeling he may be a German spy. He had far more money than the average German is allowed to bring out of the Fatherland, but he was a good fellow. Strangely enough he belongs to Wesel where the camera incident happened and he promised to get our films returned.
The Eve of War in France.
Petrol became scarce in parts of France, but we managed, by a stroke of luck, to buy 22 gallons and stored it in peanut-oil drums. Our journey across Europe to London was a hurried one. Paris was quiet and calm and the evacuation of women and children was almost completed. We stayed a night there and then made for Brussels and Ostend and with a few minutes to spare caught the last car-ferry to Dover.
Safe in London.
It was a very dark London when we arrived. War was in progress and the black-out was complete. To drive into the heart of London in a black-out must be tried to be appreciated. England is at war and the organisation of her civil defence is perfection itself. At the moment of writing we have had three air-raid alarms—one at 2.30 a.m. But London has not been reached by enemy planes.