The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, September, 1922
A German Village in 1921
A German Village in 1921.
On the bank of the Neckar not very far from Heidelberg is a quaint old village with a name not adapted to the English tongue. The river winds in and out and wooded bills vise on every side. The Neckar is—in summer at least—not a violent river, and every afternoon boys and girls, and men and women come down to swim. There are plenty of children in the village, light-hearted people—boys with close-cropped hair and bare feet, and tidy little girls, lightly clad, with shining faces, aspiring already to the cares of kinder, kuche, kircbe. In our gasthof were Maria, Karola, and a grubby urchin, made for mischief, whom I saw only half-a-dozen times in the course of three months. Maria was seven, dark-eyed, with eyelashes that foretold breaking-of crowns in years to come, such a bundle of life and fun and fury as you never saw. Through the week she ran wild. (Just before we came away she was elevated to boots and stockings—after a visit to her groszmutter in Mannheim—but somehow we felt that with the hiding of those feet there "past away a glory from the earth.") On Sundays in the village a change comes over things. It begins on Saturday evening—when all the village turns out to scour the cobbled streets, and put the woodheaps right, and in general make straight the way of the Lord. And Sunday brings forth a new Maria. A pink ribbon in her black hair, a white frock with all sorts of ravishing embroideries which come to a vanishing point at her bare knees, white shoes and stockings, a book of devotions in her hand and the light of Zion in her eyes. Oh, Maria, Maria! But that was once a week. On week-days you might see her with a pitiful terrier in train—the faithful Hector—or squatting on top of the wall across the street, looking down on a dozen urchins—enslaved like Hector. For Maria is made for empire. She is very proud, very violent, in her rule. I tease her at the door. "Ach! Hector, Hector! ssss—!" she cries with the storm between ber brows; and before I know anything there's a mongrel terrier snapping round my shins. But sometimes there is a gentleness, a lively kindness, in her voice that more than makes amends. As when she flies ahead of me up the page 52 stairs and stops an instant at the top to say, with the softness of the ages in her voice, "Gute nacht—schlaf' wohl!
Karola is a woman of the world. Is she not four years older than Maria! She is not a beauty. The chief thing' about her is a genius for contempt—a shrug of the shoulders, a curl of the lips, a toss of the head, and you are withered into nothing". She cultivates a sort of indifferentism which has already come out in her very gait. But withal a certain intermittent curiosity in the face of the world which bends her energies to mastering of English and French conjugations, and brings out abrupt questions about England and our homes across the world. There is no romancing in Karola—already feeling the burden and mystery of things—but the makings of a better frau, I think, than Miss Vivacity, her sister.
Our village has its bevy of plump maidens and its gang of amorous manlings. The latter have their meeting-place in front of a barber's shop not far from Zum Wilden Schwein, which is the name of the place we live in. In the main they are true to a type the whole world knows. Their chief thoughts are for pretty maidens; and if not pretty, plump. I daresay their rivalries are keen. even to the crowding out of every other interest—though they seem to be fairly industrious. But in the latter days there is a new interest among them. On Sundays they go off to church or to a dance in a neighbouring village—as nature or vater directs. But if you stand at the barber's door some evening yon may hear what will make you prick up your ears—a babble of "antimilitarismus," "Erzberger," "Wirth," "Uberschlesien," "Sozialdemokratie," and the rest; or if there is no one in the usual haunt you may find them at the Prinz Karl, holding a meeting of the village Communist Society. If the tone of this is not to your liking and you saunter round to the Kaiserhof, by chance you may find their mothers and fathers devouring the fire of Herr Puffendorf, him whose brother-in-law was general in the Prussian Army. Several years ago the Revolution came to the village. Our friend Braun, the student, laughed very heartily when he talked of this. The mild Badener were bewildered when they heard of it—what was coming over the Fatherland? But Herr Meyerben, the fat mayor, and Herr Stolz. the Chief of Police, with his sword at his side, were strangely wanting in patriotic fervour—waiting meantime for orders which never came. The one man with any feeling for the dramatic possibilities of the situation was Herr Teufelshammer, the fat man who never wears a collar, owner of the Hohenzollern Biergarten. The Herr mounted a truck in the Markplatz and harangued the astonished village. His theme was Red Revolution, and the chief plank in his platform free rides on the tram. The village resigned itself to the Revolution, in the course of months forgot the Kaiser, and except for the taxes goes on much the same as before.
The Valley of the Neckar is very pleasant, and every Sunday bands of youths and maidens make their way up from Heidelberg. From about seven in the morning we used to hear the lilt of their marching songs, and the clatter of feet on the cobbles under our windows. Sometimes they came in bands of twenty, sometimes only five or six, sometimes as many as a hundred—but always with page 53 a lively tune and a brisk step. Commonly men and women were together. The men were dressed rather quaintly—the inevitable little soft hat, a coloured blouse, and shorts, with various attempts at adornment; the women were without hats—the sun having no terrors for them—wearing one-garment dresses, with low neck, short sleeves and short skirt. A few carried guitars or violins, knocking out a tune as they went. Towards evening they returned and you might see them waiting for the train—very tired but very happy.
Of course the village played its part in the War. All the young men went off to train or to fight. Some of them went down into Bavaria to enlist; for the Badener does not love the Prussian. Our student had a year in barracks and two years in the north of France. He was shocked at the morals of the young women he met. He came back whole, but his brother came back to die in his mother's arms. The Pastor's wife, to whom we took word of her English friends, had lost two boys. Just down the street was a broken youth, coughing his life away, gassed in Flanders. But the war apparently had its comic side even here. We heard how the old men saw mysterious signs on the hill across the river, how they organised a relay of snipers, and lay for hours and hours firing at imaginary spies. We heard how they posted a guard, armed with a shotgun, at the top of the great gate at the end of the village to challenge all comers, and how an impatient staff car was greeted with a hail of shot and the driver plugged with lead. And, of course, we heard tales of real war as the Germans found it.
A quaint old village. But type of many—I daresay—scattered through Germany. Ordinary people, ordinary griefs and ordinary pleasures, ordinary frailty and ordinary goodness—plain folk driven out of their routine by the shock of war. Very kindly we found them, not remarkably un-English, and one at least a great admirer of English political forms.