Wednesday, 23 April 2014

THE DAY THE WAR ENDED, by Leslie Wilson

My grandfather's WW1 medal, the one everyone
got for taking part, with the black-red-white
Imperial colours.

Last year I was asked to contribute a story to an anthology that does what it says on the tin: 'Stories of World War One.' It is published this month by Orchard and has turned out to be a brilliant collection that I am proud to be part of. Full of wonderfully-written, thoughtful stories. Tony Bradman, the editor, asked me to write about the German side of WW1 for 10-14 year-olds. I demurred: I said the German experience of the trenches wasn't so different from the British experience (except that, by all accounts, their trenches were a bit better built and equipped), but Tony said what he really wanted was a story about a young girl in Berlin during wartime. That seemed much more attractive and interesting, and there was a bit of family history I could integrate. None of my English family fought in World War 1 - except for Uncle Sam, my great-aunt Nellie's husband (who she had, it was said in the family, reclaimed from a life of Vice and Drink). He was an ex-soldier, so he must have fought, but I never knew him or heard any stories about his wartime experience.

On the other hand, my German grandfather was a teenage soldier (he joined up, as a trainee non-commissioned officer, when he was seventeen) and my German grandmother lost two of her brothers in the war, including her favourite brother, Leo.

German soldiers in a trench. Photo: Bundesarchiv
The other thing I really wanted to do was to write about the German revolution, which occurred just two days before the Armistice was signed. I have discovered that a great many British people don't know anything about the German revolution; when I've asked them they've said that they vaguely supposed the Kaiser was removed by the Allies, as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

This was not the case. There has been a bit of a spat between historians recently, and what it has usefully opened up is that in Imperial Germany, in 1914, all adult males had the vote (though you still hear people suggest that the Kaiser's regime was as bad as the Nazis. That is viewing WW1 through the prism of WW2, a great mistake, historically). Many of the British Tommies who fought and died did not. But just as in Britain, before the Parliament Act of 1911, the dead hand of the Lords lay on the Commons, in Germany the Kaiser and his ministers kept the Reichstag  (The Parliament) firmly on the constitutional leash.

The German Social Democrats had been gaining ground however. They needed to; as in Britain, there was an enormous gulf between rich and poor and the workers in the factories were badly exploited. The slums of Berlin were as big a disgrace as the slums of London, and when during the war the British blockade cut off food supplies, the poor suffered worse than anyone else and unrest grew. There was a winter called the 'Kohlrabi winter' when kohlrabi was literally almost all there was to eat. Though I like kohlrabi as a salad vegetable, I would hate to have to live on it.Towards the end of the war the Kaiser's government tried to save itself through the carrot of parliamentary reform; the military government was replaced by a democracy and various electoral and economic reforms were promised. But it was too late.
Sailors in revolt: the placard says SOLDIERS' COUNCIL; LONG LIVE
THE SOCIALIST REPUBLIC. Photo: German federal archive
The revolution began in October 1918 (only a year after the Russian Bolshevik revolution), when the sailors of the German navy refused to go out and fight the British in the channel. Arrests were made, but there was further unrest and demonstrations: Freedom and Bread was the slogan. The military fired on the demonstrators, killing seven people and severely injuring twenty-nine. The demonstrators fired back. The protest became an uprising, spreading all over Germany. It was very much a grass-roots revolution, with the people forming 'workers' councils' and 'soldiers' councils.' I can't put my finger on chapter and verse right now, but I am pretty sure that at the Front whole regiments threw down their arms and surrendered. They were motivated by war-weariness and a revulsion from the pointless slaughter, but many also were sick of fighting other 'small people' just like themselves, at the behest of the military/capitalist/aristocratic authorities. On the 9th November (a recurringly fateful date in 20th-century German history) the Revolution came to Berlin.

Demonstration Berlin 1918. Photo: German Federal Archive
The fourteen year-old young girl in my story has a brother at the front, and is falling in love with a bright worker's son, Lukas, who lives near her in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. Her elder brother, Leo, was killed at Verdun, like my own great-uncle Leo. She is aware of the war-weariness and really wants her brother Paul to survive, yet is reluctant to let go of the idea of her eldest brother's heroic sacrifice. Lukas gets her to join one of the marches, and she ends up witnessing the Social Democrat Scheidemann announcing the Revolution and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, from the balcony of the Reichstag.
Before I wrote the story, I spent some time reading the war-time diaries of the great print-maker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, who lived in Prenzlauer Berg and lost one of her own sons early in the war. Honest and anguished, they gave me a handle on what it felt like to go through those times. Kollwitz was a Social Democrat, not a rightist, and certainly didn't reverence the military or Kaiser Wilhelm, but like many people, when war happens, she was swept along by what Vera Brittain called 'those white angels who fight so naively on the side of destruction.' Ideas of self-sacrifice, of courage in the face of loss (and both her sons went willingly to the Front), of endurance and solidarity with the nation. And one must remember that the main threat the Germans saw in the war to their freedom was Russia, and that means Tsarist Russia with its secret police, its prison camps in Siberia, its autocratic government and its pogroms.
The Grieving Parents; monument by Kollwitz to her dead son Peter,
in Vladslo, Belgium. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The other tremendous value of Käthe Kollwitz's diaries was that they gave me a day by day account of what was going on, so I owe her a great debt of gratitude. From the memoir of Sebastian Haffner, called in German Geschichte eines Deutschen, and in English Defying Hitler, I got some more thoughtful insight into the problems posed by the Revolution, and also that invaluable and hard to come-by information, what the weather was like. It was foggy. I thought that was a marvellous metaphor for the uncertainty of the future for defeated Germany.
The trouble was that the new Republic was sabotaged from the start by the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. They had announced that the war would end; the German envoy was already in France discussing the Armistice; and the only way they could have got a better settlement was by fighting on, which was impossible. So they told the envoy to sign. This was the basis of the 'stab in the back' legend, which was so useful to Hitler later on, and yet, looking at the circumstances, I cannot see what else the new Government could have done.
I have read historians stating that this treaty was perfectly 'fair' because Germany had imposed just as harsh a treaty on Russia a year earlier, or else because Germany began the war (though in fact it was Austria who began it). They then go on to say that because the treaty was fair, it couldn't possibly be blamed for the rise of Hitler. This strikes me as an irrational and slightly childish argument.
Fairness is not the issue here: what matters is cause and effect. Though all countries were hit by post-war depression, it hit Germany worse, because she had lost the industrial base in the Ruhr to France. The treaty imposed enormous reparations on Germany, while depriving her of the means to pay them. The result was hunger, the traumatic hyper-inflation of 1919, when people had to spend their wages within hours before they became valueless, and my grandmother's family once exchanged their grand piano for a loaf of bread - and a fragile economy. If you want to understand what those times felt like, read Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now? (Kleiner Mann, was nun?).
Five-million Mark note. Photo: Boeing 720 via Wikimedia Commons.
When the double-whammy of the Wall Street crash hit, those who had hated the Revolution from the start thought democracy had failed Germany, and looked for an alternative. Leftists despaired of capitalism and voted Communist. Those inclined to vote for the Right looked to the nascent Nazi movement, which promised the restoration of prosperity and order, which meant no more pitched battles on the streets.
Going back to November 1918, even if it had been sensible to pulverise the German economy as revenge for 'starting the war,' the war had been started and conducted bythe Imperial government, which was no longer in place. The Germany that was punished was the new democracy. Clearly, those who made the treaty, especially the French, could not know what was to come, but the lesson was learned and put into practice by the victors of World War II, who took care to let Germany build herself up again.
This may seem too much weight of history and foreboding for a short story for teenagers to carry, but I had five thousand words, which helps, and also what matter most are the feelings; grief, fear, hope, humiliation, hunger. A bespectacled boy comes out of the fog and says: 'We'll have to fight them again'; an old Conservative, tears running down his face, accuses the Socialists of betraying Germany with the treaty; a young working-class man who has lost his right arm during the war, shouts back, furious with the military ethos of Wilhelmine Germany which he blames for the conflict. And people are still queueing up for scarce food. Those were the feelings which drive voting patterns, then as now.
And on the Western Front, shedding tears of fury that day, was a young skinny man with a dark moustache who was to rise to the head of his party at just the most hideously appropriate moment.
Hitler, on right, with fellow soldiers in WW1. Photo Wikimedia Commons


Susan Price said...

Wonderful, Leslie - thank you. Fills in so many gaps in my knowledge and understanding

Leslie Wilson said...

As doing the research did for me! Thanks, Sue.

Clare Mulley said...

Very interesting Leslie, Kathe Kollwitz goes on my reading list. Also, this looks like an excellent anthology:

Leslie Wilson said...

Thanks, Clare! I should have inserted that myself!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating post! I was wondering what happened to Kaiser Wilhelm when I read somewhere he lived till 1941. Sad to think that a less draconian end of war treatment of Germany could have avoided WWII!

Is this anthology available in iBooks?

Leslie Wilson said...

I don't know if its an iBook I'm afraid. I think there is an e-book.