The Man Who Feeds the Swans
Markenburg: October 1929.
For where God built a church,
there the Devil would also build a chapel.
As yet another golden summer melted into a sepia autumn, Uncle Karl paid one of his regular visits. On this occasion he was particularly proud, because the railway had promoted him to engine driver, and he’d been working on the passenger lines to Bavaria. Gunther had never thought that politics had a lot to do with trains, but listening to Uncle Karl ranting and raving made him realise that politics seemed to poke its tentacles into everything. Karl always expressed a love for his job, but qualified this by always saying
“But the wages are poor and the hours are long and everyone, from the footplate up to management, is unhappy.”
The family admired Karl. He was stocky, bordering on fat, with red cheeks, sandy brown hair, intense green eyes and he sported a bushy, traditional moustache which drooped down the sides of his full lips and reminded Gunther of paintings of Otto von Bismarck. Karl had a memory like an encyclopaedia. Facts, figures, statistics. These were his fiercely delivered stock-in-trade. It seemed a shame he was only an engine driver, but at least he had work. But he took the railway far more seriously as an occupation than any of his colleagues. Any opportunity, meeting, educational course, he would eagerly participate in. Karl had no intention of remaining on the sooty footplate for the rest of his career.
As usual, he had greeted Elena with a kiss and sat down heavily on one of the armchairs by the fire. Viktor passed him his tobacco and they both filled their pipes. Within seconds Karl’s anticipated sounding off began.
“It’s all to do with the damned Dawes plan!” Viktor nodded as if he understood, but always curious, Gunther felt the need to ask Karl what on earth this ‘Dawes’ thing was.
“I’ll tell you what it is lad. Its bloodsucking bloody pirates – the Americans, the British and the damned French. Charles Dawes is a damned Yankee banker! They put his plan together to milk our defeated country of 226 billion marks because they say we started the war and therefore we have to pay for it. Bloody cheek! They’ve even interfered with our railway system.”
“How so?” asked Viktor.
“In 1920 we were the Länderbahnen, now they’ve made us the Deutsche Reichsbahn. It’s all bloody smoke and mirrors. Now this damned Dawes Plan has made us into something else - we’ve become the bloody Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft and now it’s the DRG, German State Railway Company, a private company, which, would you believe, is required – every year, mind you - to pay reparations of about 660 million Marks. It’s a damned wonder we can run any trains at all. Who do these people think they are? But I’ll warn you, change is coming. I know. I get around – that’s the big perk of my job. Germany is not going to take much more. We’ll fight back.”
“Well,” said Viktor, “you might say that Karl, but a few marches and banners and a lot of hot air won’t get us far. Even the army is just a shadow of what it was. Nobody has any pride anymore.”
“Rubbish!” yelped Karl, making everyone jump in their seats.
“Just consider this – because I find it impressive. I might be a simple railwayman, but I take an interest in the way things run. When they publish results and passenger figures I always take notes, because I can tell whether or not I’ll still have a job come Christmas. So, only a couple of years ago, according to the Nuremburg railway office, 47 special trains arrived in or departed from Nuremburg on Saturday the 20th of August and Sunday the 21st. Regular trains also had much greater traffic. A total of 223,600 people arrived or departed.”
Viktor stroked his chin, not knowing whether to be impressed or not.
“What’s the significance of that then, Karl? With all that activity, did they pay you any extra wages?” Karl re-lit his pipe and then tugged at his waistcoat like a politician on the stump about to make a speech.
“I’ll tell you what’s significant, Viktor. The usual Saturday and Sunday traffic at the main Nuremburg railway station seldom exceeds 60,000 people, so 160,000 is a reasonable estimate of the number of National Socialists on those trains. And it doesn’t include the thousands who arrived in Nuremburg on Thursday and Friday and who only left on Monday or Tuesday. Then there’s the thousands who came on foot, on bicycle and in trucks. Add all those folk up, and it means around 200,000 people who arrived or departed. The number of party rally participants can therefore be estimated at around 100,000. And that’s a conservative estimate. Now, we’ve just had another rally, and the railway figures aren’t out yet, but I’ve heard there were at least 60,000 SA men in Nuremburg alone – so imagine how many ordinary party members and curious onlookers were there. Things are picking up. ”
“You mean the Nazis?” asked Gunther. His father shot a look of disgust at him.
“Of course he means the bloody Nazis! But they’re a bunch of hooligans!”
Karl’s complexion went florid and he gripped the stem of his pipe between his teeth as if he was about to bite it off. He removed the pipe and pointed it at Viktor.
“Yes – your father’s right! But when you’re being battered by thugs, then you need a bit of thuggery to fight back. No good leaving it to the mamby-pamby Christians and Social Democrats. And you’re a young lad, you ought to be looking to the future.”
Gunther knew about the Sturmabteilung, the S.A. There were a few of those bruisers in Markenburg and they all seemed to have been the kids he remembered from school as being the bullies and the dunces. They made a lot of noise and drank a lot of beer, yet they weren’t too popular with local people because they were drunks and disruptive trouble makers.
“Do you think the Nazis have a chance then?” he asked Karl.
“I bloody well hope so!” he exclaimed, blowing out a cloud of smoke.
“What about the communists?” asked Viktor.
“They had their chance – look what a mess they made of it – hah! A socialist Bavarian state indeed! What a bloody joke. Anyway, the Germans will never, ever put up with communism.”
“Karl Marx was a German,” offered Gunther.
“No,” replied Karl, leaning forward and glaring intently, “Karl Marx was a bloody Jew – and don’t you forget it! We need to kick some arses, starting with the French! We ought never to forgive what they did in the Ruhr. That bloody frog-eating General Degoutte and his troops, actually occupying Germany. A damned disgrace!”
There was rarely a visit from Uncle Karl which didn’t feature a diatribe on the occupation of the Ruhr. Once Viktor had gently derided him for yet another repetition of the story, but Karl would never desist. He insisted that “these facts should be engraved on every German’s heart!” This visit was to be no exception. Gunther and his father cast a knowing glance to one another as Karl went into his stride.
“Every German who held any position got sacked and expelled. Policemen, councillors, mayors, all hounded out of their jobs. And why? Because of the damned Treaty of Versailles, because crippled, struggling Germany couldn’t pay the so-called ‘reparations’. No wonder we couldn’t. We were on our knees, but that’s the damned French for you – kick a man when he’s down, the bloody frog-eating cowards. They expelled 5,764 railway workers and 17,237 of their dependants. I know these things. They’re burned into my brain.”
After studying some history with Professor Steiglitz and now comparing what must surely be living history as expressed by Uncle Karl, Gunther realised that the past and the present seemed to overlap one another. He was slowly beginning to see why people like his father took such an interest in politics. But Karl hadn’t finished. He directed his next salvo directly at Gunther.
“You know, Gunther, lad, us old’uns are too knackered and long in the tooth to drag this country up by its bootstraps. But you could, people like you and your brother. Think about the injustice of it all. Imagine it. You get up in the morning to go to work and some poncey Frenchman tells you to pack up and leave home. Degoutte was proud of the fact that altogether he’d expelled almost 150,000 Germans from their homes and jobs. But even then we showed a bit of spirit. When they arrested the Mayor of Essen, the locals shut all the shops and restaurants in daytime. That’s how we kicked back – we dynamited points and junctions on the railway and jammed signals as well as sinking the odd ship in the canals. But 376 people were killed and 2,000 people wounded. Innocent people. They weren’t the Kaiser’s Army anymore, just poor working folk like us – suffering from British, French and American greed. There were crowds of Ruhr refugees in every town east of Breslau. And we weren’t even at bloody war!”
Viktor took a bottle of wine from the shelf and opened it. He poured Karl a large glass. Despite the familiarity of the subject, Gunther was impressed with Karl’s passion and his precise knowledge. He knew that there were men in town with similar views. He pointed to the newspaper clipping on the door.
“What about that?” he asked.
Karl swigged his wine and drew deeply on his pipe.
“Aye, I’ve read it. What about it?”
“Well, that man seems to be saying the things you’re saying. I suppose he’s one of the Nazis. Why don’t you join the NSDAP?”
Karl reached for the wine bottle and topped up his glass.
“Because I’m too old and not tough enough,” he said, “but believe me I will join, because it’s the thing to do for the future.” Viktor looked on, slightly puzzled.
“Well, we’ve a few brown shirts even here, in town, and they certainly make a lot of noise and chuck a lot of leaflets around.”
“Don’t be daft, Viktor! We need a bit more than brown shirts, marches and swastikas,” replied Karl. “We need power. What we need is the army back on form. We need to re-arm. No-one will take any notice of us Germans until we’re able to point a gun in their faces. God knows, they’ve been pointing one at us for long enough.”