Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon recalls events surrounding the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9-10, 1938
Kristallnacht, the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, is considered one of the defining events of the history of Hitler’s Reich. On November 9, 1938 – the 15-year anniversary of the Bürgerbräukeller-Putsch – Ernst von Rath, a German junior diplomatic clerk in Paris, died in hospital. von Rath had been mortally wounded via multiple gunshot wounds two days earlier; his murderer, a teenaged Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan (Grünspan in German), was a passionate young Zionist seeking symbolic retribution for the ill-treatment of Jews in Germany. The response to von Rath’s death was retribution-in-kind, a storm of attacks by SA-men and other National Socialists against Jewish property, particularly businesses and synagogues. Individual Jews in some cases were also targeted. The claim generally is that the pogrom was organized or encouraged by the state rather than a spontaneous uprising; in either case it is clear that the government did little to prevent the attacks, even if some senior figures in both Party and government expressed a moral or political opposition to them. Such misgivings were also shared by segments of the civilian population. Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s post-WWII memoir Der Fragebogen provides a first-hand example of these misgivings as they were voiced both by ordinary Germans (von Salomon and his friends) and some state officials (Otto Meißner, head of the Presidential Chancellery). von Salomon’s evident revulsion towards Kristallnacht and his discussion of the complex problems of collective guilt and complicity are especially interesting considering his earlier membership of the highly anti-Semitic terrorist movement, Organisation Consul. That von Salomon’s opposition to the regime’s anti-Jewish measures was genuine is difficult to refute, considering he sheltered his half-Jewish lover Ille Gotthelft from any potential persecution. Regardless, the author’s attempt to refute the notion that the German nation as a whole shared equal culpability for the regime’s excesses caused some controversy and debate after his book’s publication.
That November evening of 1938 Ille and I had stayed rather late at the home of my friend Axel, playing dice. I was at the time very preoccupied with my work; not only was I writing a script and a film treatment simultaneously, but I was also preparing a thick volume of endless material concerning the role of the public official in the German post-war, one of the most interesting subjects of our age and of great importance. (This book has never been published.) I had arranged an interview with Minister of State Dr. Meißner for the purpose of discussing with him his activities during 1919, and I had already made a draft of the principal points I intended to raise.
Axel lived in the Sächsischer Strasse, in Wilmersdorf, and I some ten minutes’ walk away in Charlottenburg. To reach our home by the shortest route Ille and I had to cross the Olivaer Platz, a pretty little square just off the Kurfürstendamm, which contained the shops where we bought our daily groceries. At the corner of the square, where the Konstanzer Strasse joins the Kurfürstendamm, was a small wine shop; it was here that we occasionally bought a bottle or two when we had unexpected guests. As Ille and I passed this little shop I suddenly became aware of the crunch of broken glass beneath my feet, and looking about me saw that the plate-glass front of the shop was smashed and that the bottles were quite unprotected – anybody could have stolen them.
“Some drunk must have crashed into it,” I remarked to Ille, who had stopped and was gazing at the damage. She thought we should notify the proprietor, but we did not know whether he lived in the building.
At this moment we heard a loud crash followed at once by the tinkle of falling glass. We turned around. On the other side of the street a group of apparently young men, dressed in riding boots and civilian jackets, were standing outside a café. One of them was even then picking up a stone, which he put into a cloth that he used as a sling and which, with practised skill, he hurled at one of the café’s great mirrors. There was an echoing crash and again the tinkle of falling glass.
A taxi was parked at the corner of the Konstanzer Strasse and the Kurfürstendamm. I hurried towards it while Ille, clinging to my arm, ran along beside me.
“What’s going on here?” I asked the driver. He was an elderly man who wore a military badge in his hat in place of a cockade. He looked at me and said, in his Berlin accent:
“Go on home and don’t ask questions. I ain’t taking no more fares tonight. Me, I’m keeping out of trouble.”
He drove off and disappeared around the corner. Ille still clung tightly to my arm as we hurried along the short stretch of the Kurfürstendamm that separated us from the Clausewitz Strasse. I could feel that she was trembling and I said:
“Don’t get so upset. After all, what is it? A handful of hooligans smashing other peoples’ windows!”
Ille said nothing. We saw no one in the streets. Only now and then did we hear the distant crash of breaking glass.
We had a little two-room apartment at the back of the courtyard of 5, Clausewitz Strasse. Apart from Herr Cetteler, the porter, the proprietor of a little dairy next to the front door, and a retired Foreign Ministry official who lived on his pension in the front part of the building, all the other tenants were Jewish. I double-locked the front gate, and we hurried across the courtyard to our apartment. Ille, without even taking off her coat, ran through the kitchen, the hall and our two rooms, as though to make sure that nothing had been touched. She even looked in the bathroom and the broom cupboard. Then she came up to me and asked, with trembling lips:
“What do we do now?”
I said, as surlily as I could:
“Nothing. Go to bed and get some sleep!”
But she shouted at me:
“Your name is on the door outside! If they start forcing their way into people’s houses do you think they’ll give you time to explain who you are?”
“You’re crazy,” I said. “Cetteler would have to let them in, and Cetteler would explain – he’s a decent man.”
“There aren’t any decent men!” shouted Ille.
“Don’t shout like that,” I told her, and she lowered her voice as she said:
“But we must do something! We can’t just…”
“I’ll call Axel and tell him what’s happening.”
I telephoned Axel and described to him what I had seen. He asked, at once:
“Have you informed the police?”
This was an idea which, I admitted, had not occurred to me. Axel said that in that case he would do it for me and would ring me back.
Meanwhile Ille had called Herr Cetteler. He was already on his way up, wearing his blue boiler-suit. He knew what was going on and he said:
“Don’t you worry, lady, they’ve got proper lists all drawn up. Nothing’s going to happen to you. I’ll be there and I’ll see to that.”
“Are they coming, then?” Ille asked. He said:
“They’re coming right enough. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but they’re coming.”
“But then you must warn the other tenants!”
“I shall, I shall… But what can I do? On the other side there lives an old girl, for years now she hasn’t been quite herself. Then they took her companion away, because of the Nuremberg Laws, you understand, been with her for years she had too… and now the old girl’s got nobody to look after her and she’s just kind of rotting away. What can I do? You know what Jews are like, but now they’ve all got so many worries of their own that they can’t bother about each other…”
He left. At the door he turned back and said:
“Boy, this is all we needed!”
Then he rang the bell next-door and I heard him say:
“It’s me, Cetteler, you needn’t be scared…”
Axel rang. He said, with agitation:
“The police station wouldn’t even let me finish. The man who answered the phone said they knew all about it but they couldn’t do anything…” Axel added, emphatically: “And he didn’t even sound ashamed!” Then, somewhat ceremoniously, he went on to say that he would willingly have walked round to see us but that he had friends at his place. “Friends. Do you understand me? Friends.” They planned to stay the night.
“All right,” I said, and I added: “Now say your little piece.”
Axel was firmly convinced that all telephone wires were tapped, and it was therefore his habit to end all conversations with a political platitude. He thought that in case of trouble this would count in his favour. He now said, calmly enough:
“The Jews are our misfortune!”
Suddenly his voice became hysterical and he screamed:
“An unutterable misfortune! Our misfortune, ours! Do you understand me? Ours!”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I understand you. Now ring off. We’ll phone each other tomorrow.” And I rang off.
Ille had wrapped herself in a blanket and was sitting in an armchair. Her eyes followed all my movements. I walked over to the radiator and felt the pipes; they were still quite warm.
“Go to sleep,” I said, “then you’ll warm up.”
“I can’t sleep. Do you imagine I could even close my eyes here in Berlin?”
I hated to hear her say this. My desk was a mass of papers. I could not possibly go away at this time. I said:
“You’ll have to wait a couple of days. As soon as I’ve got my affairs in order we’ll go to Kampen.”
Kampen on Sylt was always my refuge in times of trouble. I said:
“But first I must see Meißner, then deliver the script and get a contract for the new film – the rest I can do at Kampen.”
Ille said nothing. I walked up and down for a while. Then I fetched a bottle of gin from the ice-box in the kitchen and two glasses from the cupboard in my room. Ille said:
“Don’t drink now!” Suddenly she collapsed and said wretchedly: “Whose fault is it all?”
I stopped in the middle of filling the glasses, and looking up at Ille, said:
“Do you mean it’s mine? Yes, it’s my fault too. We’re all to blame.”
“I’m not,” said Ille.
“You too,” I said. “That’s their trick, they make everybody guilty. All they’ve ever done is carry out the mandate of the people. The people means you, and me. But, God damn it all! I never gave them any mandate! When I thought a thing ought to be done I did it myself.”
“Yes,” said Ille. “For example like the way you walked straight up to those guttersnipes smashing other people’s windows and punched them in the face!”
I looked at Ille. She said, at once:
“It’s stupid, I know. Forgive me.”
She knew it was foolish to talk about it, and so did I. We had discussed it all far too often already. But Ille, deeply outraged, wanted to hurt herself more, for such was her style, and to hurt me too and everyone else. She said:
“But tell me, tell me how it’s come to this? How is it all possible? You know, you must know, you were in it from the beginning…”
I drank and said sullenly:
“I wasn’t in it, I just lived through it.”
But Ille was angry now.
“That’s just splitting hairs,” she said. “That’s all just talk.”
“I was not in it!” I shouted at Ille. “Will you ever get that into your head once and for all?”
Ille later told me that my face had gone quite grey when I shouted this at her. After a while I said:
“All right, you’re quite right, of course I was in it. And at this moment how many people do you imagine are sitting, like you and I, in their remotest room behind drawn curtains, talking as we are? And how many Party members do you imagine are doing and saying just this, just like you and I, honourable, decent Party members? Today is one of those days that is never over, that constantly recurs, that lays its claim on history over and over again, that carries with it the curse that it can never be forgotten. The day of the Reichstag fire was such a day, and the 30th of June, 1934 – these are the days that are counted in the reckoning, not the days when something sensible is achieved, when a constructive beginning is attempted, when a positive act is performed. We are aware of sitting here, in the remotest room behind drawn curtains, this means something to us, and we will remember it when we have forgotten everything about the Olympiad except that it did once really take place. And mark this: the time will come when we will drive along the Autobahnen and will have completely forgotten that it was Adolf Hitler who built them! And so it is good, it is right, that there should be days when we sit in back rooms. Don’t imagine that there have not been days like this before! There have, and I was there right enough, and I sat in the back room, and I am glad that it is so!”
Ille said, with desperation:
“I don’t understand it at all, I’ve never understood it. I was too young at the time it all started. And when first I was entitled to vote I voted National-Socialist. There was such a nice SA man standing outside the polling booth. He pressed a leaflet into my hand and told me that was how I ought to vote. When I asked him how he knew, he laughed and said I only had to look at the other men standing around the polling booth. I looked at them and then voted National-Socialist because the SA man was so nice!”
There Ille sat, huddled up like a child and, as always when the world was too much for her, seeking refuge in her childhood, a good, unworried, guarded childhood… The telephone rang shrilly. It was Axel. He told me the synagogues were burning. From his balcony he could see the glow of the fires. I thought that Axel would now produce his political platitude, his insurance. Instead he said:
“Please make a careful note of this. Early tomorrow morning it will be announced on the radio that the German people, infuriated by the criminal action of the Jew Grünspan who shot the councillor attached to the German Embassy in Paris, rose spontaneously and set fire to the synagogues. I assert here and now in the most solemn terms that I have never risen spontaneously, that I have never committed arson. Since the Reichstag fire arson has been a capital offence, to be punished by hanging.”
“Yes, yes. Good. I’m sitting here quite quietly with Ille, too, discussing this and that. I’ll call you in the morning.”
But Axel did not ring off. He said, pronouncing his words with icy clarity:
“It is extremely interesting. For years these people have announced officially that it was not their intention to attack the Jewish religion, that they were simply fighting against the danger of contamination by the Jewish race. They have even published laws to this effect. Are the synagogues places of worship or are they institutions for racial interbreeding?”
“Yes, I know all about that. But at least the burning synagogues cast a clear light on the situation.” And I rang off.
I told Ille what Axel had said. I went on:
“Why are Axel and I not standing in front of the synagogues with outstretched arms protesting and accusing at the top of our voices? Because we know that what we might say would have no echo? That’s not the reason. It is something far worse. We are in reality already dead. We can no longer live from within ourselves. Everything that is happening about us is not the product of the internal life of those who are doing it; it is the product of a collective. And a man who will not accept and believe in that collective is dead. The collective always acts unconditionally. It also demands our unconditional faith and acceptance. But this collective has not gathered us up into itself, it has atomised us. Atomised fragments cannot constitute a community, but only an explosive mass. Ernst Jünger said once that the saint on a pillar, the stylite, presented socialism in its most accomplished form. That is certainly true: the deliberate act of the individual for the sake of a solidary solution must also, always and inevitably, be an act of solidarity. I have never recoiled from true solidarity, or from a collective society. But this collective is now destroying itself, it is a false collective. It offers the individual no chance to perform his deed of solidarity.”
“This collective is a reductio ad absurdum and that is the greatest crime that it can commit. I know, of course, what is happening to the Jews. Were I not myself a witness I should still know, for it has been announced often enough what would happen. The burning synagogues simply show that it is happening now. The appalling thing is that nobody can help ‘the Jews,’ because any attempt to do so simply increases their peril. The appalling thing is that we cannot help ourselves, and far more is happening to us than to the Jews. And far more is happening to the collective than is even happening to us.”
“Last winter I had occasion to come home by streetcar 176. I was standing on the front platform. Besides the driver there were also two SS people there. Then an elderly lady got on. Suddenly the two men began to talk filth. It began with one saying: ‘Terrible stink of garlic here!’ and you can imagine how it went on from there. The old lady tried to open the door leading to the interior of the car. It was only then that I realised the men’s filth was directed at her. Now I am not accustomed to let old ladies be insulted in my presence, as you know. Maybe it’s an old-fashioned atavism, but there you are. What should I do. Set upon the two oafs? That would have been just stupid. Do nothing, as though it were no concern of mine? That would have been cowardice. I was interested by the alternatives, and I tried hard to think of a third solution. Of course! The simplest! I helped the old lady in her attempt to open the door. It would not move. I called the conductor and he walked the length of the swaying car. I shouted through the little hole in the door that he should open it. He shouted back that in winter that door had to be kept closed. I bellowed through the hole that he must open it at once, an old lady was here in need of help. The conductor cried that she would have to get down at the next stop and re-enter the car by way of the back platform. While I was still arguing with the conductor I suddenly saw the old lady’s face, only a few inches from my own. She was looking at me with undisguised hatred, a hatred that came from her sensation of complete helplessness, the worst sort of hatred there is. And I understood: of course! This woman wanted, more than anything else in the world, to avoid attracting attention. To be conspicuous might mean anything, martyrdom, death. And I, it was I who was creating this danger. It was I, not the two SS oafs, who just stood there grinning spitefully though in silence. The car stopped, and the old lady hurriedly got off. It was not my stop but I followed her. I wanted to help the old lady, I wanted to try to explain why I had behaved as I had done, I don’t really know what I wanted, I was acting ‘spontaneously.’ The old lady did not get back on to the other platform. She disappeared into the darkness. I walked home along the Kurfürstendamm and I thought as intensively as I could – there must, there must be a third solution. And if there is in fact none, which was preferable: to behave like a fool or to act like a coward?
“At the corner of the Clausewitz Strasse there stood a lamp-post. Near the lamp-post I saw, hanging on a tree, a piece of cardboard as big as a poster. I walked up to it and read: ‘The seamstress Frieda Junge, who lives at Weiz Strasse 14, commits racial infamy with the Jew Victor Aaron.’
“There it was, written on the poster. Not far from the lamp-post stood an ordinary policeman. Now then, here was a chance. I decided to be a fool and not a coward. I ripped down the poster. Immediately the policeman came up to me. He asked:
“‘Are you authorised to remove the poster?’
“‘No. But it’s a piece of filth.’
“The policeman said:
“‘Quite agree. That’s why I’m here, to nab the fellow who keeps hanging them up on this tree. There are special columns for posters at the street corners.’ He went on ‘If you’ve nothing to do with it, go on home. And give me the poster, I’ll stick it up again so I can catch the fellow. If this goes on anybody will think he can just come here and stick posters to this tree.'”
I said to Ille:
“But if this is the truth: if the provocation of the Reichstag fire served to destroy Communism but also, and simultaneously, destroyed the actual legitimacy of the Party’s road to power: if the events of June 30th ended the revolution but simultaneously created the police state instead of the people’s community [Volksgemeinschaft]: if tonight the true central point of the Party, its racial doctrine, has been reduced to an absurdity and the Jewish problem has really been transformed into a German problem: if at the same time we are all atomised, isolated, incompetent, sterile, without any direct connection with the now discredited collective – and that is perhaps the most monstrous aspect of the whole process; the hope of our age, the real objective of civilisation, the constructive element for the future, the collective discredited by its own most fanatical exponent – if this is the truth, then what remains?
“Now since in these circumstances all action is crime, all that remains is to do nothing. It is at any rate the only decent course. And it is also the most difficult thing in the world, a sort of Gandhi-ism without Gandhi. The individual solution has here a solidary constructive force. It is really the most difficult course of all, and it looks so easy, doesn’t it? All honour to him who can follow it – as to myself I am not so sure whether I can or not. In any case I’m going to take a bath now, and shave, and put on clean clothes, and have breakfast – and then I’m going to see Meißner.”
Ille drew her self up:
“Surely,” she cried, “you’re not now…”
“I am. I have an appointment. And apart from that I’m curious, I want to know what’s happening. For my health’s sake. I want to know what’s going on, so that I can talk about it. That’s my psychotherapy; without it I can’t rid myself of my complexes.”
Ille said a great deal more, but she laid out a clean shirt for me. She filled my pocket-book with documents proving my identity, all that I possessed. She complained, as I could well understand, that Grünspan had simply walked into the Paris Embassy and shot the councillor, and everybody had wondered how the man had succeeded so easily in entering the building; I was to be sure to show everyone I met in the New Chancellery my membership card of the Chamber of German Writing; if anybody asked me my name I was to mumble indistinctly, because if a sentry heard it he was certain to shoot me dead on the spot.
In the streets the sun was shining and it was a clear, cold day. To my surprise I suddenly felt in an excellent humour. There seemed to be something to the methods of the psychoanalysts after all. The first person I saw was my friend Kurt Heuser. He had gone to Africa as a young man, where he had been a farmer. In the solitude of the bush he began to write, short novels with an African setting. Back in Germany he had given up writing literature and had turned to film scripts. Now here he was, striding as fast as ever towards me, wrapped in his fantastically aged overcoat – tradition had it that he had worn it in the bush, and it always had one button missing.
“What do you know!” he cried, and went on at once. “Funniest thing just happened to me. Imagine, I had no idea what was up. I wanted to come into town” – he lived out by Lake Stölpchen – “and I noticed there seemed to be great crowds in the Ku-Damm, you know, the sort of people you don’t normally see there. Difference struck me right away. Then I saw the glass – and then all of a sudden the crowds moving! There’s a man running towards me and other men running after him. The man – he’s bleeding from the head, great drops of blood falling from his black hair – he’s staggering but he keeps on running, straight towards me. There’s hundreds of people about, but it’s me he’s running to. And I feel damn proud that I’m the only one he trusts. He runs up to me and he damn near kisses me, crying: ‘Save me! I’m a Persian!'”
Kurt Heuser said:
“I stopped a passing cab. To begin with the driver said he wouldn’t take us. The gentleman was bleeding and who’d pay to have his taxi cleaned afterwards. I shouted at him: ‘Go to the Persian Embassy.’ At last he drove off, and just in time too. As for my Persian, do you know who he swore at? Me! He could only blubber, but he kept whining away at me as though it were all my fault. ‘I, a non-Aryan!’ he suddenly shouted: ‘What do they imagine? I’m a Persian! If I’m not Aryan who is? Where did the Aryans come from if not from Persia?'”
I laughed and Kurt Heuser said:
“Now tell me, what do you make of it?”
“I don’t know, I’m no expert on the subject, but I think he’s right, your Persian. The Indo-Germanic tribes are at least supposed to have originated in Persia.”
“That’s not what I meant. Can you understand all this business? They’ve just got over one world crisis, they’ve just won everything they could possibly want at Munich by saying that they would abstain from all acts of violence – and now this! They’re just slapping the world in the face once again. Can you understand it?”
I said that I could not. He cried, in desperation:
“It’s so incredibly stupid!”
“Yes,” I said, “it is. But stupidity is the norm.”
He stared at me and then, with an expression of dread on his face, he said:
“You know, I think that he is an evil man.”
It was quite clear to whom he was referring. I had never before heard Kurtchen Heuser speak anything except good of any human being. If he now described a man as evil, then something unheard of must have taken place within him.”
I hailed a cab.
“Where are you going?” asked Kurt.
I got into it and said to the driver:
“The New Chancellery!”
I looked back, for I did not intend to miss Kurtchen’s completely bewildered expression.
An SA man of the Feldherrnhalle unit was standing outside the New Chancellery, his legs well apart. On his chest he wore an oval shield, suspended by a chain about his neck, which gave him a thoroughly martial appearance. As I approached the steps he stamped to attention and flung out his right arm in a salute. I raised my hat, thinking with satisfaction that he must have taken me for some important foreign diplomat. I said politely:
“I wish to see the Minister of State, Dr. Meißner.”
“This way, sir,” he said, and directed me towards the main entrance. Hardly was I through it before an SA man sprang out of an alcove, stamped to attention, and flung out his right arm. I said, with somewhat more assurance:
“Herr Minister Dr. Meißner!”
“This way, sir,” he said, and directed me towards a flight of stairs covered with a red carpet. I climbed the stairs. On the first landing an SA man sprang to attention, banged his heels together, and flung out his arm, straight in my face. I said, gruffly:
“This way, sir,” he said and directed me towards large doubledoors that were standing open. Through them I could see a long, well-lit corridor, carpeted in grey. I entered it and a grey little man in a simple, grey livery came up to me. In a soft and sympathetically attuned voice, he asked:
“May I take the gentleman’s coat?”
I handed him my overcoat, in the pocket of which were all my identity papers, and my hat. He hung them on a peg in a small recess behind one wing of the double door. Then he said, bowing politely and in a mild tone:
“Whom shall I announce?”
This was the moment to stare destiny boldly in the face. I announced my name loudly and clearly. Destiny’s expression did not alter.
“One moment, please!”
He disappeared through the first door that opened off the corridor. He returned at once, saying:
“The Herr Minister asks the gentleman to be so good as to come in.”
It was just as easy as that. I entered a big room, filled with the light of day. The minister had already risen to his feet and was walking towards me, his hand outstretched. He wore a simple grey suit without any emblem in his button-hole. He said:
“I am very pleased to meet you in person.”
So he had read my books. He went on at once:
“Is this your first visit to the New Chancellery?”
“I never set foot in the old one either, Herr Minister.”
He laughed and I glanced about the room. Opposite the big, dark, flat-topped desk – on which lay no papers; so that I received the impression I was intended to receive, namely that for the time being the minister was prepared to devote his entire and undivided attention to me – there hung a large portrait of Hitler. He stared intensively at the desk, as though to watch carefully what Meißner was up to there. On another wall there was a large portrait of Hindenburg. The old gentleman’s expression was rather tight. There was also one of Bismarck. But the fourth wall, the wall by the door, was blank. I glanced that way and said:
“You’re a picture short.”
The minister gave a hearty laugh. There was an expression of satisfaction on his ruddy, healthy face beneath the already whitening hair as he said:
“Yes, one short. This is my office; the portrait of President Ebert, for whom I have very great respect, hangs in my home. There it occupies the place of honour.”
He had an agreeable voice and spoke with a South German intonation.
He offered me a chair and sat down himself behind his desk. I said:
“Herr Minister, I am engaged in assembling material for a history of the German post-war.”
He smiles courteously and said:
“I know. A fine and very necessary undertaking.”
Now how did he know this?
I determined to go straight to the heart of the matter and said:
“Yes, yes. You now, Dame Rumour always spreads stories which contain a proportion of truth. The proportion is usually small but it is invariably there. I’m only too pleased to tell you the real story.”
During the Great War, he said, he was a lieutenant with the field railways, working on the staff of the Chief of Army Railway Services, General Groener. When, towards the end of the war, Groener succeeded Ludendorff as Chief of General Staff, he appointed as his successor in charge of the Eastern Front railways, with headquarters at Kiev, young Lieutenant Meißner. The task confronting Meißner was stupendous. There were still half a million German troops in the East, dispersed throughout the vast area from Reval to Rostov-on-Don: the task was to get them home at the very time when revolution had broken out in Germany. Kiev was in a state of total chaos. The military governor had already packed up and gone; Poles and Bolsheviks were fighting for control of the Ukraine, while the Cossack chieftain, Petljura, was struggling to secure the independence of his country. Everywhere guerrilla bands and partisan groups fought one another, while amongst them were scattered, often at great distances from one another, small German units whose one desire was to get home. All that remained intact and was still in working order was the German military rail network – and indeed, Meißner said not without pride, the repatriation of the German armies in the East was successfully completed almost without incident.
“I reserved an armoured train to take out myself and my staff and the last of our security troops. The train had already got up steam, ready to leave, and all the jobs connected with my appointment had been completed. All that is, save one. I had to go and say good-bye to Petljura. I went alone. I was the last German in the town.”
Meißner said he had worked well with Petljura. Petljura knew that he had to thank the presence of German troops in the town for a great deal, and he was very sorry to see us go. Indeed Petljura’s position was highly dangerous. In three great columns Polish, Bolshevik and Allied forces were moving on the Ukraine. Petljura had only a few reliable troops at his disposal. They might have been enough to cope with any one of the approaching columns, but certainly not with two, let alone all three. So the farewell, though hearty, was tinged with sadness. Meißner finally said that they had nothing more to discuss – apart from the question of the compensation to be paid for German property left behind in the Ukraine. Petljura did not immediately understand. “What do you mean?” he asked. Meißner said, good naturedly, well, there were the railway installations, the tracks and sleepers and telegraph poles and bridges and stations… all German property. “But,” cried Petljura, “you can’t take that stuff with you!” “No,” said Meißner, “we can’t take it with us. But we can destroy it.”
Petljura was horrified. “If you do that I’m lost!” In fact without the one communications system still intact in a vast territory menaced by guerrilla bands he would have been lost. “Then pay for it,” said Meißner. “But I haven’t got any money!” “Then write out a bill of sale!” said Meißner.
And Petljura did so. He signed bills of sale for tracks and sleepers and bridges and telegraph poles and stations and smashed trucks. Meißner had all the papers already drawn up, and Petljura signed the lot.
Meißner tucked the bills of sale into his sleeping bag and made his way to the station. But the armoured train had already left.
So Meißner procured himself a sleigh, packed his sleeping bag full of bills of sale on board it, sat down on top of the bag, and in a journey of several weeks’ duration drove straight through a country in the full ferment of revolution and civil war, over the snow-covered Carpathians, through a Czecho-Slovakia seething with its newly acquired independence, and so arrived in Germany. Once there he began to search for some authority to which he could hand over his accounts. But there was none. No such authority existed any more. The Demobilisation Commissioner was not competent to accept them, nor were the Soldiers’ Councils. So Meißner went on to Berlin. He tried to reach the provisional head of the Republic, the President of the Executive Council, Ebert, the most important of the ‘people’s representatives.’ But Ebert was unapproachable. Ebert hurried from one conference to another. When Meißner had tried for the eighth time to obtain an interview, Ebert’s assistant, the Social-Democrat Wels, threatened to have him thrown out. “We’re desperate,” said Wels: “We don’t know whether we’re coming or going. The President is attending an important conference. With an Allied commission that wants to take possession of our property in the Ukraine. It’s a matter of millions that we haven’t got and need. And now you force your way in and ask for an interview with the President.” “It’s because of the Ukrainian property that I’m here,” said Meißner, pointing to his sleeping bag. Wels sent him in at once to see Ebert. And Ebert presented the Allied commission, which regarded itself as the legal successor to the Ukrainian state and which wished to take possession of all German property there located in exchange for Ukrainian corn, with Petljura’s bills of sale. These totalled slightly more than the actual value of the property. The commission left without entering into an argument about the small discrepancy involved. And Ebert asked Meißner what position so admirable an official would like to fill. Then Meißner told the president of his vain attempts to find an authority capable of handling so confusing, and yet politically so important, a contingency as that which had brought him to Berlin. He proposed to Ebert that such an office be created, and added that he felt it should function in the closest proximity to that supreme head of the country.
“And so,” said Meißner, “by order of the late and highly respected President of the Reich I was installed in the Presidential Chancellery.” He laughed heartily. “The sum in question was considerably in excess of a million, but it was all in the form of bills of sale.”
I thanked the minister as best as I could for the information he had given me, and he got to his feet. But before wishing me good-bye he asked me if I should care to be shown over the New Chancellery. I did not move as I said:
“Thank you. Today I’m more interested in smashed windows.”
Meißner stopped smiling but did not become in any way less friendly. He said calmly:
“There’s been more smashed than you know.”
“But one day it’ll all have to be paid for! And who’s to pay…?”
Meißner looked at me calmly. The pupils of his eyes had shrunk to pin-points. He said:
“Well, in the first place there is the insurance.”
This was a thought which had not occurred to me. I said:
“But can you? Will you?”
“Then there is the reinsurance. And the underwriters are abroad.’
I said bitterly:
“But is there nobody… to put a stop to this lunacy…”
“There are people who are trying, at least. It’s hard to do anything about a fatality. It just has to be paid for.”
“This is no fatality, it’s a crime!”
“Crimes are always fatalities. You, I think – must – grant – me – that.” He said: “But one can try to bring about a decent solution to the results of a fatality. One can try to ensure a decent solution, and that is the only thing one can do. And one must do that and meanwhile hope that others are doing likewise.”
When I reached home Ille was not, as I was accustomed, waiting for me at the door with a big glass of brandy in her hand. She was standing in a smoke-filled kitchen, with pieces of sooty ash floating about her head. She was streaked with grime and was blowing on a pile of red ash that glowed in the dustpan. She stared at me from red-rimmed, inflamed eyes.
“What’s up?” I cried.
She looked at me and sobbed:
“I’ve burned the papers!”
I was taken aback.
Ille said, between her tears:
“The ones in the trunk. The blank signatures.”
I laughed and helped to wash the rest of the ashes down the sink. While she was cleaning her face and hands, she said:
“Now tell me all about it. Start: ‘Well, when I got there they’d all arrived already…'”
I told her about Kurtchen Heuser and his Persian. I told her about Meißner.
When I had finished I got my brandy and Ille said:
“What terrible times these are we live in.” She said, “I was born in 1912. I wish I’d died in 1912, at the age of seventy.” She sighed and went on: “And the fashions of the ‘eighties would have suited me so well!”
I laughed and contradicted her:
“Look, there’s one thing you can’t deny. The times we live in are interesting if nothing else. I think this is probably the most interesting period in the history of the world. Never has a generation undergone so many and so diverse experiences as ours.”
“You’re quite right. But you know – don’t be angry with me – but I’d rather just read about it.”