“The flag is our symbol! We will not surrender it!” Three accounts of the infamous Landvolk farmers’ riot in Neumünster, August 1, 1929
The Landvolk movement (Landvolkbewegung, or ‘Rural Peoples’ Movement’) has become somewhat obscure today, but during the late 1920s and early ’30s it had an incredible influence over radicals on both the Right and the Left in Germany. Peasant farmers in Schleswig-Holstein, fed up with the terrible economic situation and the policies of establishment Social-Democratic or liberal politicians, began organizing collectively to fight back – a previous article on this blog, from Ernst von Salomon’s memoir Der Fragebogen, describes their often terroristic methods in some detail. One of the most notorious events connected with the Landvolk, aside from their penchant for bomb-planting, was the infamous ‘Battle of Neumünster’ which took place on 1 August, 1929, in the town of that name. Prominent Landvolk spokesman Wilhelm Hamkens had been jailed on 1 July for inciting tax-strikes among his fellow peasants. Upon hearing that Hamkens was to be transferred for release to the town of Neumünster on 1 August, thousands of revolutionary peasants decided to converge on the town for a peaceful march and rally to welcome him back to freedom. The result was chaos. It was at the Neumünster march that the Landvolk peasants opted to fly their own flag for the first time – a black flag (representing both nationalism and German mourning), bedecked with a white plough (for their livelihood) and a red sword (indicating their fighting spirit), the three colors thus completing those of the old Empire. The police’s decision to try to confiscate the flag created havoc: battles in the streets, fingers and noses being hacked from bodies, farmers beating police with heavy ash walking-sticks. The three accounts excerpted below describe the Neumünster battle in quite vivid detail, clearly demonstrating how unstable the Weimar Republic was becoming as state authority withered and as a revolutionary spirit seized even those classes of society usually associated with stolid traditionalism. The first is a historical account from Alexander Otto-Morris’s excellent academic study of the Landvolk, while the other two constitute fictionalized retellings: one from nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s novel about the revolutionary peasants, the other from a well-known novel by Hans Fallada, who was a journalist in Neumünster at the time of the riot.
Rebellion in the Province:
The Landvolkbewegung and the Rise of National Socialism
in Schleswig-Holstein (2013)
by Alexander Otto-Morris
Alexander Otto-Morris’s book Rebellion in the Province is, so far as I am aware, the most authoritative history of the Landvolk available in English. It is an excellently-written academic work which manages to be an easy, gripping read as well as deeply informative and thoroughly referenced. I have excised Otto-Morris’s numbered references to make the text more readable in a casual blog setting, but they indicate that he constructed his account from an exhaustive reading of police and governmental reports about the incident, as well as from contemporary newspaper articles. The excerpt below is taken from Chapter Six of Rebellion, which covers the movement at its peak over the course of 1929, before it descended into outright terrorism. – Bogumil
The plans for a rally in Neumünster became public after the Schleswig-Holsteinische Volkszeitung printed a letter written by Hamkens from prison to Johannes Kühl, requesting that a crowd meet him on August 1 [after being released]… Alarmed at this news, the provincial authorities took steps to avoid another disturbance. First, they arranged for Hamkens to be secretly moved to Flensburg as a precautionary measure. Then, on the day before his release, representatives of the Regierungspräsident travelled to Neumünster to meet with the town’s mayor, Lindemann, and police commander, Chief Inspector Bracker, seeking to prevent the anticipated demonstration. As the town’s police administrator, it was Mayor Lindemann who had the power to enforce the prohibition of open rallies and even of indoor meetings if they were deemed to pose a danger to the public peace, safety and order. In answer to the Regierungspräsident’s representatives’ pleas, however, Lindemann declared that he viewed a Landvolk rally as harmless and explained that rallies of the communists and the Republican-friendly paramilitary corps, the Reichsbanner, were always peaceful. Despite warnings that the Landvolkbewegung was more dangerous than the communists, especially because it was a movement without organisation, definite membership or leaders, Lindemann was unmoved. He could see no reason why the rally should be banned and was adamant that such events should be left to run their course.
Doubting that Neumünster’s police force, a chief inspector and 27 officers, were sufficient to maintain order, the provincial government representatives pressed Bracker and Lindemann to accept the assistance of a riot police contingent. In fact, so great was their concern, they even offered to put a further unit on call in Kiel. Bracker, however, was of the opinion that a riot contingent presence would simply be a provocation.
It was at this point in the discussion that Lindemann was called away to meet with Franz Schwarzloh (Tungendorf), a local Landvolk leader who had come to the town hall on Lindemann’s invitation. Seeking Lindemann’s consent, Schwarzloh confirmed that no demonstration would take place in front of the prison and explained that the farmers intended to wait for Hamkens’ arrival in pubs on the town square before marching to the town’s livestock auction hall where they would hold a meeting. Reassured, Lindemann gave Schwarzloh his permission for these plans and returned to the provincial government representatives, who in the meantime had continued fruitlessly to warn Bracker of the dangers the Landvolkbewegung posed. Lindemann reaffirmed his decision and he refused, despite repeated urgings, to allow the deployment of riot police in Neumünster. Only after much discussion did he agree to have the contingent stationed on call in the village of Einfeld, on Neumünster’s outskirts.
On the evening of July 31, Hamkens was transferred to Flensburg without incident and without detection. That the provincial government went to great lengths to keep this a secret is puzzling. Doing so might have served to prevent the farmers from proceeding to Flensburg to welcome Hamkens there, but it did not deter them from demonstrating in Neumünster. At best, the belated discovery of the transfer could merely cause the farmers inconvenience and, at worst, lead to unpredictable changes of plans with unknown consequences for the authorities.
On August 1, farmers began to gather in the pubs around Neumünster’s main square throughout the course of the morning, but so few had arrived by midday that Mayor Lindemann and Chief Inspector Bracker must have felt vindicated in their belief that the provincial government’s fears were inflated. Yet even after news arrived in the early evening that trucks packed with farmers were on their way from the west coast, Lindemann saw no cause to call on the assistance of the riot police contingent. By three o’clock, the number of farmers in the pubs had swelled to some 2,000 and curious citizens of Neumünster began to line the streets. There was still no sign of trouble. However, after learning of Hamkens’ transfer to Flensburg and that he would not arrive for some time, the farmers soon resolved to march to the auction hall immediately and wait for him there. In response, Chief Inspector Bracker hastily made arrangements for his officers to take up positions along the march route while he made his way to the head of the procession.
As Bracker hurried across the town square, Walther Muthmann, the agronomist and member of the Wehrwolf who assisted Landvolk leader Peter Petersen in Plön County, emerged from a pub carrying a flag. Reminiscent of the standard of the German Peasant Wars, it was black, but completing the old national colours, in its centre were symbols of the farmers’ toil and struggle: a white plough and a red sword. Although it had been on display in the pub throughout the afternoon, the flag caused a stir among the bystanders, particularly on account of a sickle Muthmann had attached to the top of the pole.
Bracker, who did not realise the sickle was not nearly as dangerous as it appeared, as its blade had been dulled, proceeded directly towards Muthmann. Bracker reached Muthmann just as he joined the farmers standing at the front of the procession and asked him politely to return the flag to the pub. When Muthmann did not respond and then subsequently refused an order, the Chief Inspector declared the flag confiscated. But as Bracker stretched out to seize the flag, the procession suddenly set in motion, bumping him aside.
Accompanied by two of his officers, Bracker quickly caught up with the front of the procession, where he ordered once more that the flag be handed over. As Muthmann again refused, the officers moved in, attempting to grab hold of the flagpole. Muthmann held tight. Led by Paul Adam Ross, the farmers in the first rows lent him assistance, surging forward, pushing and shouting at the officers, before beginning to strike at them with their fists and sticks. In the ensuing melee, Bracker and one of the officers were almost impaled on the sickle as the flagpole was thrust back and forth. Meanwhile, another officer who had rushed to his colleagues’ assistance tripped and fell to the ground in the turmoil and was momentarily knocked unconscious by the farmers’ unrelenting assault.
Overwhelmed, Bracker ordered sabres to be drawn. Regrettably, the one remaining officer able to help him used his against Johannes Thiess, a Landvolk follower who had not been involved in the fray. Struck on the shoulder, Thiess caught hold of the blade, pushed the officer against a lamppost and held him in a deadlock. Bracker was left surrounded and the farmers succeeded in grabbing his raised sabre. Struck from all sides, Bracker drew his unloaded pistol and ordered the other officers to do the same. “Make way!” he shouted. Finally, the farmers fell back.
Threatening the farmers with his pistol, Bracker created enough space for himself to hurry in search for more officers. He did not have to go far, as some of those who had been posted at intervals along the march route had been alerted by a passing cyclist and consequently came running toward him. Without delay, Bracker turned back with his reinforcements to face the oncoming procession.
Bracker called on the crowd to stop and again ordered Muthmann, still at the procession’s head, to hand over the flag. Twice he repeated this order, but the farmers continued forward. There was a cry of “That is our symbol. We will not surrender it!” as Muthmann dropped back into the crowd and Ross urged the marchers on.
When the officers moved to seize the flag, the farmers once more beat them with their sticks. The ferocious but disciplined manner in which they attacked astonished the Chief Inspector who later described the front rows as an “assault squad” (Stoßtrupp). The police truncheons were poor defence against the farmers’ longer, heavier makeshift weapons and when one of his men collapsed with blood running out from under his helmet, Bracker gave the command, “Sabres out, strike!”
Falling to the ground under the officers’ attack, Muthmann tried desperately to retain the flag, pushing and kicking wildly as he lay supine. He yelled at the officers, “The flag is our symbol and we will defend it with our blood and our lives! I will die for it. I will not give it up!” The officers continued to strike him, slashing at his hands, but only after cutting off one of his fingers and severing the muscles of his right forearm, slicing them to the bone, did Muthmann finally let go of the flag.
The police accounts of this incident are extensive and detailed, but conspicuously deficient in explaining the use of their sabres. Perhaps the officers feared they had overreacted and did not wish to implicate one another for heavy-handedness. Significantly, three farmers were seriously injured who had not been involved in the melee, but who were, in fact, quite some distance from it. One received a cut to the shoulder and another was struck on the head from behind as he climbed the stairs to enter a pub. The third, Ernst Behr (Mettenhof), was an elderly farmer, who on crossing the street, did not hear or perhaps ignored an officer’s order to stop. He received a sabre swipe across the face that left him lying in a pool of blood with his nose severed from his face.
Cries for revenge could be heard as the march continued to the auction hall, now with Kiel’s Stahlhelm band at its head. There, some 2,000 Landvolk followers gathered, intending to make speeches and sing patriotic songs until Hamkens arrived. Schwarzloh, and in particular, Kühl and then Max Bestmann (Hohn) inflamed the audience, telling of the flag’s bloody confiscation and calling for retribution. Kühl, for example, told the farmers it was their duty to rebel and Bestmann called on them to retrieve the flag and demanded that Neumünster’s police chief be forced to apologise.
However, before any action could be undertaken, the Landvolk discovered that the police, together with the riot police detachment from Kiel, were assembling outside the building. On learning that bystanders had seen a number of farmers loading revolvers during the procession and that they were presently listening to inflammatory speeches, Mayor Lindemann had ordered that the farmers be disarmed and the meeting dissolved if they failed to cooperate.
Appointed to head a Landvolk delegation to request the return of the flag and the release of those arrested, Bestmann left the auction hall, only to be sent back in by Chief Inspector Bracker under instructions to inform the farmers to surrender their sticks and other weapons. When Bestmann returned soon afterwards to tell the Chief Inspector that the farmers had demanded the police come into the hall themselves if they wanted anything, Bracker dispatched a sergeant to declare the meeting closed. His entrance was greeted with thunderous screams, shouts and stamping, while the Stahlhelm band struck up the national anthem. Waiting until it was finished, the sergeant hoped to make himself understood, but the crowd immediately began to sing the Schleswig-Holstein anthem, leaving him little choice but to withdraw.
The police now proceeded to clear the hall by force, breaking in through the main entrance and removing the band, which had begun to play the national anthem again. Bestmann and Rudolf Jens, who had been making a speech as the officers entered the hall, allegedly encouraged the farmers to resist the police. Those who did were driven out under the blows of the officers’ truncheons, while others climbed through the windows. Outside, the police confiscated some 100 oak sticks and conducted body searches. Though they found just one revolver and a steel rod, it was assumed that the other farmers with guns were among the many who had managed to escape.
Most of the farmers made their way to the train station, where they regrouped at the square outside and began to cheer for Hamkens and to resume their singing of the national anthem. They defied police orders to disperse but when they attempted to form ranks they were driven into the nearby pubs. Despite rumours of an attempt to recover the flag, most of the farmers departed towards evening, as there was still no sign of Hamkens’ arrival. Several hundred farmers proceeded towards Rendsburg, hoping to intercept him there, but this meant that when he finally did arrive in Neumünster, his appearance was an anti-climax, for just 60 farmers had remained to welcome him.
It Cannot Be Stormed (1932)
by Ernst von Salomon
So far on this blog the only writing I have posted by nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon has been from his post-WWII memoir Der Fragebogen. von Salomon made his name in Germany before the War, however, with a number of semi-biographical novels covering events in which he had been personally involved; the most famous of these are The Outlaws (in German Die Geächteten), about his time in the Freikorps, and It Cannot be Stormed (in German Die Stadt, or ‘The City’), based on his experiences aiding the peasants of the Landvolk in their revolutionary struggle against the ‘November Republic’. I am not sure whether von Salomon was personally in Neumünster for the riot or whether his account is based on retellings from people he knew, but regardless it matches up remarkably accurately with Alexander Otto-Morris’s historical reconstruction. A key difference is the renaming of Muthmann (who von Salomon knew personally) to ‘Hinnerk’, a stylistic choice based on the author’s fictionalization of several real-life individuals. The events which occurred following the riot that von Salomon also describes – the total boycott which the farmers put on the town – are also accurate. It was apparently effective enough that by June 1930 the Neumünster authorities had both apologized and returned the confiscated flag, prompting the Landvolk to declare their boycott officially over. – Bogumil
On the day of his release Hamkens was to have been in Neumünster, which was the most important fair-sized town of the province, was of some industrial standing and had an excellent burgomaster. The excellent burgomaster wanted to have peace and order and, as he understood the farmers and also understood the machinery of administration, he did three things: he arranged for Hamkens to be removed on the last night to the prison at Rendsburg, he gave his sanction to the farmers’ demonstration, and he kept the company of State police, which had been sent to him, outside the town. He thought that thus, in the interests of the town, he had played a trick on everyone. The burgomaster of Neumünster was an excellent man. But he did not know what had long since become evident to the farmers: namely, that every measure, prompted by the spirit of a declining era, must of necessity have a completely contrary reaction to that intended. This was to be proved by the incident of the flag.
For the farmers the elastic, almost anonymous Movement represented a political weapon, and the intangible boycott an economic one, and the bomb an inarticulate argument, but they still lacked a visible sign, a pictorial and emotional symbol. Here as usual Hinnerk, with his natural and uninhibited delight in inspiring effects, immediately struck the right note. A flag! A marching movement must have a flag, which would head the procession, which could be waved, which could be hoisted, and – not least important – for which one could, with complete justification, do battle. The flag was black, with a white plough and a red sword; the great undulating sheet was not attached to a simple pole, but to a scythe which had been hammered straight! The scythe-flag had been the battle-standard of the Dithmarsch men in the Danish wars; it flew in the old colours, black, white, red, which still meant so much to many of them, but with new symbols: everything was there. And Hinnerk bore it in front of the procession.
“Well, well, a flag,” said the farmers, and smiled a little, as they saw it fluttering – it was nothing but a piece of coloured bunting, but, quite pretty.
For the police-superintendent in Neumünster, too, it was only a piece of coloured bunting; but when two people think the same thing, they do not necessarily mean the same thing. The police-superintendent of Neumünster regarded the flag with disfavour; it did not bear the colours of the republic. The procession began to move towards the pirosn, where Hamkens no longer was; the farmers set out, a solid mass of big, strong figures, each of whom had his tough stick in his hand (for a farmer never leaves the house without his stick); the close-formed column threaded its way through the almost empty streets. From the windows of the houses the heads of the townspeople were peering curiously, and the townspeople were calling jokes to each other across the streets, and even saying spiteful things, for Neumünster was a stronghold of social democracy. Suddenly the police-superintendent of Neumünster bethought himself of the by-law of 1842, which laid down that it was unlawful to carry an unprotected scythe through the streets of the town, and the by-law in the Defence of the Republic Act prohibiting the carrying of arms, and the by-law of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior by which in demonstrations walking-sticks were to be regarded as arms, and a whole lot of other by-laws, and the Article of the Service Regulations concerning the behaviour of the police in cases of provocation. Then the police-superintendent of Neumünster pushed his way through the farmers’ procession and seized Hinnerk by the sleeve:
“The flag,” he gasped, “the flag!”
Hinnerk did not even look at the man; with a simple movement of his arm, he shook himself free. The farmers shoved aside the uniformed obstacle to their march, and the police-superintendent discovered himself several ranks behind the wide-spreading black flag, pressed up against the walls of a house. That was resisting the executive power of the State. It was no longer merely the breach of a by-law; it was an offence against the law! He trotted along the procession to the front; he took a deep breath, for there, a little way off in front of the marching column, stood his superior officers.
“The flag,” he cried out to them and, drawing his sword, advanced, a body of constables behind him, towards Hinnerk.
Hinnerk was proudly bearing the flag, holding it aloft with both hands, his chest thrown out, blinking up beneath his fair hair to the windows where the pretty girls were to be seen. When the police-superintendent tried to seize the flag, he refused to let go, shaking the staff vigorously to rid himself of the useless appendage. A sword flashed and gave him a deep gash in the hand. The farmers in the rear, who had not seen what was going on in front, pressed forward with their even, steady tread. They pushed the front ranks against the body of police and, while Hinnerk was struggling with the superintendent, tenaciously clutching the flag-staff with his bleeding hands, the farmers’ sticks were raised and directed against the constables. Hinnerk clung to the flagstaff, blows fell on his head, shoulders and arms, he stumbled, fell, still clinging to the flag, staggered up again, biting and kicking; swords flashed up and down, the flag-staff was broken, arms seized hold of Hinnerk, blows rattled down on him, feet trampled him. Enveloped in the black cloth, Hinnerk reeled, was thrown on one side, staggered to his feet and, after being knocked down again and again, lost consciousness, but not the flag. The whole street resounded with the noise, swords clashed against sticks, a blinding flash clapped Farmer Helmann in the face and sliced off his nose, solid wood thudded heavily on the skull of the policeman, cries re-echoed along the ranks of farmers.
“What has happened in front?” and “Halt – the police.”
Claus Heim shouted a command:
“To the Agricultural Show!”
Slowly the procession broke up. Hinnerk lay, under arrest and still unconscious, the flag at his side, in the entrance hall of a house; the echoes of the slowly ebbing fight resounded in the neighbouring streets. Singly and in groups, the farmers advanced on their new objective; but the superintendent had given the alarm to the police waiting outside the town and, as the farmers arrived, they found the armed force; drawn up in line, before the entrance to the Agricultural Show. As the farmers entered one after another, their sticks were taken from them.
In the immense hall the farmers seethed up and down.
“What’s this about the flag?” they shouted.
“They have taken our flag!” and “Hinnerk stuck to the flag!”
The thing that lay beside Hinnerk in the passage was no longer a piece of coloured bunting: the very honour and self-respect of the farmers, consecrated by their blood, lay there, stained and torn by shameless, desecrating hands. From now on the name of Neumünster would be used as a curse in the farmhouses. Suddenly a word went round that Hamkens was no longer in the prison, and that the burgomaster had provoked the police against the farmers, after enticing them into the town with a hypocritical sanction of their demonstration. For this there could only be one answer! In the midst of the confusion Claus Heim formulated the terms of expiation. The flag must be returned to the farmers by the foremost of the town authorities with a solemn ceremony and apologies. The guilty superintendent must be dismissed immediately. The town was to undertake to pay every one of the farmers injured by this breach of hospitality an adequate compensation, the amount to be decided by the farmers in each case.
“The meeting is dismissed,” cried the police-officer to the seething mob, and the farmers left the town, not to set foot in it again for over a year. The excellent burgomaster of Neumünster was an astute man; but all his clever foresight had failed; the very thing he most wanted to avoid had occurred; not only the farmers, but also the machinery of administration, and the loyal citizens of the town, believed it to have been a preconcerted plot. Everything that he had done strengthened the ugly suspicion and, since there had to be one, he was selected as the scapegoat. He did, whatever might be thought, the only thing that he could do as an upright man: he defended the superintendent’s action, in spite of the fact that it was contrary to his own intentions.
That was the second great mistake that the burgomaster of Neumünster made (if he hadn’t defended the superintendent it would equally have been a mistake); he refused to accede to the demands of the farmers. And the farmers boycotted the town! Neumünster, a fair-sized town of some industrial standing, was not entirely dependent on the country and, although in hard times, in every budget, public or private, every penny counted, it was nevertheless the town which stood the better chance of holding out in the struggle. The burgomaster relied on his town, and he relied on all the help which must be afforded him by the authorities, and he relied on the eventual good sense of the farmers, whom he knew to be quiet people of apt intelligence who believed in guarding their own interests. What point was there in this petty revenge for the sake of a torn flag, for the sake of a stupid incident, which was likely to occur at any time if there was a clash between an excited crowd and disconcerted officials? But the farmers were not concerned with revenge; they were concerned with their cause, which was at a critical juncture. No farmer was to set foot in the town where the desecrated flag lay; not so much as a button was to be bought in the town; not even a glass of beer to be drunk: the young farmers left the Agricultural College, the market was deserted, no more cattle shows, no more gymkhanas! The town was despised and everything that came out of it; the friend in the town was no longer a friend, the girls in the town no longer found sweethearts among the young farmers. Not a single egg, nor a pound of butter for the wives in the town; no petrol or help for a car bearing a town number.
The town was wiped out and existed only as a dirty blot on the landscape. And woe betide the farmer who should dare to break the boycott!
A Small Circus (1931)
by Hans Fallada
Writer Hans Fallada’s 1931 novel A Small Circus (in German Bauern, Bonzen, und Bomben, or ‘Farmers, Bosses, and Bombs’) was the first depiction of the Landvolk and their movement in fiction, and the Battle of Neumünster and the confiscation of the farmers’ flag constitute key events within his book. Fallada must have had a front-row seat to the riot as he was living and working as a journalist in Neumünster at the time, and considering the extremely unflattering depiction his writing otherwise gives of his fictionalized version of the town (renamed ‘Altholm’ in the novel) and its inhabitants, the sympathetic way he paints the revolutionary peasants in this section is telling. Fallada, despite associating with a number of conservative-revolutionaries (he and Ernst von Salomon were friends), had political sympathies more aligned with Social Democracy than anything else, but regardless he still felt that the treatment meted out to the farmers by the Neumünster authorities was reprehensible. This shows in the excerpt below, where the author gives the peasants some nobility while ascribing to the police fairly brutal and idiotic behavior and attitudes. – Bogumil
They’re on their way.
A score of blues [policemen] are jogging over from the railway station. In response to the first confusing bulletins, Superintendent Kallene assembled all the men that were on duty in the northern part of town.
But the farmers aren’t far, either. A hundred yards, eighty yards off, the column in rows of eight abreast. The black flag in the van (still with no music), they are advancing.
Superintendent Kallene makes his report, but Frerksen isn’t listening. “The farmers fell upon us, your colleagues have been beaten. Now the flag must be seized. It’s been confiscated. You, Solin, Meierfeld, Geier, are responsible for getting the flag. The others will help.”
Kallene surveys the short distance that separates them from the head of the procession. From the elevated traffic island, he jumps down on to the roadway. “Right, men! Go!”
He raises his hands. Unarmed, he runs against the march, his men at his side, some already ahead of him. Some have taken the raised arm of their commander as a sign to draw their swords, and are struggling to run and – unusually – draw their sabres at the same time. Others have unhooked their truncheons from their belts and are swinging them menacingly. Menacing, too, are the shakos [police caps] pulled down low over their brows, secured by a chin band.
Only the foremost of the farmers have seen the attack, and pause, and try to stop, but are pushed along from behind.
Henning abruptly slows his pace. And in a feeling of mockery and obstinacy he raises the flag a little higher, pressing his back against those coming up behind. While he stands firm, they push through the line.
The oncoming police see him melt away, the front line has closed over him already. Now he is behind the second, now the third row.
“The flag!” yells Frerksen. “I want the flag!”
The first policeman to come up against the farmers is Geier. They are like a wall in front of him, a wall of threatening, indifferent, brooding, white and brown faces. Hands are raised against his upraised hands, sticks are raised; who can say whether for protection or assault.
“Make way!” he roars.
The flag is billowing just ten or twenty yards off. He must get it. Where are his colleagues? Never mind, the farmers are yielding, his rubber truncheon is smacking against their upraised hands. Somehow a way is cleared in front of him, a short, open passage that he penetrates. And once again the man in front of him yields, melts away to the side. He can move on, he is closing in on the flag.
From behind and to the side, something thumps against his shako, and then he is struck on the left shoulder.
All the more grimly he lashes out at those in front of him. They’ll be taught to give in, those stupid farmers, those shits, those bastards, damn them! The flag…
He rams his left elbow hard into the belly of someone. The man crumples over, others melt away, and press themselves harder against their neighbours. With one bound, half stumbling, half falling, the sergeant is up with the flag, reeling, he grabs for the flagpole, for a moment he is chest to chest with the flag-bearer, and with a shout of “Gimme that!” he rips the flag to himself.
Henning looks at him. His eyes burn. “The flag is ours,” he says. And yanks it back.
Holding the pole with his left hand, Geier hits at Henning’s hands with the rubber truncheon.
Henning doesn’t let go.
Geier is about to hit him a second time, when a hand reaches from behind and holds his. A brief tussle, a piercing pain, and his half-dislocated wrist drops the truncheon.
In a dense knot of people, they are fighting for the flag. Henning and Geier, in a continual moving whirl of bodies, wrestling, falling, on the ground.
“Give them a taste of your sabre, Oskar!” Geier hears a shout above him. “It’s what the bastards deserve.”
This is the giant Soldin, and with him ratty little Meierfeld. With the flats of their swords they dole out thwacking blows on the backs, faces and hands of anyone within reach. The crowd recedes, a small ring is formed, and reeling Geier gets to his feet, giving a mighty jerk on the flag.
But on the other end of the pole hangs Henning, lying on the cobbles, but his white face and clenched jaws indicate: he’s not about to let go.
“Let go, you!” yells Meierfeld, and hits the recumbent man with the flat of his sword.
At the other end Soldin and Geier have joined forces. Another great jerk pulls the flag fully six feet, and Henning, on the floor, with it. The sabre swipes his arm. His dark suit gapes open like a mouth, the white of the shirt – and now, slowly spreading, red, bright, flowing red.
With his hands clenched round the pole, Henning kicks out furiously against the swordsman.
Meierfeld raises his sabre again. “Will you let go, bitch!” And he brings it down, on the hand of Henning, which is straight away just a purple stain.
And now Soldin and Geier let go of the flag, raise their swords, and bring them down. Henning has rolled over on to his side, covering with his body the hand that is still capable of holding, while blows rain down on the other.
The police rain down blows, breathless, pale with fury, and round this little arena spins the stream of farmers, pressing, marching on, more new witnesses all the time…
…The holding pen of the Association of Holstein Cattle-Breeders is ringed by a tall brick wall. A wide gate is let into this wall, and the police have taken up position by this gate, while the column of farmers, band to the fore, marches in. At this gate, police violence stops. In the hall, and on the surrounding terrain, the farmers have rights, this is their place. The police stand singly or in groups either side of the gate. The further the column moves in, the more police there are.
The farmers walk in, some with lowered heads, others glowering at the police, and clutching their ashplants [walking sticks] harder. News of the clash and the confiscation of the flag has spread. All the farmers have seen the group of police standing round the captured flag on the Burstah. There’s talk of serious injuries, of deaths, the name of Henning – until recently unknown – is in everyone’s mouths.
A few times bad words reach the ears of the police. They hear ‘bloodhounds’, ‘murderers’ and ‘killers’, but on the whole silence prevails.
The dark and gloomy auction hall is overfull straight away. Here, in their own four walls, the farmers feel among their own. A wave of noise crashes like surf, a Babel of voices.
Then the arc lights come on and cast their light on the assembly.
This is no room, this hall built for showing off cattle, more a circus, with a sand arena in the middle, with ramps leading up to either side, with galleries and little staircases, and a dais at the front, where usually the livestock appraisers sit, or the auctioneers.
It’s to this dais, in front of which the Stahlhelm has set up, that the farmers now raise their eyes… Up on the stage, a man is standing and speaking.
It’s Cousin Benthin, old Moth-Head as they call him, who is orating. There he is with his blotchy scalp, a dirty jacket, a pair of twill trousers, and dirty boots on his feet. He is an old man, and the people are laughing at him because his young wife is expecting a baby which is certainly not his.
But he speaks.
He is the only one who dared to step out in front of three thousand farmers. He speaks slowly and with trouble, in short sentences, between which he stands there with eyes half closed, seeming to think or perhaps to have fallen asleep. But he is speaking at just the right speed for this listenership, which doesn’t like haste.
“He shook… he shook my hand, and he said to me, ‘Let us both, as old Altholmers, shake hands on nothing bad happening here.’ And this is what happened.
“They beat a young man to a cripple. They beat others till they were bloodied. And why? Over a flag.
“Fellow farmers, I’ve lived in Altholm all my life. Even before the War Altholm was known as a Red town. Well, let them, I thought, everyone must know what’s best for them…
“In the last few years I’ve seen my fair share of flags. Both Red and others…
“What the Communists liked to carry around with them was straw effigies. One of them was the Oberbürgermeister, and the other was our Field Marshal Hindenburg. They carried them around on a gallows.
“The flag we had was a black flag. And the reason it was black was because we’re in mourning for our dear German fatherland. And there’s a white plough on it, because we’re farmers, and we till the land, and the plough is the best thing on God’s earth. And then there was a red sword, because victory will only come if we fight…
“The ones that were carrying the gallows, they went around unmolested, but with us they took away our flag.
“Now, my friends, you may ask, why didn’t we defend it? There are so many of us, and the police were so few, and we have enough strong-boned young farmers on our side.
“Farmers of Pomerania, I tell you we let them take our flag because we obey our government. We let them take everything we have.
“They took away our brother Reimers, and they led away Rohwer, and put him in the clink.
“And they take the cattle from our byres, and the horses from our stables. They confiscate our grain while it’s still on the stalk, and they chase us out of our farms.
“Now, you ask, why do we stand for it? Have we no representatives? No parliamentarians? No members? A Chamber of Agriculture and a German Agricultural Council? Why do they not help us? Why don’t they set up an outcry?
“Dear farmers, they do cry out. As long as they’re here, among us. But then they go to Berlin. And when they come back, we don’t recognize them. We are told we have to understand that things can’t happen as we would wish. Taxes and more taxes – it has to be.
“And then we understand, and we accept.
“And when you ask me, I say: Dear countryfolk, you must pay taxes, and more taxes. You should be happy you are required to pay so much, and that they take away your animals and your farms.
“The less you have, the less will be required of you. And then, when you are left with nothing, then the dear government will look after you, as they looked after your parents who had put by a few thousand marks, and who now go to the benefits office, which has a high-sounding name for them: social claimants!
“You must pay your taxes until you’re bled white, I tell you. Till you can’t pay any more, and have no more marrow in your bones, and are half starved. Then you won’t make any more trouble for the dear government in Berlin, then you’ll be meek.
“And that’s why the Altholm police were completely right when they took away your flag. Workers are allowed to have flags.
“But you, farmers, you’re not allowed to have anything. All you can do is take your lumps from the administration, and bleed and bleed.”
He stands there, Cousin Benthin, and for the moment he seems unable to continue. He mops his brow. Behind him are the farmers’ leaders with lowered heads, or peering out into the crowd, which is going wild.
And at that moment, the door to the left of the raised stage opens: Superintendent Kallene appears, with his Hindenburg figure, in a blue tunic with red lapels.
He crosses the stage and stops next to Cousin Benthin, where he raises his hands for quiet from the wild crowd.
At that moment the hearts of the men on stage stand still.
Perhaps this policeman is just stupid, or then again he might be insanely brave.
At any rate…
Hundreds of ashplants are raised against him, the air is full of wild, furious threats, the first sticks are about to be hurled at the stage.
The conductor of the Stahlhelm band has seen a fair few wild gatherings in his time. At that instant he gives a signal with his baton, and the band launches into the ‘Deutschlandlied’.
A quiver goes through the entire assembly. Suddenly the farmers are all on their feet, singing, they’re wild with enthusiasm, they hurl it in the face of the policemen up there, the representatives of the German government.
“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles…”
Superintendent Kallene stands there with his head lowered, not looking at all. Perhaps he has no feeling for the contrast: the small, dirty, used-up-looking farmer beside him, with the ugly, chewed-looking head, and himself, two hundred pounds, well fed, rosy-cheeked, clean and presentable.
When the first verse is finished, there’s a small pause. Kallene repeats his hushing movement, he wants to address them again, but the second verse sets in.
He waits again.
The same thing after the second verse.
After the third.
After the fourth, which is a repeat of the first, Superintendent Kallene slowly and leisurely walks off stage. He’s giving up, they’re not going to let him speak.
The farmers watch him go.
Now there’s another silence. The band stop playing. The farmers are looking at Cousin Benthin, will he carry on speaking?
Once again, the left-hand door on the stage opens, but this time a farmer comes on, a large, well-built man, with his hat pulled low over his face.
He stops. From the shade of the hat-brim, the eyes scan the crowd below, as if they were something he hadn’t expected. He carries on into the centre of the stage, with a strangely unsteady walk, as though he were drunk.
The farmers stare at him, hardly any of them have come across Banz from Stolpermünde-Abbau. They stare at the big, unsteady-looking man, a feeling of apprehension spreads in the hall, as though something were about to happen.
The man stops, just in front of Cousin Benthin. His lips move, but no one can hear anything.
And suddenly he throws his arms up in the air, rips the hat off his head, and hurls it into the crowd. His head is laid bare – nothing but a terrifying, gruesome mass of flesh and blood.
The farmers release a yell.
And, as if their yell had restored the power of speech to the man, he roars: “Farmers! Farmers! This is what Altholm has to offer! Farmers! Farmers! These are the acts of the government!”
The crowd bays like a thousand wild animals in one.
The man releases a chilling scream, and falls down in a heap.
All the doors to the hall are flung open.
Militia and police force their way in, with swinging truncheons. They call out:
“Empty the hall!”
“The meeting is over!”
“Leave the hall quietly!”