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A People Betrayed by Alfred Döblin

 

Overview: Set in Berlin after Germany's defeat in World War I, Doblin makes vividly real the public and private dramas of a nation on the brink of revolution. He brings to life a fascinating cast of characters that includes both the makers of history and the historically anonymous.

 

A People Betrayed by Alfred Döblin Book Chapter One

 

Attack on Police Headquarters A young man returns from war, finds nothing appealing about liv­ing in  Berlin and meets others who feel the same. Some overwrought people attack police headquarters and find they can sleep better af terward.  It is  November 22, 1918. Berlin was a  proliferation of buildings sprawling  low  and somber across the sand of Mark Brandenburg. A shabby excuse fo r a   stream, the Spree, flowed between them. The little river took on an iridescent black from the sewage emptied into  it,  buildings  turned their backs on  it, sheds and coalyards lined its banks. In the Hansa district near the zoo the world surrounding its  murky, proletarian waters  opened up somewhat, and it caught a glimpse of trees  and boats and was glad to leave behind the heaps of stone that were the source of the refuse. But fo r some dis­tance out  onto the plain the poor river was hemmed  in again by indus­try, by  complexes as  big  as cities,  where still more men and women toiled  inside. The city of Berlin spread out across sand that long ages before had lain at the bottom of the sea. Where fish once swam, men lived now, and in such numbers and on such poor soil that the majority of them were in want, barely eking out their lives  by drudgery. To the north, south and east of the city, in a great circumferential band, stood factories erected to supply distant cities and countries. Many of them 'had been built during the war-the one that had lasted from 1914 to 1918 and now was lost­and many others had been converted to war production. Bur the war was over. What was to be done with the factories? Neither their owners nor the city had the money to convert them to peacetime production. There were eager'buyers, but none who could pay while trade with the outside world was closed off. So strikes  broke out. The hatred  of the workers fo r  their employers exploded. There was an immediate danger that they would occupy the factories. People returning from  the  war thronged into  the eastern and northern  sections of the city,  a  continuous stream as demobilization 5
continued irr-full swing. There was a dreadful housing shortage.  Who· ever wanted a  place to  live  had to put down 'hundr�ds of marks-they called it  key money. In the west, where riches and luxury resided, the splendid and exclu­sive shops were open, of course.  Bur the suits of clothes, the shoes and the hats in these shops were very expensive, and their elegance was de­ceptive. The suits were made of wartime cloth rhar frayed quickly, just as the paper used fo r newspapers and books turned yellow in no rime at all. The streets and squares had lost much of their evening brilliance. In order to save coal only every third srreetlamp was lit. An uncertain half­light spread like  fear  over much of  the city, as  if  in expectation of a bombing attack. During those November days, when the darkness of defeat and col­lapse settled down over the teeming city, many of its citizens sensed the oncoming  doom, the approaching danger. And just as  during the war notices  would multiply on  village  walls and barns reading "Warning! Cholera!" or "Danger! Typhoid Fever!", so  now more and more houses and villas  boasted  signs: "Six-room apartment, eight-room apartment, ten-room apartment, with garden, balcony, fu lly fu rnished, unfurnished, available as a single unit, can be divided, fo r rent, fo r sale." The greasy divinities  to which war had given birth had already moved into many of these villas  and apartments. These august powers with the  heads  of vul­tures  fe d  on  the new human miseries-they were the speculators and their hangers-on. On this Friday, November 22nd, a  fo rmer lieutenant, Maus by name, wanders listlessly about the streets of Berlin. His father, a legation lawyer of the old school, interrogates him daily about his heroic exploits so he can then boast of them at the office. His mother is no better. For six months he lay in a military hospital in Alsace; his left shoulder is still stiff and nor fu lly healed. He was sent home via Naumburg, and now here he is with no more sense of what to do with himself in the city than the tens of thousands of others still trooping in. Each evening these  idle hordes are sucked  up like a   thin layer of sludge into their houses, where they remain invisible fo r  the night. Bur in  the morning some  gigantic hose sprays them back our onto the streets, where they trickle about fo r hours on end. With his youthful, rosy-cheeked face,  Maus is an  unprepossessing, amiable fellow who hasn't accomplished much in life as yet. He has pow­erful limbs ready to spring into action, his gray-blue eyes have a look of candor. He no  longer has his  hopes set  on a career, he only wants  to know whether he is of any use in this world. In  what was once  the Cafe Luna on the Kurflirsrendamm, a  tem­porary office has been set up "for discharging members of the military." 6
Maus ends  up there  around noon. Someone in  the crowd taps him on the  back  and sticks his  head over his shoulder. It is  Karl Ding, nick­named Big  Ding, a  fo rmer pal from his  school and university days. A volunteer in  the war, Ding doesn't know  what to do  now either.  Like Maus, he  is  just  looking  the  place over. They shake hands.  Maus is thinking, so he's still alive too. Big Ding smiles his winning smile while eyeing him from top to bottom, a gentle kangaroo. But Maus sees noth­ing to smile about, and the others look downcast as well. It's like  a  fu­neral  home  in here, he thinks, and  the  man about  to be buried left a   lot of debts behind. Big Ding steps on  Maus's foot and whispers, "If you think you'll  find out anything here,  you're crazy." Ding is  here only because there is no  heat at  home. None here either, fo r that matter, but at least you move about and there are lots of people. The two of them shove their way back out. Ding slips his hand in under Maus's right arm. He eyes him a bit, then suddenly asks, "What are  you doing anyway, Maus? What's hap­pening with you?" Maus tells him not to bother him with such questions. Ding is sur­prised  but not offended. So now I've got this fellow hanging onto me, Maus thinks. The tall, friendly figure trots along beside him, babbling away about having been a gunner, until they reach Uhlandstrasse. At the streetcar stop, a grave young woman is standing across from them.  Not a  bad looker, thinks Maus, even though she does wear wirerimmed glasses. She spots Ding and rushes over to him. They embrace and kiss. Maus assumes she is his sister and that he hasn't seen her since he was called up. But his big friend presents the young lady to him-blissfully, as if giving him a present-as Grete Gries, his fiancee, whom he last saw yesterday evening. They cannot seem to contain their joy  that the pain­fu l  separation has come to an end. Maus tips his hat and starts to leave them. But he has not reckoned with Big Ding, who is so fu ll of happiness that he has to share it. The tall fe llow whispers something to his girl, then she carefully links herself onto  Maus's injured  left  arm while  Ding takes his  right.  And so  the downcast soldier is escorted off by the young engaged couple. He has to march off with them, although he had planned to wend his gloomy way alone today as always. They lead him back to his  own apartment, in  the expectation, ad­mitted with beaming smiles, that it will be heated. Maus takes no offense at that. He has nothing against sitting at home with Big Ding and his heartthrob and killing an hour or so. There was indeed heat at his place. His mother was sleeping, so they were spared  her astonishment  and sympathy. The two guests began to take off their coats and look about  the apartment. They then  proceeded to outdo each other with proofs of their insatiable affection. At  last they 7
made rhem!elves comfortable in rhe  rwo armchairs  in Maus's room and ' rhere rhey sat  locked  in an embrace as if since rime began. Maus ler  rhem be, growing more and more indifferent. He had ro conrenr himself with a simple cane-bottomed chair. Suddenly they were ready ro ralk. The young woman chose ro in­quire  about his shoulder and his pension. "How much do  you ger ac­tually our of having a stiff shoulder?" He replied, somewhat vaguely, rhar rhe case was still pending, pen­sions  were based on the degree of stiffness. She asked whether he  had done manual labor before rhe  war.  No,  he had intended ro  become an officer, bur that of course was impossible now, on account of his arm and everything else. "And so  you're  doing rhe same thing as  everybody else,"  his inter­rogator concluded. "You walk around in a rorren mood, communicating your rorren mood ro others  and waiting." Maus shrugged. "It's my  guess," Big Ding proclaimed, "that you'll be  walking around like  that fo r some time ro come." "That's my guess roo," Fraulein Gries concurred, gravely and with no sign of sympathy. "More and more people keep coming. The whole front-line army is expected the beginning of December." "Some things will change then," Maus said hopefully. The girl agreed. "Sure, then rhe whole army will stand around on rhe Kurfiirsrendamm, in  Tempelhof,  along General Pape-Strasse, and wherever rhey are they'll all  get handed an  unemployment card and someone will stamp ir nice and pretty fo r them." "There's going to be an awful mob of them," Big Ding grumbled. "And how are things going ro  change,  what's going ro  change them? The rich gentlemen will ger themselves  in gear and  load  up their cars with rhe charming missus and  the brats and a satchel of money and drive ro Switzerland, where there's nor a breeze stirring. Then we'll be left here ro ourselves, and can sir around counting our burrons while we wait fo r somebody ro pay war reparations." The girl added, "They'll be high, roo." Big Ding summed ir all up nicely: "There's simply no way our. Ir can't go on like this. Wherever you look rhe road is blocked." Maus looked irritably ar them both. They were sitting in his room in his armchairs. Why had they come here really? Just ro  sit  here  wirh him? He would have been berrer off alone. The girl began ro speak again, having exchanged glances wirh Ding. She suddenly adopted another tone. "There is a solution, Herr Maus." And strangely enough, the moment she began, his anger abated. She and Big Ding were no longer a bothersome pair of lovers. Suddenly he saw rhe gloomy earnestness  rhar weighed rhem both down, rhe same 8
earnestness that all their suffering comrades out there on  the street car­ried about, not knowing where  co go or what co do. He was listening to the voice of someone who had the same trou­bles as he, the voice of Fraulein Gries, saying, "We can't expect bread and a job co suddenly fa ll from the sky.  No one  is going co  take care of us. Everybody wants to avoid responsibility. People are grateful co have any job at all. Just try knocking on employment office doors. They don't have any answers, for  there's no money. They tell you to go here or go there just to get rid of you. We're going co have to take our affairs  inro our own hands." Maus listened, and it seemed co him as if he were hearing it fo r the first time.  He pricked  up his ears. "That's easy enough said, but how?" "How?" the girl repeated with solemn emphasis, placing an elbow on one knee and propping her head up. "You'll have a  hard time figur­ing it out." She's a smart, serious-minded girl, Maus thought, as he gazed at the smooth  blond crown of her head. That's a cheap wool dress she's wear­ing,  maybe it's  not even wool. "How do you think you're ever going to come up with an answer anyway, Herr Maus? I  mean you men in general.  You didn't have co when we were at peace, and in war you had co obey orders. But as I  told Karl, you're back home now, and you don't have any choice but co pull your wits together. Just don't start in with your srories about military heroics.  Look at where that's got you.- You must excuse  me, Herr Maus, for speaking so frankly." "You mean because of my shoulder? Nonsense." But the shoulder really was quite sore, all this running around was not doing it any good. "All the things  Karl was telling me only three  months ago about what Germany would be  like after you were victorious-and you were bound to be victorious. I believed it. Why lie about it? But I had already noticed the deception before that, Herr Maus. The deception-do you know anything about that?" Maus had the feeling of being a little boy in school.  "What do you mean by deception?" Fraulein Gries: "Have  you ever listened to Liebknecht?" Maus: "No, thank God. I don't give a damn about the revolution." He could see before him the wretched band of warriors that tried to approach the hospital train as he was returning from Alsace, honest fe l­lows standing in formation and carrying a   red flag. His friend Becker had been standing propped on his canes next to him, both of them amazed that this is what called itself a  revolution. And as the girl continued, Maus heard his fr iend Becker speaking, in the train, the night they pulled out. 9
"Nighr...,. The night's coming, and  now there's peace, sweet peace. We'll never  let  them snatch that away from y.s." What dreams and hopes they had had during  thos

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