Paris - And Then The Handelskampf
( Originally Published 1915 )
I WENT into my stationer's this morning for some of my favorite carbon paper, and when he told me that he had no more of it, and would have no more, because it is manufactured in Vienna, I started to grumble. The Stationer was amused, and gave his usual deprecatory, propitiating gesture of shoulders and hands working in unison. He knows well enough that French carbon paper is very poor, and that the antiquated method, inherited from remote ancestors, of packing the English brands dries out the sheets before they reach the customer in a foreign market.
But the General Staff Officer, who was ordering some visiting cards, answered me back.
"What right have you to raise a fuss over a perfectly natural and patriotic state of affairs?" he demanded."If you love France, as you profess to do when you are smoking my cigars at the Club, you would pat the Stationer on the back. More than that, you would tell him, as I have done several times in the past half hour, that he ought to throw out of his shop every article he has in stock of German and Austrian manufacture."
The arm that was more accustomed to brandishing a billiard cue than a sword was agitated in an increasingly eloquent marking time to words as the General Staff Officer demonstrated that the hour had come for France to rise up in her wrath and boycott everything "made in Germany."
"I tell you," he shouted, "that we have been fools,fools, I repeat it,' my friend to allow the Germans and Austrians to come into France and capture our markets., Why should our good money go to the barbarians? It makes me boil to think of how we have been pouring out our gold, through pure gentillesse, through our careless and mistaken notions of courtesy and politeness, to build up German factories, and increase the power of our enemies to fashion their hellish Krupp cannon to strike us when they got good and ready. O fools, fools, fools, we French have been!"
With this the General Staff Officer blew out of the shop, and was lost in the crowd entering the gate of the Luxembourg opposite before I had ' time to recover my breath, and before his orderly, who had been trying to find a substitute for absinthe at the café next door, was able to pay for his drink and hurry after him.
"Feels pretty strongly, does n't he?" I said to the Stationer.
The Stationer looked disgusted.
"Sounds patriotic. He is the great I AM, and he thinks he has found THE GREAT IDEA. Do you know, I am one of the largest purveyors to the Etat-Major. The War Department of France has been for years a consistent buyer of German and Austrian goods. They always want the best of everything, and, in my business at least, that best comes from Vienna."
The Stationer took my arm, and guided me to his show cases.
"Then look at these novelties. Practically everything I have in this line, things that are attractive in themselves, that are time saving, that are clever, that are practical the little articles that you feel you want the moment you see them all these things here are made in Germany. For instance, take this inkstand. It has a heavy base, and appeals to you as sensible. For you have always been upsetting inkstands. Voilà, here is one that will not upset. You buy it. The Germans study the art of supplying the market with what customers want. We buy their goods because they sell well. You Americans have novelties also, but they cannot compete in price with German goods, and then you have no conception of how to sell on credit, It is only in novelties protected by a rigid French patent that you get the better of the Germans. As for us, we French are indifferent, and the English are stupid.
I was interested, and the Stationer warmed to his subject.
"That General Staff Officer is typical of the asininity and injustice in vogue in Paris since the war began. He wants me to throw out my German stock, does he? And three months ago he and all his kind would come into my shop, and ask for a certain wellknown article. German, of course. If I did not carry it, and offered him a substitute, I would find him sliding out of the door before I finished my sentence. To run a high class stationery business in Paris, stocking German and Austrian goods has been a sine qua non. Three months ago, if I had not been carrying a large line of goods from Germany and Austria, I would have failed. Today, since I do not burn up the fifty thousand francs of goods bought by me because the public wanted them and would have no other, I am unpatriotic.
So the Handelskampf has followed the Kulturkampf. It is just as senseless, and far more cruel, because it is affecting thousands of shopkeepers whose fault is that they have been good merchants and have tried to please their customers.
There is only one way in which French manufacturers can profit by the war to supplant German and Austrian industries in their own markets and in the markets of the world, and that is by manufacturing articles just as good, just as cheap, and just as attractive to the public. In some fields they may succeed. In other fields they will inevitably fail. For we are living in an age of international distribution of labor, and it is as unreasonable to suppose that the manufacturing and commercial genius of the German race is any more reproducible than its musical genius. Just at this moment I am fully as alarmed about the prospect of a winter without Vienna carbon paper as I am about the blank months ahead without the Opus 28 sonata of Beethoven.
Boycott measures are boomerangs. I have never seen them fail to inconvenience, to injure, the boy-cotters as much as the boycotted. The Kulturkampf and the Handelskampf will succeed in Paris only on that day when Parisians are able to boast that nothing essential or desirable to satisfy the material and intellectual and spiritual needs of the French race comes from across the Rhine.