German Social Life
( Originally Published 1887 )
THE Germans possess a peculiar genius for friendliness. Gemüthlichkeit they call it, and very proud of the word are they. They say we have no équivalent word in the English language, which agues that the trait does not exist among the English people. It is this very peculiarity, this Gemüthlichkeit, that has obtained for the German home-life its renown. Although we luxuriate in a more advanced state of modern convenience and comfort, yet, as a counter-balance, the Germans are free from our bigotry of exclusiveness, and possess a broad sympathy and friendliness. Our nation is hampered by its spirit of activity and rush, — a paradox, yet a truth. We are so busy, so hurried ! The Germans are slow ; they will take enjoyment out of the quickly passing life, and not madly drive onward and know no joy in daily living. They always have time for little pleasures, and the courtesies that make life more than mere labor. While we chafe at their slowness, we must acknowledge that it is far more philosophical, and that life should cultivate the spirit of good will rather than crush it by the absorbing pursuit of gain. We translate from a Berlin daily paper:
" Grant that America, as a nation, is great ; yet the American himself is pretentious, unscrupulous, and superficial. He knows nothing of the quiet enjoyment of life, nothing of love or contemplation, — only a restless pursuit of his aim. The American school-boy is like a dog in chains. He has no idea that life, health, and intellect have been given him for any other purpose than to obtain money and ostentation. He is the most mature boy that the world knows, and most frequently is an old man before he has left his youthful years. As soon as he leaves school, he at once begins the fierce struggle for existence. With the national motto, ' Forward,' 'Look sharp,' on his lips, he strains body and spirit to make his living, until an outraged nature cries, ` Halt !' He is like a wanderer who chooses the shortest way to reach the set goal, although it leads through dangerous abysses and over steep mountains. There is an easier way to the same goal, more slow yet safe, where the end is reached without danger, and lies not on the high-road to ruin."
The morning we Americans in Berlin read this, we repudiated it with great indignation. It is exaggerated ; but there is an essence of truth in it, — the eager pursuit of gain in America. Yet, to our eyes, the children of America have far more real child-life and natural freshness than is revealed to an observer in Germany, so we will exchange compliments, and say that if ours are mature, theirs are veritable little men and women. Many a time have we amused ourselves in the Thiergarten listening to the children. For in-stance, two little girls or boys meet, — they shake hands as their elders, and then the dialogue : —
" Good morning, my dear Henry, how are you?"
"Good morning, dear William. Thank you, I am well ; — and you ? "
"Thank you, the same. I am pleased you are well. And how is your lady mother ? "
" Alas, she is ill."
" Ah, that grieves me," and so on. Thus they continue and ask after each member of the family, — the honored papa, the gracious sister, — expressing set terms of rejoicing or sorrow as the occasion demands. Quite different from the random "Hello !" and the free, fresh, natural vivacity of our country, where freedom and independence have left childhood also to work out its individuality. You see the little things going to school in the gray gloom of the early winter morning, their huge furry knapsacks, heavy with books, upon their backs, and they are as settled and sedate as you would expect in conservative Germany, — the typical child-scholar. You do not see them out-of-doors playing. The girls grow up with needle in hand, the boys with a book or at manual work. The college boys know nothing of the invigorating pleasure of field sports, but, like the older men, puff their long pipes in the beer-gardens. The American observer sees this in German youth, as deplorable as our early eagerness for gain.
Baring-Gould expresses the condition of the German youth in a striking manner : German boys have no public games. All their energies are exhausted in school. In it they do have an interest, and the principal reason is that from early childhood it is impressed upon them that their whole future depends on it. The Arbiturienten Examen is the day of judgment looming before the child's eyes, and childhood is a solemn march to that Dies irae. At the close of youth, before entering manhood, comes the terrible day which irrevocably fixes their fate. Unless they issue from that Examen with a testimonial of their 'ripeness,' every learned profession is closed to them, and three years of military drill instead of one is their doom. As the boy goes to school, he passes the barrack yard or the Platz, where the recruits are drilling. He sees them posturing, goose-stepping, tumbling, fencing, marching in mud and snow, and he thinks : 'I shall have three years of this unless I work!' and it acts as a daily stimulus to exertion. . . . Their Boy is but the diminutive Man. Responsibility falls too soon on young shoulders, and crushes the elasticity of youth out of childish hearts."
Yet there is truth in the point that our nation forgets all in the mad pursuit of wealth, losing sight of the enjoyment by the wayside, just within easy grasp. We even neglect many of the forms of politeness, for it is the form that the American omits, — the true deep wells of real politeness are inherent in the American nature. The delicacy, chivalry, thoughtfulness in the attitude toward women is an evidence that speaks an unanswerable argument for natural politeness, in the heart, more convincing than the whole congregated mass of European forms. True politeness, deep in the character, has a value in comparison with which these forms are but as the flitting rainbow to the sun and rain that create it. Yet the rainbow adds beauty to nature, and courtesy gives grace to life.
They say that in America every one is always in a hurry. The easy, slow deliberation of the German is amazing to us. When the men meet each other on the street, what profuse greetings ! —hats off, not merely touched, or tipped, or raised, but they are removed, as the men almost wave them at each other, accompanied by the broadest of smiles and heartiest of nods. They generally stop to shake hands, and inquire about the family, and send an exchange of greetings. We really ought to have that much interest in one another. While this much is more than the practical American can naturally assume, still it is better than the hurried nod we give, which seems to value one's friends less than the moment of time. A pleasant, friendly greeting is a brightness in days of care, and these little courtesies speak of human sympathy beneath all the money-getting material world. The German keeps sympathy alive by friendly greeting. In the country, everybody greets the traveller, wishes him pleasure ; the tollgate keeper calls out, " Viel Vergnügen " ; the children cast flowers after him, and one feels the kindred of the human race. When a passenger enters the coach, " Guten Tag " salutes him, and when he leaves, a pleasant voiced " Adieu, gluckliche Reise," follows him. The street car conductor salutes with a respectful " Guten Morgen ! " And, in spite of class system, the people are not too stiff to give the return, " Morgen ! " Salutations are exchanged in stores, the men remove their hats, and they always wear gloves, and are ready with a polite form on all occasions. We will except the officers, the " unproductive consumers of Wurst " George Eliot calls them, who never will step aside on the pavement, and whose swords threaten to trip us up at every turn of the street. Yes, we must say, too, that, with this excessive politeness, we have seen the most offensive rudeness. These same polite gentlemen have followed our American, and, also, the German girls again and again, accosted them, and persisted in walking with them for squares, and it was an ordinary thing to hear some one softly say, "May I walk with you, beautiful miss?" or the bolder words, " Oh, what beautiful eyes ! " We believe it is perfectly safe upon the streets, but one is never sure of not being followed or spoken to, which, to say the least, is annoying. We have seen officers raise their opera glasses and fix them steadfastly upon some young girls quietly sitting at a table near them, at a restaurant, and even the presence of elderly gentlemen escorts was no safeguard against such impudence. The true spirit of politeness does not always exist where forms abound.
In the home are many greetings. There is the regular hand shaking, and the "Gesegnete Mahlzeit " after every meal. At first, this was ridiculous, wishing "blessed meal time," after the meal, but we soon gave it a new meaning, especially on the days of dreaded dishes, —potatoes and apples stewed together, warm tongue, raw herring, — then we let it refer to the future, the future in America, with choice vegetables and luscious fruits. No one leaves the house without stopping to say " adieu," and to receive the good-wishes — "Amusiren Sie'sich ! " We Americans sometimes weary of this, or a silent mood makes it too great an effort ; but the Germans do not have moods, — they cannot understand this freak of the American disposition. Our quick sensitiveness, our irritation under restraint or espionage ; — how can this slow, equable people understand us ? So they calmly continue to ask us all about our private affairs, and never allow us to leave the house without knowing why and where we go, discuss fully every letter and every visitor that comes to us, and we can only endure, — it is useless to kick against the pricks.
At the dinners, in company, we learned the gushing tenderness and use of titles, how " Excellenz " to the General's wife is a sweet morsel to the German tongue. To the American it is unpalatable, and yet we like to be called " gnä-diges Fräulein." It is almost a capital crime to slight a title. One of our American students, in Leipsic, called on Professor Delitzsch, asking for him simply as such, whereupon the servant in waiting poured upon his innocent head a volley of wrath for his insult to Herr Doctor Professor Universitäts Prediger etc., etc. Delitzsch. In Berlin, they tell how the King, who was a friend of Neander, would call out to the bushy browed philosopher, as he wandered abstractedly through the Thiergarten, "Guten Tag, mein lieber Herr, Doctor, Professor, General-Superintendent, Consistoriam Rath Neander!" On every occasion these distinctions are used. In addressing an envelope they will add to the name Hoch wohlgeboren. And actually there was this distinction given a few years ago, Hoch wohlgeboren zur Zeit high, well born for a time ! Even the Germans laugh at it, high, well born for a time ! The title was removed, but still business envelopes are stamped "Ew. (ewige) Hoch wohlgeboren, forever well born as distinguished from those only well born zur Zeit !
Family friendships are carefully cultivated. You find families whose ancestors have been thus connected in friendship, and generation after generation cherishes it. Not merely formal calls and state visits mark the friendship, but there is a very close interest in the family life. Year after year the birthdays are remembered, and, as events demand, congratulations or condolences are ex-changed. Little special remembrances keep the friendship warm. A little bunch of the first snowdrops, in February, or a few tender pussy willows will bear the Frühlings Gruss, and from papa's hunting some rabbits are sent, or a bottle of wine from the latest importation, Yet, some-how, families never drop in " to see each other in the free, easy, familiar way that we do. They seem to come at certain hours or by special invitation. We foreigners never dared run in in a German home, and I believe the Germans them-selves would not — they are too much for form, even in minute things. One day, when out walking with Frau Hauptmann, I noticed her silence, as she is usually talkative ; at the same time, I remembered the custom, and slipped around to her left, and this required mark of respect restored the usual interesting entertainment. A stranger must call upon the residents first, and, if she is agreeable, the call will be returned within three days, and an invitation to dine will follow. When you dine out, the servant in waiting is feed, as you leave the table, and at an evening party the maid in attendance receives a fee. There is feeing on all sides. When you visit for several days, you must fee every servant, and very few houses have less than two, generally more. We dislike the feeing, not only because it is burden-some, but, also, on general principles. It must take from the self-respect of a character. We never knew but one person refuse a fee — an old lady at the Luther Church in Eisleben. Some of the grandest officials, all bedecked with orders and medals, are ready for the smallest, but prefer the largest fee. As we went through the Prussian Royal Library, fee in hand, an American, lately arrived, whispered that she was afraid to give it to such a man. He was a scholar, discussed upon each MS. as he showed it : Beethoven's MSS. of the Ninth Symphony, leaves of the Tischendorf Sinaitic Testament, Tetzel's Indulgences, the Bible and Prayer Book of Charles I. (presented to Juxton just before his execution), the original 95 Theses, MS. of the Gospels, of the eighth century (a present of Charlemagne to Duke Wittekind), MSS. of Goethe, Schiller, Klopstock, Kant, Niebuhr, Chinese and Arabian books, amulets, relics, Otto von Guericke's air pump, all these, and more, he explained, and added a vast fund of information. He talked of the wars, the government, showed his own honor marks, and his manners were courtly and distinguished. Nevertheless, we each quietly slipped our half-mark into his ready hand ! Think of presenting any of our American officials with a fee and such a fee ! Here, we feel tempted to say, however, that we never saw a Custom-House officer in Europe take a bribe, and that is not the case on the American side of the Atlantic.
The class system is very marked, and seems to be accepted by the people as a natural law. It is seen in many unlooked-for ways. Coming home from the Lyceum one morning, we were attracted by sounds of music, and noticed a funeral winding its way through the streets. The hearse and horses were draped with heavy black cloth, almost touching the ground, — longer and heavier draping than is usual. We stopped and inquired the cause. O, the look of disdain that withered us, as our ignorance of high life was rebuked—Nun, ja–erste Klasse ! We had heard of "first class funerals" before, but had never taken them in a literal sense, until this face-to-face encounter. The court had sent a carriage, the powdered, bewigged, dazzling footmen were in their places, and the proud equipage, having no mourners within, closely followed the hearse. The court families rarely attend funerals, but send their empty carriages in full state, and the family feels highly honored, and the people look on with admiring awe. The crowds worship display, and the lower classes recognize and contentedly accept their lower position. Yet this lower class sustains the burden of taxation, — especially the peasants, or Bauer order. A favorite print in the village inns is a fair representation of the German system. The Bauer and the parasites that prey upon him are arranged in a scale. The Emperor stands on one step, with the motto, "I live on the taxes." The soldier, on another, boasts, " I pay for nothing." The preacher, a step lower, chants, " I am supported by the tithes." The beggar whines, "I live on what is given me." The nobleman loftily speaks, " I pay no taxes." The Jew mutters, "I bleed them all," while beneath the whole crew stands the Bauer, with bent back, and brow of sweat, groaning, " Dear God, help me ! I must support all these ! "
Germany can call into the field, at any moment's notice, an army of a million and a half of trained men. A standing army of half a million makes its constant drain upon the people. Yet no one can dispute this necessity. France has also adopted a universal military conscription, is working with might and main, and Germany dare not relax her watchfulness. No one doubts that France is deter-mined to wipe away the humiliations of '70 and '71, and the Fatherland must be ever awake. This standing army is a great necessary burden ; and not only the tax is an evil, but it entails other cares. Three years of the life of nearly all its young men must be sacrificed, when they are not only not earning money, but drawing on government, and the earnings of their parents. There is a class called Freiwillige, who may pass through in one year, those who have passed a most rigid examination, who are able to bear the expense of uniforms, lodgings, board, and are of irreproachable conduct. They are of a higher class, and need not live at the barracks. We do not wonder that there is this devotion to study, in order to become an Einjähriger, and escape the living, working, sleeping, eating in a crowd. For the country clown this three years is an education. "It sharpens his intelligence, polishes his manners, widens his ideas, teaches him the advantages of organization and the necessity of discipline, and he returns to his village improved mentally, physically, morally." And, in spite of the drain upon the country in loss of labor and burden of taxes, to the whole nation the army is a school for polishing manners, quickening intelligence, but, more than that, in infusing patriotism and training the spirit of unity among the many provinces. "It is fusing Hessian and Prussian, and Badischer and Wurtemberger, Hanoverian and Saxon, into one German people. It is undoing the particularism which was the bane of the past." It is an expensive lesson ; this generation pays for the dissensions of their ancestors, but it lays the only sure foundation for a future, and so the army is well worth the drain made upon the people.
This patriotism has so grown in the nation that it really takes the place of religion to a large extent. We were visiting the public schools, and chanced in one room at the hour when "Religion " was being taught. An hour a day is devoted to this subject ; there are text-books for the various grades, and the children know the whole Bible by the time the education is, to an extent, completed, in its history, geography, prophecy, almost verse after verse, and word for word. The subject that morning was the Holy Spirit,— the descent of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost. The Bible account was recited word for word, and then came the illustration. The teacher asked if there had been any instance in modern times of the descent of this same Spirit. Immediately the children responded " Siebenzig und eiu und siebenzig ! " ('70 and '71). " Yes," she answered, " what else would have impelled our soldiers so upon the French ! The Holy Ghost fell upon them, und dann ging's los ' " ("then it went loose ! ") We need not explain farther to show the fusion of patriotism and religion.
With this military system, it is not strange that the officers assume superior airs, and that the young girls " schwärm " for the Offizieren. The Emperor and Chancellor know that all power rests, upon this bulwark, and every honor is given the army, and that social life is regulated by this order. This is probably the chief reason of Bismarck's dislike to America, —. so many Germans emigrate, and the army loses so much "Kanonenfütter" Whole tracts of country have been desolated by those seeking refuge from this compulsory military service, and, to avoid this, a prejudice is created toward foreign lands. And the German is a creature .of prejudice. The Jew in their midst is made to feel it. The Jews associate together, and rarely are they seen in general society. They feel that there is a ban against them. In the late Lasker trouble, the Jews declared that much of the feeling against the American resolutions arose from the fact that he was a Jew. However that may be, the openly expressed opinion shows the position of the Jew. We know that some German ladies refused to speak to our American girls when walking with a Jewess. This seems so petty to us, and we have had such a mingling of nations in America, that we are free from such narrow prejudices, that we are led more and more to despise all prejudice against any class, as mean and narrow. It makes us ashamed of our prejudice against the colored people, for all the human race has a claim upon the sympathy and tolerance of every human soul.
While the German has this prejudice against every other nation, — indeed, all Europe has to foreigners, the nations there live in antagonism to each other, still, to the individual the German is kind. They talk about our nation, ridicule it, yet they will try to please us. We never forget we are foreigners, — they do not allow us. They will discuss us freely, — talk about us personally, right before our faces — our eyes, complexion, clothes, manners. Perhaps they forget that we understand German, but it is ludicrous. Their natural friendliness leads them into many acts of kindness, — kindness often more delightful in thought than action, as in the case when our Frau surprised us with " American buck-wheat cakes," bringing them in at dinner for dessert, and we obliged to eat and smile and appear to enjoy that dark, stiff mixture, laden with sugar, with not the remotest hint of our delicate buckwheats. What must she think of our American food, — and our national digestion ! — Their friendliness leads them to flattery, too, — a flattery that our natural penetration easily under-stands. They will always tell you you speak a beautiful German, and praise. it in highest terms. In our family they daily expressed gratification at our German. One day some visitors called, and, after delivering a long speech, no answer came from the visitors. In indignation I turned to Frau Hauptmann, crying, "See there, they do not even understand that German ! " She explained to the visitors, and the plausible excuse was given "They were so amazed at your beautiful German that they could not answer for astonishment !" Another time, a lady asked, "You say you are an American —can you talk English, then ?" - implying that I spoke German so well that it appeared to be the national language. However, this arises from their kindness of disposition, and we can enjoy it. There is such a good-humor in the nation that our anger cools as fast as it rises. There is a simplicity in every deception that robs it of its malice. Even deception is so open. The most striking thing we ever heard was with regard to the " Prison Editor." — Bismarck keeps a sharp lookout on the press, and for expressing too liberal ideas the writer is sent to prison. One very free and radical paper in Berlin is continually brought to trial. A certain man, salaried for the regular position, bears the name of editor, receives the sentence, and takes his term in prison, while the real editor sits back in his office and continues his liberal writing. This is openly talked of in the city, and the people think that a Prison Editor " (his general name), drawing a fixed salary for " sitting his time," is quite a huge joke. — Another thing that always creates a laugh is the regular report of the hunting par-ties. The old Emperor will shoot a hundred hare ; the vigorous Crown Prince, fifty ; while the lusty young Prince Wilhelm can only reach twenty-five. This is the usual way — each must only shoot one-half as many as the one of higher rank ! It is harmless ; no one is deceived by it, yet to us it seems quite absurd. All is done in such a child-like way that we cannot find it in our hearts to utter the scorn that rises in our souls, and we laugh with them. All these things, as the many forms and ceremonies that have no necessity in a true, natural society, are the results of past ages, and the present society is not responsible for their existence.
A German writer has said, " With every higher culture, a certain amount of deception is necessary." Our high idea of true culture will never admit this as truth. True culture means nearer, ever nearer to truth, a cultivation of the highest expression of the noblest feelings of the heart. The heart must be cultured in truth, and in the expression of this, and this alone, outward forms are but to express true feelings, and, as such, they are of value and beauty. This is the culture that America is to seek, and for which she has an open field. Barbarism, heathendom, corruption, ages of force and cruelty and false systems, do not lie behind our history, are not fetters upon our society, and here there is a possibility of high, true, cultured society. Outward expressions are still uncouth, untrained, from the necessity to civilize a wild, new country, and the need for severe labor, admitting of no society or polish. We need something now to round the corners, make the rough places smooth and the crooked straight; something to soften the brusque, uneven awkwardness, to tone the loud, ostentatious self-consciousness, — forms we do need to tutor the intercourse of people with each other, some outer ceremonies may refine our national manners, — all this comes alone with time, settled society, material comfort, an older civilization. Then will the graces of culture be united to what exists in the nation, — truth of heart, and the result will be a society such as the Old World can never realize. This is the great problem for our nation to work out, to develop a higher culture and at the same time maintain the integrity of the heart.