Soon after the war ended, Alfred Döblin began publishing political essays under the pseudonym Linke Poot ("Left Paw"). Between 1919 and 1923 some twenty pieces appeared, mostly in the magazine Die Neue Rundschau.
Here is the first essay under the name Linke Poot. It appeared in June 1919, a few months after the crushing of a General Strike (March 3 – 8) centred on the east of Berlin, where Döblin lived and had his medical practice. After a week of confused fighting and the deployment by the government of heavy artillery and bombers, the Social Democrat Defence Minister Gustav Noske was tricked by a false report from the military news centre into declaring martial law (March 9 – 16). Around 1200 civilians and insurgents were killed.
Die Neue Rundschau,
1919/1 (June), p.755-766
A miner somewhere not long ago slaughtered a young child, sold the musculature as mutton, and some of it, to the horror of every mutton-eating reader, reached Berlin. A similar case has been known since ancient times, when it gave rise to the craziest tragedies. Now lots of mutton turns up in Berlin that actually is not. One consequence of the meat shortage is a certain expansiveness and catholicity in zoological matters; judgement clouded, hunger stilled.
What is it that causes the sated and the starving alike to shudder at this encounter between miner and child – I believe it was a miner, but that's not to say more overground professional classes are entirely in the clear. What exactly offends us in this trick of demoting a human being to a lower class of animal? The snuffing out, or the mutton chop? Snuffing out is commonplace, the chop uncommon. And the vegetarian declares: a corpse is a corpse. What's fair for the ox is fair for the human, we're all vertebrates, there's no discernible difference between the cannibal and the average European. From a culinary standpoint it's hard to give an opinion; there's evidence that even a human-based mutton chop is nice and tender and bears comparison with any cuts from bigger livestock. What's more, ethics and human pride bid us reject a contrary opinion.
So I don't know if people are wrong to say that the whole business about human mutton chops is hysteria and prejudice; one simply should not do such things. Behind it, according to these sceptics, is nothing more than contempt for one's nearest and dearest, who are deemed inedible and arouse revulsion. Clearly the only way forward is a compact between the classes of animals: to eat each other only in accordance with specific rules; within each class individuals rub along together and practise pacifism with hindrances. Humans are eaten professionally only by such and such animals. Humans eat humans by devious routes. This is the dietary rule here on earth. It's the law, it's etiquette.
Since cannibalism has already had consequences as bad as those in the ancient tragedies, we can surely perceive wisdom in this precept.
Kleist's Penthesilea is an extraordinarily ranting piece of theatre. It made him persona non grata with Goethe, but retains a horrible beauty. It's typical that this play, for long a morsel known only to the literati, can under excellent direction be performed on the public stage arousing great emotions, powerful tension and sympathy. An unsettled time requires strong accents, the strong accent resounds in echoing souls torn open. In this play the heroine, in a state of mental confusion and fog, throws herself on her beloved in a misunderstanding – so great a misunderstanding that she herself speaks of transposed syllables, küssen (kiss) and bissen (bite), a rhyming error – and 'kisses' him to pieces with teeth and hands, only to come to her senses dripping with blood.
I'm no friend of the theatre, and especially not of tragedies. I don't willingly allow myself to be robbed of the little bit of sense that God or one of his functionaries gave me. Up there they show how some man or woman or thing can't do something, and I'm supposed to marvel or find it tragic when they try to do it regardless. As if I, let us say, with my knock-knees try to jump two meters, or when that very famous man in a certain situation finds a certain Iste – that's what he calls him – to be not amenable, and yet still pushes at him; this happened with Casanova too. Comical, tragic, stupid, painful. It's long been said that a person is seldom as stupid as the heroes of tragedy, and maybe this is enough to justify how seldom they appear on the stage.
That this Penthesilea, out of grief born of love, falls into a trance is doubtless something that happens every day. That she then assaults someone – that too happens often; in most cases crockery and window panes can attest to it. That she then half devours him is a less common case, but the mad devour all sorts of things. The whole point is: in her agitation she doesn't notice that Achilles has come to her as a lover; that's the key point, everything is built on this overhasty act; I must go along with it, I'm duty bound to marvel at it. But this is only a means to an end; the point, for Kleist and us: someone must be eaten, figuratively, and – what is so sensational here – not figuratively. It's like this in every tragedy, and here you grasp it in your hands. A sacrificial victim must be found, the sacrificial victim that we need. The word tragedy comes from the goat [tragos] that was once sacrificed; the little goat has disappeared, let's make do with humans! For we are cannibals, and every day we contravene the dietary rules here on earth; we stuff ourselves full at the theatre. A vegetarian won't watch a tragedy, not a total vegetarian. We declare it a cunning piece, speak of Art, retain professors who must write thick books about what tragedy is. But we gladly let our brains grow dim, we accept with credulity the boundless nonsense, the blinkered absurdity of the heroes, when in Homer for example we see the suitors at their dinner: "And Athene set off uncontrollable laughter in the suitors, crazed them out of their minds – mad hysterical laughter seemed to break from the jaws of strangers, not their own, and the meat they were eating oozed red with blood – tears flooded their eyes, hearts possessed by grief." [tr. Robert Fagles]
We feast on Othello and Desdemona, King Lear and his sweet daughter. The more radiant the Achilles the more willingly we accept him, for out of common clay is the human made.
And that is why the theatre requires a hero, whereas in the newspaper a janitor's child suffices: it must be unwrapped, must be dished up for us with all the details, and we must tuck in – both senses apply. That is the meaning of the word: the hero must be brought closer to us as a human. Hence the routines of the cooks and waiters – I should say actors and actresses, directors; not to mention authenticity, persuasive force, sensory and extrasensory fiddle-faddle.
Then at the end, the sweet dangerous end, this sense of annihilation whistles and twitches in us, we love this best of all, the professionally inserted needle.
From apes we inherited a sense of sympathy; we ape most of what we feel for things around us. We have this capacity for sympathy, this ape-instinct we're so proud of that we've erected whole philosophies on it. We make cunning use of the ape-instinct, we can extract our honey from anything: the hero is snatched and swallowed, but – it's not enough for us. For we are Europeans, over-cultivated. We leave devouring to animals, and seek unusual enjoyments. Our capacity for sympathy gives us a pleasant possibility: every thrust and blow against the hero is felt – by us ourselves. Ourselves! So near! How we tuck in now. How wolfishly we crane over the balcony, offer ourselves as the sacrifice, spear ourselves on the spit, relish the slaughtered feast with every fibre. Of course that's not what sympathy is for, but that's just the beauty of it; we have something extra: we can misuse our sense of empathy, violate ourselves, violate morality. Complication, peppering of a cannabilistic snare with immorality, with delight in immorality. A so-what cannibalism, cannibalism with inhibitions: the root of tragedy.
When we rise dripping to our feet, only the naïve say: we are purified. Rather we are sated, for the moment.
Humankind has preserved these tragic games from the most desolate period of our history. We well recognise ourselves in these games. What do we expect from it? What sympathy towards each other?
I was barricaded in Lichtenberg during those March days. Already on the Monday when the General Strike was called, a broken sabre lay on the Alexanderplatz late that evening. Everywhere restless angry masses of humanity stood around. Motor cars were stopped, people shouted: "Once we can move, you can move." They chased after a car that refused to stop in the König Strasse, crack! the windscreen was split in two, the driver surrendered. Next day already a distant rumbling could be heard, people said it was from Alexanderplatz, but we couldn't see who was fighting; up to the Wednesday we had the newspaper only once. Day by day the press of people swelled on the Frankfurter Allee, that great eastern boulevard. On the Wednesday I tried to push through to Alexanderplatz from Lichtenberg, but beyond the Warschauer Strasse the throng was considerable. People shouted in groups, debated, the mood almost unanimous against the government; these were the typical middling and labouring people of the district. Workers at a furniture factory not yet on strike were dragged out by a mob; this was around 4 p.m. On Königsberger Strasse a man shouted: They nabbed one of the government troops at the bridge, and they've done for him good and proper. Jubilation.
The people so aroused. Suddenly it all streams to a certain point, then flees apart: an aeroplane overhead. They scream: "Take cover, he's got bombs." You run too, though you don't think it likely. You turn slowly back east again, and – look! – five civilians walk past with rifles on their backs, grim determined faces, a mass of mostly silent people around and behind them, they search from house to house, cross the street. Two armed men half in army uniform link up with them, they enter a house, one stays outside, people say they're looking for weapons. They come out, and turn down Warschauer Strasse.
The wildest stories from the city are passed on by people who claim to have seen it: there was a battle between Marines and government troops; the battle went back and forth, the Marines had the upper hand; two hundred government troops were barricaded in police headquarters and fired on from Alexanderplatz and the Waisenbrücke; the insurgents had begun digging trenches in the zoo; they meant to hold the government troops there until their food ran out; reinforcements from Spandau would soon arrive.
And then Thursday afternoon, late afternoon, trying to turn down the Allee, you see something that hits you like a blow: turned onto their sides across the carriageway, wheels towards you, big vehicles like dead beasts blocking the boulevard. Under the rail overpass the road into the city is blocked. Two or three rifle-toting men in torn military uniforms pace up and down by the vehicles. And now more trucks come pouring down the road from the freight depot, into Gürtel Strasse; word is they've been called in to block off every access to the Allee. You stand and watch astonished, along with many others, to see what the men do with the trucks. Eager youths leap forward to help, it's all so solidly calm, workmanlike. There's a small machine gun, a man punches a hole through the bed of the lorry, shoves the barrel through. Muttered questions left and right, what's that about, a grenade'll smash those thin planks. By evening Gürtel Strasse too is blocked; we're barricaded in. Strange thing is, we see hardly any defenders. Wherever you go two or three men are standing together, five at the most, word is the rest are in taverns and residential buildings, but until the last day they were nowhere to be seen. And those who pushed past the barricades reported the same: that's all there is. Hardly any traffic in the streets beyond; once a day the Bolle milk-cart, very very brave, through real gunfire, admired by friend and foe. A stirring picture from another world.
Similar scenes in the streets on the following days. Small groups of people outside buildings, on street corners, loud rifle shots, machine-gun fire – but who are they shooting at? – frequent shouting; the streets empty, shutters lowered on many buildings. No gas in the apartments, no electric light, no water. Every morning men, women and children come running out with cans and pails, run to the well; when the machine-gun ratatats they all run back in. Around eight in the evening, what they call 'going to sleep'. Now and then through the night, heavy guns pounding.
A strange sight from Saturday onwards: Workers' Samaritans and female ambulance staff. These are normal vehicles with boarded sides, closed trucks, boards and stretchers piled on them. A nurse sits up there next to the driver with her Red Cross armband, behind, often squeezed in, the other personnel, each waving a big white flag, waving and signalling without a pause. It's a most remarkable sight, medievally sweet. When they go by themselves they also wave a white flag; obviously the armband is not visible at a distance. Near the Town Hall five machine-guns have been posted, often there's one standing quite exposed in the street, the location changes, they're probing. Now and then a lorry drives down the street, contents unclear, covered; handcarts are pushed along. Patrols of two or three go past, civilians and half-soldiers, now and then a sailor's uniform, not much weaponry, they hand rifles one to the other. Soon it's not easy to dare the approach to the Allee, there's shooting from too many places; if you do make it nearer, the so-called barricades are still in place, word is there's a trench mortar; the groups of people are smaller now. It really should be a pushover to deal with these few insurgents, but of government troops there's neither sight nor sound.
Flour days. From the goods yard across the town park come funny figures: little men and women and children white with flour. They haul packages and sacks; wherever they walk or stand they leave a white mark. A cart comes down the street, unloads outside a building not far from the Allee, a shop sets up, selling eggs and flour; one egg fifty pfennigs; flour, I heard, a Mark for a pound. Mobs of poor people run about. The stuff, they say, was taken from looters. The machine-guns at the Town Hall suddenly point in a new direction, towards the town park, the station from where the funny people are coming. They're being chased by the few insurgents who are visible; anyone carrying a package is taken to the Town Hall steps where a small crowd of people and a few soldiers are standing about. Every package is checked; anyone who can't provide proof and seems suspicious has it taken away. A sad pile of sacks and packets builds on the little staircase outside the Town Hall. Suddenly everything becomes orderly, forms a nice queue as if at the grocer's, rations are meted out for free, people come running from the buildings with their little shopping bags and baskets. The looters often don't give up their stuff willingly, they howl and threaten, a woman curses: how long since she saw any flour and now they're taking it from her, have they no pity; she finds she's lucky to escape with her skin intact.
From ten on Sunday morning heavy shooting nearby, and then all day and night with long pauses. Most casualties are said to be in the Allee, many civilians killed, especially children fetching water, and women.
So who else are they to shoot?
In neighbouring buildings they go down to the cellars. Things seem to be on the turn. Hardly any defenders to be seen. What are they actually waiting for? One stands outside my building fiddling with his machine-gun, runs to another because he doesn't know how to operate the thing. The man works on it for an hour, then it rattles away merrily. On Monday evening – weekdays hardly mean anything to us – everywhere there's the comforting clatter of the little guns. Early on Tuesday the machine-guns are still there, but strangely there are lots of people, even children, on the street, standing outside doors. And look: there, led by two boys, someone in a steel helmet is coming over from Normannen Strasse, and another, they go up to the machine-guns, carry them away one behind the other, the two of them exactly one behind the other just as when the insurgents brought them, they have the same technique. Ever more civilian presence on the sun-bright street. Government troops are rumoured, the insurgents have run away, that night they'd still been quarrelling at the goods depot, they took the pins from the guns.
Clop clop down Frankfurter Allee, in broad daylight, thick columns come marching with cannon, field kitchens, baggage. So, the barricades are gone. They come from every direction, one huge cannon in camouflage paint is emplaced by the Town Hall, they dig a hole for it after lifting some stones, set in it the long-barrelled thing that hasn't yet spoken. Incredible how many soldiers there are all of a sudden. And at once crowds of people in the street whom we'd never seen on the previous days: well-dressed men and women out for the air, most have something in their hands, cigarettes for the soldiers; from several shops and buildings they bring out flowers. But here and there I catch a fleeting glimpse of a little woman and a child, creeping: our goodly flour-creatures; quick, along behind the houses; where on earth do they find it all. The machine-guns we now see and hear are considerably bigger, unusually mighty beasts that crack like cannon – I've no idea even now against whom, there's lots of shooting in a war and not much is hit, and now it crack cracks even into the air, that's progress, low over the buildings aeroplanes come flying, apparently shooting the roofs off; this doesn't much clarify matters for me; a plane flies pretty fast, who does the man think to hit with this procedure; most likely once again – us. But anyway it looks like something, you have to understand the military view of the situation. In the morning hours numerous patrols set out from the school. And now people say: Aha, they're going into houses. Youngsters stand and chat to soldiers and guide them, and from balconies older people point soldiers in the right direction. And soon we see civilians between two soldiers; who knows if these are the ones that lay in the street; they're taken to the school, towards the Allee. Towards noon I go down and hear: They're shooting people over there in the churchyard, or the schoolyard, it's martial law. I don't believe it, there's also talk of aeroplanes dropping bombs, and I saw myself how the insurgents cursed and manhandled a prisoner, and two minutes later a woman who couldn't have seen any more than I did said the man had been shot dead, and this ran all through the houses. The martial law stuff was obviously bogus.
But – it's strange. People stand in such clumps outside the churchyard and opposite the churchyard. Red posters are stuck to walls, remarkable words: Weapons must be surrendered, there and there, it makes sense, but then: Whoever has not by such and such a deadline handed weapons in at the Black Eagle will be punished, failure to surrender, it said, will be treated as suspect according to martial law. The next day brings clarity; certain things you can't believe until you see them. At the end of the war I argued with a French-leaning lawyer about Wilson's armistice telegram; the accusation of looting etc. struck me, as one who knows the German soldier and army, as absurd. The lawyer smiled: he wasn't naive enough to share my opinion. A scoundrel, I thought, this fellow. Sentries stand at the churchyard, barbed wire fences are being erected in front of them. Word is three bodies are lying shot outside the school. I go across, push through the crowd of soldiers and civilians, past a machine-gun; outside the gate near the churchyard wall on a bare patch of ground lie three unmoving bodies, caps over their faces. Past women with handkerchiefs to their mouths I come to the schoolyard; half a dozen flamethrowers stand along the wall, lively barracks motion, wagons being unloaded; a captain goes past, steel helmet low over his brow, monocle, cold look. At the wall close to the entrance three pale men, ordinary crumpled clothing, they look wretched, as if they've been up all night; the younger one gives a challenging yawn, the other two look miserably at the ground. They're not yet sentenced, I hear; later: all three were released. When I try to reach the Allee, a procession comes up the street, strong marching steps, twenty men, rifles at the shoulder, steel pots plonked on their heads. What do they want, we have enough soldiers here. A man tall as a tree leads them, pale bold serious face, strange that they all wear a helmet and he only a cap; even the volunteers seem to have trouble with their outfits, for all of them are neat and tidy while he has a shabby black soldier's greatcoat. And when I try innocently to go past, the people run together behind me, there are shouts of Clear the road! Everything runs to the other side, and when I turn around the tree-tall leader is climbing the steps to the church, they shuffle left and right: another one's about to be shot. And just as we close our eyes tight, a salvo bangs out.
So so, so so. That was one. It lies there in its soldier's black greatcoat. Once it was a human and now it's a thing. The notion is damned heavy. One is undeniably shocked. One has seen many people die, but – that was something special. It was so methodical, one could almost go mad at the thought. He's not the only one; people point between the palings of the churchyard fence and count three, four, five.
A heavy boom sounds. They say the fighting has moved on to Boxhagen.
I won't talk about how the whole tactic is beyond my understanding. You must have some particular military background to understand how a few hundred badly armed, hardly armed men thrown together, spread over a wide area, are for whole days, by thousands and more thousands of heavily armed troops with cannon, tanks, armoured cars – not attacked. The German army did not collapse, was lively at least on the principle: always slowly onward. And at a pinch I can understand the use of heavy artillery, armoured cars: they wanted to show that they had them and the insurgents didn't. In order to scare the insurgents and warn them they killed several hundreds, maybe many hundreds of people, citizens actually. The aeroplanes had the task of finding how many of the enemy were at a place; but perhaps it's enough from a military standpoint to let us civilians know that they are there; and we were very glad of it.
But what I do understand clearly is martial law. The work done after the battle. Spiegelberg, I know you. That's him again, the one I met so often: tabula rasa, piff, paff, victory, Germany first in the world. Captain Fryatt and the indecent haste with which he pronounced sentence i.e. topped someone. Somewhere two gentlemen sit at a table behind a telephone, they grind their teeth and say: Hold on, young 'un, we'll be at you soon enough, slow and steady, chuck a couple of grenades in so they know what's what, and we'll have 'em by the short and curlies. Short and curlies, ha, they won't stray again.
Lots of heads have thought about the death of a person, and killing, and we only need to reflect on it. Even among the masses memories of these thoughts swim about: see the movement to end capital punishment. I take no pleasure at all in the deeply impure desire for human tragedy-deaths; I've already registered my distaste. Here a more particular distaste. According to reports, the insurgents too killed people. But what I saw of killing was organised by the authorities in a legally methodical way, you might say ordered as a piece of wisdom. There was no passion, greed, infatuation, hatred, revenge, the judge here had at his disposal every reservoir of superiority and deliberation. Hatred and passion explain the insurgent killings. The office that ordered this cannot even make that claim.
When Captain Dreyfus sat on Devil's Island, a man alone, still alive, object of a questionable trial, whole crowds in France were in uproar. We know what Zola and Voltaire thought about lawbreaking. And now we know what people in Germany, the imperial republic, think of it. The population of poets and thinkers has no time for it, must deal with all the old detritus. The poets poetise, the thinkers think, they've done it since the Ice Age and will still be doing it until the next Ice Age. But the people this is all about are not alive but dead, dead as a doornail, and gone is gone. Yes, they were taken away wholesale and struck down, and those who ordered it and cover it up are German public authorities, yesterday today and tomorrow German authorities, our law courts. They are unshaken even now, these law courts, by the normally so powerful pathos of our spirituality, for which Goethe and Tolstoy lived. Lived, I say? Bound books they produced for them, material for empty hours. Where are you now, you who are cultured, spiritual, you swashbucklers? You bigmouths! You're sickening, the lot of you. With your stupid modern plays, your poems where you're imagining God knows what, your ridiculous new forms of expression. You can't even express in simple terms the oldest feeling: the rage and horror of a man at such misdeeds. No, it's too much for you, you psychic cripples!
Understand: a cannibal thinks what he does is right because he knows no better. He devours my uncle as I eat spinach. But the devouring office here, loaded up with all wisdom, all morality, does not overcome its inhibitions like, say, the aficionado of tragic dramas, no, it ignores them. It glibly says No to everything that has meaning for us. For, for, for it knows something else. It believes that it knows, more, it does believe it: This state must preserve its order, better: my order. The state must be preserved, my state, even if the blindest injustices and unrighteousness pile up to the ceiling. This state, that exists only in their own heads.
I'm not troubled by one or two deaths, we all have to go sometime. But this senselessness is unbearable, boundlessly repulsive. I won't be fobbed off with expressions like: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." The law of the state cannot be restored by an insolent breach of the natural claim to justice.
And what lies behind it, behind the Theory of the State: the primal cold of ice. And what lies behind the silence of half, three quarters of the population, its spirituality –
The folk song designates, as the loveliest place for the nearest and dearest, the parental grave with its grassy bank. Other modern people have an understandable preference to meet the parents on a placard stuck to a house wall; it's not without interest to observe how a mother reacts. She's used to it, she moves quite domestically. She already has a certain routine, walking by the walls of apartment buildings, you saw her during the war. She shouted for people to subscribe to war bonds, threatened those who refused to sign while sighing for her little child. Now she sighs for the same child if we don't vote Social Democrat. From her windy pedestal she remarked how we must swiftly defeat England, U-boats U-boats, starve England out. She protected religion for the Centre Party. Most recently she sheds tears for the eight hundred thousand prisoners, complains about the blockade, rails against Bolshevism.
Clearly she is many-sided. She becomes reconciled to everything. She shines on the just and the unjust.
Happy is he who has a mother. Two would be too many.
When a fox grows old, the following tale can be told of it: He sticks his brush, the famous brush of a fox, straight up in the air, takes himself off to the other animals and makes his proposition. He renounces vegetables, rotten wood, green cabbage, asparagus, celeriac, radishes, and furthermore the enjoyment of lions, elephants, crocodiles, frogs and ants, and will devote himself entirely to the service of young chickens. He requests the assembled creatures, his brush straight up in the air, to support him in his sacrifice by reserving to him all the young chickens, or at least making it easy for him to reach them.
The Imperial German Republic is regaining strength. Its teeth may have been knocked out and its back is done in, but it's doing well for a start. People can set to work again. A treaty is proposed for setting up a League of Nations, and tucked away you see the paragraph: "No country may interfere in the internal affairs of another country."
That makes sense. Germany needs to be left alone to restore itself. It must develop from scratch, unhindered, its national characteristics: servility, and poverty of feeling. People of Europe, guard your holiest possessions, do not let yourselves be robbed of your weak judgement! Even the Turks won't let themselves be robbed of their fun, meaning massacres, with the Armenians, under the banner of self-determination: "Everyone his own Cesare Borgia!" Germany so much the less, where the phrase "to each his own" still shines in all its glory; "his own" included Poland and Flanders. Everywhere doctors prescribe massacres at home; from the pulpits they preach: "If your neighbour's eye offend thee, pluck it out." You can understand that countries finding themselves in the undeserved crisis of having no Armenians look desperately for a way out: they stick to their criminals, i.e. the other political parties. It has proved expedient for these nations in crisis to position certain parties for the purposes of pogrom; if necessary everyone can take turns; changing places makes it more cosy. At present in Germany we have available: Conservatives, Jews, Spartacus, Bourgeoisie; if you like they're ready to start their own pogroms against the others, and you can find lots of variations to keep a tolerably great people going for the foreseeable future. In Germany everyone can act on his own account: here they take democracy very seriously.
There's a proposal for a different international treaty. In one place, almost as an afterthought, we read: for undeveloped peoples, on the Equator or nearby, mandates shall be assigned…