So, earlier this week I decided that it would be interesting to talk to you about the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. But when I perused in literature about this stern pietistic poet for a couple of days, I had to conclude that this man was a bore. That conclusion left me with the challenge to find something far more interesting. And that needed to happen fast. I decided to honour the Project Gutenberg with a visit. One of their last additions is a book from 1904 called Life in a German Crack Regiment, an English translation of a German book, and that seized my attention right away.
Soon I learned that the German authorities had confiscated the entire stock of this book in 1904 and that the author was sued for publishing offensive material.1 Was this a forerunner of Bahnhof Zoo by Christiane F.? No, it was not. Instead of an insight into drug abuse, this book offers a glance at Prussian military history.
Baron Von Simple
The book was written under the pseudonym of Baron Von Schlicht. The German word Schlicht can be translated as plain, sober, or simple. The man behind the pseudonym was the count and commanding officer Wolf Ernst Hugo Emil Graf Von Baudissin. The many first names are quite practical, because our author was born into a family of noble military men all named something like ‘Wolf Von Baudissin’. About the reason for choosing the pseudonym our count states: “when I wrote my first mild and simple satire on the military it shot into my head that Baron Von Simple would be the right pseudonym to use.”2 But satire concerning the military, however mild and simple, was not something the German authorities of the day could laugh about.
It was the Prussian iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who moulded the patchwork of German territories into a unified empire in 1871. This was achieved by diplomatic cunning and bribery but especially through a series of successful wars. This gave a boost to the Prussian military tradition that was already present for centuries.
Prussia’s territory was a collection of provinces, ranging from the area of modern Poland to the border with the Netherlands, since the House of Prussia was unified with the House of Brandenburg. This situation caused a keen interest in the military amongst the Prussian rulers. The most famous example is the “soldier-king” Frederick William the First who owned a special regiment consisting of males, giants in size, that would march through his bedroom when he felt a bit down and out.3 In 1733 this king introduced a system for conscription that entailed splitting the territory in cantons. Every canton would be fused with a military regiment, the seated nobility taking the command and the rest of the male population liable to be drafted as soldier. After the training all soldiers would remain reservists who had to repeat training every year. And since Prussia was a rural country where the landowners of nobility were dominant, your boss was often also your commanding officer. This was the first step of military culture penetrating daily life.4
And that penetration was intensified after the wars, which led to the forming of the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia in 1871. Soldiers were regarded as heroes now. The military was seen as the institution most suited to train and raise the male youths. The higher your rank as a reservist, the more status you enjoyed in daily life.5 And then in the age of the German emperor William the Second, who absolutely adored extravagant uniforms, a book appeared making fun of this military culture.
The Golden Butterflies
In German the book was called Erstklassige Menschen, which can be translated as First Class People. The book is set in a regiment called the Yellow Butterflies on account of the yellow epaulettes on their uniform.6 The regiment, which consists of young nobility without even one exception, is in an excellent mood. They will celebrate their anniversary as a regiment, remember their comrades who have fallen forty years ago, and inaugurate their new officers’ mess with sumptuous wining and dining.7 But the mood of the regiment will be ruined this very evening when a special guest arrives. Just before that the officers are celebrating the fact that they are first class men, and now a representative of the emperor brings some shocking news:
“Gentlemen, finally, His Majesty has commanded me to inform you that to-day he has transferred to your regiment Lieutenant Winkler, the son of His Majesty’s commercial adviser, who was formerly in the 25th Infantry Regiment.”8
The group hurrah that usually concludes a speech made by a representative is a very meek one now. Everyone is in shock: “we have become a plebeian regiment.” Things get worse when the men learn that Lieutenant Winkler is the son of a manufacturer of….trouser buttons. One of them sinks down and sobs like a child.9
You can imagine that a hard life of exclusion awaits Mr. Winkler. But after six months the commander of the regiment, Baron Von Warnow, throws a party and invites all the members of his regiment, reluctantly including Winkler. Baron Von Warnow is hospitable to one of his nieces, Hildegarde. Hildegarde is the daughter of an impoverished nobleman who despite his poor situation just keeps on drinking loads of good wines. And the fact that her brother is very keen on gambling makes the financial situation even worse. Hildegarde’s father decides that the solution to all his problems would be her marrying a very rich husband, who would pay all his debts and provide him and his son with a nice monthly allowance.10 And of course the big money is not found with the noble families, but with manufacturers. Since Hildegarde is already on the verge of mental breakdown, because of all the pressure to meet contender after contender, her aunt decides that Winkler is just the man for Hildegarde. And they genuinely seem to like each other. But just when Hildegarde starts to believe in real love, her aunt compliments her with the charade she played to soothe the man, leaving the poor girl crying in her room.11
To be continued
I do not know what you think of this, but I for one are getting into a melodramatic mood here. So it would be a pity to dash through the rest of the story. Therefore I decided to leave you in keen expectation. Next week you will learn what happens to Lieutenant Winkler and Hildegarde. And you will also get to know why this story had to be debated in the German parliament of the day.
Latest posts by Lars Sanders (see all)
- Emilie and the Freudian Slipper - June 25, 2017
- Henchman on the Sofa ‒ Vyacheslav Menzhinsky: Poet and Hangman - November 9, 2016
- Willard Libby, Hessel de Vries, and the Poles of Saint Walburga - June 4, 2016
You may also like:
Vorwärts Berlin, March 29th 1904 ↩
Wie ich der Schlicht wurde in Das Kabarett Jahrbuch 1922 (z.p) Thanks to a man called Karlheinz Everts who collected all the source material on his website http://www.karlheinz-everts.de/homepage.htm ↩
P.H.Wilson, The Origins of Prussian Militarism in History Today Volume 51, Issue 5 ,2001 ↩
Baron von Schlicht, Life in a German Crack Regiment (New York 1904) 10 ↩
Ibidem, 11 ↩
Ibidem, 27 ↩
Ibidem, 48 ↩
Ibidem, 70 ↩