Life in a German Crack Regiment. Part Two

Lars crackregiment 2

So, last week we left our story when poor Hildegarde was crying bitter tears in her room. Today we are going to learn what fate had in store for Hildegarde and her lover lieutenant Winkler. But first I would like to explain what a crack regiment is. At first glance the term sounds demeaning, but in fact it is not.

The Cambridge Online Dictionary provides fourteen definitions of the word “crack”, of which some offer quite the temptation of applying them to a military regiment. What about: “to make a joke or clever remark” or “to make a sudden, sharp noise”?1 It is fun to imagine a Prussian regiment joking around and making sudden, sharp noises, but actually a crack regiment is not doing that kind of things at all. The dictionary provides one adjective for the word crack, and that is the one we are looking for. The definition is “excellent or of the highest quality” and the example provided is “a crack regiment.”2 The German title of the book was Erstklassige Menschen (First Class People) and so a crack regiment was quite an appropriate translation of it. Having solved that mystery, we have to take a look at the doings of the crack people in our book.

Stuck up apes, generally liars, and betrayers

While Hildegarde is crying in her room, her aunt zealously spreads the rumor that her niece is finally going to be engaged to a rich husband. And when the message reaches Hildegarde’s father, he decides to make a dash to the local wine salesman to celebrate this fact with the finest French champagnes: “he just can’t stand that German stuff any longer.”3 That, of course, increases the noble Baron’s debts, but well: his creditors also heard the rumors and are willing to grant a bit more credit on account of the perspective that his future son in law will pay for it all.

Hildegarde’s brother, the young aristocratic lieutenant, is acting even worse. He writes a letter to his sister stating that he has again lost a few thousand marks playing cards and summons her to act fast:

“And when you are once engaged, which it is to be hoped will be within the next few days, then hurry on the marriage, so that he may not have time for regrets, and before he learns how we are reckoning on his money. When he’s once my brother-in-law I’ll manage to extract the ducats from him. I don’t feel in the least anxious about that!”4

The letter makes Hildegarde despair. She really likes Winkler and is not going to cheat on him. When they meet again on a dinner party thrown by the American ambassador, she exclaims to him that she contempts every officer with him being the only exception: “You are not really one of them. You are much too honorable. You are a man, the others are stuck-up apes, and besides that, generally liars and betrayers.”5

George Winkler has his own troubles with the officers of nobility in the meantime. Most of his comrades treat him with contempt. The young lieutenant Von Willberg is the only one who is talking to him on a more cordial basis. But Winkler has to find out that the young Willberg is doing that for pragmatic reasons: money. Willberg is the favorite of the regiment and a fanatical gambler. On one evening he manages to lose all his money to a visiting cavalry-officer and decides to ask the thrifty Winkler for assistance in paying his debts. Winkler lends him the money and from that point on the lieutenant begging for more becomes a ritual. Winkler is happy to help out until he learns that Willberg has behaved as a “blackguard” towards a local actress years ago.6 Most novels before 1945 are quite shady on these kinds of matters. A “blackguard” can be described as “a man without moral principles.”7 It is left to the imagination of the reader what has happened, but it was shocking enough for Winkler, who refuses to lend Willberg anymore money. Willberg kills himself with a single bullet just a few days later. The incident of Willberg’s suicide leads to rumors in the press and that is quite a blow to the standing of the noble regiment of the Golden Butterflies, but that is just the beginning.

Goodbye to the Regiment

When the commanding officers are on leave, Winkler is the one in command of the regiment and soon notices that one of the recruits has frightening wounds on his head. An interrogation of the soldier in question reveals that one of the officers hit him with a frying pan.8 Winkler decides to press charges, and a military court sentences the officers and the commander to jail sentences. The regiment has become a parvenu in the Prussian military. The emperor revokes his imperial favor for the regiment and officers of other regiments avoid contact with its members.9 Winkler’s position in the regiment becomes unbearable and he decides to leave the army and pursue a career in the manufacturing of trouser buttons.

But before he does that he proposes to Hildegarde. Hildegarde is in tears and tells him all about her family’s manoeuvers to get her a rich husband. George decides to marry her anyway, his father will pay for the debts of her father and give him an allowance, and her brother will be sent to America to prepare for a new existence. On the banquet that is provided to say goodbye to the regiment all seem to be happy. But George Winkler concludes the story with his thoughts:

“He looked at his comrades who from joy at getting rid of him had drunk more than was good for them, and many of whom would soon be completely intoxicated. And suddenly a feeling of joy which he could not prevent came over him that in future he would no longer belong to a profession, the majority of whose members had not yet learned to work and to take life seriously; and who had not yet grasped the real nature of its task—that of educating the German youth.”10

A danger to the Fatherland

The novel caused quite some stir in the German empire when it was published in January 1904. It was not the first book to appear that criticized the army, but this one was written by a man who used to be an aristocratic officer himself. The book was advertised as: “an attack on the privileged position of the commanding officer in society and public life.”11 When the parliament of Germany was debating on the military budget in March that same year, the novel by Baron Von Schlicht became one of the topics of discussion. The socialist August Bebel asked for an investigation to make clear whether anything in the novel also happened in real military life.12 The minister of defense, Karl Wilhelm Von Einem, reacted promptly with stating that the novel was a danger for the fatherland and a provocation towards “the leading element in society, the one element that raises her.”13 Bebel did get his investigation, but it was not the abuses in the military that were to be investigated: the author, Count van Baudissin, and his publisher were to answer accusations of insulting German commanding officers, which was a violation of paragraph 185.14

Baudissin defended himself with the statement that the book was meant as a novel and not as an actual accusation. The poet Detlev Liliencron was then called to the stand as a literary expert. Liliencron stated: “this is not a novel, this is a denunciation. I protest against this book in the name of all German commanding officers.” Then the novel was read out in full which took several hours.15

In the end the court agreed with Liliencron. Baudissin and his publisher were found guilty of insulting the German officer corps. In the sentence it was stated that “this is a tendentious novel, with a bad tendency.”16 The author and the publisher were sentenced to pay a fine, and all copies of the book and its printing plates were confiscated. The publisher’s mother was also sentenced to a fine. Not for insult, but because she did not prevent her son from publishing the book.17

Civilians in uniform

Ten years and five months after the sentence was read out the First World War would begin. That would be the beginning of the end for the standing of the army in Germany. In 1955 a descendant of Wolf Graf Baudissin, with the same name, would be the first man in charge of the post war German Bundeswehr. This Wolf Graf Baudissin tried to integrate democracy in the army and stated that the soldiers are no more than civilians in uniform.18 Germany has come a long way since 1904.


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Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. Cambridge Online Dictionary, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/crack, last seen September 17th 2014 

  2. Ibidem 

  3. B. Von Schlicht, Life in a German Crack Regiment (New York 1904) 107 

  4. Ibidem 

  5. Ibidem, 139 

  6. B. Von Schlicht, Life in a German Crack Regiment, 138 

  7. Cambridge Online Dictionary, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/blackguard, last seen September 16th 2014 

  8. B. Von Schlicht, Life in a German Crack Regiment, 248 

  9. Ibidem, 279 

  10. Ibidem, 320 

  11. Hamburger Fremdenblatt, February 10th 1904 

  12. Sitzung des Reichstages, March 4th 1904 

  13. Ibidem 

  14. Berliner Lokal Anzeiger, October 23rd 1904 

  15. Ibidem 

  16. Ibidem 

  17. Vorwärts Berlin, October 23rd 1904 

  18. http://hdg.de/lemo/html/biografien/BaudissinWolfGrafV/index.html, last seen September 16th 2014