Sometimes, if only rarely, a political author stays fresh over time, over a long time. One of those is Kurt Tucholsky. Tucholsky was a German Jew born in 1890s Berlin who took his own life in 1935, in Sweden. He would have been a standup comedian in different times; he covered the theatre, the cabaret, wrote poems, went on dates with actresses and liked to have fun with friends. He was a Liberal in the best sense.
The time between WWI and WWII in the Weimar Republic was different, though. He became an early, very early warner of what was lying ahead and what many people did not want to see. Here is one of this stories, written in the aftermath of WWI, about the war and what it does to families. It is a story that is still valid now, more than ever. The story White Spots is from his book Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic,only now newly translated into English.
On Dorotheenstrasse in Berlin, there's a building that once housed the Prussian War Academy. A strip of granite blocks runs around the base of the building, one after another, about as tall as a man.
There's something strange about those blocks; the brown granite looks lighter in many places, as if smudged with white. . . What could this be?
Are they whitish spots? If they're spots, they should be reddish. During the Great War, the lists of German casualties were posted there.
They hung there, changed almost daily, those terrible pages, endless lists with name after name after name. . . I have the very first one of those documents; the military units were still carefully noted on it; that first one listed very few dead; it's very short, list No. 1. I don't know how many appeared after that--just that there were a great many, over a thousand. One name after another, each one signifying a human life snuffed out, or someone "missing"--crossed out for the time being--or injured, or gravely maimed.
There they hung, where the white spots are now. There they hung, and hundreds of people crowded silently around them, people whose loved ones were out there somewhere, trembling, afraid to see that one name among the many thousands. What did they care about the Müllers or Schulzes or Lehmanns posted there! Let them perish, one thousand after another--if only his name doesn't appear! The war thrived on that attitude.
And it was because of that very attitude that the war could go on like that for four long years. If we had all stood up as one man--who knows if it would have lasted so long. Someone once told me that I didn't know how a German man could die. I know very well how. But I also know how a German woman can cry--and I know she's still crying today, because slowly, excruciatingly slowly, she's beginning to understand what it was that he died for. For what. . . ?
Am I rubbing salt in old wounds? I'd rather burn holy fire in those wounds; I'd like to shout at those who are grieving: He died for nothing, for sheer madness, for nothing. . . for nothing. . . for nothing.
As the years pass by, the rain will gradually dissolve those white spots, until they disappear. But there are others that can't be erased. Engraved in our hearts are vestiges that will not fade. And every time I pass by the War Academy, with its brown granite and white spots, I say silently: Promise yourself. Take a vow. Take action. Get to work. Tell people. Liberate them from this national delusion, you, with your modest strengths. You owe it to the dead. Those white spots are screaming. Can you hear them?