As I walked through the doors, I was dazed by the sudden humid heat of the well-filled beer hall for a few seconds. “Mr. Wolff! Over here”, was the first thing I somewhat understood through the sound of laughing and tankards being banged on tables. In the thick smoke of cheap cigarettes, I could see some sort of shadow more solid than the others in the corner of the room, waving an arm at me.
As I made my way over, the shadow melted into two people sitting on one side of a table under a small window, one chair opposite of them, looking at me; the one on the left in an obviously expensive vest, the one on the right in a blue shirt, maybe plated this morning, but already full of sweat and crinkles again. He was also missing his left eye; a scar the width of two fingers went over his check, nearly all the way to his nose. Both stood up to greet me.
“Gentlemen. I would much prefer if you didn’t shout my name through the whole room.”
“Very sorry, sir. Very sorry. Won’t happen again. It’s – thank you for coming. I don’t really want to – our names – just call us –“, the one-eyed one looked at the one sitting left to him, obviously lost for words.
“Jekyll. Jekyll and Hyde. He’s Hyde, I’m Jekyll.” The other man smiled, and winked at me with his right eye while shaking my hand over the table. It was soft, but with a tight grip.
“Pleased to meet you. Wolff, but you already know that.” We all laughed an introductory laugh and sat down. I got out of my coat, grabbed my notebook, opened it, laid it on the table, tested my pen, drank the foam of my beer – they both had tankards sitting in front of them, the one on the right nearly empty already – and looked at them expectantly. (The following text is based on the notes I managed to take during this meeting.) It must have looked like a pupil waiting for his teacher to begin the lesson, only there were two of them and at least ‘Hyde’ seemed rather much more nervous than I felt about whatever they were going to tell me now.
All I knew was what a friend had told me: That two people he had fought with in France had contacted him and wanted to talk to me about a matter so intimate and important that they would only meet me in their preferred beer hall in this Berlin suburb, and only under the shield of anonymity. My friend had vouched with his good name for them being men of honour, so I had accepted – reluctantly, in hope for something interesting, but apolitical to come of it. The month had been slow news; or rather, it had been made slow news by ongoing wartime censoring despite peace and victory on all fronts. Nothing even vaguely critical of the military was allowed to run while the Reichstag was still disbanded after the events of 1919. Royal gossip was fair game though, so that was exactly what I was hoping for here. The various sources into the Imperial household had become rather silent, and the few who were still talking had begun growing quite paranoid, so the idea of one such a source wanting to meet me here was not totally absurd.
“Mr. Wolff. Did you – when you came in, did you – “ ‘Hyde’ cleared his throat – “did you see the poster on the side of the door?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, I’m one of the veterans who signed up for a farm like that in Western Prussia. And let me tell you, the truth is nothing like that poster. We’re being treated like dogshit and – “
“Let me interrupt you right there”, I said, raising my hand. “Are you telling me that this is about the border march program?”
“And you are one of the soldiers who signed up for that program once the war was over?”
“As I just said, yes!” ‘Hyde’ seemed just too willing to continue his tirade, but I cut him off. There had been enough of these stories in the last few years. Every few weeks someone came along and told his sad story: Of how he had fought in Belgium, or France, or Italy, or Russia, how he had come back, been paraded through his home town for a month or two, then signed up for the promised government-sponsored rich farmlands in Western Prussia. And after a year, he had noticed that farming work was hard and came crawling back, or at least that was the stance the army took on the issue. That answer had never changed; Those coming back were weaklings.
“Well then, gentlemen, this is old news. You are a year late. We already raised as much of a voice as we still have in these times about the poverty of these soldier-farmers, or knights, or legionnaires or whatever you might call them. Ludendorff himself promised that things would get better and promised an honestly exorbitant amount of money for them. There is nothing I can do for you. If you will excuse me –“
“If you excuse me, Mr. Wolff. I think you’ll find our story quite interesting nevertheless” said ‘Jekyll’, leaning forward slightly. A bit of sweat glittered on his brow. “That money never arrived. I ran the numbers.” And he leaned back again.
“Oh. And where did it go to, exactly?”
“Well, into the pockets of your fine Ludendorff. And of Hindenburg. And the rest of his Junker entourage.”
Silence. As far as that was possible in here, anyway.
‘Hydes’ eye wandered from ‘Jekyll’ to me, back to ‘Jekyll’, to me. ‘Jekyll’ was looking at me with the face of a poker player who had long planned to go all in and had just done just that. And I, meanwhile, was thinking.
The chances of these men having what they claimed to have were very low. Proof of such an enormous case of fraud would have surfaced long ago. The relevant law was, what, two years old? And nothing had come out since then? And even if they had this proof, the military government would obviously never allow for it to be published. We would be closed down, my journalists would be on the street, end of story. The best idea was to walk out of here right now before I could get implicated for conspiracy.
Or was that really the best idea? I imagined the headlines breaking through the drab routine; the story – if it was true – would have power. Lots of power. Enough to survive? Or enough to actually provoke change?
Was it possible?
Tick tock, said the clock. Gluck gluck, said ‘Hydes’ beer.
Listening couldn’t hurt, right? If the story was bogus, I could just hack it off. If the story was good, then I could still decide later on.
“Please, Mr. – Mr. ‘Hyde’. I’m intrigued. Tell me more.”
Both of them suddenly began to breathe again as they exchanged a quick look. ‘Hyde’ had emptied his beer before he started speaking.
“So, you see, in March 1919, I got back. Released unfit, because of that, you know, the eye thing. So, I looked around, but there were no one taking me. I stood around corners a lot, waiting for someone to offer me something to do or anything, you know? I had to make ends meet somehow. It wasn’t –“
This was going nowhere. I had heard this story a hundred times already. I raised my hand again, and like a well-trained dog, ‘Hyde’ stopped speaking instantly.
“Never mind. I don’t need all the details. I’ll send someone to your home, your farm, to get the full story. You’ll need to go back for that. But I need what you did in Berlin. You came here to complain about these circumstances you were living in, is that correct?”
“Hmrm. Yeah. There were two officers I knew, who were in my unit on the western front, Schwarzl and Flamm were their names I think, but please don’t print that. I went to their offices – really fancy, with windows onto some square, with trees on it – and told them that I would be glad to go home because out there I couldn’t do anything. That I was starving. And they took their small, fancy glasses of – maybe it was just one of them with glasses, but the guy was a really big, large, a damn tree trunk come to life but with these tiny little round glasses. And he really liked cleaning them, he took his ‘kerchief out, pure white, with these enormous hands, and he cleaned his glasses. Very fancy, in fact everything about him was very fancy. Took at least a minute, just sitting there, in silence, I obviously didn’t dare to interrupt him. Sorry. Getting back on track. He put these glasses on, and then he said, ‘All of this makes me very angry. I don’t really know what to say right now. I’ll see what I can do. Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention.’
And that was it. Looked at me and nodded at the door, so I stood up and got out. He was way too high up for me to – for me to do anything but get out. Same story with the other guy. ‘Can’t really do anything. Terribly sorry.’ What do you say to that?”
‘Jekyll’ was still sitting back, with crossed arms, his beer untouched. “Would’ve expected more of them.”
“For what?” I asked, not entirely sure what he was referring to.
“For him – ‘Hyde’ – going there. They must know what’s going on. I mean, they’re part of the machinery. I guarantee you they came across something that was off. But they don’t seem to care. Why is that? Probably because they just can’t be bothered. They have their offices and their honours and their pension, if they’re in on the embezzlement they’re even better off. What good would it be for them to actually get of their asses and do something against what’s going on, what’s obviously wrong? They don’t care. We were all part of the same army, they told us to charge into steel and fire and we followed them. We survived together, mostly or partly. And now they feel like they’re sadly unable to do anything for us.”
‘Hyde’ had fetched three new tankards, all of which were sitting in front of him now, one already empty. ‘Jekyll’ still hadn’t touched his beer, and I was carefully nipping mine between bouts of note-taking. After ‘Hyde’ had gulped down the second one, he started talking again.
“We were supposed to be heroes, right? But now we’re sitting on the Polish border in some ruin of some poor sod’s house who had the right idea and went off for Berlin before the war, don’t even have coal, are sitting there in the freezing cold, with nothing to do while my former honourable officers are throwing one party after the other for their glorious victory.
I served a year in the west. I lost my eye there and got a lousy piece of land in the middle of nowhere for it. And even then, I would’ve stayed silent. But hearing those pricks in their fancy uniforms speak about me, about us, like we’re the scum of the earth, lost all our money for gambling, didn’t go out on good terms because some of us dare to say that maybe we deserve respect and decency – that’s it for me, you know?”
‘Jekyll’ nodded. “Indeed. The lies are what gets to me. I could have stomached this and just got on with my life. God, I’m trying to. I didn’t take the farm offer. Got a flat here instead, two streets over, and am studying economics on the Landser Bill. I could forget about the whole affair. In fact, I did forget about the whole affair for a splendid few months. When you initially approached me” – looking at ‘Hyde’ – “I was very sceptical about your story. But what I couldn’t bear were these lies. The slander that was being spread.”
‘Hydes’ eye was wide open, bloodshot. “Yeah! I only need to imagine that whenever one of them, on one of these parties where they jerk each other off over how great and genius they are – “
“– for knowing nothing, by the way. Sorry. You” – that was directed at me – “you must have noticed that they obviously have no idea how to run a government. They just want the power, they have no idea what to do with it once they have it. For us at the economic institute, whenever we fail an exam, we just need to read what new inept policy this government has proposed and the day is saved. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad. Sorry. Go on.”
“Thanks, sir, too kind of you. So, these old fuckers, in their fancy houses, all smug about what they’ve achieved by doing nothing, singing their own praise, and someone asks ‘Isn’t it not really right to let our veterans rot out there? Why do we brand everyone who gives up his farm in bumfuck nowhere a traitor or a weakling? And where does all the money go that we promise them each year as a sign of our goodwill?’ and then one of them who’s in on the act pulls that new guy to the side – he’ll make sure to always discuss these matters in private, of course, because that’s where conspiracies fucking spread – while the dancer’s dancing and the music’s playing and the rest of them are having the time of their lives. And the crystal chandelier’s glowing and reflecting in his monocle and on the medals he gave to himself because he’s such a great guy – and his breast’s full of them – and he hands this new guy a glass of Cognac and he tells him not to question it. It’s alright. They were soldiers, they knew what they were getting into. They love sowing the land and fighting for the honour of Germany. Swords and Ploughshares, eh? Then he laughs this small little laugh that rich people laugh when they think the joke they just made was oh so incredibly funny. Just send him a letter if you have any further questions. And especially if he’s interested in some more of that Cognac, wink fucking wink.
‘And what about those who complain, who’re coming back?’ Well, they’re violating their contracts. Five years of farming at least, that’s what they signed up for. And it’s their duty anyway. They’re supposed to be heroes, right? Heroes were in France, and in Russia, and lost their eyes and limbs and lives there – what’s five years of farming service for a hero?”
‘Hydes’ speech was getting wetter with each sentence. His eyes were glowing, his lids fluttering. As he took another swing out of his – seventh? – tankard, he kept mumbling to himself; “What’s five more years for a hero? Yeah, what is it… Yeah, for a hero…”
‘Jekyll’, still sitting with crossed arms, mustering ‘Hyde’, slowly began to speak again.
“That’s the worst part of it, I think. We’re not even allowed to defend ourselves. If you talk to a newspaper man about these things – as we’re doing right now – you’re a traitor. You abandoned your post and endangered the solidarity of the soldiers. If you talk to someone who could change something – well, he told you about what happened to him. It’s childish, really. They’re playground bullies, but sadly they have the larger stick.
I’ll be honest, I was against meeting with you for a long time. That was really K… Hydes initiative. I don’t really believe in making a huge fuzz of things. Didn’t want to go all out. I really believed that eventually, someone would see what a giant stain of, excuse me, shit, this whole affair will be on the whole nation once the whole thing comes breaking down. This thing really goes deep. This isn’t just somebody making a good run, this is systematic fraud. Don’t they see it? How do they not see it? It’s bound to break down sooner or later. Someone will make a mistake. Someone will get afraid and try to get out, betray them, and the resulting chaos will rub off on everybody. I mean, so far, there’s nothing. What are you doing? What is the Kaiser doing? Probably nodding and answering “Yes, that sounds great!” to every single proposal made to him, now that I think of it. Anyway. Nobody seems to see it. But it will happen, and it will be ugly. And believe me, I’ve really tried to avoid that. I’ve told people so many times.
Germany will be worse off for it. It’s been handled by know-nothings for too long already, and each day that continues, those know-nothings will just spread their lies and their half-truths further until it’s time to show some competence. And then they’ll cower and lay the blame on each other, but by then it’ll be too late. Too late to laugh things off. Their incompetence will be open for everyone to see, and we’ll be the laughingstock of the world. Apparently”, he said with bitterness creeping into his voice, “apparently that is what those who tolerate this whole affair want. They don’t care about the larger picture, they don’t want to have any responsibility, they just want their own piece of the cake as long as it lasts.”
But apropos too late, I think we’ve been sitting here for long enough. Am I right, Hyde?” ‘Hyde’ had laid his head on his one arm, the other precariously holding a half-empty tankard in balance. He was snoring peacefully. As ‘Jekyll’ shook his shoulder, he suddenly jerked together, spraying beer over his shirt, but answered only with a weak growl.
“Yes, I think this’ll have to be it for today.” ‘Jekyll’ smiled at me apologetically while he stood up, throwing a Mark note on the table. I stood up as well while ‘Jekyll’ convinced ‘Hyde’, with a little use of force, to get on his feet.
“If you allow me this last question, where do you know him from? You’re much to different to be friends. Or are you?” I asked him while shaking his hand, his thumb gliding over my sweaty knuckles.
“Oh no, not quite his friend. His comrade, former comrade, I mean”, ‘Jekyll’ said, propping up ‘Hyde’ with one arm, still gripping my hand with the other, “We fought in the same unit. For us, that still has some value.” He paused for a slight second, for the first time looking into my eyes without the slightest bit of irony, his fine vest smeared with beer from his comrade’s shirt. “Thank you for coming. Sorry for the rambling, but we had to get you interested somehow. Let’s meet again here next week, same table, same time, and hopefully discuss some facts?”
I nodded. He finally released my hand, grabbed their coats, helped his comrade turn around, and the unequal pair stumbled through the smoke and out of the door, into the cold night.