The country and the people are very like England and English people to look at.
England has an air, an essence, that is essentially her own, and knows no counterfeit; Germany
has no atmosphere and, seemingly, no apparent character. Perhaps that is one thing they lost in defeat.
The towns are largely reduced to rubble. I am already used to seeing whole blocks of buildings crumbled to mounds of broken bricks and twisted girders - for nowhere has the damage been repaired or tidied up - but I cannot exult in this devastation. Many of my companions gloat over the destruction and take a vengeful pleasure in seeing cities that once stood. Probably, I would exult with them if I could feel an air of Germany about, but I cannot. I was in London throughout the blitz and the V-bombs, but I only feel a cold pity when I see the wreck of the Rhineland, and a further despair at human nature.
Duesseldorf, Hamm, Hamburg, Hannover, Cologne, Wuppertal, Moenchen-Gladbach, Dortmund, - all are in ruins, with perhaps one home where twenty stood before, one shop in a parade. The Autobahn from Bad Oeynhausen to Duesseldorf crosses many bridges. Perhaps one in three of these is the same bridge as it was before the war.
Then there are the people.
Walking down any street you would not think that the folk you see are underfed or underclothed. They seem healthy and active although their faces have a strange pallor. The girls, particularly, are strong and attractive, and their faces bear no sign of the cruelty that is supposed to be inherent in them.
We stood by the Rhine one morning and watched parents and children walking by. Some of the children were thin and looked rickety, but all were well-dressed in warm wools and furs. Their fathers looked prosperous, their mothers contented.
However, there is the other side of the picture.
The thin children begging by the trains, the two old gentlemen I saw in the main road rummaging in dustbins, with a pitiful look of pride on their faces, - and, of course, the black market.
I doubt if anyone can explain the black market, for it disobeys all the rules of economics.
German people bring watches, irons, clothes, tablecloths and such non-essentials down to dark streets in the towns. Soldiers with stocks of cigarettes, chocolate and soap arrive, and soon bartering is in full swing. One can usually beat a German down to well below his first price, but they are not desperate, they give nothing away.
(In camp I maintain that when you give a German ten cigarettes, you give him one shilling and twopence. Bernard maintains that you give him forty marks. Actually, it must be a compromise.)
The people in the black market look well-fed, their clothes are not shabby. They are neat and proper, and yet they descend to a degrading trade, and forget all pride. Why ?
Probably for the same reason that girls sell themselves for a bar of chocolate and a few biscuits.
Another thing is that I have seen no old people or cripples or folk anyhow maimed yet in Germany.
And yet they all look well-fed and fairly happy.
I have a feeling that, as a country, the Rhineland is slipping into a dangerous lethargy. (Vide the rubble-covered pavements.)
And the soldiers, our boys, don't give a damn, - or ninety-nine percent of them don't - what happens to Germany. They would swindle the country as cheerfully as they cheat her people. They look after themselves all the time, and if that involves forgetting all rules of courtesy and acts of kindness, - or even if it entails stealing food from a starving man, well, no matter, they've been hard up themselves all through the war, and the temptation to get their own back is too great.
It's an ugly business.
Of course, coming over, as we did, on a boat with several hundred German repatriates, and having, as many of us have, some years to serve, and the war having been over for nearly two years, the irony of it all is too great for even soldiers to miss, and they feel they have some excuse.
It's an ugly business.
Today I had a premonition of Spring.
It's been raining all day, and the entire sky is masked by Army blankets of dirty cloud. The streets are wet, the places boring. And yet I had a premonition of Spring.
It happened at tea-time. I thought for a minute that the jam was lemon-curd, and with the taste, my mind was suddenly filled with an old nostalgic longing, a wistful emptiness for home and England and sunshine, for the faces I know and love, and for the comfort of freedom. I felt those old, nameless urges for companionship that every year flood my veins as the green shoots roll through the stretching land. I heard in my heart a singing that was all the sweetest sentimental ballads, and I knew that Spring had caught up with me, and had touched my weakening spine with her thrilling fingers. I heard the birds and saw clear streams of crystal water laughing over the shallows. I felt the kiss of the sun on my face and my soul cried out in an ecstasy of unworthiness, knowing not how to bear any more beauty.
And then I realized that it was jam after all, and I knew that it was raining outside, and that it was still winter.