Nightmare in berlin, p.7
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       Nightmare in Berlin, p.7

           Hans Fallada
 
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  So it really was best just to say to his young wife: ‘Fine, he’s dead. Let’s forget him. Let’s not talk about him ever again!’

  It was a lie. Nothing was ‘fine’; nothing could be forgotten. But what did a lie matter these days? Let the woman go on thinking that he hated the old boy as much as ever. He couldn’t hate anybody any more, but lying — he could manage that. And anyway, lying was somehow more in keeping with his own mediocrity.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  What the Nazis did next

  Doll’s career as a cowherd was short-lived, because a sequence of chance events resulted in his being appointed mayor of the town, and of the whole surrounding district, by the Russian town commandant. This was the kind of thing that happened in these turbulent times: the most hated man in the town was put in charge of his fellow citizens.

  The string of chance events began when a rucksack was tossed over the fence into the Dolls’ garden one night. It was a Wehrmacht-issue rucksack, and it contained the uniform of a senior SS officer. No doubt the dear neighbours who had laid this cuckoo’s egg in the Doll nest felt it was getting too dangerous to have these items of uniform in their possession, now that increasingly thorough house searches were being conducted. Why they didn’t put a few stones in the rucksack along with the uniform, and drop it into the lake that was right on their doorstep, is another story, which says as much about the neighbours’ decency as it does about Doll’s popularity.

  He, of course, had no idea about this morning gift that lay in his garden. He lay awake and eventually fell into the brief, troubled sleep that was now almost normal for him. On this occasion, he was roused from this brief sleep at the crack of dawn by a Russian patrol, which gave him a very hard time. At first he couldn’t understand what they wanted from him, and he went through a very unpleasant quarter of an hour before he realised what the implications of this rucksack and SS uniform were: the Dolls were suspected of secretly harbouring an SS officer! The entire house, attic, and outbuildings were searched from top to bottom, and even though no trace of the fugitive (who didn’t exist, of course) was found, Doll was put into a two-horse hunting carriage and driven off into town to the commandant’s office. Soldiers with submachine guns sat on either side of him. Such was the sight that greeted his fellow citizens, who assuredly felt no sympathy for him — partly because they all had enough worries of their own, and partly because this was Dr. Doll, after all. And whatever kind of trouble he was in, it was fine by them!

  But at the commandant’s office his troubles were quickly ended. There was an officer who conducted the interrogation, and an interpreter in civilian dress who translated Doll’s answers. Having by now fathomed the mystery of the rucksack so treacherously left in their garden, Doll had no qualms about directing the attention of the Russians to the house next door, where the wife of the SS officer lived — a woman who was as stupid as she was malicious, since the provenance of this uniform was always bound to come to light.

  A quarter of an hour later, Doll was allowed to return home, into the arms of his anxiously waiting family.

  The following day was the ‘Day of Victory’, and everyone was given the day off work. The entire population was ordered to assemble on the square in front of the town commandant’s office and told that the Russian commandant was going to give a speech. When Doll entered the square with his wife, there stood the officer who had interrogated him the day before, accompanied by his interpreter. Doll greeted them politely, and the two of them, after returning his greeting, looked at him earnestly and had a whispered conversation with each other. Then Doll was beckoned over, and the interpreter asked him on behalf of the officer if he felt up to addressing the local German population on the significance of this Day of Victory.

  Doll said that he didn’t think he had addressed a public gathering like this before, but he felt sure that he would make as good a job of it as anyone else. Whereupon he was led into the town commandant’s office — his wife had to remain outside, with the waiting crowd — and put in a room on the top floor. Through a glass door, he could see the commandant addressing the crowd from the balcony, and the interpreter whispered into Doll’s ear, giving him a few pointers as to what sort of things he should say. Then it grew very quiet in the room, while outside the town commandant was still speaking. He was a short man with a pale, brownish, handsome face, the archetypal cavalryman. He had taken off the white gloves that he normally wore, and was holding them in one hand, occasionally gesturing with them to underline something he had said. The commandant would speak for two or three minutes at a time, then pause to allow the interpreter to translate. But the translation barely took a minute to say, which is usually the case with poor interpreters. An occasional ‘Bravo!’ could be heard from the invisible crowd below.

  Just you wait! thought Doll angrily. Barely three weeks ago you were still shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ and kowtowing to the SS, and jockeying for rank and position in the Volkssturm. I’ll be sure to tell you what I think of all your ‘Bravos’ now!

  All the same, he was finding the day plenty warm enough. It was a fine spring day in May, certainly, but it was only ten o’clock in the morning, and already his brow was beaded with sweat. The interpreter bent down to him again, and asked if Doll was feeling agitated. Would he like a glass of water, perhaps?

  Doll opined, with a smile, that he would prefer a glass of schnaps. Whereupon he was whisked off to the officers’ mess and given a whole tumbler of very strong vodka.

  Five minutes later, he was standing at the balustrade of the balcony, the town commandant a couple of steps behind him with his interpreter, whose job it was to translate what Doll said. There were other officers besides on the balcony, officers whom Doll would get to know very well indeed in the coming weeks. But today he didn’t even notice them; all he could see was the mass of people below him, a great crowd of his fellow citizens who were all gazing expectantly at him with upturned faces.

  At first, all these faces merged into a single, pale-grey line above the darker, broader band of colour that was their clothing. Then, as he was speaking the opening sentences of his address, he could suddenly make out individual faces. While he was listening a little anxiously still to his own voice, which had never been very powerful, yet now seemed to fill the square beneath him quite easily, he suddenly caught sight of his wife, almost directly below him. There she stood, calmly smoking a cigarette with her accustomed nonchalance; the people around her kept their distance, while everywhere else in the square the crowd was packed tightly. Consciously or not, their demeanour reflected the isolation in which the Dolls had always lived in this small town, and in which Doll now found himself, plainly visible to all eyes, up on the balcony of the town commandant’s office.

  He gave her a slight nod, imperceptible to anyone except her, without interrupting the flow of his speech, and she smiled back and raised the hand that held the cigarette in greeting. His gaze moved on, and came to rest on the grey-bearded face of a National Socialist town elder, a building contractor by trade and a quiet man by nature, who had nevertheless cunningly abused his position in the Party to put all his competitors for miles around out of business. Not far from him stood another short man, with a face as sly as it was brutal: he had collected the Party subscriptions, and used the opportunity to spy for his masters, the Party bigwigs who had all fled to the Western zone …

  But there were enough of the smaller fry left in the town: over here, the mail clerk who had been a sergeant in the local Volkssturm; over there, a schoolmaster, a feared informer; Kurz, the landlord of the station bar, a bully and, as it now turned out, another Nazi spy; and then — Doll’s eyes lit up — standing close together with a look almost of derision on their faces, as if they were watching some trashy theatre show, two women, the wife and daughter of that SS officer whose uniform had nearly been his undoing on the morning of the day before.

  Doll leaned forward, speaking mor
e quickly, more loudly, talking now about the times just past, the people who had profited from them, the guilty ones and the ones who had just gone along with it all. And as he continued to speak, and as they persisted in shouting ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Quite right!’ (as though he couldn’t possibly be talking about any of them), it struck him how different these fellow citizens of his now looked. It was not just their pale faces, which were scarred by fear, worry, grief, and sleepless nights, and it was not just the ones who, in order to avoid the initial confrontation, had spent days lying in the forest, so that their clothes were now torn and faded — no, all of them suddenly had a tattered and beggarly air about them, all of them seemed to have slipped several rungs down the social ladder, had given up, for whatever reason, a position they had occupied all their lives, and now stood without shame among their equally shameless brethren. That’s exactly how they looked now, plain for anyone to see, and that’s how they had always looked when they were alone with themselves. For these people from a nation that bore its defeat without dignity of any kind, without a trace of greatness, there was nothing left worth hiding. There was the fat hotelier, whose plump, smiling face was normally flushed from drinking wine, but now was pale and ashen, darkened by a beard that had not been shaved in days. And there was his pious and parsimonious wife, who ran the hotel with him, who had wrung the last penny out of the poorest customer, and if she had had her way would have weighed every bag twice, a woman who had always gone around in shapeless black or grey frocks, and now had a dirty white cloth wrapped round her face, like the cloths worn by toothache sufferers in the cartoons of Wilhelm Busch. Her scrawny body was now covered by a blue apron, like the ones worn by washerwomen, and her hands were wrapped in grubby gauze bandages.

  It’s finished, this nation, thought Doll. It’s given up on itself. But in the fervour of his speech, he had no time to think about himself, who privately was in a very similar situation, after all. He called for three cheers for the 7th of May, the Red Army and its supreme commander Stalin, and watched them shouting and cheering (for, as well as justice and freedom, they had also been promised bread and meat) and raising their arms — the right arm still, in many cases, raised in the salute that had been drilled into them over many years.

  The speech seemed to have gone down well with the commandant and his officers, too. Doll was invited to come along to the officers’ mess with his wife and have a drink with them. The vodka glasses now seemed to be even larger, the schnaps even stronger — and they didn’t stop at one glass. As Doll and his wife made their way home along the sun-drenched streets, both of them were swaying a little, but Doll more so. Thank goodness the local residents were still eating their lunch, and all of them were condemning the man then walking past their windows as a traitor and defector on account of the speech he had made, yet there wasn’t one of them who wouldn’t gladly have swapped places with him!

  By the time they reached the outskirts of town, where there were hardly any houses, along the stretch of road officially known only as the ‘Cow Causeway’ that ran through sparse, deciduous woodland, Doll began to stumble about. The vodka saw to it that a stumble quickly turned into a fall, and he lay where he landed. He fell asleep. Mrs. Doll did her best to coax him back up, but he just went on sleeping, and she didn’t feel strong enough herself to bend down and try and get him back on his feet. She was feeling pretty unsteady on her own feet by now. So she tried kicking him in the side, but the kick she gave him, which nearly made her fall over herself, failed to rouse her sleeping husband.

  It was a difficult situation. They were still a good ten minutes’ walk from their house, and even though she thought she could make it on her own, she really didn’t like the idea of leaving her husband lying in the road, which would give the small-town locals the perfect excuse for more gossip. Luckily for the Dolls, two Russian soldiers now came down the road. Alma beckoned them over and conveyed to them through a combination of words and gestures what had happened, and what now had to be done. Whether the two Russians understood her or not, they clearly understood the plight of the man lying in a drunken stupor. So they picked him up and carried him home. With much laughter, they took their leave of the young woman …

  But if she thought they had successfully escaped the attentions of the local gossips, she was very much mistaken — again. In a small town like this, there are eyes everywhere, even on the ‘Cow Causeway’, where ‘there aren’t really any houses’, and whatever wasn’t seen was just invented. A rumour now went from house to house, and was retold every time with mockery and relish: ‘You know Doll, the fellow who tried to cosy up to the Russians with that speech of his? Well, he’s come a real cropper! Have you heard? You don’t know the story? Well, the thing is, the Russians were so upset by his speech that they gave him a right royal beating! They worked him over so thoroughly that he couldn’t even walk, and two Russian soldiers had to carry him home! He won’t be up and about in a hurry — and serve him right!’

  This was the story that got around, and as is the way with small-town gossip, it was generally believed, even by those who had seen Mr. and Mrs. Doll staggering past their window at lunchtime that day. Great was the general rejoicing, and so it was all the more gutting when, less than a week later, they learned that the same Doll who had been so royally beaten up had now been appointed mayor by the Russian town commandant.

  Of course, from this moment onwards it was hard to find anyone who didn’t change his tune and discover that in actual fact he had always thought a great deal of Doll, and had always wished only the best for him. When they had said as much to their friends and neighbours half a dozen times, they really believed it themselves, and would have called anyone a liar and a slanderer who reminded them of what they had said earlier about this self-same Doll.

  For his part, Doll had not wanted to take on the job of mayor, but he was given no choice in the matter. He’d never been someone who took part in public life, and he was certainly not cut out for officialdom; and just because he had given one speech, fired up by vodka, that did not mean he had any desire to pursue a career in public speaking. Moreover, as already noted, he was in a state of deep personal crisis at the time. He was tormented by doubt and lack of faith in himself and in the world around him; a profound despondency robbed him of all strength, and a wretched apathy prevented him from taking an interest in anything that was happening in the world. Furthermore, his instinct told him that this office, by virtue of which the fortunes of his fellow citizens were placed in his hands, would probably bring him nothing but worries and cares, and a lot of extra work. His wife said: ‘If you become mayor, I’m going to jump in the lake!’ When he took the job because he was ordered to, she didn’t do it, of course; she stayed with him, lived only for him, and did her best to make the few hours he spent at home as comfortable as possible. But it was effectively the end of their normal family life together.

  For Doll had been absolutely right in his prediction — his position as mayor would bring him little joy, but a whole load of trouble and care. He was inundated with work, more than he could really cope with, and while his area of jurisdiction was not that large, with the small town and some thirty or so rural parishes, he still had to work from the early morning until late at night — and even the mayor of the biggest city on earth can’t put in more hours than that. There were an endless number of things that needed rebuilding, organizing, setting up and sorting out, and there were virtually no resources available: everything had been plundered and destroyed by the Nazis and the SS, including the spirit of cooperation among the local population. They were so mean-minded, petty, and self-centred that they had to be ordered, pushed around, and often threatened with punishment. Behind his back, they did everything they could to undermine the common cause and feather their own nests. In fact, they often wrecked things out of pure schadenfreude, without any benefit to themselves.

  But Doll had more or less foreseen all this, and when they were
obstructive and malicious it just made him more determined to get his way; and he could always rely on the support of the Red Army officers. They were planning and working for the long term, and not just thinking from one day to the next. But what Doll had not foreseen was a new loss of self-esteem, and even though he was doing this job, he felt somehow diminished in his inner being. That’s what it felt like, and the longer this feeling persisted, the stronger it grew, even now when he was leading such a busy life, as if Doll — and no doubt many other Germans like him — was now to be stripped of his last remaining inner resources. They would be left naked and empty, and in letting go of the lies that had been drip-fed to them all their lives as the most profound truth and wisdom, they would be stripped of their inner resources of love and hate, memory, self-esteem, and dignity. In those days, Doll often doubted whether the empty space inside him would ever be filled up again.

  For twelve years he had been bullied and persecuted by the Nazis: they had interrogated him, arrested him, banned his books some of the time, allowed them at other times, spied on his family life; in short, they had made his life a misery. But as a result of all these hurts, great and small, inflicted upon him, and as a result of all the vile, disgusting, and horrendous things he had seen and heard in those twelve years, and read between the lines of all the vainglorious news bulletins and swaggering editorials, a lasting feeling had grown up within him: an utter hatred of these people who had destroyed the German nation, a hatred so profound that he could no longer stomach the colour brown, or indeed any mention of the very word. If he saw anything brown around him, he had to paint it over, paint it out: it was an obsession with him.

 
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