You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

38. The Dark Messiah

George had not been in Germany since 1928 and the early months of 1929, when he had had to spend weeks of slow convalescence in a Munich hospital after a fight in a beer hall. Before that foolish episode, he had stayed for a while in a little town in the Black Forest, and he remembered that there had been great excitement because an election was being held. The state of politics was chaotic, with a bewildering number of parties, and the Communists polled a surprisingly large vote. People were disturbed and anxious, and there seemed to be a sense of impending calamity in the air.

This time, things were different. Germany had changed.

Ever since 1933, when the change occurred, George had read, first with amazement, shock, and doubt, then with despair and a leaden sinking of the heart, all the newspaper accounts of what was going on in Germany. He found it hard to believe some of the reports. Of course, there were irresponsible extremists in Germany as elsewhere, and in times of crisis no doubt they got out of hand, but he thought he knew Germany and the German people, and on the whole he was inclined to feel that the true state of affairs had been exaggerated and that things simply could not be as bad as they were pictured.

And now, on the train from Paris, where he had stopped off for five weeks, he met some Germans who gave him reassurance. They said there was no longer any confusion or chaos in politics and government, and no longer any fear among the people, because everyone was so happy. This was what George wanted desperately to believe, and he was prepared to be happy, too. For no man ever went to a foreign land under more propitious conditions than those which attended his arrival in Germany early in May, 1936.

It is said that Byron awoke one morning at the age of twenty-four to find himself famous. George Webber had to wait eleven years longer. He was thirty-five when he reached Berlin, but it was magic just the same. Perhaps he was not really very famous, but that didn’t matter, because for the first and last time in his life he felt as if he were. Just before he left Paris a letter had reached him from Fox Edwards, telling him that his new book was having a great success in America. Then, too, his first book had been translated and published in Germany the year before. The German critics had said tremendous things about it, it had had a very good sale, and his name was known. When he got to Berlin the people were waiting for him.

The month of May is wonderful everywhere. It was particularly wonderful in Berlin that year. Along the streets, in the Tiergarten, in all the great gardens, and along the Spree Canal the horse-chestnut trees were in full bloom. The crowds sauntered underneath the trees on the Kurfürstendamm, the terraces of the cafés were jammed with people, and always, through the golden sparkle of the days, there was a sound of music in the air. George saw the chains of endlessly lovely lakes around Berlin, and for the first time he knew the wonderful golden bronze upon the tall poles of the kiefern-trees. Before, he had visited only the south of Germany, the Rhinelands and Bavaria; now the north seemed even more enchanting.

He planned to stay all summer, and one summer seemed too short a time to encompass all the beauty, magic, and almost intolerable joy which his life had suddenly become, and which he felt would never fade or tarnish if only he could remain in Germany for ever. For, to cap it all, his second book was translated and brought out within a short time of his arrival, and its reception exceeded anything he had ever dared to hope for. Perhaps his being there at the time may have had something to do with it. The German critics outdid each other in singing his praises. If one called him “the great American epic writer”, the next seemed to feel he had to improve on that, and called hiti “the American Homer”. So now everywhere he went there were people who knew his work. His name flashed and shone. He was a famous man.

Fame shed a portion of her loveliness on everything about him. Life took on an added radiance. The look, feel, taste, smell, and sound of everything had gained a tremendous and exciting enhancement, and all because Fame was at his side. He saw the world with a sharper relish of perception than he had ever known before. All the confusion, fatigue, dark doubt, and bitter hopelessness that had afflicted him in times past had gone, and no shadow of any kind remained. It seemed to him that he had won a final and utterly triumphant victory over all the million forms of life. His spirit was no longer tormented, exhausted, and weighted down with the ceaseless effort of his former struggles with Amount and Number. He was wonderfully aware of everything, alive in every pore.

Fame even gave a tongue to silence, a language to unuttered speech. Fame was with him almost all the time, but even when he was alone without her, in places where he was not known and his name meant nothing, the aura which Fame had shed still clung to him and he was able to meet each new situation with a sense of power and confidence, of warmth, friendliness, and good fellowship. He had become the lord of life. There had been a time in his youth when be felt that people were always laughing at him, and he had been ill at ease with strangers and had gone to every new encounter with a chip on his shoulder. But now he was life’s strong and light-hearted master, and everyone he met and talked to — writers, taxi-drivers, porters in hotels, elevator boys, casual acquaintances in trams and trains and on the street — felt at once the flood of happy and affectionate power within him, and responded to him eagerly, instinctively, with instant natural liking, as men respond to the clean and shining light of the young sun.

And when Fame was with him, all this magic was increased. He could see the wonder, interest, respect, and friendly envy in the eyes of men, and the frank adoration in the eyes of women. The women seemed to worship at the shrine of Fame. George began to get letters and telephone calls from them, with invitations to functions of every sort. The girls were after him. But he had been through all of that before and he was wary now, for he knew that the lion hunters were the same the whole world over. Knowing them now for what they were, he found no disillusion in his encounters with them. Indeed, it added greatly to his pleasure and sense of power to turn the tactics of designing females on themselves: he would indulge in little gallantries to lead them on, and then, just at the point where they thought they had him, he would wriggle innocently off the hook and leave them wondering.

And then he met Else. Else von Kohler was not a lion hunter. George met her at one of the parties which his German publisher, Karl Lewald, gave for him. Lewald liked to give parties; he just couldn’t do enough for George, and was always trumping up an excuse for another party. Else did not know Lewald, and took an instinctive dislike to the man as soon as she saw him, but just the same she had come to his party, brought there uninvited by another man whom George had met. At first sight, George fell instantly in love with her, and she with him.

Else was a young widow of thirty who looked and was a perfect type of the Norse Valkyrie. She had a mass of lustrous yellow hair braided about her head, and her cheeks were two ruddy apples. She was extremely tall for a woman, with the long, rangy legs of a runner, and her shoulders were as broad and wide as a man’s. Yet she had a stunning figure, and there was no suggestion of an ugly masculinity about her. She was as completely and as passionately feminine as a woman could be. Her somewhat stern and lonely face was relieved by its spiritual depth and feeling, and when it was lighted by a smile it had a sudden, poignant radiance, a quality of illumination which in its intensity and purity was different from any other smile George had ever seen.

At the moment of their first meeting, George and Else had been drawn to each other. From then on, without the need of any period of transition, their lives flowed in a single channel. They spent many wonderful days together. Many too, were the nights which they filled with the mysterious enchantments of a strong and mutually shared passion. The girl became for George the ultimate reality underlying everything he thought and felt and was during that glorious and intoxicating period of his life.

And now all the blind and furious Brooklyn years, all the years of work, all the memories of men who prowled in garbage cans, all the years of wandering and exile, seemed very far away. In some strange fashion, the image of his own success and this joyous release after so much toil and desperation became connected in George’s mind with Else, with the kiefern-trees, with the great crowds thronging the Kurfürstendamm, with all the golden singing in the air — and somehow with a feeling that for everyone grim weather was behind and that happy days were here again.

It was the season of the great Olympic games, and almost every day George and Else went to the stadium in Berlin. George observed that the organising genius of the German people, which has been used so often to such noble purpose, was now more thrillingly displayed than he had ever seen it before. The sheer pageantry of the occasion was overwhelming, so much so that he began to feel oppressed by it. There seemed to be something ominous in it. One sensed a stupendous concentration of effort, a tremendous drawing together and ordering in the vast collective power of the whole land. And the thing that made it seem ominous was that it so evidently went beyond what the games themselves demanded. The games were overshadowed, and were no longer merely sporting competitions to which other nations had sent their chosen teams. They became, day after day, an orderly and overwhelming demonstration in which the whole of Germany had been schooled and disciplined. It was as if the games had been chosen as a symbol of the new collective might, a means of showing to the world in concrete terms what this new power had come to be.

With no past experience in such affairs, the Germans had constructed a mighty stadium which was the most beautiful and most perfect in its design that had ever been built. And all the accessories of this monstrous plant — the swimming pools, the enormous halls, the lesser stadia — had been laid out and designed with this same cohesion of beauty and of use. The organisation was superb. Not only were the events themselves, down to the minutest detail of each competition, staged and run off like clockwork, but the crowds — such crowds as no other great city has ever had to cope with, and the like of which would certainly have snarled and maddened the traffic of New York beyond hope of untangling — were handled with a quietness, order, and speed that was astounding.

The daily spectacle was breath-taking in its beauty and magnificence. The stadium was a tournament of colour that caught the throat; the massed splendour of the banners made the gaudy decorations of America’s great parades, presidential inaugurations, and World’s Fairs seem like shoddy carnivals in comparison. And for the duration of the Olympics, Berlin itself was transformed into a kind of annex to the stadium. From one end of the city to the other, from the Lustgarten to the Brandenburger Tor, along the whole broad sweep of Unter den Linden, through the vast avenues of the faery Tiergarten, and out through the western part of Berlin to the very portals of the stadium, the whole town was a thrilling pageantry of royal banners — not merely endless miles of looped-up bunting, but banners fifty feet in height, such as might have graced the battle tent of some great emperor.

And all through the day, from morning on, Berlin became a mighty Ear, attuned, attentive, focused on the stadium. Everywhere the air was filled with a single voice. The green trees along the Kurfürstendamm began to talk: from loud-speakers concealed in their branches an announcer in the stadium spoke to the whole city — and for George Webber it was a strange experience to hear the familiar terms of track and field translated into the tongue that Goethe used. He would be informed now that the Vorlauf was about to be run — and then the Zwischenlauf— and at length the Endlauf— and the winner:

“Owens — Oo Ess Ah!”

Meanwhile, through those tremendous banner-laden ways, the crowds thronged ceaselessly all day long. The wide promenade of Unter den Linden was solid with patient, tramping German feet. Fathers, mothers, children, young folks, old — the whole material of the nation was there, from every corner of the land. From morn to night they trudged, wide-eyed, full of wonder, past the marvel of those banner-laden ways. And among them one saw the bright stabs of colour of Olympic jackets and the glint of foreign faces: the dark features of Frenchmen and Italians, the ivory grimace of the Japanese, the straw hair and blue eyes of the Swedes, and the big Americans, natty in straw hats, white flannels, and blue coats crested with the Olympic seal.

And there were great displays of marching men, sometimes ungunned but rhythmic as regiments of brown shirts went swinging through the streets. By noon each day all the main approaches to the games, the embannered streets and avenues of the route which the Leader would take to the stadium, miles away, were walled in by the troops. They stood at ease, young men, laughing and talking with each other — the Leader’s bodyguards, the Schutz Staffel units, the Storm Troopers, all the ranks and divisions in their different uniforms — and they stretched in two unbroken lines from the Wilhelm-strasse up to the arches of the Brandenburger Tor. Then, suddenly, the sharp command, and instantly there would be the solid smack of ten thousand leather boots as they came together with the sound of war.

It seemed as if everything had been planned for this moment, shaped to this triumphant purpose. But the people — they had not been planned. Day after day, behind the unbroken wall of soldiers, they stood and waited in a dense and patient throng. These were the masses of the nation, the poor ones of the earth, the humble ones of life, the workers and the wives, the mothers and the children — and day after day they came and stood and waited. They were there sa because they did not have money enough to buy the little cardboard squares that would have given them places within the magic ring. From noon till night they waited for just two brief and golden moments of the day: the moment when the Leader went out to the stadium, and the moment when he returned.

At last he came — and something like a wind across a field of grass was shaken through that crowd, and from afar the tide rolled up with him, and in it was the voice, the hope, the prayer of the land. The Leader came by slowly in a shining car, a little dark man with a comic-opera moustache, erect and standing, moveless and unsmiling, with his hand upraised, palm outward, not in Nazi-wise salute, but straight up, in a gesture of blessing such as the Buddha or Messiahs use.

From the beginning of their relationship, and straight through to the end, Else refused to discuss with George anything even remotely connected with the Nazi regime. That was a closed subject between them. But others were not so discreet. The first weeks passed, and George began to hear some ugly things. From time to time, at parties, dinners, and the like, when George would speak of his enthusiasm for Germany and the German people, various friends that he had made would, if they had had enough to drink, take him aside afterwards and, after looking round cautiously, lean towards him with an air of great secrecy and whisper:

“But have you heard . . .? And have you heard . . .?”

He did not see any of the ugly things they whispered about. He did not see anyone beaten. He did not see anyone imprisoned, or put to death. He did not see any men in concentration camps. He did not see openly anywhere the physical manifestations of a brutal and compulsive force.

True, there were men in brown uniforms everywhere, and men in black uniforms, and men in uniforms of olive green, and everywhere in the streets there was the solid smack of booted feet, the blare of brass, the tootling of fifes, and the poignant sight of young faces shaded under iron helmets, with folded arms and ramrod backs, precisely seated in great army lorries. But all of this had become so mixed in with his joy over his own success, his feeling for Else, and the genial temper of the people making holiday, as he had seen and known it so many pleasant times before, that even if it did not now seem good, it did not seem sinister or bad.

Then something happened. It didn’t happen suddenly. It just happened as a cloud gathers, as fog settles, as rain begins to fall.

A man George had met was planning to give a party for him and asked him it he wanted to ask any of his friends. George mentioned one. His host was silent for a moment; he looked embarrassed; then he said that the person George had named had formerly been the editorial head of a publication that had been suppressed, and that one of the people who had been instrumental in its suppression had been invited to the party, so would George mind —?

George named another, an old friend named Franz Heilig whom he had first met in Munich years before, and who now lived in Berlin, and of whom he was very fond. Again the anxious pause, the embarrassment, the halting objections. This person was — waswell, George’s host said he knew about this person and knew he did not go to parties — he would not come if he were invited — so would George mind ——?

George next spoke the name of Else von Kohler, and the response to this suggestion was of the same kind. How long had he known this woman? Where, and under what circumstances, had he met her? George tried to reassure his host on all these scores. He told the man he need have no fear of any sort about Else. His host was instant, swift, in his apologies: oh, by no means — he was sure the lady was eminently all right — only, nowadays — with a mixed gathering — he had tried to pick a group of people whom George had met and who all knew one another — he had thought it would be much more pleasant that way — strangers at a party were often shy, constrained, and formal — Frau von Kohler would not know anybody there — so would George mind ——?

Not long after this baffling experience a friend came to see him. “In a few days,” his friend said, “you will receive a phone call from a certain person. He will try to meet you, to talk to you. Have nothing to do with this man.”

George laughed. His friend was a sober-minded German, rather on the dull and heavy side, and his face was so absurdly serious as he spoke that George thought he was trying to play some lumbering joke upon him. He wanted to know who this mysterious personage might be who was so anxious to make his acquaintance.

To George’s amazement and incredulity, his friend named a high official in the government.

But why, George asked, should this man want to meet him? And why, if he did, should he be afraid of him?

At first his friend would not answer. Finally he muttered circumspectly:

“Listen to me. Stay away from this man. I tell you for your own good.” He paused, not knowing how to say it; then: “You have heard of Captain Roehm? You know about him? You know what happened to him?” George nodded. “Well,” his friend went on in a troubled voice, “there were others who were not shot in the purge. This man I speak of is one of the bad ones. We have a name for him — it is ‘The Prince of Darkness’.”

George did not know what to make of all this. He tried to puzzle it out but could not, so at last he dismissed it from his mind. But within a few days the official whom his friend had named did telephone, and did ask to meet him. George offered some excuse and avoided seeing the man, but the episode was most peculiar and unsettling.

Both of these baffling experiences contained elements of comedy and melodrama, but those were the superficial aspects. George began to realise now the tragedy that lay behind such things. There was nothing political in any of it. The roots of it were much more sinister and deep and evil than politics or even racial prejudice could ever be. For the first time in his life he had come upon something full of horror that he had never known before — something that made all the swift violence and passion of America, the gangster compacts, the sudden killings, the harshness and corruption that infested portions of American business and public life, seem innocent beside it. What George began to see was a picture of a great people who had been psychically wounded and were now desperately ill with some dread malady of the soul. Here was an entire nation, he now realised, that was infested with the contagion of an ever-present fear. It was a kind of creeping paralysis which twisted and blighted all human relations. The pressures of a constant and infamous compulsion had silenced this whole people into a sweltering and malignant secrecy until they had become spiritually septic with the distillations of their own self-poisons, for which now there was no medicine or release.

As he began to see and understand the true state of affairs, George wondered if anyone could be so base as to exult at this great tragedy, or to feel hatred for the once-mighty people who were the victims of it. Culturally, from the eighteenth century on, the German was the first citizen of Europe. In Goethe there was made sublimely articulate a world spirit which knew no boundary lines of nationality, politics, race, or religion, which rejoiced in the inheritance of all mankind, and which wanted no domination or conquest of that inheritance save that of participating in it and contributing to it. This German spirit in art, literature, music, science, and philosophy continued in an unbroken line right down to 1933, and it seemed to George that there was not a man or woman alive in the world who was not, in one way or another, the richer for it.

When he first visited Germany, in 1925, the evidence of that spirit was manifest everywhere in the most simple and unmistakable ways. For example, one could not pass the crowded window of a bookshop in any town without instantly observing in it a reflection of the intellectual and cultural enthusiasm of the German people. The contents of the shop revealed a breadth of vision and of interest that would have made the contents of a French bookshop, with its lingual and geographic constrictions, seem paltry and provincial. The best writers of every country were as well known in Germany as in their own land. Among the Americans, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London had particularly large followings; their books were sold and read everywhere. And the work of America’s younger writers was eagerly sought out and published.

Even in 1936 this noble enthusiasm, although it had been submerged and mutilated by the regime of Adolf Hitler, was still apparent in the most touching way. George had heard it said that good books could no longer be published and read in Germany. This, he found, was not true, as some of the other things he had heard about Germany were not true. And about Hitler’s Germany he felt that one must be very true. And the reason one needed to be very true was that the thing in it which every decent person must be against was false. You could not turn the other cheek to wrong, but also, it seemed to him, you could not be wrong about wrong. You had to be right about it. You could not meet lies and trickery with lies and trickery, although there were some people who argued that you should.

So it was not true that good books could no longer be published and read in Germany. And because it was not true, the tragedy of the great German spirit was more movingly evident, in the devious and distorted ways in which it now manifested itself, than it would have been if it were true. Good books were still published if their substance did not, either openly or by implication, criticise the Hitler regime or contravert its dogmas. And it would simply be stupid to assert that any book must criticise Hitler and contravert his doctrines in order to be good.

For these reasons, the eagerness, curiosity, and enthusiasm of the Germans for such good books as they were still allowed to read had been greatly intensified. They wanted desperately to find out what was going on in the world, and the only way they had left was to read whatever books they could get that had been written outside of Germany. This seemed to be one basic explanation of their continued interest in American writing, and that they were interested was a fact as overwhelming as it was pathetic. Under these conditions, the last remnants of the German spirit managed to survive only as drowning men snrvive — by clutching desperately at any spar that floated free from the wreckage of their ship.

So the weeks, the months, the summer passed, and everywhere about him George saw the evidences of this dissolution, this shipwreck of a great spirit. The poisonous emanations of suppression, persecution, and fear permeated the air like miasmic and pestilential vapours, tainting, sickening, and blighting the lives of everyone he met. It was a plague of the spirit — invisible, but as unmistakable as death. Little by little it sank in on him through all the golden singing of that summer, until at last he felt it, breathed it, lived it, and knew it for the thing it was.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02