From the Archive — From the May 2016 issue

Wilt Thou not Walk

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I never knew just when I passed the border into Germany because no frontier official stopped me. I thought it odd that there should be a border warfare so recently and all sorts of secret police, and yet no customs official in sight, but it was so. But I knew when I was in Germany by the flags. They hung from all the houses. They were bright red with a black swastika in a white circle in the middle, and sometimes they hung from the second storey to the ground. There were often several on one house — one for every family who lived there. They made the streets look very gay, as though there were a festival. If there is a flag for every family, there must be more than ten million flags in Germany, I thought, and all manufactured during the past year and a half. Ten million new flags, because the old ones were different. Any flag that will stand the weather costs fifty cents, and the big ones five dollars or more. Someone must be making money in Germany, I thought.

Besides the flags there were election banners across the street. The next Sunday people were going to vote whether or not they wanted Hitler for president to succeed Hindenburg. In other countries when there is an election you vote whether you want one candidate or another, but in Germany Hitler made himself president and it was a law, and then people voted whether they liked the law or not. If they liked it, that meant he was president; and if they didn’t, that meant he was president anyhow.

The posters were like the ones in the Liberty Loan campaigns. They had that sentimental, evangelical note. “We are with thee, dear leader.” “Thy leader has traveled a million miles on work for thee. Wilt thou not walk a hundred yards for him?” That sort of thing.

Now, in Germany, it was not so easy to drive the car. The roads were crowded. There were automobiles and motorcycles and bicycles. They all seemed to be driven by young men. They leaned over the handlebars of the bicycles and paddled furiously with bare, strong legs. They wore mostly shorts and open-throated shirts; they usually had thick, fair hair. Sometimes a girl sat on the pillion of a motorcycle, but not often. On the fine broad road they traveled in front of me, behind, on both sides. I was in a procession of young men. I had the feeling that there were only young men in Germany, thousands and thousands of young men, all very strong and healthy, and all working furiously to get somewhere.

At Murnau there is a big camp for Hitler youth. Six thousand boys between the ages of ten and sixteen. It covers a whole hillside and valley, and is wonderfully organized. The boys do all the work except cooking, and learn some of the things taught the Boy Scouts. Only there are more processions and drills. They’re different from the Boy Scouts too, because the Boy Scout idea is to develop the individual boy, and their idea is to train an army for the state. “The age of the individual is past.” Where had I heard that before? In Russia.

They were beautiful children. I did not think they would ever grow up to be thickset beer drinkers with rubber-tire necks. They sang together, and no people sing in unison as the Germans do, thousands of them, in the open air, young voices, still soprano, and the hills echoing! It made one feel sentimental.


From “Good-by to Germany,” which appeared in the December 1934 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 165-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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