Friday, February 25, 2011

Three Men on the Bummel

The latest book Donald and I read together-- Three Men on the Bummel, by Jerome K. Jerome-- wasn't quite as good as his Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), but still offered plenty of opportunities to laugh.

In Three Men on the Bummel, three middle-aged (youngish middle-aged, maybe?) British men of circa 1900 go on a "bummel" ("a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started") through parts of Germany.  Hilarity ensues (though, again, not quite as much hilarity as ensues when the same three men, in younger years, go on a boating holiday down the Thames in Three Men in a Boat).

Well, as we read the last chapter, we kept stopping to shake our heads.  Looking back through the prism of history (as they say (g)), it's amazing how right-on-the-dot Jerome K. Jerome was in at least some of his estimations of Germany and the German psyche at that time.  (Remember, this was published in 1900.)

Donald pointed out that in many instances (not all) in that final chapter, you can substitute "liberal" for "German" (and then toward the end, "conservative" for "Anglo-Saxon") and have a fairly accurate portrayal of some aspects of the character of the modern liberal democrat.

He selected some excerpts that he thought especially telling:

In the placid, docile German of to-day, whose only ambition appears to be to pay his taxes, and do what he is told to do by those whom it has pleased Providence to place in authority over him, it is difficult, one must confess, to detect any trace of his wild ancestor, to whom individual liberty was as the breath of his nostrils […]

In Germany to-day one hears a good deal concerning Socialism, but it is a Socialism that would only be despotism under another name.  Individualism makes no appeal to the German voter.  He is willing, nay, anxious, to be controlled and regulated in all things. […]

The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer.  The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk.  At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it.  Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. […]

In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever.  Everything is done for you, and done well.  You are not supposed to look after yourself; you are not blamed for being incapable of looking after yourself; it is the duty of the German policeman to look after you. […]

If you lose yourself, he finds you; and if you lose anything belonging to you, he recovers it for you.  If you don’t know what you want, he tells you.  If you want anything that is good for you to have, he gets it for you.[…]

“You get yourself born,” says the German Government to the German citizen, “we do the rest.  Indoors and out of doors, in sickness and in health, in pleasure and in work, we will tell you what to do, and we will see to it that you do it.  Don’t you worry yourself about anything.”[…]

Carlyle said of the Prussians, and it is true of the whole German nation, that one of their chief virtues was their power of being drilled.  Of the Germans you might say they are a people who will go anywhere, and do anything, they are told.  […]

For the direction of German character into these channels, the schools, of course, are chiefly responsible.  Their everlasting teaching is duty.  It is a fine ideal for any people; but before buckling to it, one would wish to have a clear understanding as to what this “duty” is.  The German idea of it would appear to be: “blind obedience to everything in buttons.” […]

Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him.  When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine. […]

The worst that can be said against them is that they have their failings.  They themselves do not know this; they consider themselves perfect, which is foolish of them.  They even go so far as to think themselves superior to the Anglo-Saxon: this is incomprehensible.  One feels they must be pretending.

(The section I put into boldface is positively chilling, considering what the next fifty years were to bring.)