Friday, March 10, 2006

Was waere, wenn...

Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935), the German satirist, publicist, and prescient critic of National Socialism was quoted in "The Case for Impeachment", a recent article in Harper's: "A country is not only what it does - it is also what it puts up with, what it tolerates." Now is the time to read Tucholsky in American, because not only was he uncannily accurate in predicting Germany's future, many of his works produce eerie undertones when held against the backdrop of contemporary America. For example, "What If..."

What if... (1927)
By Kurt Tucholsky

Tabloid headline: Beating Amendment on the Way? - We've received information that the Federal Ministry of Justice has at this moment completed a draft of legislation dealing with the introduction of the Beating Amendment.

All morning papers: The bulletin propagated by one of our mid-day newspapers about the introduction of the Beating Amendment is false. The Federal Ministry of Justice has indeed weighed tentative considerations regarding certain disciplinary actions of a physical nature, limited, of course, and intended only for a narrow set of repeat offenses. But that these considerations have hardened in a draft of legislation, as the daily in question claimed, is not the case.

14 Day Pause

The night editions: The Beating Amendment is Here! -- The Slapping Minister! -- Do You Hit Your Children, Herr Minister? -- Powerful Measures at Last! -- A Good One Upside the Head! -- Awful! -- Government by Rod and Switch! -- Return to Law and Order!

Social Democratic lead article ...turned out to be true. We find no parliamentary expression to give words to our flaming indignation at this new reactionary outrage. Not enough that this ministry overburdens the people with taxes - no, as was typical under the regime of the Czar, the German worker should now be punished with the cane. The parliamentary faction has already made clear that the sharpest protest against this new plan...

Catholic lead story: ...Ecclesiasticus 12:18. These previously quoted Bible verses do however appear favorable towards the idea, and so it will not be entirely possible to withhold Christian sentiment from the plans of the Ministry ... especially since the measure is not completely contrary in all its aspects to the interests of the Church.

"Bismarck Review" ...nevertheless not forget that in rural areas, the good old Prussian way of dealing with disobedience and open resistance, the switch, has for ages done its share of good. We are unable to understand why this, of all punishments, should be considered so humiliating. It goes without saying that its application must remain limited to such circles as are, so to speak, used to it. For a purification of our politically charged atmosphere...

"Munich Newest News" ...we must say: the first reasonable idea to come out of Berlin.

5 Month Pause

Town meeting: "A scandal and a disgrace! I could not blame any of the beating victims if they would afterwards go to their tormentors and punch them in the face..." (Enormous turbulence in the meeting hall. People stand up, shout, throw their hats in the air and wave their handkerchiefs. Thirty-four wallets are stolen. The speaker stands in a pool of sweat).

Democratic lead story: ...of course absolute opponents of the Beating Amendment and will remain so. However, under the current constellation it is to be considered whether this relatively unimportant issue could be an occasion for the German Democratic Party to withhold the unconditional support it has promised the current ruling coalition - especially when one considers that with the assurance of non-punishment for the wearing of republican symbols a powerful advancement of republican thought has prevailed. On the other hand...

Protest assembly of the Communists. (Banned).

Conference of the National Association of Middle Teaching Officials for the Upper Idling Course of Higher Schools: "...Ου παιδεύετει. Gentlemen, even the ancient Grecians..." [Note: ou paideuetei - Old-Greek, reference to spare the rod and spoil the child]

Telephone booth in Parliament: "...Hellooo! Hello, Saarbrücken? Allô, allô - Je cause, mais oui, mademoiselle - yes, please! Ne coupez-pas! Yes, English! Is that you? OK... debate on Mrs. Gertrud Bäumer's motion for a supplementary clause - did you get that? - which states the rear ends of those who are beaten must first receive a protective leather covering - - hello! Saarbrücken...!"

Telegrams to the President: ...flaming protest! Northwest German Committee of Upper Middle School Teachers.......we beg you, in the twelfth hour. Federal Union of Free-Thinking Salad Eaters.......perception of Germany in the world. Union of Left-Leaning Fairly Decisive Republicans.......but not to forget the interests of the German economy! Association of Rod and Switch Manufacturers.

Headline of a Democratic lead article: "Yes and No -!"

Parliamentary report: Yesterday, under breathless tension, the tribunal debated the first reading of the "Amendment for the Introduction of Mandatory Disciplinary Measures of a Physical Nature," as its official title runs. The house was well-filled during the preceding debate of the Lock Fee Reform Bill for the district of Havelland-East because this issue is seen as pivotal towards the growing tension within the current coalition; its acceptance was greeted from the right with applause, from the left with hisses. During the reading of the Beating Amendment the house emptied slowly but visibly. The first to speak was the senior of German criminalistic, Professor Dr. D. Dr. Dr. honorable Kahl. He explained that the introduction of the Beating Amendment filled him with deep concern, but that he, on the other hand, could not suppress a certain satisfaction. As his old colleague Kramer said to him way back in 1684...

The social democratic delegate Breitscheid announced, following a detailed honoring of the delegate Kahl in an extraordinarily eloquent and ironic speech, the clear no of his party. (See however below under "Latest News"). To the applause of the left, the delegate Breitscheid proved...

Speaking next, for the Democrats, after corresponding remarks by the communist Rothahn, was the delegate Fischbeck. His party, so he said, stands positively disposed to the new law. Even as children we all had to bend over at least once. (Stormy, several minute long amusement).

Advertisement: ...refrain from further applications, as the planned quota of positions for disciplinary officers is over-subscribed by ninety-eight. I.A. Heindl, Upper Governmental Council.

Social Democratic party correspondence: ...water on the mill of the communists. The class-conscious worker is disciplined enough to know when he must bring sacrifices. This is such an opportunity! With heavy heart the party leadership has bowed to the call of the hour. It is easier to issue well-meaning suggestions while sitting at one's desk than to take responsibility oneself in the tough realpolitical struggle...

Interview with the Chancellor: ... ceremoniously assured the representative of "Le Monde" that the regulations for implementation would of course do full justice to humanity. We will, as can surely be confirmed from the governmental side, see to it that...

8 Month Pause

Minor news: Yesterday in Parliament the Amendment for Disciplinary Measures of a Physical Nature was accepted with votes of the three right wing parties over the votes of the Communists. Social Democrats and Democrats abstained.

Democratic News Service: ...expectations attached to the regulations for implementation, sadly, not fulfilled. It is to be hoped that the individual States will use their power towards humanitarian improvements ... unbending demand for the position of Federal Disciplinary Commissioner to at least appoint a Democrat.

News Wire: Yesterday in Celle the first punishment under the Beating Amendment was carried out. The recipient was a worker Ernst A., punished for attempted cruelty towards young ladybugs. Thirty-five lashes were imparted upon the sentenced. The disciplinary personnel functioned without a glitch; Senior President Noske personally attended the procedure. A. is a member of the Communist party.

Press conference: ...number of blows was originally set at 80. The sentenced received instead, due to an amnesty on the occasion of the President's 90th birthday, two less. Following implementation the sentenced was moved to tears.

Letter from a woman in Pomerania: ...can't imagine how we laughed! It was too charming! The weather was lovely and we drove four hours by car to Messenthien, where we all had a hearty lunch. Otto was there, too - he's a senior disciplinary officer and looks wonderful in his new uniform. I'm so proud of him, and the work does him such good. We just had to take a picture of him, which I'm enclosing for you..."

"Physician's Report": ...rather conspicuous increase of mainly political delicts falling under the Beating Amendment, as Sinzheimer reports, has found an unusual explanation. A portion of those sentenced began, upon reception of their beatings, to roll about ecstatically on the floor, yelling "Again! More! Another!" and only with considerable difficulty could they be prevented from embracing switch, whip and disciplinary personnel. We are dealing with notorious masochists who have, in this manner, cheaply indulged their libidos, and who will now be brought to trial for the illegal acquisition of advantages.

March 8, 1956. "...look back over a productive 25 years. If the Federal Bureau of Disciplinary Measures has, to date, known only success, it is due primarily to its loyal corps of hard-hitting officers, the unanimous support of all federal agencies, as well as the Federal Association of Federal Disciplinary Officers. The tried and tested amendment has become indispensable today. It is a political reality; its introduction rested on the free will of the entire German people, whose arm we are. That which is given, gentlemen, is always reasonable, and it is easier to tear down than it is to build. In hoc signo vinces! [In this sign you shall conquer] So that today we may proudly announce:

The German people and their Beating Amendment - they are indivisible and not to be thought of, one without the other!

So help me God!"


The original text may be read at the Tucholsky Weblog. My translation is based on a later version of the text which Tucholsky reworked himself. The newer version is more streamlined and has the "Yes and No" passage. I may post some of the missing passages later.

Notes about this translation:

Names of Newspapers: A few times I selected a newspaper name that I thought would say more to the English speaking reader. E.g. "Bismarck Review" instead of The Cross (newspaper), a Prussian newspaper of the time. Bismarck was co-founder of the Prussian Cross (Kreuz) newspaper, and his name is probably better associated with Prussia than Cross would be.

The political parties: There are several references to the political parties of the Weimar Republic. These have not been translated to equivalent parties on the American political scene - they just happen to have similar names. The German Democrats were more a party of the middle, and the Social Democrats where somewhere between the Democrats and the Communists. The "republican thought" referred to is actually the philosophy of the German Democrats, and not the conservatives.

Politicians: The politicians (Rudolf) Breitscheid and (Wilhelm) Kahl were two actual personalities in German politics. Breitscheid was a prominent Social Democrat. He emigrated to France in 1933 but was arrested in 1941 and sent to Buchenwald, where he died (1944). Wilhem Kahl was indeed a professor of criminalistic, and a strong proponent of the death penalty. According to the German Wikipedia Otto Fischbeck was a liberal politician active until 1925, so it is unclear whether Tucholsky meant this particular Fischbeck. The name Rothahn for a Communist politician sounds fanciful. It means "red rooster" in German, and to me suggests the image of a rooster squawking around a farmyard, making a lot of inneffectual noise.

March 8, 1956: In the speech at the end a particular passage proved difficult to translate in a way that would preserve all its nuances. It's the passage in German "im Dienst erhauten Beamten." This is probably a play on words of the phrase "im Dienst ergrauten" meaning "grown gray (old) in service." The word "erhauten" doesn't really exist in German, but the syllable "hau" is the root for the verb hauen (to hit). The prefix "er-" usually suggests a process in which something is acquired. According to an online 19th German dictionary the verb "erhauen" could mean to beat someone or to carve out of stone. But this is not in use in modern German. So I'm not certain exactly what the verb "erhauten" might mean in this context.

In my own writing I've often taken cliches and reworded them slightly to make them say something new. In these instances I wanted to add power to the statement by the allusion to the known phrase, but I did not intend the meaning of the source cliche to dominate. Unfortunately I could not think of any phrases like "growing old in service" that might be doctored with aggressive connotations - words like "breaking-in" or "two-fisted" came to mind originally. "Grown bloody in service" might do it, but it doesn't seem aggressive enough. The term must be aggressive, as it underlines the final point. My decision to translate the passage as "hard-hitting officers" seemed to me the best solution, though it abandons the allusion of the German original. In an English language speech about employees, the words "loyal and hard working" usually go hand in hand. Also, the term "hard-hitting" is itself a play on words, as it is primarily used in a metaphorical sense, and not literally. I don't think anyone can do better with this passage, and still have it read well.

Translation note to "Beating Amendment": The German text used the term "Prügelstrafe", literally "beating punishment." That just did not flow, and I could find no other synonyms or expressions that had the coined quality of the original, while hanging on to the literal expression. The more judicial term "Beating Amendment" (an amendment to the current laws) drifts slightly form the original, but I think it works most of the time, though maybe not as well in the final reference.


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Friedhelm Greis of the German language Tucholsky Weblog for his invaluable advice and feedback in translating this text, pointing out nuances I'd missed and supplying background information. Also thanks to Mrs. Weirsdo and all my other friends who took time to check the draft for readability. That was a great a help to me!


This post has been submitted to the Carnival of German-American Relations at The carnival summary may be read at American Future and at the Atlantic Review. A German carnival summary is located at

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Kurt Tucholsky in Harper's Magazine

A recent editorial "The Case for Impeachment" in Harper's Magazine, written by Lewis H. Lapham quotes in the beginning Kurt Tucholsky:

A country is not only what it does - it is also what it puts up with, what it tolerates.

I've located the original of this:
Aber ein Land ist nicht nur das, was es tut – es ist auch das, was es verträgt, was es duldet.

The passage originates from a letter by Kurt Tucholsky to the German-Jewish author Arnold Zweig. I don't think the translation can be improved upon.

For those who can read German, the entire letter is posted at the Sudelblog.

I apoligize for the long silence here. I've been busy with a longer translation, which will soon be ready to post.