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F. Kennan's Letters:
following letter excerpts and accompanying introductions come from George F.
Kennan’s Sketches of a Life, published by Pantheon Books in 1989. They are
included here as they vividly illustrate other stories presented on this web
mid-1937 to mid-1938 I served in the State Department in Washington. Taking
a vacation in June 1938, I bicycled across most of my
native state of Wisconsin. Here is the diary account of that trip.
jumping-off place was one of those occasional spots in the landscape
of the central northern states where a touch of scenery—a rocky
glen, a waterfall, or a precipitous elevation—has broken the
beautiful monotony of the countryside and provided a convenient excuse
for waylaying the passing motorist and extracting a few dollars from
his pocket before releasing him to pursue his swift, boring drive
across the plains. This place, with its aggressive tourism, its
advertising, souvenirs, information booths, hotels and tourist homes,
has something of the atmosphere of the religious pilgrimage points in
central Europe; and I was glad to shake its dust from my tires in the
bright sunshine of a hot June morning and to pedal out of town over
the hills toward the east.
air that trembled in the sunshine over the road ahead was heavy with
the fragrances of early summer: of new-mown hay and of the teeming
small life of the swamps. The road, although not a very important one,
was broad and excellently covered with a dark oil surface.
all the roads—both county and state—over which I was destined to
ride in the course of the following days were beautifully graded and
surfaced. They led through prosperous and thickly populated farming
country. They were lined with quiet, spacious farmhouses, which stood
back behind tree-covered lawns and gravel driveways. Towns and
villages were interspersed at intervals of roughly ten to fifteen
it seemed to me that these beautiful highways were the most deserted
places I had ever encountered. In the course of a one-hundred-mile
journey, I was destined to encounter on the open road no single
fellow-cyclist, no single pedestrian, no single horse-drawn vehicle.
And as for the occupants of the occasional machines that went whirring
by, they obviously had no connection in the social sense with the
highway over which they were driving. Slumping back on the cushions of
their streamlined models, traveling at such rates of speed that the
world on either hand was only a blurred, flowing ribbon of green, they
had no more real association with the highway than their
fellow-travelers in the cabins of the transport planes that
occasionally droned overhead. They were lost spirits, hovering for
brief periods on another level, where space existed only in time. To
those of us who really inhabited the highway—to the birds and
insects and snakes and turtles and chipmunks and the tone
cyclist—these motor-cars were only an abstract danger, a natural
menace like lightning, earthquake, or flood—a danger which had to be
reckoned and coped with (here the turtles, whose corpses strewed the
pavement for miles, seemed to be at the greatest disadvantage) but to
which we had no human relationship and which only accentuated rather
than disturbed our loneliness.
anyone who complains of lack of seclusion in our modern life, I
recommend walking or cycling on the highways. He may go for days
without meeting any of his own kind. But I should not commend this
course to anyone inclined to the feeling that the free and
unrestrained association of human beings is a prerequisite for a
healthy social and political life. He will think back with regret to
the vigorous life of the English highway of Chaucer’s day, as
depicted in The Canterbury Tales; and he will ponder with
misgivings the extensive isolation of the modern traveler in his
movements from place to place.
that as it may, the morning sun—to whom a deserted highway is as
good as any other—began to bake lustily, and after a couple of hours
of pedaling I was relieved enough to find a village by the side of a
lake. The inn was a relatively new building, on the site of an older
hostelry of pioneer days, and fitted out with “antiques” from the
surrounding countryside. I was not sure that it was not an improvement
over the black leather settees and the cuspidors of the country hotels
I had known as a boy. In any event, I had a swim and—for sixty-five
cents—a luncheon consisting of young onions, white radishes, broiled
pike garnished with slices of apple, bread and butter, salad with
cherries and pineapple, milk, ice cream and strawberries. Thus it was
with an almost unpleasant consciousness of the generosity of nature in
my native habitat that I set off again in the burning sunshine of
early afternoon, on the second leg of my journey.
leg was a particularly dry one. The only community along the way was a
village by the ambitious name of Endeavor, through which I passed in
the middle of the afternoon. Unfortunately, the manifestations of
endeavor on the part of the city fathers were principally of a moral
nature. The place where, according to all accepted standards, the
“tavern” should have stood was occupied by a stern “gospel
tabernacle.” Two men in overalls, of whom I inquired concerning the
possibility of getting a glass of beer, grinned widely and replied,
“Not here you don’t. The place is stone-dry.” Their hearts were
not stone-dry, however, for they caught up with me in a Ford, when I
had gotten a short distance out of town, and shouted, “About a mile
further, on your left.” And sure enough, a mile further on the left
was the ubiquitous beer sign and back of it the roadhouse with its
dark, cool bar-room, and with four enormous drunks who pawed each
other affectionately at the bar and inquired of each other repeatedly
in tones of earnest solicitation, “Is you tough?”
o’clock brought me to my day’s destination. This was a backwater
village, abandoned by both highway and railway. The new concrete road
had been put through a half mile away. The railway had discontinued
service on the branch line that led to the town, and had added insult
to injury, the inhabitants told me, by tearing down the “depot.”
So the community slumbered on peacefully, soiled but not engulfed by
the flood of standard urban influence that flowed through so much of
the surrounding countryside.
me the attraction of this place lay chiefly in the fact that it was
adjacent to a large piece of property which my paternal grandfather
had acquired upon his return from the Civil War and much of which he
had himself cleared for the plow and fenced in with a five-rail fence.
I had at home the record of my father’s boyhood reminiscences,
written shortly before his death, and I was curious to see what had
become of the land where, seventy-five years ago, communication with
the outside world had still been maintained by the wood-burning
steamboats that plied the narrow streams, and where the Indians and
the ducks had gathered by the hundreds every year, according to my
father’s account, to harvest the wild rice that grew in such
profusion in the marshy places.
entering the village, I repaired to the saloon as the proper source of
all useful information. I was not disappointed. The company consisted
of the barkeep, a German farmer, and an elderly newspaper editor from
a neighboring small town. They were listening to a radio account of a
baseball game between Washington and the White Sox, and discussing the
prospects for the outcome of the Louis-Schmeling fight. The editor,
however, showed interest in my quest, offered some suggestions of his
own, and then referred me to the village’s oldest inhabitant.
found the latter’s house without difficulty. He was a well-preserved
old man, in his nineties, with a dignified beard. We sat together,
side by side, on a swinging settee on his front porch, while he told
me about old times. He remembered the pioneer days, before the Civil
War. His wife, who was ill and in pain, sat miserably on the side of
her bed in the dark living room behind us. I could feel her eyes
peering out at us from the gloom, like those of an old sick bird, full
of pain and despair and resentment. The doctor came in while I was
there; and before he left I heard the old woman’s voice for the
first time: harsh, unrestrained, and racked with suffering.
“Doctor,” she said slowly, “don’t you think I ought to ask
Kate to come up and look after me? ‘Twon’t be long and I’ll not
be around this place anymore. She said she’d come up any time I
needed her.” The doctor scoffed professionally. “That’s all
nonsense. You know where you'll be pretty soon?" he said.
"You'll be back working on the farm.” And he walked cheerfully
out to his car and drove away. But the old woman continued to rock
back and forth on the side of her bed, and no fresh hope came into the
troubled old eyes.
the old man’s advice, I set forth to find one of the farmers who now
lived on what had once been the family property. I walked through the
sleepy, quiet streets of the village on the way out of town. By the
side of the stream fishermen were loading huge struggling carp from a
pen into crates, and heaving the crates onto a truck. I asked them
what they did with the fish and they replied with scorn that it was
what such city folk as myself ate for salmon.
crossed the bridges over the stream and the marsh and climbed the hill
on the other side. The knoll on the left, where the old family house
had stood, was overgrown with high grass. A fat woodchuck hurried off
up the slope as I passed.
the farm on the top of the hill, they were bringing in the hay. A team
of horses was working a hoist which lifted the hay from the wagons
into the big barn. The farmer, they told me, was out in the fields. I
rode out on an empty haywagon to meet him, over the sandy lanes, and
he met me on the way. He was a fine-looking man, with soft blue eyes
and a firm, sensitive mouth. While the wagon rolled slowly round and
round the field and the young farmhand stowed the hay that rolled
inexorably up the conveyor from the mechanical hay-rake, I walked
alongside, in a rain of chaff, and discussed family history with the
I gladly accepted a laconic statement that I was to pass the night at
the farm. The house had both bathroom and dining room, but all of us
washed and ate in the big kitchen that stretched clear across the
middle of the building. The dinner company included the farmer and his
wife, their son, three farmhands (one of whom was a young Indian) and
myself. The wife had prepared the meal herself. She had no “help.”
It consisted of smoked carp, onions, creamed potatoes, sweet buns with
this season’s strawberry preserves, chocolate cake, strawberries
with cream, and lemonade.
dinner the farmhands withdrew, and the rest of us sat in the
“parlor” and talked. The son was a shortsighted, good-natured, not
very bright fellow about twenty. He contributed little to the
conversation. Later in the evening the daughter of the house arrived.
She had been spending the day with friends in the city. She had been
to college and was now preparing to become a physical-training
instructor. The entry of such a person—smart, well-dressed,
confident, blooming with health and energy—into the
tired evening atmosphere of the old farmhouse was a breath of air from
another world. It was idle to speculate whether this contrast was for
better or for worse. It seemed doubtful that she would ever make a
farmer’s wife, like her mother. Yet she was doubtless better
educated and more wide-awake than her mother had ever been. In
reality, the city, at once so menacing and so promising, had claimed
her for its own as it had so many other farm children; her future
lay—for better or for worse—in its copious lap, not on the farm.
was given the guest bedroom, with its great oak bedstead and its cedar
chest. On the wall, surrounded by an ornate gilt frame, was an
enlargement of a family photograph, obviously taken many years before.
Solemn little girls in high black shoes and ill-fitting party dresses
stared stonily at the photographer. In the figure of a little boy with
long ears and a self-conscious smirk I could recognize my
fifty-five-year-old host. On another wall hung a picture of a youth
playing the cello beside the hearth-fire, and an old man listening.
“There is balm for hearts o’er-burdened in the magic of the
bow,” ran the legend. “Though one shall dream of days to come and
one of long ago.” Amid these reassuring relics of an older and
familiar age, I slept well enough, and arose at six to participate in
a breakfast fully as hearty as the supper of the evening before.
The next day saw me over forty uneventful miles. Again a convenient
lake presented itself at midday. My destination, which I reached in
late afternoon, was a larger country center, a college town of from
twenty to thirty thousand souls.
put up in a house which had rooms for tourists—seventy- five cents a
night. These places, which are rapidly depriving the hotels of much of
the tourist trade, served no meals, so I had to walk over to the main
business center in the evening to get supper. It was the night of the
big fight. Radio loudspeakers were rasping out on every hand, in the
restaurants and saloons and cigar stores. A high-school band,
installed on a platform in the middle of Main Street, bravely executed
the overture to Wilhelm Tell and “The Stars and Stripes
Forever,” but its listeners were few and, as far as could be
observed, involuntary. The town was indoors, listening to the fight.
this brief event was over, I walked back to the house, where I had my
room. No one was at home, and I sat for a time alone on the porch in
the darkness. The tree-lined street stretched away down the hill,
under the arc-lights. The sidewalks were deserted, but a steady stream
of sleek, dark cars f flowed between them, moving in and out of the
town. Each car had its couple or its foursome inside, bent on
pleasure—usually vicarious pleasure—in the form of a movie or a
dance or a petting party. Woe to the young man or young woman who
could not make arrangements to be included in one of these private,
mathematically correct companies of nocturnal motorists. All the life
of the evening flowed along the highways in this fashion, segregated
into quiet groups of two and four. There was no provision for anyone
else. There was no place where strangers would come together
freely—as in a Bavarian beer hall or a Russian amusement park—for
the mere purpose of being together and enjoying new acquaintances.
Even the saloons were nearly empty.
It seemed for a moment as though this quiet nocturnal stream of
temporary moving prisons, of closed doors and closed groups, was the
reductio ad absurdum of the exaggerated American desire for privacy.
What was in England an evil of the upper class seemed here to have
become the vice of the entire populace. It was the sad climax of
individualism, the blind-alley of a generation which had forgotten how
to think or live collectively, of a people whose private lives were so
brittle, so insecure that they dared not subject them to the slightest
social contact with the casual stranger, of people who felt neither
curiosity nor responsibility for the mass of those who shared their
community life and their community problems.
recalled the truly wonderful fashion in which, as had so often been
proved, these same people would rise to the occasion and subordinate
their personal interests to collective efforts in the event of a
natural catastrophe such as a flood, a hurricane, or a war; and I
could not help but feel that one ought to welcome almost any social
cataclysm, however painful, and however costly, that would carry away
something of this stuffy individualism and force human beings to seek
their happiness and their salvation in their relationship to society
as a whole rather than in the interests of themselves and their little
group of intimate acquaintances. That such a cataclysm was
imminent—within the span of a decade or two—seemed probable
enough; and I found myself looking forward to it in much the same way
as Anton Chekhov, in the 1890s, looked forward with both hope and
trepidation to that “cruel and mighty storm which is advancing upon
us, which is already near and which will soon blow all the laziness,
the indifference, the prejudice against work and the rotten boredom
out of our society.
me lay another day of beautiful countryside, lonely highways, hot
sunshine, and cooling drafts of beer at roadhouse bars. But nothing
which I was destined to see subsequently served to weaken the relief
at the thought that this sad breakdown of human association in urban
America was something that could not last, and that whatever else
might be sacrificed in the years to come, the spirit of fellowship,
having reached its lowest conceivable ebb, could not fail to be the
September 29, 1938, the
day of the Munich Conference, until the outbreak of war in Europe, one year
later, I was stationed at Prague, as second secretary of the American
legation in that city. My numerous political reports from that period of
service in Prague, together with some of the personal notes of that time,
were published in 1968 in a volume put out by the Princeton University Press
under the title From Prague after Munich. The following passage,
written shortly after my arrival and about a week after the Munich crisis,
is an excerpt from that book.
Notes on the Munich Crisis, Written in Early October 1938
Prague could never have
been more beautiful than during those recent September days when its
security hung by so slender a thread. The old streets, relieved of
motor vehicles by an obliging army, had recovered something of their
pristine quiet and composure. Baroque towers—themselves unreal and
ethereal—floated peacefully against skies in which the bright blue
of autumn made way frequently for isolated, drifting clouds. In the
sleepy courtyards, sunshine varied with brief, gentle showers. And the
little groups of passers-by still assembled hourly in the marketplace,
as they had for centuries, to watch the saints make their appointed
rounds in the clock on the wall of the town hall.
Yet rarely, if ever, has the quaint garb of this old city seemed more
museum-like, more detached from the realities of the moment, than it
did during these strange days. The world had taken final farewell, it
seemed, of nearly everything that these monuments represented. Gone
were the unifying faith and national tolerance of the Middle Ages;
gone—in large measure—was the glamour of the Counter Reformation,
the outward manifestation of the wealth and power of Rome; gone indeed
were the gay dreams of the empire of Joseph II and Maria Theresa: the
laughing voice of Vienna, the spirit of Mozart. A sterner age was upon
us; and it was only in the gaunt spires of the Tyn Church—those grim
reminders of the century-long struggle of a stubborn and rebellious
Bohemia against the united power of western Europe—that there was
something vitally connected with the problems of this day. The ghosts
of Jan Hus and the Bohemian Brethren stalked again through
“blacked-out” streets that could not have been darker in the
fifteenth century itself. And once again a remarkable little people,
whose virtues and whose failings alike are the products of adversity,
confronted what they felt to be an unjust and unsympathetic Europe.
The following letter to my sister was written
from Prague during a brief official visit to that city in 1940, during the war,
when I was stationed in Berlin. It gave a retrospective picture of my life in
Prague during the year I had recently spent there, and one that was more
comprehensive than any single diary entry.
7, 1940; Prague
letter may arrive before I do, or I may arrive before the letter does;
or one or both of us may never arrive. But when I am in Prague, I
simply have to write. It has been that way ever since I arrived here
on the weird day of Munich in 1938. And now when I come down here from
all the sterile newness of Berlin and walk about in these venerable,
shabby streets, I can’t keep still.
I have written so many formal things about this part of the world that I
think I have paid my due to literary discipline and decorum and am
entitled to indulge just once in the “stream of consciousness”
stuff. I even wonder whether it isn’t possibly the only proper
approach to this dreamy, poignant place, which has a thousand tales to
tell and proves nothing at all, unless it be the incorrigible vanity
and tragedy and futility of all human endeavor. In all the history of
Bohemia there have
never been any clear issues, any complete victories, or any complete
know no place which makes more mockery of the present—no place where
one is more conscious of the transience of one’s self and one’s
own generation and of everything that is being done.
consulate general was closed several weeks ago. I am more or less
responsible for the arrangements made for the custody and preservation
of the property, which belongs to the government, and I have come down
for a day or two on a tour of inspection. I walk around the premises
of the old palace that once housed our legation, give orders for the
repair of a retaining wall in the garden, decide what shall be planted
next spring, make plans for the disposal of the old, unused
Renaissance wing, ponder the condition of the wooden frames of the
three-thousand-odd windowpanes. All the time I am conscious of the
fact that all this has been done hundreds of times before, over the
ages, by innumerable counts and cardinals and custodians and
architects, that each time it was done, it seemed important to the
people who were doing it, that they had some sort of plans for the
utilization of the great structure, and that they hoped that it would
be possible to utilize the place in a way commensurate with its power
and dignity. And all the time I feel that the old building is laughing
skeptically at me and musing:
Man built me as a framework for great doings, for lofty decisions, for
the exercise of power. I was to symbolize his strength and his
grandeur. And yet in all the centuries of my existence there have not
been five years in a hundred when he was able to fill my walls with
anything remotely adequate, remotely representative. My rooms have
stood year after year, cold and empty. No horses stamp in my marble
stables. Owner after owner has either lost the means or lacked the
stature to walk through my halls as one who belonged in them. Either
princes of the Church have lived—for poverty—in my servants’
quarters; or mean little men, awed by massive ceilings and lofty
walls, lonely and uneasy in these trappings of greatness, have camped
like mice in my most splendid chambers. I have been a dream to which
man has never been able to live up.
meanwhile, the seasons have come and gone. The snows of winter have
sifted in onto the huge rafters of the garret; in spring, year after
year, the blossoms of the fruit trees in the upper garden have
fluttered down onto my window ledges; on countless days the faint
showers of midsummer have swept over the hill and cooled the hot tiles
of my roof; in autumn dead leaves have blown in whirlpools in the
court- yards; the winds have screamed through the archways on the long
black nights. The bells of the nearby churches have rung the hours for
centuries. The cobbles of the street outside have echoed for untold
days with the footsteps of men, marching in triumph, fleeing in terror
and despair, or trudging obscurely, mechanically, up and down the
this I have seen. It has remained this way for centuries. It will
remain this way for centuries to come. Nothing has changed very much;
no one has lasted very long.
And now you come, clothed (apologies to my childhood friend
Shakespeare) in a little brief authority; you tinker around like the
rest of them; and you dream your dreams of putting me to use; and yet
you are intelligent enough to know that you, too, are here only for a
day, that you and all you stand for will soon be gone; but that I
shall stand on, superior to those that created me, a monument to
man’s folly and inadequacy, a mockery of his endeavor.
I am perhaps particularly sensitive to this sort of poetic mumbling on
the part of the old building, because so much, so agonizingly much,
has changed and passed in the scant two years that I knew this place.
It aches with memories. I arrived here, as I say, on the day of
Munich. The Ambassador Hotel was crowded with international
journalists. Prague was the center of the world.
"Czechoslovakia”—would it stand or fall? I was put up here in
the palace. That night the town was blacked out as no town has been
blacked out before or since. It was silent as the tombs, over on this
side of the river. We went for a walk, in the dusk, over the Charles
Bridge, and had to talk quietly so that others didn’t hear us
The next morning the news [of the Munich Conference] had gotten about.
An old market woman with a little stand and a big umbrella, just under
my window, started in at six in the morning, delivering a bitter,
plaintive oration. She kept it up until afternoon, with never a stop.
For her the Republic was dead, then and there; and she was right. Her
oration was the last word of the Czech people, before they were
plunged back into silence and helplessness. In the morning, the
loudspeakers dinned out the statement of the prime minister in the
downtown streets; and the people stood weeping in a shopping passage
in the center of town, where I was.
lived on in the palace in those dark and fateful days. It was often so
quiet that the silence rang in your ears. One night I found the old
minister all alone in one of the vast living rooms, dozed off sitting
upright on a stiff, formal settee, lost to the violent, jarring
present, at one with the palace—and the centuries.
I cannot take a step in this place without wanting to laugh or cry.
There, in the garden, the little white dresses of my children used to
flash back and forth behind the lilac bushes on spring mornings. I
could see them out of the office window. On this path I used to pace
back and forth with the London Times correspondent deep
in politics, debating issues long since settled, long since dead. Here
is the bench where I often sat with the fat medical student who taught
me Czech—always seating him downwind from me because he smelled so
bad. Here in this windy entryway old dumb Jim, the portier,
drunk or sober, used to let me in with the car night after night; and
it was from here that the minister took his final departure, in the
old Lincoln limousine, one rainy April morning, while the staff stood
around and wept and knew it was the end of many things.
Wherever I go in the vicinity, it is no better. I may take a walk, as
I did this morning. Here is the Wallenstein Palace: somber and
magnificent. The man who built it, fearsome as he was to his
contemporaries, travestied all the aspirations of Bohemian society.
Born a Czech, he fleeced the Czech lands relentlessly and sold the
proceeds to a German emperor for personal power. Born a Protestant, he
conquered nearly all of Germany for Catholicism. Here in the garden of
his palace, on a cool summer night during the German occupation, I
once watched Czech actors playing old Czech fables. They did them
excellently, with a studied, subtle formalism, as though they were
acting in a dream; and in this detached, mechanical compliance with
the formalities of the drama, they were teaching their people the real
secret of self-preservation in the face of unsympathetic and
unanswerable foreign rule.
Across the street is the Kolowrat Palace, the seat of the Czech
government, where I watched a waiter carrying in steins of beer to the
wrangling cabinet members on March 9, 1939, and failed to realize that
the death-throes of a republic were at hand. Next door is the building
that was the Polish legation, whose long-departed denizens were once
so well informed on the passing intricacies of central European
politics and now must be—if they are alive at all—drinking the
dregs of a deeper and more bitter wisdom.
is another legation. Here there was a fine stuffed bird in the hall,
which we always admired. Here we danced to a gramophone to the very
wee hours of the morning. Here there was a minister with whom,
notwithstanding the fact that we each flirted with the other’s wife,
I had a bond of mutual liking and respect, and whose family must also
have been flung long since to the winds of ruin and separation by the
up the hill; and on the left there is the strange little restaurant,
clinging to the terraces of the cliff, where we drank beer on summer
nights and stared out over the lights and rooftops and bridges of a
the courtyards of the Royal Castle. There, in one of those great
ballrooms, the members of the diplomatic corps, assembled for the
traditional New Year’s reception, stood for the last time, green in
the face from their hangovers, buttoned up tight in their braided,
moth-ball-smelling uniforms, while the papal nuncio read his address
and the new president made his rounds of greeting. The president,
small in stature, made his rounds with dignity and deliberation,
surveying his foreign guests with half-closed eyes, in which there was
all the weariness of a small, misguided, and momentarily unsuccessful
this square before the castle, the German tanks and motor vehicles
were lined up on the morning of March 15, 1939. They were plastered
white with the driving snow. Their hungry drivers beat blue hands
against their thighs, to get the blood back in them, and muttered to
the angry, weeping Czechs: “How can we help it?” (Was koennen
on this square, is another legation, where the unhappy minister and
his American wife, unable to see anything but horror and retrogression
in the events around them, brooded darkly through their own dinner
parties, and saw in the Germans only the Anti-Christ incarnate. Below
them lived a British secretary, who surveyed the world about him with
a despairing, debonair amusement and spent his weekends visiting
nobility in the country.
few doors farther is the house where I went to comfort Alice Masaryk,
in the days following the occupation, and found her washing the floors
to keep her nerves in order.
back again, down the hill, down our own street—the narrow, sloping
street where we lived. Here is the building we lived in, and the cool,
vaulted passageway to the courtyard with the baroque fountain, where
the Czech army used to auction off its horses. Up those stairs, two
flights of stairs, was our door; and beyond that there is no use my
doing any more remembering. There is too much to remember, and it is
all too close. For if it is sad and strange enough to think that all
these other people should be scattered and gone, as though they had
lived in the seventeenth century like Wallenstein; the goneness of a
home is stranger still. And I am myself gone with it. I am no longer
the same person who used to go up and down these stairs. The ghost of
that person is somewhere up there still, together with the ghosts of
all the other people who have lived there since the Thirty Years’
War. It was only two years ago; but it was another time, another life.
And now, we are all a little lonely. So much has died…
am afraid I am not very modern. I am afraid this would not do for the New
Yorker. My world is neither very new nor very brave. I have no
wisecracks for Prague tonight. And it is probably just as well that it
is already evening, and that my train goes in an hour, and that it is
time to pack my bag and get out of this silent old building, where
nobody lives anymore except little Frank, the caretaker, and Franzi,
the handy-man, and where there are so many windows that we couldn’t
dream of closing all the blinds in deference to the blackout and
consequently have had to run around at night with flashlights, through
the cavernous rooms whose ceilings disappear in the gloom.
if this letter reaches you before I do, you can put it down to war
nerves, and show it no farther than to A. and C. and K., all of whom
might view it with indulgence.
following is another passage from the documents published in From Prague after Munich; but this one, in apposition to the entry for
early October 1938, was written at the end, not the beginning, of my year of
service there, several months after the German occupation of Prague and the
remainder of Bohemia. Please note that the time of its writing was just a
fortnight before the outbreak of the Second World War.
19, 1939; Prague
summer is now drawing to an end—the unhappiest which this area has
known since the days of the World War. It has been a strange summer,
characterized by frequent and destructive electrical storms that
damaged crops to the extent of hundreds of millions of crowns and
seemed grimly symbolic of the rapidly alternating hopes and fears in
the minds of the people. Work has gone on as usual. Even now the
peasants are struggling—encouraged by the Germans and deterred by
the frequent showers—to get in the harvest before the newest crisis
reaches its culminating point. And the industries are busy enough
trying to still the insatiable appetite of the Reich for their
products. But all other manifestations of human activity seem
afflicted by a strange lethargy, almost a paralysis. Everything is in
suspense. No one takes initiative; no one plans for the future.
Cultural life and amusements continue in a half-hearted, mechanical
spirit. Theaters and public amusements attract only scanty and
indifferent crowds. People prefer to sit through the summer evenings
in the beer gardens or the little parks along the rivers, to bandy the
innumerable rumors in which they themselves scarcely believe, and to
wait with involuntary patience for the approach of something which
none of them could quite describe but which they are all convinced
must come and must affect all their lives profoundly. The near future
should show whether this waiting attitude is the result of a sound
instinct or whether it merely expresses the natural reluctance of a
people which has just awakened from a twenty-year dream of
independence to accept again the status of a nation of servants.
I had few opportunities to see
anything of Nazi Germany in the years from 1933 down to 1939. The following
glimpse was drawn from a brief passage through Hamburg, on a visit to
London, three months before the war broke out, when I was still officially
stationed in Prague. By this time a second child, Joan Elizabeth, had been
born and was now a lusty three-year-old.
1939; Hamburg, Cuxhaven
On the train from Berlin
to Hamburg, S. (the nurse) and Grace and I played impassioned games of
Parchesi, and a German woman looked on in disgust because we neglected
Joany. The hotel in Hamburg being nearly empty, the director made a
fuss over us and gave us a fine suite with windows looking out on the
Alster. My friend, Charlie T[hayer, formerly a foreign-service
colleague at the American embassy in Moscow, later a well-known writer
and humorist], appeared while the children were being put to bed. We
had whiskey and soda and gossiped eagerly while the shadows fell
across the lake outside. And before Grace went to bed, I pulled her
loose tooth out with my fingers.
C. took us out to eat. We drove up to the Uhlenhorster Faehrhaus,
arguing savagely about the character of our native land and the merits
of its foreign policy, but were actually pleased in our hearts that we
could still not be together a half an hour without starting to dispute
in the good old Moscow fashion.
Faehrhaus terrace was packed with the nouveau riche of Nazidom. We had
to take a table inside. There were fireworks over the lake, which we
did not trouble to watch. Charlie got angry with the waiter because
the strawberries failed to arrive. Two Italian Fascist dignitaries
appeared, with square-trimmed black beard and magnificent white dress
uniforms, being shown the town by local Nazi officials.
seemed listless and empty as a city. It still went through all the
motions of its ordinary activities, but the heart was gone out of it.
It had lost its specific character and had become provincial, like
Leningrad. It made me feel very old to think that it was twelve years
since I had served there, and to realize how completely the things
that I had known now belonged to the past.
the children and the nurse off at the station first thing in the
morning. The two little faces beamed out of the train window at us,
and Grace waved delightedly as the train pulled away. I was too
harried and tired at the time to appreciate the full significance of
this last separation. It was twelve hours later, and the sunset was
fading across an impassive North Sea, when it hit me.
The boat-train left Hamburg at nine-thirty
and droned along the flat meadows toward the sea. At Cuxhaven a burly
Gestapo man studied our passports while two bored officials in black
uniforms thumbed through the ominous volumes of the blacklist in a
vain search for our names. It was a sad sailing—the saddest I have
ever seen. A fresh wind was blowing out of the north, chilly and
autumnal. Gulls wheeled overhead. The little port lay stretched out
below us, dull and bored. The ship's band played bravely on the deck,
but it was misplaced effort. There were only a handful of us
passengers, and none of us smart; nor did our parting carry with it
any hope of experience or adventure to warrant an accompaniment of
martial music. Finally, the gangplank was taken in. The band played
“Deutschland ueber Alles” and “Das Horst Wessel Lied,” and we
At the time of the outbreak of war
in 1939, I was transferred from Prague to the embassy at Berlin, where I
served as administrative officer until the advent of Pearl Harbor and the
German declaration of war, in December 1941, at which time I, together with
the remainder of the embassy staff, was taken into custody by the Germans
There was very little travel during those years, and
little time or surplus energy for the keeping of diaries. The following
items, the first of them semi- (but only semi-) fictional, are all that have
between February and April 1940; Wartime Germany
The night train from Berlin
to Munich stopped at Halle. It was eleven o’clock in the evening.
The station was blacked out, the platform shrouded in obscurity.
train was overfilled, as usual, and soldiers, staggering under their
packs and equipment, struggled with the civilians to gain standing
room in the crowded corridors and vestibules of the cars. There was a
clatter of voices, a scuffling of boots against the pavement, a
panting of locomotives, and a scurrying of human forms in the
The international sleeping car which still bore, wars notwithstanding,
the timeless inscription “Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits
et des Grands Express Europeens.” It was sandwiched in at the
head of the coaches. The porter stood at the door of the car, looking
down at the platform and chewing an unlit cigarette stub. He was a
wiry little southern European, with big dark eyes and an unshaven,
deeply lined face. His crumpled uniform was open at the collar and
there were coffee stains across the breast. Standing there on guard
over the privacy of his privileged, sleeping patrons, he surveyed the
scene below him—all this coming and going of the hairless,
colorless, sentimental denizens of the north—with a vast Latin
young woman pushed her way out of the packed crowd on the vestibule of
the adjoining car and clambered down the steps to the ground. She was
wearing a red blouse, a dark blue skirt, and no hat. She took a long
breath of air and adjusted her hair. Seeing dimly that the porter wore
a uniform and was evidently in the possession of some sort of
authority, she addressed herself to him in a plaintive, coquettish
tone: “Can’t you help me some way?” she asked. “Isn’t there
some place I can find a seat, or at least a decent place to stand? I
have to be back at work in Innsbruck in the morning, and I can’t
stand up in that crowd all night.”
porter measured her coldly from head to foot and deliberated a moment.
“Yes,” he said in a low voice, “come on up here.” She climbed
up to the platform and stood under the pale blue light. She was
apparently in her late twenties. She had narrow-set eyes and a
selfish, tight little mouth, and there was written on her face
something of the greed, the pretense, and the narrowness of the
lower-middle-class environment from which she came.
how about my baggage?” she asked.
be all right,” said the porter, “you can go back and look at it
from time to time.” The train began to move, and pulled slowly away
into the blackness. They stood in the vestibule talking for a quarter
of an hour. She was pleased over this unexpected hospitality and
talked volubly to prolong and confirm her good fortune. Finally, the
porter asked her to come into the car and sit down.
The deserted corridor of the sleeping car was carpeted and curtained.
The bright lights made her squint. In contrast to the third-class car
next door, it seemed a haven of warmth, space, and luxury. At the
farther end of the car the porter had a bench, covered with black
imitation-leather upholstery, which could be let down into the
corridor for him to sleep on; and beside it was a dirty little pantry
with a wooden stool and a sink and barely room for a couple of people
they sat on the bench, and the porter paid her elaborate compliments
and told her off-color Italian stories in his broken German. She
became flushed and laughed with her success and cleverness.
took her hand and drew her into the little pantry. The air was hot.
The walls of the car groaned and there was the unceasing beating of
the wheels underneath. On the shelf two unwashed glasses danced and
jangled together crazily from the vibration.
porter put one arm around her and leered into her face. He had two
gold teeth and an unpleasant breath. She drew back. Then she thought
of the third-class car and of the people standing miserably in the
corridor throughout the night.
nein,” she said faintly, with a nervous giggle, “das geht doch
nicht. Das sollten Sie eigentlich nicht machen.” (But no… that
won't do. You really shouldn’t.)
wheels beat on; the walls groaned; the two unwashed glasses kept up
their constant jangle on the shelf.
two o'clock in the morning the train was droning along through the
blackness of Thuringia. The porter lay stretched out on his bench in
the corridor, asleep. His mouth was open and his snoring was audible,
faintly, above the din of the train. The woman sat at his feet, chin
in hands, elbows on knees, staring gloomily down the empty corridor.
She was very thirsty, and sullen with fatigue. Her skirt was soiled.
She had left her comb with her baggage.
Suddenly, she got up, stepped into the pantry, seized one of the two
jangling glasses and shoved it violently over to the other side of the
shelf. Returning to the corridor, she sat down again on the bench and
stared dully at the porter, whose lower lip trembled slightly with
each exhalation. Then she put her head in her hands again and began to
At five o'clock in the morning, daylight
was sifting into the corridor through the chinks of the curtains. The
train stopped for a long time at a station, and the sudden silence was
oppressive. Two men in military uniforms, chattering tipsily in loud
tones, burst into the car and walked through the corridor. They looked
at her as they passed, and one of them said: "Nu, nu—just
look what’s here." But the woman stared gloomily past them and
they moved on, laughing uproariously.
train began to move again. The porter, who had been wakened by the
interruption, slowly gathered in his legs and sat up. He sat there for
a few minutes, scowling deeply and scratching in the thick black hair
on the back of his head. Then he looked at his watch, got up,
stretched, and disappeared down the corridor.
When he returned, she was still sitting on the end of the bench,
but she had leaned over against the wall and had closed her eyes. He
saw that there was no longer any room for him to put his feet.
He bent down and shook her by the shoulder until she opened her eyes.
Then he grinned and said: “Now you must go back to the other car.
You can’t stay here any more. We are getting into Munich and the
conductor will soon be coming through.”
woman stood up and gave him a look of unutterable hatred. Then,
turning, she slowly made her way down the corridor, smoothing her
crumpled skirt as she went, and disappeared through the door at other
porter stood smiling and watching her until she had disappeared. Than
he lay down on his bench again and promptly went back to sleep.
the pantry the misplaced glass, which had been dancing and joggling
laboriously back across the shelf through the hours of the early
morning, finally rejoined its fellow on the other side, and the two of
them began to jangle happily together once again.
The German armies that swept over the Low
Countries and northern France in June 1940 overran the American embassies in the
capitals of the respective countries, cutting for a time all normal
communications with the outside world. For some time neither Washington nor the
Berlin embassy was able to establish telegraphic or telephonic communication
with those missions or to find out what had happened to them and their
personnel. But the German military authorities agreed to permit an officer of
the Berlin embassy to proceed personally to the cities in question, by whatever
transportation he could find, and to establish contact with the remaining
American personnel. I was designated to perform this duty. Here: excerpts from
my personal accounts, written at the time, of the visits to The Hague and to
Paris. The reader should bear in mind that in both those places military
operations had just barely ended. The German forces were still in strict
military occupation of the areas they had overrun. There was scarcely any
communication with the outside world.
Berlin shortly before one o’clock on the newly revived express train
to The Hague. Prisoners, probably Polish, were working in the fields
between Berlin and Hanover. The sun beat hard on the flat, treeless
fields, and the armed guards kept the prisoners lined up in neat,
Beyond Hanover we began to encounter long trains of boxcars with fresh
prisoners of war, presumably from this western front. The only
openings for light and air were little apertures cut high up, near the
ends of the cars, and through these one could see the crowded heads,
the pale faces, and the bewildered eyes that stared, full of boredom
and homesickness, out over the cold severity of the north German
the border two trainloads of 88, complete with motor vehicles,
anti-aircraft guns, and field kitchens on flat cars, were waiting on a
siding. Here, in contrast to the prisoners’ cars, the sliding doors
of the boxcars were thrown open; the soldiers, crowding the doorways,
all looking very much alike, staring at our luxurious train, and
devoured the newspapers and magazines that some of the passengers
tossed to them.
was little damage visible in Holland, at least in the district through
which we passed. Now and then there was a burnt-out farmhouse or a
gutted warehouse along the tracks. But everything had already been
thoroughly cleaned up with true Dutch neatness, and the bridge across
the Ijssel, blown up by the retreating Dutch, had already been
repaired sufficiently by the Germans to permit our heavy train to
crawl over it.
the time we reached Deventer, it was dark, and the blinds had to be
pulled in the cars to observe the laws of the blackout. I sat through
the rest of the evening listening to a conversation between a smug
Nazi businessman and a successful Dutch fifth-columnist. I had to grip
the cushion of the first-class compartment to keep from butting in and
attempting to blast some of the complacency and hypocrisy out of the
conversation. The German, cold and pompous, merely reechoed the
Voelkischer Beobachter editorials and was scarcely worth annoying. But
the Dutchman, who had a keen, subtle intelligence and a fine command
of language, put my reserve to a hard test. Professing understanding
for National Socialist ideals, he told the German of Dutch tradition
and of the bourgeois conservatism of the Netherlands and pointed out
regretfully how hard it would be to train Dutch youth, who had only a
small country to fall back on and no great conquests to look forward
to, to be National Socialists.
minister, who had heard of my approach over the radio from New York,
met me at the station and took me to his home. There I bore the
initial outburst of his fiery resentment (partially, but only
partially, justified) at being left incommunicado for so long a time.
I was then packed away, after several glasses of excellent champagne,
into a comfortable bed and a slumber that lasted well into the next
15, 1940; The Hague
misty English rain, smelling of spongy meadows and of the nearby
sea-sifted down through the great lime trees I onto the cobblestone
streets of The Hague.
the afternoon I went for a long walk. The house-fronts of the town,
prim and well proportioned, breathed Puritanism and a solid,
unostentatious prosperity. The sense of formality was so overpowering
that I could only envisage generations of guests arriving for tea and
being scrutinized with chilly suspicion by the servants for their
social qualifications. This was obviously a country where no grown-up
who did not walk the primrose path could lay claim to warmth or
forgiveness or tenderness. But civilization it was indeed.
I walked out to Scheveningen, getting thoroughly drenched in the
process. A half a gale was blowing from the northwest. The great
breakers were fighting their way in onto the sands in a melee of foam.
The rain-swept boardwalk was deserted; and out at sea, in those
mine-infested waters, no vessels moved.
The electric railway station was dark and empty. I was not sure at
first that the trains were running. In the guardroom a few German
soldiers sat drinking beer, and an ugly waitress chucked one of them
under the chin. On the train back to The Hague my only fellow
passengers were four little Dutch school children, who chattered
cheerfully, impervious to the gray day, the rain-streaked windows, the
deserted places, and all the ruin.
train deposited us at a big station somewhere in the eastern part of
the city. It took me nearly an hour to find the legation again. The
search led through miles of sober streets, across bridges, along quiet
canals, through shady little squares. I watched the sturdy, impassive,
stubborn people trundling their bicycles and pushing their barges.
Their fidelity to habit and tradition was so strong that it seemed as
though nothing could ever change them. But try as I might,
could see little but ruin and decline ahead for most of them if
Germany won the war. What could Germany give this country economically
to replace her lost position as a center for the colonial empire or as
a transit point for overseas trade? These provinces, like Norway and
Denmark, lived largely off their overseas connections. They were
Europe’s windows to the outside world. But would a Europe dominated
by Germany, confined to a continental, autarchic economic policy,
least in its northern sections—of
all its colonial empires, a Europe which had killed the great economic
vortex of England off its own coast—would
such a Europe need much in the way of windows to the outside world?
Rotterdam would remain as a transit harbor, yes. But that alone,
together with the growing of some flowers and vegetables, would
scarcely suffice to maintain the dense population and the high
standard of living of these water-bound provinces.
One could only expect that to the spiritual misery attendant upon the
destruction of a great culture and a great tradition there would be
added the misery of foreign exploitation and economic decline, and
that some day large parts of these
Dutch cities, sinking back into the swamps from which they had been so
proudly and so competently erected, would become merely a curiosity
for the edification of future generations of German tourists and would
perhaps help to give the latter a sense of appreciation—tardy
and helpless appreciation—for
the values their forefathers had so lightheartedly destroyed.
16, 1940; The Hague
took another long walk this morning, only to hear a German military
band playing on a square to a sizable audience of placid, politely
applauding Dutchmen, and to see a place, only a block or two from the
legation, where bombs had wiped out most of the inside of a city
In the afternoon E. drove me around in his car. First we went over to
a small nearby town, to see our consul at Rotterdam, who had had his
office and home destroyed in the bombing and had taken temporary
quarters there. We found him at home, and had drinks with him. The
room was opened completely on one side, toward the garden. There the
rain drizzled onto the rich grass and a little weed-covered canal, and
everything was very Dutch and sad and peaceful. Across the canal, a
stream of people passed on bicycles, and a beautiful copper beech
shimmered in the rain.
From there we drove to Rotterdam. We came into town
along a normal city street, with shops open, trams running, crowds of
busy people on the sidewalks. Suddenly, with as little transition as
though someone had performed the operation with a gigantic knife, the
houses stopped and there began a wide-open field of tumbled bricks and
rubbish. Here and there a wall or even the gutted framework of a house
remained, but in most places there was only a gray plain of
devastation. The main streets leading through this great ruined area were left untouched. Trams and motorcars ran on them as
usual, and the unfathomable Dutch wheeled along on their bicycles as
though nothing unusual had occurred. At one of the main corners of the
city, traffic was still fairly thick, but not a building was left
standing anywhere near. The impression gained was that it was a
crossing out somewhere in the country, between fields that had been
used as dumping grounds for debris and refuse.
striking of all, apart from the ghastly scope of the destruction (the
number of houses destroyed must have run into thousands) was the utter
absence of transitions. Where bombs had not fallen, everything seemed
in perfect order. Where they had fallen, there was simply nothing left
at all. I saw a shop doing business and people living in a house
on one side of which there was a perfectly normal city scene and on
the other side of which, beginning right at the side of the house,
there stretched nothing but a desert of bleached, smoking debris as
far as the eye could see…
drove back along the broad highway from Rotterdam to The Hague, where
the German transport planes had landed on that first morning of the
invasion. The hedges were damaged in many spots where the big machines
had swung off the road to check their momentum. At the entrance to the
airport near The Hague, a crowd of people were leaning on their
bicycles and staring through the fence at some smoldering debris
beside the gutted administration building. We too stopped to look, but
an infuriated air force lieutenant screamed at the sentry to make the
Americans move on, and we obediently took our departure.
up early in the morning, to take a six o’clock train back to Berlin.
The five-hour trip across occupied Holland, in the dead hours of
Sunday morning, was very dull indeed. It was still raining; the towns
were empty; one had a feeling of the world’s being forsaken by
everyone but the cows. I read the German paper, pondered gloomily the
propaganda patter about the “senseless resistance” of the Dutch,
and reflected that if there were anything in this war that had made
any sense to me at all, it was the resistance that had produced the
ruins of Rotterdam.
2, 1940; Brussels, Paris
morning, since offers of free rides were still not forthcoming from
the Germans, B. offered me one of his cars, together with the
requisite quantity of gasoline; and at exactly 2 P.M. I set forth from
his country place near Waterloo in a little Chevrolet bound for Paris.
I had with me one of the American ambulance drivers, who was trying to
get down to Paris to recover his clothes. Warned that the intervening
country had been reduced by the fighting to a state of desolation
which made it as uncharitable to travelers as a desert, we were armed
with a bottle of drinking-water and some chocolate, to keep us alive
in case we broke down on the way.
devastation, especially south of the old Belgian frontier, was indeed
formidable. All the towns were damaged; and certain large ones,
particularly Valenciennes and Cambrai, were completely gutted,
deserted, and uninhabitable. Here the road led through streets where
the house facades were standing on both sides; but back of the
facades, visible through the gaping, pane-less windows, there was
wreckage and ashes and debris. In spots the odor of decomposing
corpses still stole out to the streets to tell its grim message to the
outside world. These communities seemed to have been entirely vacated,
probably at the insistence of the military authorities, by any
inhabitants who might have escaped destruction in the bombardment.
They were shut off and guarded by German sentries, probably to prevent
pillaging; and it affected me strangely to see these inscrutable,
weather-beaten German sentries, standing guard there over their own
handiwork of destruction. As though it mattered now who stood before
these shattered homes and these stinking corpses! As though this
tangled litter of half-destroyed human belongings had any more value
when life and hope had already been destroyed!
were laboriously making their way back northwards, in search of their
homes. Most were traveling on the great two-wheeled horse-drawn
cart of the French peasant, which could accommodate a whole family and
many of its belongings. Some were on bicycles. Some pushed baby
buggies with a few parcels of belongings on them. Their faces were
unforgettable, stripped of all pretense, of all falseness, of all
vanity, of all self-consciousness, seared with fatigue and fear and
saw a young girl bouncing along on top of one of the carts. Her dress
was torn and soiled. She had probably not had her clothes off, or been
able to wash, for days. She was resting her chin in her hand and
staring fixedly down at the road. All the youth had gone out of her
face. There was only a bitterness too deep for complaint, a wondering
too intense for questions. What would be her reaction to life after
this? Just try to tell her of liberalism and democracy, of progress,
of ideals, of tradition, of romantic love; see how far you get. What
is going to be her impression of humanity? Do you think she’s going
to come out of it a flaming little patriot? She saw the complete moral
breakdown and degradation of her own people. She saw them fight with
each other and stumble over each other in their blind stampede to get
away and to save their possessions before the advancing Germans. She
saw her own soldiers, routed, demoralized, trying to push their way
back through the streams of refugees on the highways. She saw her own
people pillaging and looting in a veritable orgy of dissolution as
they fled before the advancing enemy; possibly she had joined in the
looting herself. She saw these French people in all the ugliness of
panic, defeat, and demoralization.
Germans, on the other hand, she saw as disciplined, successful,
self-confident. Their soldiers were sun-tanned, fit and good-humored.
She saw them giving food and water to refugees at the crossroads,
establishing camps and first-aid stations, transporting the old and
the sick in their great Diesel trucks and trailers, guarding against
pillaging. What soil here for German propaganda, what thorough
ploughing for the social revolution which National Socialism carries
in its train.
we approached Senlis, we went through a section where the road was
lined for miles with litter abandoned by the French. It seemed to be
mostly paper and clothing. Almost every inch of the ground was covered
with it. I could explain the paper, which consisted largely of empty
cartridge boxes. The clothing remains a mystery to this time, unless
it was taken off of the dead and wounded.
one place we saw a field where the Germans had corralled hundreds of
stray or abandoned horses. They had some Allied prisoners, mounted,
the suburbs of Paris there were a few people; but the streets looked
no less normal than those of Brussels. As we drove down the rue
Lafayette, the passers-by became fewer and fewer. By the time we
reached the Opera, the streets were practically empty. The city was
simply dead. Policemen stood listlessly on the corners, but there was
no traffic to direct and no pedestrians to guard. At the Cafe de la
Paix six German officers sat at an outside table. They looked lonely
sitting there with the empty cafe behind them and the empty cold
street before them—no passers-by to watch; no other guests to
support them; no one but themselves to witness their triumph.
The Place de la Concorde was as dead as a village square at dawn on a
rainy Sunday. There was no flag or shield on the American embassy. The
big iron gate was closed. I went to the side door and rang. A night
watchman, who viewed me with some suspicion, told me that the
ambassador and Murphy (his deputy) had left for Clermont, where the
new French government was. He helped me to get through a telephone
call to B., who was in charge. B. asked me to come over for supper.
I dropped my ambulance driver and my baggage at the Hotel Bristol.
This building had been appropriated as a place of refuge for the
remaining Americans. Much of the hotel personnel was missing; the
whole place had a makeshift atmosphere; but the Americans had
succeeded in keeping the Germans out and were pleased enough with the
home was in the Etoile district. The streets around there gave the
impression of an abandoned city. Houses were boarded up. The stillness
was oppressive. Across from B.'s house the German army had occupied a
building; and while we talked in his living room, we could hear the
clatter of sentry boots against the pavement, echoing among the
houses. It was after the ten o’clock curfew when I drove the
car to the embassy and then walked back through the totally deserted
streets to the hotel. The sad Paris policemen and the German sentries
stared at the unaccustomed sight of a pedestrian and were too
surprised to remonstrate. The individual at the desk in the Bristol
was no less amazed to have anyone demanding entrance at that
unseasonable hour, and he unbolted his doors with all the ceremony of
one opening a besieged citadel.
the hotel the ambulance driver and I, feeling much too near to the end
of the world to think of sleep, cracked out a bottle of rye. We were
joined by our next-door neighbor, female and no longer entirely young.
She was a true product of Parisian America and was accepting her
privations with such excellent good humor that she kept us in gales of
laughter with the account of her experiences.
3, 1940; Paris
the morning driving around town looking up friends of friends, none of
whom were there. I wondered about the reactions of the Germans. I saw
their officers in the restaurants, trying so desperately to be genteel
when there was nobody to be genteel before. I heard that Goebbels was
at the Ritz and thought how different that forsaken square, the Place
Vendome, must have seemed from the glamour and luxury of that place as
he had pictured it. I was told that the Germans were making efforts to
reopen the Casino de Paris for the benefit of their troops, but
couldn’t do so because all the British girls were gone and the
French girls, if any could be found, were too individualistic to keep
time in a chorus.
struggled all day to find a metaphor for what had happened. Could one
not say to the Germans that the spirit of Paris had been too delicate
and shy a thing to stand their domination and had melted away before
them just as they thought to have it in their grasp? Was there not
some Greek myth about the man who tried to ravish the goddess, only to
have her turn to stone when he touched her? That is literally what has
happened to Paris. When the Germans came, the soul simply went out of
it; and what is left is only stone. So long as they stay (and it will
probably be a long time) it will remain stone. Their arrival turned
the walls of a living city into the cold stones of historical
monuments. And the beauties of the city had already, after a
fortnight’s disassociation from their own soul, begun to look
faintly shabby, useless, and fantastic, like Versailles or
Fontainebleau—as though they expected at any moment to be roped off
and placarded and shown to tourists by guides for the rest of time.
short, the Germans had in their embrace the pallid corpse of Paris.
They will now perhaps deceive themselves into believing that the city
never had a soul. That will be the most comforting conclusion for them
There follows an excerpt from a letter written to
my wife from Berlin, shortly before Pearl Harbor and my own internment by the
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21, 1941; Berlin
general, life in Berlin has been much as you knew it. The major change
has been the wearing of the stars by the Jews. That is a fantastically
barbaric thing. I shall never forget the faces of people in the subway
with the great yellow star sewed onto their overcoats, standing, not
daring to sit down or to brush against anybody, staring straight ahead
of them with eyes like terrified beasts—nor the sight of little
children running around with those badges sewn on them. As far as I
could see, the mass of the public was shocked and troubled by the
measure, and such demonstrations as were provoked were mostly ones of
friendliness and consideration (for the victims). Probably as a result
of this fact, the remaining Jews are now being deported in large
batches, and very few more stars are to be seen.
With my love to all of you, George