SIDELIGHTS ON THE SUPERMEN
XIV—Sidelights on the Supermen. An Interview with General Bernhardi.
He came into my room in that modest, Prussian way that he has, clicking his heels together, his head very erect, his neck tightly gripped in his forty-two centimeter collar. He had on a Pickelhaube, or Prussian helmet, which he removed with a sweeping gesture and laid on the sofa.
So I knew at once that it was General Bernhardi.
In spite of his age he looked—I am bound to admit it—a fine figure of a man. There was a splendid fullness about his chest and shoulders, and a suggestion of rugged power all over him. I had not heard him on the stairs. He seemed to appear suddenly beside me.
“How did you get past the janitor?” I asked. For it was late at night, and my room at college is three flights up the stairs.
“The janitor,” he answered carelessly, “I killed him.”
I gave a gasp.
“His resistance,” the general went on, “was very slight. Apparently in this country your janitors are unarmed.”
“You killed him?” I asked.
“We Prussians,” said Bernhardi, “when we wish an immediate access anywhere, always kill the janitor. It is quicker: and it makes for efficiency. It impresses them with a sense of our Furchtbarkeit. You have no word for that in English, I believe?”
“Not outside of a livery stable,” I answered.
There was a pause. I was thinking of the janitor. It seemed in a sort of way—I admit that I have a sentimental streak in me—a deplorable thing.
“Sit down,” I said presently.
“Thank you,” answered the General, but remained standing.
“All right,” I said, “do it.”
“Thank you,” he repeated, without moving.
“I forgot,” I said. “Perhaps you can’t sit down.”
“Not very well,” he answered; “in fact, we Prussian officers”—here he drew himself up higher still—“never sit down. Our uniforms do not permit of it. This inspires us with a kind of Rastlosigkeit.” Here his eyes glittered.
“It must,” I said.
“In fact, with an Unsittlichkeit—an Unverschamtheit—with an Ein-fur-alle-mal-un-dur-chaus—”
“Exactly,” I said, for I saw that he was getting excited, “but pray tell me, General, to what do I owe the honour of this visit?”
The General’s manner changed at once.
“Highly learned, and high-well-born-professor,” he said, “I come to you as to a fellow author, known and honoured not merely in England, for that is nothing, but in Germany herself, and in Turkey, the very home of Culture.”
I knew that it was mere flattery. I knew that in this same way Lord Haldane had been so captivated as to come out of the Emperor’s presence unable to say anything but “Sittlichkeit” for weeks; that good old John Burns had been betrayed by a single dinner at Potsdam, and that the Sultan of Turkey had been told that his Answers to Ultimatums were the wittiest things written since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Yet I was pleased in spite of myself.
“What!” I exclaimed, “they know my works of humour in Germany?”
“Do they know them?” said the General. “Ach! Himmel! How they laugh. That work of yours (I think I see it on the shelf behind you), The Elements of Political Science, how the Kaiser has laughed over it! And the Crown Prince! It nearly killed him!”
“I will send him the new edition,” I said. “But tell me, General, what is it that you want of me?”
“It is about my own book,” he answered. “You have read it?”
I pointed to a copy of Germany and the Next War, in its glaring yellow cover—the very hue of Furchtbarkeit—lying on the table.
“You have read it? You have really read it?” asked the General with great animation.
“No,” I said, “I won’t go so far as to say that. But I have tried to read it. And I talk about it as if I had read it.”
The General’s face fell.
“You are as the others,” he said, “They buy the book, they lay it on the table, they talk of it at dinner,—they say ‘Bernhardi has prophesied this, Bernhardi foresaw that,’ but read it,—nevermore.”
“Still,” I said, “you get the royalties.”
“They are cut off. The perfidious British Government will not allow the treacherous publisher to pay them. But that is not my complaint.”
“What is the matter, then?” I asked.
“My book is misunderstood. You English readers have failed to grasp its intention. It is not meant as a book of strategy. It is what you call a work of humour. The book is to laugh. It is one big joke.”
“You don’t say so!” I said in astonishment.
“Assuredly,” answered the General. “Here”—and with this he laid hold of the copy of the book before me and began rapidly turning over the leaves—“let me set it out asunder for you, the humour of it. Listen, though, to this, where I speak of Germany’s historical mission on page 73,—’No nation on the face of the globe is so able to grasp and appropriate all the elements of culture as Germany is?’ What do you say to that? Is it not a joke? Ach, Himmel, how our officers have laughed over that in Belgium! With their booted feet on the mantelpiece as they read and with bottles of appropriated champagne beside them as they laugh.”
“You are right, General,” I said, “you will forgive my not laughing out loud, but you are a great humorist.”
“Am I not? And listen further still, how I deal with the theme of the German character,—’Moral obligations such as no nation had ever yet made the standard of conduct, are laid down by the German philosophers.’”
“Good,” I said, “gloriously funny; read me some more.”
“This, then, you will like,—here I deal with the permissible rules of war. It is on page 236 that I am reading it. I wrote this chiefly to make laugh our naval men and our Zeppelin crews,—’A surprise attack, in order to be justified, must be made only on the armed forces of the state and not on its peaceful inhabitants. Otherwise the attack becomes a treacherous crime.’ Eh, what?”
Here the General broke into roars of laughter.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Your book ought to sell well in Scarborough and in Yarmouth. Read some more.”
“I should like to read you what I say about neutrality, and how England is certain to violate our strategical right by an attack on Belgium and about the sharp measures that ought to be taken against neutral ships laden with contraband,—the passages are in Chapters VII and VIII, but for the moment I fail to lay the thumb on them.”
“Give me the book, General,” I said. “Now that I understand what you meant by it, I think I can show you also some very funny passages in it. These things, for example, that you say about Canada and the colonies,—yes, here it is, page 148,—’In the event of war the loosely-joined British Empire will break into pieces, and the colonies will consult their own interests,’—excellently funny,—and this again,—’Canada will not permanently retain any trace of the English spirit,’—and this too,—’the Colonies can be completely ignored so far as the European theatre of war is concerned,’—and here again,—’Egypt and South Africa will at once revolt and break away from the empire,’ —really, General, your ideas of the British Colonies are superbly funny. Mark Twain wasn’t a circumstance on you.”
“Not at all,” said Bernhardi, and his voice reverted to his habitual Prussian severity, “these are not jokes. They are facts. It is only through the folly of the Canadians in not reading my book that they are not more widely known. Even as it is they are exactly the views of your great leader Heinrich Bauratze——”
“Who?” I said.
“Heinrich Bauratze, your great Canadian leader——”
“Leader of what?”
“That I do not know,” said Bernhardi. “Our intelligence office has not yet heard what he leads. But as soon as he leads anything we shall know it. Meantime we can see from his speeches that he has read my book. Ach! if only your other leaders in Canada,—Sir Robert Laurier, Sir Osler Sifton, Sir Williams Borden,—you smile, you do not realize that in Germany we have exact information of everything: all that happens, we know it.”
Meantime I had been looking over the leaves of the book.
“Here at least,” I said, “is some splendidly humorous stuff,—this about the navy. ‘The completion of the Kiel Canal,’ you write in Chapter XII, ‘is of great importance as it will enable our largest battleships to appear unexpectedly in the Baltic and in the North Sea!’ Appear unexpectedly! If they only would! How exquisitely absurd——”
“Sir!” said the General. “That is not to laugh. You err yourself. That is Furchtbarkeit. I did not say the book is all humour. That would be false art. Part of it is humour and part is Furchtbarkeit. That passage is specially designed to frighten Admiral Jellicoe. And he won’t read it! Potztausand, he won’t read it!”—repeated the general, his eyes flashing and his clenched fist striking in the air—“What sort of combatants are these of the British Navy who refuse to read our war-books? The Kaiser’s Heligoland speech! They never read a word of it. The Furchtbarkeit-Proklamation of August,—they never looked at it. The Reichstags-Rede with the printed picture of the Kaiser shaking hands with everybody,—they used it to wrap up sandwiches! What are they, then, Jellicoe and his men? They sit there in their ships and they read nothing! How can we get at them if they refuse to read? How can we frighten them away if they haven’t culture enough to get frightened. Beim Himmel,” shouted the General in great excitement——
But what more he said can never be known. For at this second a sudden catastrophe happened.
In his frenzy of excitement the General struck with his fist at the table, missed it, lost his balance and fell over sideways right on the point of his Pickelhaube which he had laid on the sofa. There was a sudden sound as of the ripping of cloth and the bursting of pneumatic cushions and to my amazement the General collapsed on the sofa, his uniform suddenly punctured in a dozen places.
“Schnapps,” he cried, “fetch brandy.”
“Great Heavens! General,” I said, “what has happened?”
“My uniform!” he moaned, “it has burst! Give me Schnapps!”
He seemed to shrink visibly in size. His magnificent chest was gone. He was shriveling into a tattered heap. He appeared as he lay there, a very allegory and illustration of Prussian Furchtbarkeit with the wind going out of it.
“Fetch Schnapps,”—he moaned.
“There are no Schnapps here,” I said, “this is McGill University.”
“Then call the janitor,” he said.
“You killed him,” I said.
“I didn’t. I was lying. I gave him a look that should have killed him, but I don’t think it did. Rouse yourself from your chair, and call him——”
“I will,” I said, and started up from my seat.
But as I did so, the form of General Bernhardi, which I could have sworn had been lying in a tattered heap on the sofa on the other side of the room, seemed suddenly to vanish from my eyes.
There was nothing before me but the empty room with the fire burned low in the grate, and in front of me an open copy of Bernhardi’s book.
I must,—like many another reader,—have fallen asleep over it.