Think of a typical German soldier in Hitler’s army. You probably picture him as Hollywood portrayed him, and as many GIs found him: grim, relentless, and obedient, with a marked incapacity for independent thought.
A century ago this week, Post readers were getting the same impression of the soldiers in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army. In “Johann Schmidt, Private,” Irvin S. Cobb presented what he considered “a fair and honest likeness” of the men he met while touring the German lines.
For the most part, Cobb wrote, the soldiers of European armies were similar. But a German private’s regimentation and obedience to orders set him apart. Witnessing thousands of these men on the march, Cobb was struck by their uniformity. To the townsfolk of Belgium, the advancing German columns presented “a show the like of which they never saw before”:
What they see is a myriad-legged, gray centipede, which wriggles its way on past them, unendingly. Each section of it, each joint in the weaving gray worm, is exactly like each corresponding segment a mile back or a dozen miles back… There is something unearthly and unhuman about the mechanical precision of the whole thing. …
I never saw a German common soldier, however employed, who did not seem to know exactly what he was doing; and I never saw one who seemed to know why he was doing it. … The order came. Somebody else had thought it out. Somebody else always had thought it out — that was that somebody’s business — not his. He individually had been relieved of the function of thinking any thoughts upon the subject.
The same iron discipline, which ironed the creases out of his back ironed the convolutions out of his brain, in so far as his present job was concerned. It endowed him with steel leg muscles and a wooden headpiece. … I found him fairly well informed, considering his limitations, upon outside matters. Officially and professionally he was a mental blank, and nothing else.
An incidental result was that it deprived him of his sense of humor. He didn’t laugh in public, because it was not set down in the manual that he should laugh. …
He has learned to endure things the mere thought of which a little while ago would have sickened him to the hobs of his soul. … He looks upon the waste and wreckage about him with indifferent eyes. He has learned to care for nothing at all except the cause he serves and the orders he obeys.
He is still the Johann Schmidt who does not know how to disobey. A command comes to him which may be in truth his death warrant. He salutes and heaves up his rifle — that at least is clean and fit for use — and as he starts upon his errand I hear him rumble out the two words with which I shall always associate him: “Ja wohl!”
Fifteen years before Cobb’s article, the Post published “Three Men on Four Wheels,” by British humorist Jerome K. Jerome. In his account of a bicycle tour through Germany, he gave impression of the German people. Like Cobb, and other American and British writers, Jerome found the people of Imperial Germany to be an incredibly regimented people:
The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. … In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well.
Their everlasting teaching is Duty. It is a fine ideal for any people; but before buckling to it one would wish to have a clear understanding as to what this Duty is. The German idea of it would appear to be, “Blind obedience to everything in button.