Main LA Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Labor Action, 18 November 1946


Jack Porter

A Portrait of a Town in Germany


From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 46, 18 November 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We publish below a description of life In a tiny Bavarian hamlet written by a friend recently returned from Germany. His account makes concrete and vivid the general idea of the political and social disintegration of German life as a result of the Nazi reign, the war and the Allied imperialist occupation. It should be remembered that the section of Germany which he describes has always been the most politically backward in Germany. The second half of his article will appear next week.Ed.)


The burgermeister was typical of many appointed by the Americans who overnight installed thousands of powerless officials in the bomb eaten clusters which had once been cities and towns. The burgermeister was appointed by the AMG after a long study of the local population and demonstrated that there was no one in this hamlet of 3,000 both with ability and without the Nazi taint.

So for the first time in the history of Hammelburg, a town founded in the 13th century, a Social Democrat was appointed to the position of burgermeister. Many a monkish skeleton buried in the abbey grounds must have writhed in protest.

The SPD (Social Democratic Party) in Hammelburg had never been able to make any headway against the pre-Hitler Bavarian People’s Party (today succeeded by the Christian Socialist Union), leaders of the villagers so overwhelmingly dominated by the Catholic Church. The towering Gothic church spires of Hammelburg are testimony of the cultural and political backwardness of the Hammelburgers, prize sheep herders of Ober Bavaria. Everything has the aroma of Catholicism.

When relations between Nazi Germany and American imperialism sharpened, Hollywood created a deadly struggle on the screen between the German Catholic Church and the Nazi Party. The number of Catholics incarcerated in the American prison, Camp Hammelburg, for their prominence in the Nazi structure of Hammelburg, punctures this typical Hollywood fiction. Throughout the period of the Nazi nightmare, the priests and monks of Hammelburg prospered and lived peacefully with the military and later the prison camp of the Nazis. The brother of Jacob Kaiser, the present leader of the Christian Socialist Union, is a prominent churchgoer and found no moral problem in running a bookshop that sold the publications of the Hitler dictatorship.

What Was the Attitude of the People?

Physically the town had hardly been touched by the war. Here and there, walls of houses that must have been built in the days of Luther, were scarred by a few bullet holes, but on the whole the town was not wrecked.

The people move around as if by habit or memory. They go about their task of eking out an existence like wooden puppets. The average wage granted by the Americans is $2 to $3 a week and the best jobs are with the nearby American camp where German civilians can sneak out bits of food.

Money carries little power or meaning in Hammelburg. Nearly all the people have been reduced to the same impoverished level, although maintaining themselves by different economic means. Cigarettes, barter, services such as tailoring and shoemaking and food are the real means of exchange.

Many girls indicate their thoughts about the future by flocking around American soldiers, hoping that some day they may marry and escape to America.

Due to the predominance of handicraft, there are no unions in Hammelburg. The unions in other cities have little meaning or immediate value to the workers. Under the decrees of the Military Government, workers cannot negotiate for change of hours, wages or working conditions.

Fundamentally, the cumulative shock of the events of 1918, 1933, 1939 and 1945 has affected the people profoundly. Symptoms of the shock are ever present in their thinking, actions and discussions. It is best shown in the expression “What’s the use! We’ve tried everything and nothing seems to help us." The result has been a cynical approach to politics.

In spite of the world shattering events, the local people still maintain what is derisively dubbed in northern Germany as the Sauerbayern attitude or as Marx phrased it, the “idiocy of rural life.” The few who maintain a less provincial attitude are refugees from bombed cities such as Berlin, Dusseldorf, Munich. They are, however, effectively ostracized and segregated as auslander or city slickers.

Economic Life Is Still Primitive

Economic life, even with the technological achievements of the Nazis, still remains primarily in the craft stage. The medieval heritage is still with the living. The combined effects of the war and the rule of the Americans have pushed the craft functions of the town folk even into greater prominence. Occasional shepherds and their flocks wend their way through the streets. The market place established in feudal days is still the center of town for gossip and the exchange of wares or household effects. An Esso Station in the town (America’s contribution to Germany’s war effort) is an anachronistic intrusion. Quaint Gasthauser (beerhalls) dot the neighborhood and are frequented by everyone, although there is little to offer in vintages.

The American soldiers guarding a prison camp on top of a long winding hill, play an insignificant role in the affairs of the town. Their activities are confined to two or three Gasthauser where they drink themselves into a happy state of mind. The natives avoid the Americans like a plague, though a few desperate persons approach Americans for black market deals or potato schnapps sales.

The soldier understanding no German, creates an American oasis out of the Gasthaus in town and lives culturally on the mere fringes of Hammelburg or for that matter Germany. Any meeting between a Socialist-minded German and a similar minded American is the result of a prolonged and conscious search.

The GI’s role in Hammelburg is, as it is everywhere in the American zone, one of imperialist arrogance, avarice and hooliganism. Most persons in Hammelburg, Social Democrat, Stalinist or otherwise, have only contempt for the conduct of their well fed liberators.

A Gasthaus in Munich once served as the headquarters for Hitler’s early activities. This is understandable for Gasthauser are more than mere drinking places. Their atmosphere combines that of the old Crusader Cafeteria off New York’s Union Square that the radical movement patronized in the early Thirties and the Hotel Algonquin frequented by the writers.

In Hammelburg as in many other German cities and towns, the outlawing of meetings and societies by the American authorities coupled with the physical destruction of homes and public meeting halls has led once again to the resurrection of the Gasthaus as a political and cultural center.

In one corner seated around a table drinking seltzer water are a group of giggling youth. Day after day their only activity during the winter months is to frequent the warm inn. At night they sleep in a barrack recently built in a large store. Most of the boys are either orphans or have been separated from their parents. Some are fortunate enough to receive an allowance from the German Red Cross which permits them to exist in the most frugal way. The others have to scrounge to live.

Their attitude is listless, daily growing more bitter against the Americans. The youngsters are fast on the way to becoming LUMPEN. The outlook for learning a trade or receiving an education is bleak. A new generation is growing, but without any proletarian ballast or roots tying them to any group in Germany.

The others scattered throughout the room are for the most part refugees from the big cities. Unable to make contacts with the neighboring farmers or to possess a truck garden in the back of their dwelling, they are constrained to eat the skimpy, unattractive meal provided by the Gasthaus in exchange for a mark (ten cents) and a ration stamp. After the meal of potato soup and the main plate of potatoes, carrots and beets the tables are cleared away. The patrons linger, reluctant to leave a warm room and radio for their barracks or, if they are lucky, a cold, barely furnished room.

Attitude Toward the Nuremberg Trials

The radio suddenly blares forth with the usual day’s quota of news about the Nuremberg trials. There are smirks exchanged. One Kazetler, as former concentration camp prisoners are known today in Germany, ventures the opinion that the trials are a farce. In a bitter tone, he adds that the men in the dock should have been taken care of long ago. The people can’t live on the trials. What they need he suggests, “is food, jobs and housing.” The others nod in full agreement. Their attitude is typical of Hammelburg and Bavaria. The people complain in private of the meaninglessness of the trials.

The Gasthaus is also the place where the political parties of the town meet. Of the three functioning parties the Communist Party in town is by far the smallest. This is understandable. The German soldier who was in Russia asserts that he saw nothing that he would like to introduce in Germany. Those who were in Berlin at the time of the entry of the Russian army, have brought back tales of horror that are readily accepted.

But their opposition to the German Communist Party is not at all the same simple reactionary point of view that one finds, for instance, in the American Small town. For, except among the more primitive German peasants, one finds a ready receptivity to radical ideas. The objections to the German Communist Party are largely as a result of the behavior of the Russians during the occupation and the support which the German Stalinists gave to that occupation.

(To be continued)

Top of page

Main LA Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 21 July 2020