21 July 2011
Every now and then, in my research, I find something surprising and shocking.
I’ve recently read a book first published in 1925, by Katharine Tynan on Life in the Occupied Area. I wanted to know if her view of life in the occupied parts of Germany after the First World War was similar to those given in other contemporary accounts, such Eric Gedye’s The Revolver Republic, and Violet Markham’s A Woman’s Watch on the Rhine. It was and it wasn’t.
Katharine Tynan was an Anglo-Irish writer, a prolific novelist and friend of the poet, W B Yeats. She was born in 1861 and wrote over 100 novels before she died in 1931. In 1922 she and her 21-year old daughter went to live for a little over a year in Cologne, which was then occupied by the British. She didn’t explain why she did so, but her son, Pat, had been one of the first British troops who 'made the trek' into Germany after the Armistice in November 1918 and we can assume she wanted to be near him. In any case, it seems she went as a civilian, not officially as part of the occupation.
She loved her time in Cologne, writing about the flowers in the parks and gardens and how religious the people were…
'You may walk in beauty and have beauty as far as any reasonable eye will wish to see, and if you must look beyond, why, the church-towers of Cologne dominate all the chimneys.'
Only once in Italy did she 'get the same sense of religion' as she did in Cologne.
She described how beautiful and well-behaved the children were…
'Looking at those children could one wish one of them away? They are beautiful children – as beautiful as those St. Augustine saw in the market-place, and always beautifully clean and well-kept…'
In the parks where they played: 'these children look and never touch. Yet they are not automata … They are as fearless as sparrows.'
Her first excursion away from the city to the surrounding countryside was like a trip to fairyland...
'It was an exquisite day. As we went home under the green aisles, [the trees along the roadside] by the sleeping villages, the long line of white posts marking the road brilliant in the head-lights, it was too fine for anything but Fairyland.'
She was surprised above all by the friendliness of the German people, which she found 'strikes you at first as unnatural.'
'We had come to Germany, as most people of the Allied countries must come with an expectation of enmity, open or concealed … The enmity was strangely, inexplicably absent, although we still felt that it must be there and kept saying to each other, as had been often said to us since: "You know they must hate us."'
'At first we certainly thought the friendliness too good to be true, but one got over that. A thousand kindnesses could not be prompted by policy – not the children who brought their puppies in the streets for us to handle and fondle; not the women who stood to smile at us; not the people who laughed at your ignorance of German, so that you were at least as must exhilarated as they.'
Her experience of meeting and talking to other British people in Cologne, especially the wives of officers in the occupation, made her realise that her views were not shared by all. She attributed this to two things she believed she shared with the Rhinelanders: her Catholic faith and her 'Irish temperament':
'I can believe that few of the British Occupation or the civilians of Cologne got so near the people as we did. It is the kneeling at the same altar that makes all the difference, to say nothing of the fact that there is a certain likeness in temperament between the Irish and the Rhinelander.'
None of this surprised or shocked me. The passage that did came in her description of a summer holiday at a seaside resort on the Baltic coast.
They met an American lady married to a German, with a delightful little boy who was 'fuller of the joy of life than any child I had seen up to then.'
The lady was very kind and helpful and she discussed with her how surprisingly friendly she found the Germans. The American lady replied that: 'The Germans have no hate in their hearts. They are not a hating people.'
But there was one thing the American lady was angry about: 'the use of coloured troops in the French Occupation.'
The Germans, Katharine Tynan wrote: 'regarded their presence as something intolerable and unforgivable, and no wonder,' although she personally had no objection, explaining that the French had 100,000 troops as against 8,000 British. Some were Senegalese from Africa but 'oftener the brown-skinned Algerians or Moors, very picturesque, with beautiful colouring… They are, of course, not a negroid type, but very handsome with fine features.'
Her 'American lady' she wrote, was 'very excited about the dark troops', and here is the passage that really did shock and surprise me: what she reported the American lady said next:
'"It is not Christian," she said vehemently, "It is not Christian. I’ll tell you what we do with the blacks in our country. We pour petrol on them and set them afire."'
I suppose I should have known that racial prejudice was very widespread in the 1920s, not only in Germany, but in the US, Britain and Ireland, even amongst otherwise kindly, sympathetic and well-meaning ladies, such as Katherine Tynan and her American friend. But wasn’t this murder she was talking about?
Katharine Tynan, Life in the Occupied Area (London: Hutchinson, 1925)