Three Men on the Bummel – Jerome K Jerome

(More Old Novel perspectives here)

Thoughts on the German character ….

The wikipedia article on this novel notes that at least one of Jerome’s remarks (written in 1900) is remarkably prescient:

Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continues, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.

From Chapter 14:

“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. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well.”




“The Germans are a good people.  On the whole, the best people perhaps in the world; an amiable, unselfish, kindly people.  I am positive that the vast majority of them go to Heaven.  Indeed, comparing them with the other Christian nations of the earth, one is forced to the conclusion that Heaven will be chiefly of German manufacture.  But I cannot understand how they get there.  That the soul of any single individual German has sufficient initiative to fly up by itself and knock at St. Peter’s door, I cannot believe.  My own opinion is that they are taken there in small companies, and passed in under the charge of a dead policeman.

Carlyle said of the Prussians, and it is true of the whole German nation, that one of their chief virtues was their power of being drilled.  Of the Germans you might say they are a people who will go anywhere, and do anything, they are told.  Drill him for the work and send him out to Africa or Asia under charge of somebody in uniform, and he is bound to make an excellent colonist, facing difficulties as he would face the devil himself, if ordered.  But it is not easy to conceive of him as a pioneer.  Left to run himself, one feels he would soon fade away and die, not from any lack of intelligence, but from sheer want of presumption.

The German has so long been the soldier of Europe, that the military instinct has entered into his blood.  The military virtues he possesses in abundance; but he also suffers from the drawbacks of the military training.  It was told me of a German servant, lately released from the barracks, that he was instructed by his master to deliver a letter to a certain house, and to wait there for the answer.  The hours passed by, and the man did not return.  His master, anxious and surprised, followed.  He found the man where he had been sent, the answer in his hand.  He was waiting for further orders.  The story sounds exaggerated, but personally I can credit it.

The curious thing is that the same man, who as an individual is as helpless as a child, becomes, the moment he puts on the uniform, an intelligent being, capable of responsibility and initiative.  The German can rule others, and be ruled by others, but he cannot rule himself.  The cure would appear to be to train every German for an officer, and then put him under himself.  It is certain he would order himself about with discretion and judgment, and see to it that he himself obeyed himself with smartness and precision.

For the direction of German character into these channels, the schools, of course, are chiefly responsible.  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 buttons.”  It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods.  Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him.  When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine”

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