Some things never change

The following is my translation of Chapter 10 of Oskar Maria Graf’s autobiographical novel, We Are Prisoners. Published in 1926, it recounts events just before the First World War. And yet it all seems strangely contemporary. Graf’s comrade “Schorsch” is Georg Schrimpf, who later became one of Germany’s leading expressionist painters and an illustrator for the left-communist reviews, Die Aktion and Der Sturm. I aim to publish a new translation of the entire novel later this year.


The sky was deep blue and seemed tremendously near when we woke up. The hotel courtyard was strangely quiet and reminded me more of a monastery than a guesthouse. In its centre, a dilapidated fountain reared up, gently purring and splashing. The tendrils of wild grapevines climbed up the walls. Open corridors connected the stone stairwells running around the hotel floors. This meant you had to enter the courtyard to access the hotel. —

We ate what was left of the food we had brought for the journey, went below to the porter, collected our baggage, paid and went out to the street.

“We now have precisely four francs.” said Schorsch. We weren’t bothered. We felt indescribably at peace with ourselves. —

Life itself was clad in a richly coloured dress, which made us feel at home. Pretty, tanned Italian girls scurried past, the clumsy trams hummed peacefully along the narrow streets, coarse-looking men leaned broad-shouldered at the street corners. The shopfronts had a blissfully bright and open appearance and the sun, high in the sky, shone in splendour over everything. —

We wandered deeper into the town and sat down on a park bench in the Piazza Grande, where we dozed off. A shabby-looking man came up to us and said something like: “Papiero, Cartonaggia?” We thought he was a wandering journeyman who wanted to join us, and I immediately started talking to him in a mish-mash of Munich dialect and scraps of Italian: “Ah! Lazzaroni too! Niente, not us! We are resting here and then we’re off to Brione to meet some friends.”

The man now pulled out his police badge and said: “Polizia!” We understood at once. He also gesticulated wildly with his arms and made it clear that we had to follow him. So, we followed him.

“Ah,” I said to Schorsch with a malicious smile “So this is what goes on in free Switzerland. Aha!”

We plodded on mechanically. The sun shone and there was a clear blue sky above us. Everything was multi-coloured and warm, beautiful and new, apart from this sleazy dog who was arresting us. You meet his type all over the world, I thought. It is all the same, whether you are in Munich or in Switzerland.

At the police station they were most interested in how much money we had. Curiously, nobody asked for identity papers, and that was a relief, because we had not bothered with these in our hurry to leave. I possessed a bill of lading that had been stamped very many times, a Bavarian certificate of residence, and a notification of discharge from Karlsruhe General Hospital in the name of my brother Maurus. I suspected we’d be put in solitary confinement and – because Schorsch had already mentioned this possibility – that they would dump us over the border. But they could only speak a few words of German and did not seem to be taking the matter seriously. A short, fat man on a revolving chair flipped through a dictionary, searched and searched, before finally reading out loud, “Un-gefähr?”

His speech was rapid and muddled, and we simply answered again and again: “Not Lazzaroni!” We finally told him where our comrades were living and were dismissed.

“I suppose it is a bit freer than it is with us! … That’s fine with me!” I exclaimed with satisfaction, as we left the gloomy building. —

Going up the hill above Minusio towards Brione, a man, who looked like a gypsy, strode towards us.

“That’s Theo!” said Schorsch and shouted the name out loud. He laughed and came up to us beaming and open-eyed. In fact, it was our comrade Theo from the Munich “Action” group. He had fled from Munich when he got called up for military service, and was leading a natural life here, more or less according to anarchistic principles.

Apart from him, another three comrades were there. We were delighted and hurriedly told him about what had happened to us. Slowly we climbed higher and higher. The flat house roofs of Locarno and Minusio sank further and further beneath the treetops. The lake stretched out, broad and shimmering. A steamboat cruised lazily across the water. The flat, square houses of the villages on the far shore stood out in the crystalline air and the softly rounded loins of the Italian foothills undulated peacefully in the sky …

Theo took us to his abode and fetched the other comrades. His girlfriend Grete gave us something to eat. We decided to go and stay at the Christian colony, “Love”, whose members Theo knew. It was a modern house, built like a villa, with a vineyard and many vegetable beds. A pious community lived here according to Christian principles. The Elder greeted us gently and provided us with a room for ten franks per month. We brought in our luggage and settled in. Meantime it was evening.

Feeling dead tired but liberated, we lay down on the mattresses. When we had been lying there a short time, we suddenly heard a fussy whisper behind the partition. We listened more attentively and looked around the room, which was really a boarded cubicle. Behind the partition that separated us from the adjoining cubicle, there was suddenly a scratching sound, as though a cat was sharpening its claws. It gave us the creeps. The room was lit up by a full moon. Above us, we noticed a metal-plated hole in the wall, which had probably once housed the fluepipe. I nudged Schorsch, and whispered to him softly: “Can you hear it?” He nodded. We listened again and for some reason we fixed our attention on the hole in the ceiling, as that seemed to be where the whispering and scratching came from. Then, all of a sudden, a face appeared in the opening. We saw it clearly. Then another face appeared and disappeared. There was more whispering, and again a face appeared. We stayed still, but we were ready for a fight. Involuntarily, I thought of the scary story about the Spessart Inn and similar goings-on. And because gruesome stories had always fascinated me, it was natural for me to imagine all kinds of nonsense.

I crept closer to Schorsch and breathed into his ear: “Nice people, these Christians! Let’s go and have it out with them! No messing about!”

What business did these blighters have in watching us at night, why were they whispering, and what were they talking about? They must have been crooks hiding behind their Christian masks, or – more probably, as our comrades had told us about spiritualism – they thought we were ghosts. We were very tired and gradually got terribly angry about these scoundrels who would not let us sleep. I nudged Schorsch again, and whispered softly: “Come on, let’s get up and make all kinds of mysterious signs.” We sprung out of bed at the same time and started making an unholy row. We recited mystical verses, rhapsodized over the moon, knelt like Muslims and went about like ghosts. Finally we stripped naked, danced and made incantations, without taking any notice of what was going on in the hole. And just as intended – the noises diminished, the whispering ceased, and no face reappeared. It became quiet. Laughing, we got back on our mattresses. Aha! We thought, though we were not really sure why.

Finally we fell asleep. The next day we told our comrades what had happened. They just said the people in the Christian colony were weirdos, rather confused in their ideas, but our comrades did not know anything more specific. They did tell  us that sometimes they held spiritualist seances and belonged to a sect.

We climbed up a mountain and cut down stout cudgels, which we took to bed, and we listened again. Sure enough, the whispering and spying did start up once more. But then it suddenly stopped for a while. Quickly, and in unison, we threw our cudgels at the wall with all our might, then lay still and listened intently while pretending to snore, as though deep in sleep.

It worked. First it was deathly quiet, then the faces reappeared in the hole; the eyes stupefied with terror. We stifled our laughter. There was an excited chirruping above, then we heard a door open and there was a knock.

We were ready for anything. Nevertheless we called out fractiously, as if we had been woken from a deep sleep. “Yes! … What’s up?!”

“Something has happened,” someone whimpered. We crawled out of our beds, grabbed our cudgels and hid them under our bedclothes. Three men stood there in their long nightshirts, trembling with fear. One of them was flashing a light in the corridor. They wanted to start a search. Grumpily, we said that they should spare us such idiocies and leave us in peace. We went back to bed. We were secretly in fits of laughter. We heard them shuffling around like ghosts for a while, then we finally went back to sleep. But from this point on, there was no more whispering and gawking through the flue-hole It happened occasionally, but we got used to it and let those people do as they liked.

Now we saw another ghost every evening and often roused the entire household. Actually, a white cat was prowling about; a nightly phantom that wandered through the vines. But we did not just want to create a bit of excitement for its own sake. We were stirring things up with calculated intent. We had no money and did not know how we were going to pay for our accommodation. Each time the colony’s Elder approached us we got the jitters. We could see what was coming in his eyes, but we covered it up by telling him the most fantastic stories. The good man could hardly get a word in edgewise; we were the most daring and inventive fibbers. Shaking his head, the master of the house withdrew.

No money! So, to work! I shuddered at the thought of the mill.

Apart from us, our circle of comrades included another six people: Gobmaier, a genuine son of Munich with some rather peculiar and confused ideas about housing settlements, his wife and young lad. Then there was Jenke, a painter and decorator from Saxony, Giuseppe, a locksmith from Munich, good-natured, with a military bearing, and a permanently awkward smile on his lips. And lastly, Theo with his Grete. Each of them had built their own dwelling and only worked now and again, so they could devote their leisure time to their own free development. Actually, they were all people with an inner calling, one could even say they had an artistic bent. What mattered was the inner spirit, and the true task of a genuine anarchist meant: To shape his outward life according to the law of his innermost desires, in the utmost freedom, without limitation, and as far as possible untouched by “culture”.

Theo was the leading intellectual. There was much discussion. We made plans for a future anarchist settlement in Brazil.

Gobmaier was the most practical of all. He was a paperhanger by trade, but there was nothing he could not do, and he regarded the ability of a person to produce all of life’s necessities for himself as the mark of progress: a person should build his own house, make his own clothes, cultivate the land. He worked incessantly, and in his leisure hours he wrote naive verses about Lago Maggiore, poems on freedom and ideas. Jenke was a radical vegetarian who abandoned himself to nature, painted miniatures and justified vegetarianism in his diary. He was very gentle and spent a lot of time observing his theories on digestion and trying to make them plausible to others. He was almost fanatical about this, even if fanaticism seemed ludicrous in such a gentle soul. When we visited him, he read passages from Nietzsche or Forel. But everything came back to vegetarianism. Once, when I read Zarathustra’s “Night Song” aloud and with great feeling, he said, quite ecstatically: “No question about it, the man was a vegetarian!”

“Very nice,” I once said, when he showed me his little pictures. That made him angry; he showed me to the door and started to expound on nature to me. He placed his hands in front of his eyes like blinkers and said in his Munich dialect, as he looked out at the landscape: “There, I see blue, don’t I, and that’s how I paint it. That’s my special talent. It’s a gift of nature.”

I nodded repeatedly. When we went back into the house, he declared: “You just have to be a bit skilful to do that kind of thing.” Giuseppe, who lived with him, took no notice of this. In fact it seemed to me that he was secretly having a laugh. He was generally austere and always working on something practical.

The ties of comradeship were loose. Everyone lived for himself. We were held together only by our convictions. There was no place for anarchists in countries with governments, in cities and in this civilization. That meant starting from scratch somewhere or other, where absolute freedom made such a life possible, where such communities could be created. For this reason the scheme to emigrate to Brazil became more urgent with every passing day. We got together every evening and read and discussed Kropotkin, Landauer and Proudhon. It often got heated, but we understood one another. Everyone worked during the day.

We had no money. The landlord pressed us. I cursed all of Switzerland. In Ascona there was work with a man called Gräser. But he paid no wages. He just provided food and accommodation and rejected all contact with “culture”. There were quite enough settlements of that kind. This was profitable for people who already had some property, sometimes highly profitable, because deserters for example, or Russian revolutionaries, were forced to work for these drones without wages.

There was every type of human being there: revolutionaries, vegetarians and painters from every point on the compass, disciples of open-air health regimens, and lastly writers and devotees of nature with long hair, who wore no clothes except a shirt and sackcloth. Some full-blooded vegans had a large settlement at Verita, known as “The Blueberry”, where they proclaimed the cult of naturism, free love and a “new humanity”. They stuck propaganda sheets written in verse form on all the trees, inviting people to join them, but woe betide anyone who smelt of soap, or brought any, or worst of all, smoked …

Our need for money became more and more acute. We worked a few days for Gräser. Then a master decorator in Locarno gave us some painting jobs. Nanndl sent money. So we got by.

“To hell with this life,” I moaned one day during a discussion. “It’s just the same as anywhere else.” Schorsch moved out and built himself a couple of rooms in a mill, planted vegetables and finally found a job as a confectioner in Locarno. Suddenly, I hated the whole set-up; I called Jenke a “grass-muncher and digestive-tract revolutionist” and shut myself off. I did not like this placid life and all the discussion. I spent my last francs buying a supply of groceries and showed my face no more. I lay on my mattress all day, reading and writing. Sometimes I tramped through the surroundings alone.

One day, as I was getting on the bus in Ascona to go to Locarno, a man sat next to me who seemed very familiar. The Leipzig Anarchist had published his picture a short while ago.

A French-speaking companion was talking with him. So I could observe him at my leisure. The man was small and had a long, well-kempt grey beard, which covered half of his chest. His eyes moved restlessly behind his glasses, and his entire face was thickset, with sharply protruding cheekbones. Only his forehead rose smoothly in the shadow of his hat.

The pair of them got out in Locarno. I followed them. I got closer and closer to them. The little, grey-bearded man grew nervous. I came right up to him and tapped him from behind on the shoulder, causing him to turn around in amazement. He looked rather confused.

“Excuse me, but have I the honour of addressing Prince Peter Kropotkin?” I asked, rather awkwardly, and with a slight laugh. The man nodded amicably and scrutinized me briefly. At the time, I wore only trousers and shirt, always going barefoot, and had long, flowing hair.

“Excuse me,” I repeated rather hastily, “my name is Graf. I am a socialist and saw your photograph in the Leipzig Anarchist.”

“A young comrade,” Kropotkin now said to his companion, introducing me. We gradually got into conversation. I praised Kropotkin’s books and told him about the movement in Germany. The two of them listened with interest.

“Do you write for socialist newspapers?” asked the Prince, when I made a passing mention of my literary efforts, and he gazed at me.

“No, just for comic papers,” I replied. The two of them cast their eyes over me again and smiled a little. Nobody knew what to talk about next. I felt uncomfortable. I said something about my German comrades in Brione and said goodbye where the road turned off.

“Hopefully we will see each other often,” I said as we shook hands, then ran off in a hurry. I reached Brione breathless and, in a state of feverish excitement, I told my comrades what had happened. They were all in raptures. They wanted to organize a ceremony of homage and visit the Prince immediately.

“That sounds like the German Veterans’ Association celebrating the anniversary of Bismarck’s death,” I protested. That hit home. We quarrelled. They felt offended for some reason and, rather doggedly, they tried to justify themselves. “Honouring intellectual achievements, which can be of great service to all of humanity in the future, is a very different matter from the deferential cult of royalty and rank that is instilled in people, which does nobody any good and just stupefies the masses,” Theo argued again and again. He went on: “If we feel compelled to honour Kropotkin openly, I would say we are doing this almost spontaneously. It’s just common sense.”

“The German Veterans’ Association does things spontaneously, too,” I said maliciously.

“Sophist,” shouted Theo, casting angry glances at me.

“In the past the people had the Kaiser or some such creature. Now you have set up another God for yourselves,” I said, standing up, and added wryly: “It’s always the same story, men must have some authority, or else they perish.” We parted; half divided by an invisible barrier.

German revolutionaries are an odd bunch, I thought, as I strode through the dark; they are like eternally craggy twenty-year-olds with their stodgy idols, Don Quixote come to life, with the everlasting urge to become a Nazarene.

A heavy fragrance hung in the night air. The moon heaved through fleeting clouds. Deep below, Locarno was speckled with light, reflected in the pale lake, which stretched out peacefully like a silvery-blue rug, and the sky above was infinitely distant.

Shortly before I fell asleep, I sat up suddenly and said out loud to myself: “It’s all madness! I have to get out! It’s all filth.”


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