In 1937-38, the Swiss writer and journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach travelled through Germany, present day Poland, the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia and Austria, talking to people she met and listening to their views. She wrote articles for Swiss journals. Some, as this one, were not published in her lifetime. It takes place in Germany in 1937.
The narrow wheels of the cart sink into the sandy path and the horse's hooves make a dull sound. I have accompanied the country doctor on his visits – we have gone to the miller, the forester, to a tenant farm on a landowner's estate and now we're returning to the village.
The duty forester talked about the harshness of the times: ' I was sent this guy', he said, 'in uniform of course, a very young and stupid lad and insolent into the bargain. He knew nothing about forestry, wood or forest management but he said he was a "forestry expert" and he wears a uniform and it was the local councillor who sent him – so clearly he was allowed to do anything. "Replant," he told me, "you have to replant quickly, Germany needs wood, we have to become self sufficient". As if you could order the pine trees to "grow faster, in the Führer's name!"'
The forester scared himself a bit with his own words, but he knows that the doctor is a good man and as for me, I'm not from here – I'm a foreigner. Curiously that seems to give him confidence. 'All of them,' he says to me, 'these gentlemen, the party functionaries with their pretentious titles, they are all good-for-nothings. People who have failed in life, in their profession, even as far back as school – they have not learned anything of worth and now they want to make it big in the party. Isn't it true doctor?' The doctor says quietly: 'You exaggerate. There are also hard-working and honest ones among them'.
In the farm where we go next, the wife of an agricultural worker gave birth with the help of a midwife and a neighbour. The doctor hadn't been sent for until the next day when the young mother had gone down with a high fever. It's a serious case; I wait outside in front of the low brick house and through the open window I hear the groans of the ill woman and the calming voice of the doctor and the cries of the newborn baby. The father waits with me – he is a young man with a serious face, sunburnt – the doctor had not wanted him to be present at his examination. Our conversation has something bizarrely disjointed about it: the man doesn't say that he fears for his wife and he wonders what will happen.
He says: 'Now I won't join the National-Socialist party. Not now – because it's a boy'.
'You mean, because you have a son….?' I say, surprised.
'Well, yes.' The man smiles as he looks at his work-worn hands. 'A girl – that wouldn't be so important. At the farm they've been asking me for some time why I'm not a party member. It looks bad, I know that. But up till now I've always found an excuse. And now I have a boy they will harass me even more. But I know what I know. This boy is not going to have a nazi for a father. And later, he will not join the Hitler Youth. He'll go to school, work hard and do better than me. I'd be happy for him to be a soldier – that's quite different, we have nothing against real soldiers. But the nazis, they are just ape soldiers, it's shameful to be a part of their game.'
The door opens and the doctor rejoins us. 'Why did you not call me earlier?' he says.
The young worker doesn't reply. He simply looks at the doctor and his face, suddenly white, looks paralysed with fear.
'I'm going to send for an ambulance from the municipal hospital,' says the doctor, 'but that will take several hours. I can only phone once I'm in the village'.
'And the baby? What will happen to the baby?'
'The midwife will look after him.'
The man accompanies us to the cart. It's only when we've already got in and sat down – the doctor has already taken hold of the reins – that he asks: 'Doctor, my wife isn't going to die?'
'At the hospital, everything possible will be done', replies the doctor on the point of moving away.
But the man stops him once again, he takes hold of the reins and stammers: 'Doctor you must look after her yourself, you know that the chief doctor over there, he's a nazi, I mean, he's incompetent, he got this post because he's a nazi. And me, I'm not even a party member!'
'Of course', says the doctor to calm him down, 'I will look after her myself'.
The man nods his head with an absent expression and at last lets us go away.
'What's happening with the chief doctor at the hospital,' I ask, while we drive noiselessly over the sand – my ears are still ringing with that terrible statement 'he's a nazi, he's incompetent...'
My companion shrugs his shoulders. 'He's my superior in the medical association,' he replies 'he is no worse than many other doctors but the people do not trust him at all'.
'Why is that? Because he's a party member? Do you mean that we've already got to the point where we can't have confidence in someone just because he is a nazi?'
The doctor replies very calmly. 'It's a bit like that. This man for example took his post wearing the uniform of the SA. He succeeded Dr S who was an excellent doctor. It's clear that everybody knows Dr S did not leave of his own free will but was obliged to, because he was a social democrat and he did not want to dismiss immediately his Jewish assistant. And also because positions were needed for the party faithful. Only, the fact of having merit in the party, for example by killing a communist or sending a Jew to a concentration camp does not qualify you to carry out the profession of a doctor. People know this, that's why they don't have confidence.'
I ask again: 'This agricultural worker was visibly scared that his wife could suffer because he is not a party member?'
The doctor does not reply immediately. Beyond the cultivated fields he looks at the sun going down, like a ball of fire, towards the dark edge of the forest. Then he says, slowly, as if he wanted to give courage not only to me but also to himself, and to bolster his faith in the future. 'These days, sometimes one is very afraid, because one is not on the same side as them. But soon we will be glad that we did not get our hands dirty. Yes we will be glad and we will be proud!'
This piece was originally published in 1990 by Lenos Verlag and has been translated for SR by Morelle Smith