Autobiographical Essays

Beate Caspari-Rosen, MD (1910 - 1995)

The German Civil War

I was eight years old when the German emperor fled to Holland, the generals retired after a lost war, and the disastrous peace treaty of Versailles was signed in the name of the German people by Friederich Ebert (1867—1929), the last chancellor of Imperial Germany, the social democratic leader, and Streseman, the leader of the Zentrum party.

This account is seen through the eyes of a child and may not be completely correct historically, but as I remember it. After a coalition of the democratic, social--democratic and centrum (zentrum) parties, Ebert was elected the first president of the new German Republic at the end of 1918. But in 1920 a civil war broke out between the government and the right wing parties which was fought out in that part of Berlin where I lived. I can still hear the call: "Fenster zu, strasse frei" (Close the windows, leave the streets), which would precede the shooting in the streets. My father would put on his red--cross armband and go out to make house calls to his patients, and we would anxiously await his return. At some point the unions also would call for a general strike in order to force certain economic reforms. Such a strike would mean no water, electricity and gas. We would fill the bathtub and all available pots with water and use kerosene lamps for lighting, which I hated, since they had an awful smell. Gas for cooking was supplied for a few hours in the morning, so all cooking had to be done early in the day. Water pumps in the streets which had been used to water the horses were now our source of water; long lines of people carrying  cans to get their water formed on the streets. No modern public transportation was available; we reverted to large horse drawn wagons with benches. Naturally schools were closed. At some point my parents decided to evacuate me, and I was taken to some friends who lived in the western part of Berlin. What was so astonishing, and probably is still the case where riots occur in cities is that the fighting was strictly limited to certain neighborhoods. When I arrived in our friend's apartment the streets were peaceful and one would hardly know that street fighting went on in other areas and that people were lined up along the wall and shot; where an occasional bullet would come through a window, and where my bed had been put in the corridor for I safety. I cannot remember that I was at any time worried about my parents, but I enjoyed the stay with my friend.

In 1922  another revolt occurred, the Spartacus Putsch. This was an uprising of a wing of the Communist party; surprisingly it began in Munich and then spread north to Berlin. Again we lived in the center of the fighting. One evening we were informed that a group of communists were entrenched on the roof of our apartment house and that we had to evacuate the building. In all the excitement my mother packed only one toothbrush to take along. It was night. The streets were dark, searchlights were crisscrossing the sky, and far in the distance shooting could be heard. It was beautiful in my eyes, since I was unaware of the danger we were in. We walked a few blocks towards a friend's apartment. To our surprise, a carnival was in full swing across the street from our friend's apartment house. After staying with them for a few hours, we learned—and this was before the radio and the telephone company went on strike--that our apartment house had not been destroyed, and we returned early in the morning.         

The civil fighting passed but by 1923 inflation took complete control of our life. Money became valueless. In school we learned arithmetic in millions, billions and trillions. Walls were papered with worthless money bills. When I needed a schoolbook it became a financial catastrophe, since we had to supply our own school books.

My father collected his fees in a small suitcase, which he carried with him, but by the following morning the money would not even buy a loaf of bread, and bread was difficult to purchase. We had to stand on line for hours. Still somehow one survived. Worse things happen now-a-days all around the world. For me, however, it was an unforgettable experience which left its imprint on my life.


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