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Hellmuth von Gerlach Describes a Conservative Election Campaign in Rural Silesia (1880s)

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Our rural laborers were intensely ignorant and lived in a most primitive sort of way. Almost their only indulgence was liquor, which on all festal occasions, such as Christmas, Harvest Home, and the opening of the hunting-season, they obtained by liters from the landlord’s distillery. The women of the gentry class would wax indignant at the farm hands’ drunken orgies every Saturday and Sunday. At the same time, they took great satisfaction in the big profits that their distilleries paid. Their ethical code was well satirized in this little quatrain: –

Lern, lieber Sohn, das Leben kennen,
Sehr nobel ist es, Schnaps zu brennen,
Bedenklich schon, ihn zu verkaufen,
Ganz unmoralisch, ihn zu saufen.

(Learn, my son, this rule of conduct:
It is very noble to distill whiskey;
it is a questionable business to sell it;
it is utterly immoral to swill it.)

At that time farm laborers were politically merely tools for maintaining Conservative ascendancy. Their miserable wages prevented their indulging in the luxury of a newspaper of their own. Their landlord would let them subscribe at his expense for a little Conservative daily or a pious Sunday sheet. At Christmas he gave each of his tenants a calendar adorned with patriotic mottoes and stories or with Christian admonishments to humility, obedience, and contentedness. No village innkeeper dared to grant the use of his dancing-hall for any other than a Conservative meeting; otherwise the neighboring landlord, who was also the local magistrate, could make it exceedingly disagreeable for him. On Election Day laborers were marshaled in a column during the noon interval and marched off to the polls, with the bailiff in front and the forester behind. At the door of the polling-place the bailiff gave each laborer a Conservative ballot, which the landlord immediately collected from him in his capacity as judge of elections.

The machine worked perfectly. The only discordant notes in this political harmony came from the few villages where peasant freeholders lived. At such places a few ballots would be cast for Independent or Clerical candidates. Our Junker circle was for this reason particularly hostile to the peasants, though later the Landlords’ Union managed very skillfully to bring most of them under its control. But when I was a young man the peasants in my neighborhood were looked upon as uncertain and unreliable fellows. A few of them were even presumptuous enough to refuse to lease hunting-rights over their land to the gnädigen Herrn because that gentleman’s game had damaged their crops.

We had in our vicinity only one solitary really modern man among the Junkers. He was a certain Graf Pourtales, who was managing as trustee an estate at Glumbowitz. He had the crazy idea that the English system of government was a good one because it encouraged able men to go to Parliament. For this heresy he was roundly abused as a “Liberal.” For the same reason, however, the freeholding peasants elected him to the Kreistag; and he took his seat in that body right among them.

This was going beyond all bounds. Such an offense was unforgivable. So Pourtales was ostracized by all his social equals. None of them would have anything to do with either him or his family. In fact, he was so utterly banned and isolated that he finally went off to America and stayed there ten years, until the grass could grow over the grave of his crime.

Source of English translation: The Living Age (Concord, NH) 326, no. 4238 (1925), pp. 667-70, reprinted in Jan Goldstein and John W. Boyer, University of Chicago, Readings in Western Civilization, vol. 8, Nineteenth-Century Europe: Liberalism and Its Critics. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 434-38.

© 1988 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Original German text printed in Hellmuth von Gerlach, Erinnerungen eines Junkers. Berlin: Die Welt am Montag, n.d., [1925]), pp. 23-30.

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