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The Son of a Non-Commissioned Prussian Officer Reflects on His Childhood and Youth in the Late 18th Century (Retrospective Account)

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Sadly, my mother’s first child died of convulsive teething after reaching one year of age. [ . . . ] She was knitting incessantly again and was happy to be recommended as a knitting teacher to a princess, I do not recall which, whom she taught for several months. Extra income was urgently needed, for my mother was awaiting her second birth.

On May 21, 1786, at 12 noon I was born. [ . . . ]

However, I must pass over this dark period of unconscious child’s life until the year 1790, when my parents moved to the barracks in the broad Friedrichsstrasse No. 102 [ . . . ] into an apartment. Here my consciousness developed, and many different images from those days reemerge perfectly fresh in my mind.

[ . . . ]

During the day, the children played and romped about on the streets, the barrack square, the hallway or corridor, depending on what the season and the weather brought and permitted, for stricter attention was paid to this than to written laws. [ . . . ] The review of the soldiers on the barrack square, the beatings with a cane that occurred very frequently among the gunners and with the flat blade among the bombardiers, the gauntlet just there, the women “standing in the shrew’s fiddle“ [a type of pillory] in the corridors provided sensation-seeking with plenty of fuel and opportunity to kill time. During all of this, I developed a considerable natural inclination toward being a street urchin.

[ . . . ]

In the meantime, my mother worked as much as she possibly could. Unfortunately, there were not always enough orders, and when she worked only toward sales, she often had to sell the goods off so cheaply that she was unable to buy silk for new work. Nevertheless, things would perhaps have gone reasonably well, if my father unfortunately had not become a “Freiwächter.” This was also one of those dreadful institutions of that period, which could drive people into desperation. You see, the company commander was allowed to relieve part of his company, I believe one third, from duty for four months, while receiving the pay of this contingent for his private purse. [ . . . ] However, anyone whose home was in the barracks had to stay where he was, retained his apartment, and the non-commissioned officers for the most part were their boarders, whose supervision remained their obligation; but they would not receive one pfennig of pay for four months. This fate overtook my father as well; he became a Freiwächter and now had to go see whether he would be able to live on air. [ . . . ]

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