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Thoughts on Germany.

‘[Orson Welles’s] articles had been coming out at regular intervals during the tour [of Germany in 1950 of An Evening with Orson Welles] and had caused quite a stir, which is exactly what they were intended to do. The following year he condensed the articles into a piece for the distinguished London magazine The Fortnightly Review, and in this form (under the title ‘Thoughts on Germany’ ) they constitute one of the most remarkable examples of Welles’s polemical writing, very much in the manner of his pieces from the mid-1940s in the New York Post and, later on radio, in the form of Orson Welles’s Commentaries. His starting point was the possible rearmament of Germany, and his analysis probing, if a little overheated.’

— Simon Callow, Orson Welles, Volume Three: One-Man Band, p73


“ARM THE GERMANS?” said the international munitions maker. “Arm the Germans again?” He was disgusted with the idea. He pulled at his cigar. It had gone out. There was a brief but intense little contest between several people to see who would get to light it for him. A banker from Berne won. Herr Fritz Mandel,1 presently of Buenos Aires, smoked in silence. Everybody watched him do this, waiting for the oracle to speak again. Finally it did. “If the Russians should march west to-day—they’d cross the Rhine tomorrow.”

In Germany you were almost blinded by the glare of that political reality. Still blinking from it, you’d journeyed down from Berlin, and, in a break in the journey, you’d come upon this real, live munitions maker. How it brought back melodramas of a pre-war pacifist past! There he was, with a flower in his button-hole, an Argentine girl at his side, a respectful ring of Swiss bankers all about him, smoking an Havana cigar on the borders of an Italian lake. The eyes in the sharply drawn, solid-looking head, are set in a questing expression. They are the eyes of a shrewd hunter, but you surprise in them a curious pallid emptiness—a dead spot. It is as though the centre of a target were painted white, or like the vacuum in the heart of a tornado. It makes him look dangerous.

“Wait and see what happens this time.” Mandel again. He took the cigar from its holder, carefully extinguished it, and sat back, staring across the Lake of Como at nothing. An Italian prince roared by in a speedboat towing an English mannequin on water-skis. Some Americans at the next table were wondering if their ‘plane reservations for home were soon enough. Shouldn’t they leave now—right now? I went down to the dock and hired a boat and put as much lake as possible between myself and Mr. Mandel.

I was still fresh from Germany. Things seen and heard there had given me a kind of indigestion. I’d brought on my trip as part of my baggage a viewpoint as out of date as Mandel’s. I had an open mind but it turned out to be open in the wrong places, at the wrong hours. I’d gone looking for answers and found I’d brought the wrong questions….

“Wasn’t Jesus a Nazi?” When somebody asked that question I noticed that it brought a little spasm of polite pain to the fairly frozen face of a Very High Official (British). This happened at a dinner table a few weeks before. We’d been talking about the Passion Play and somebody wanted to be told if it wasn’t true that many of the actors were formerly leading Nazis in Oberammergau. Clearly the VHO felt that it didn’t matter if they were or not; he regarded the question not merely unnecessary but old-fashioned.

Most of the other people who were saying that Europe must be saved from a strong Germany were saying now that only a strong Germany can save Europe.

I was beginning to realize about then just how much times have changed. The Germans themselves have changed from a problem to a hope. Most of the other people who were saying that Europe must be saved from a strong Germany were saying now that only a strong Germany can save Europe. One read that before coming there, but still one had gone to Germany expecting to learn something new about the Nazis. But all one heard about were the Communists. Nowadays in Mittel Europa, the question of resurgent Fascism is simply out of style as a topic of conversation. In Italy too.

I RACED THE PRINCE around the lake and lost. The bankers must have been already on their way back to Switzerland. Anyway, they were gone when I passed the hotel. Mandel, the real, live munitions maker, was sitting alone. What was he thinking about? It’s no use saying it doesn’t matter. It matters that he makes the guns and tanks for Perón. Perón matters. And Mandel’s thinking, wrong as it may be, is somehow related to the queerly changing shape of our world. He still had the cigar in his mouth and seemed to be looking for a match. Maybe that’s what he was thinking about; or maybe he was brooding over the third war.

Brooding is the word, not gloating. Zaharoff used to gloat. But then those were different wars and he never expected the Red Russians to win any of them. Mandel says they’re bound to win this next one. I went back over to the other side of the lake and did some brooding of my own.

WE ARE PREPARING to encourage the Germans to fight (or at least impress the Russians). That makes sense. But to fight Communism by encouraging Fascism is something else. In all innocence we might be doing that—at least, incidentally. This, it seems to me, is a practical danger worth talking over. But nobody wants to. You’re misunderstood if you raise the issue. The time is past, you’re told, for vengeance and retribution. You agree heartily. But that, you try to explain, isn’t what you were talking about. Now, please, you would just like to be permitted to ask… At this point whoever you happen to be asking holds up his hand and the conversation is stopped. “Nobody”, you are told, “can stop the German people from wanting to amount to something.” And of course, nobody’s trying to. Not any more. It isn’t any use pointing out that encouraging the Germans doesn’t need to be the same thing as encouraging the Nazis. Almost everybody agrees and almost nobody is interested.

The first phase of the Occupation is over. Its tone was frankly punitive. The idea was to keep the Germans down. Now everybody is trying to help the Germans up. (And a comic twist of history finds some of the most dangerous elements refusing to rise—except on their own conditions.) Originally the occupying powers had different ideas about how to do it. But Eisenhower spoke for all four of them when he told the Germans that we were coming not as liberators but as conquerors. That was some little while ago. A lot of meetings have been held since then.

When the Russian bloc rejected the Marshall Plan, a creative idea was changed perforce into a defensive instrument. The borders had been marked out before but now we started digging the trenches. A shifting of attitudes toward Germany followed, and on our side the very purpose of the Occupation was totally altered. We accepted its enormous costs with our avowed intention of seeing to it, by supervision, re-education, rehabilitation, and—if necessary—force, that Germany should not go Nazi again. Whether that expenditure has justified itself or not, we now find ourselves faced with the urgent necessity of spending a great deal more than before to keep Germany—the part we’re responsible for—from going Communist. We came to make Germany free of Hitlerism; we’re staying to keep it free of Stalinism.

On the Russian side, the Germans are being told that they must be defended against the war-mongerings of Wall Street and the expansionist aggressions of a capitalist world. In fact, of course, two great power forces, committed to sharing the German land-mass are busy competing for German loyalty.

Nobody should be surprised if the reaction is a little cynical. “So,” says the German, “the west will defend us against the east and the east wants to defend us against the west. Very interesting, meine Herren. But aren’t you really saying that you want us to defend you?” The truth is that both sides want Germany to defend itself against the other side. Both sides know that constructive peace cannot begin in Europe as long as Germany is cut in two. It’s anybody’s guess whether Russia means to promote its own version of peace by open force—to unite Germany by seizing the western half of it.

But the Russians know—and have known since Korea—what will happen if they try. Whether or not the Kremlin is planning to make trouble (the shooting kind of trouble) in Germany, its agents there have long since been getting ready for trouble (the shooting kind). All that drilling isn’t callisthenics. Hence the current rush to “arm Germany”. I use quotation marks not only because the phrase was Herr Mandel’s—it’s also much overworked in editorials—but because it’s an inaccuracy. Or I hope it is.

Herr Mandel has another idea; he seems to think that we’re fixing to equip Germany with a shooting army of its very own. “You’ll see what happens,” says he darkly. “The moment the Russians take Berlin (and they can do that by telephone) your famous West Zone Free Germans are going to turn around and shoot you with your own guns.” Here at least is a point of view frankly expressed concerning the state of health enjoyed by the West Zone democracy (read social democracy) in contemporary Germany. But the armament manufacturer seems to imagine that the present notion of the Allies is to finance and equip another German war machine. He is exceptionally well-informed on these matters but I hope this time his information is wrong.

As I understand it, the idea is to use the German industrial potential on behalf of a Western European Army. I’d say if the Germans really are going to get some guns to play with again, that’s the way it had better be. (Nobody asked me, of course, but that’s what I’d say if they did.)

Mandel was still sitting alone and staring, in that dead way of his, at a dead cigar. I gave him a box of matches. He thanked me and we smiled at each other. After all, why not? We’ve got something in common: we’ve both been married in our time to movie stars.2

HONKING LIKE A GOOSE, the little Volkswagen moved ahead of us on the autobahn. “It is a kind of compulsion,” said the German girl, “every German driver simply must on the road pass every other German driver.” An Opel, circling around our Mercedes, gained on the car ahead and vanquished it. “We are lucky. They are most of them eating now,” remarked my friend, passing the Volkswagen. “Usually on a German road it is much worse.” I had been a guest at her place in the country and she was bringing me back to town for lunch. “Now,” she told me, “look at his neck.” She pointed to the man in the Opel. It was a real German neck. “Look at the way he holds the wheel. He is eager his home to get back to, and there to be stuffing himself with noodle soup. He wants to be the first. Every German,” said see, passing the Opel, “wants to be the first.” (A leading topic of conversation in Germany is the German character. I’ve heard journalists and generals on this subject, to say nothing of a High Commissioner and any number of Germans.) “Here is another one,” said the German girl, leaving a second Volkswagen behind. “He too is unhappy. He wants his noodle soup. Besides, he has no uniform and he needs one.”

We’d left the piney little mountains behind and the bright lakes and crisp wooden houses. We were coming into Munich. Considering everything, there’s quite a lot of Munich left: most of the phoney Gothic and some of the real Baroque. The fir trees are still tied to the arches in front of the Hofbrauhaus. The men still bustle about their business in lederhosen. At eleven sharp each morning the clock-work dancers, painted like toys, wheel gravely in the Rathaus tower, and in the niche above, the knights joust on schedule before their nodding iron king. You have to remind yourself that this is the city where both the Nazis and Dadaists wrote their opening manifestos.

“The German,” my friend the German girl was saying, “feels naked without a uniform. He needs to march with lots of other Germans or he gets sulky. Also he must have somebody to bully. And always—always—lots of noodle soup. There’s no cure for it. No cure at all for being German,” she sighed, not very mournfully. “Occupation, education—nothing does any good. This is a country of noodle-souper men.”

We stopped at the Vier Jahreszeiten for a drink. She bought a newspaper. “I want to read the jokes,” she said, but she didn’t turn to the comics. Her jokes were on the front page. Another Nazi, we read, had been freshly exonerated having announced himself as a long-time leader in the resistance movement… The western allies were discussing the immediate re-arming of Germany…. A former high officer of the Wehrmacht was advising the Jugend to refuse to bear arms until the Fatherland was given an equal voice in foreign affairs. Also war pensions…. The German girl, making no comment, drove back to the country, and I sat down to write this.

As mystic, musician and militarist, the German has made himself deeply felt. He has physical courage, creative imagination and a tendency to burst into tears. We all know about his blood-lust, his death-wish and his marvellous sentimental capacity for keeping the festival of Christmas, and let’s be frank about it: we’re sick to death of him. Also he seems to be fairly sick of himself.

What’s to be done? If the German doesn’t like himself he can’t amount to anything in the world, and when he does manage to persuade himself that he’s somebody, doesn’t he then start right in persuading the rest of us—and in such a wise that we all wish he’d never been born. Answer: he does and we do.

At what an awesomely square angle he wears his bowler hat or steel helmet! Thus and by other means encouraging the fiction of his own stolidity. He believes in this himself. That “Stolid German” business is one of the many great and silly racial myths, like the Lazy Italian, the Dishonest Jew, the Dull Englishman and the Strong and Silent American.

Why on earth is it that the Italians who are forever as busy as spiders want us to believe—and themselves so much believe—that they are shiftless no-accounts, capable only of siestas and serenades? Then there’s that well-syndicated figure, the Dishonest Jew. What about him? His God, who is a Just God, made him according to the Jewish legend, in His own image, and Mosaic Law, by which most of them live to-day, is almost the origin of honesty. Certainly, nobody has had a more vigorous ethical character than these particular “people of the book”. As for the Strong and Silent Americans—well, strong we may be, but silent? Like the Chinese, who also cultivate an undeserved reputation for not being very communicative, we Americans are, in fact, among the most loquacious of humans.

‘ …the fear of being caught out as a Cockney was originally responsible for the English notion that a gentleman doesn’t show what he feels… ‘

The famous Dull Englishman, damn him, is dull by preference—one of the most infuriating aspects of his true character. He just doesn’t think it chic to shine. The type of the Cold-Blooded Britisher, as a matter of fact, was invented in the nineteenth century by a public school system which had been revised to train the sons of the new rich to approximate as quickly as possible the aristocracy they were joining, and above all, not to drop their aitches. A century earlier, the Englishman was rather notoriously effusive, but the fear of being caught out as a Cockney was originally responsible for the English notion that a gentleman doesn’t show what he feels, and hence to the conviction among others that the Englishman doesn’t feel anything. In any mask, there are holes to look through, and behind that stupid elaborately official face we catch in some lights the gipsy glitter of eyes belonging to the real Englishman grinning out at the rest of us—the eyes of Falstaff and Hamlet. The eyes of crazy sea-dogs and wily statesmen—of a desperate, tender-hearted, naïve and demoniac people who are the world’s greatest poets, its first humorists, and most thorough-going madmen.

Now nothing irritates Englishmen and Germans alike as much as being told they are alike. And they are. In so many little ways that only the rest of us notice, but most importantly in their permanent masquerade. If the Englishman wears a dull mask to hide his bright madness, the German’s stolid, heavy, unemotional false-face is camouflage for a national genius which is very often hysteria.

“Whatcha writing there, Orson?” I looked up into a couple of big, pink friendly faces. The Messrs. Schultz and Butterworth, American businessmen. “I’ve been trying to describe the Germans. Have a beer?” “My God,” said Mr. Schultz. “Lots of good qualities to the German,” said Mr. Butterworth. “Balkanized. Since the war I mean,” said Mr. Schultz, toasting us gravely with a brimming beaker of Lowenbrau. “The war disrupted things, and then they’re all scared of the next one. They’re grabbing things, and then they’re all scared of the next one. They’re grabbing what they can while they can. Yes, as far as business ethics are concerned, the German is what you might call definitely balkanized.”

“He never was any good,” said Mr. Butterworth. “Honest maybe but nutty. Look at the Nazis and the nudists. They’re all nuts.” “Not all of them,” said Mr. Schultz. “All of them,” said Mr. Butterworth. In the restaurant behind, the orchestra began playing the Liebestodt. More business men, many of them German and very prosperously dressed, moved past us on the way to lunch. “I thought you said there were lots of good German qualities?” “I did,” said Mr. Butterworth, “I also say the Germans are nuts.”

I stopped at Toller Litvak’s table. The famous director had been sent from Hollywood to make a film in Munich. I asked him how he liked the studios. “This is the best place for movies in Europe,” he told me. “There’s real efficiency here—organization. Remember these are serious people.”

My host for lunch is the publisher of one of Germany’s most responsible weeklies. He’d brought a little group of artists and intellectuals. They all began apologizing to me for not having seen Kane and Ambersons. “We’ve been so terribly cut-off, you see. First Hitler, then the war. We haven’t seen the Italians either. Not anything of Rossellini’s or da Sicca’s [sic].” Somebody else pointed out to the sculptor who said this that the pictures mentioned are all available to Germany now. To which the sculptor murmured something about the Occupation. This started quite a hubbub.

“We Germans,” said my host, “are always blaming somebody. Now it’s the Occupation. The trouble with the Germans…” And he was off. One expected that most of the talk in Mittel Europa to-day would be about the Russians, but I found this true only in the American Press Club. No, the chief topic in Germany is the Germans. It’s very like patients in a sanatorium discussing their ailments. Germans do really seem to look upon their race as an affliction. “Poor Germans,” I heard an English major saying in a club in Hamburg. “nobody like ‘em. The French don’t like ‘em. Americans don’t like ‘em. We don’t like ‘em. They don’t like ‘em. Poor blighters, it’s true: they don’t even like themselves.”

I think the Germans are so very busy examining themselves because, having found out that they aren’t super-men, they’re naturally curious to discover what it is they really are. The self-loathing is a hangover. “To understand us,” the publisher was telling me, “you must realize that the German believes everything he hears and nothing he sees.” “And what are we up to now?” broke in a poet rhetorically. “What are we up to, we difficult and dangerous people?”

I said I’d heard the Germans were covering their bets. Like most Americans, my approach to the subject is less metaphysical than political, and without quoting my source (who was an American official), I said I’d been told that many people in the West Zone were contributing to Communist causes, subscribing to Communist papers, and otherwise preparing a neat little record of pro-Soviet friendliness in the event of subsequent invasion by the Red Army and/or Communist Germany’s “police force”. I wanted the intellectuals to tell me very frankly if this was mere shrewdness, cynicism and insurance, or did it represent genuine sentiment—secret yearnings toward the east and left?

The poet answered me. “Of course,” said he, “Germans are all dreaming of a united Germany. But if there’s anything new about the dream it’s that our highest and most secret hope is that the worst of the battles which will make the dream come true will be fought by others—and fought elsewhere.” The poet turned to the waiter. “Bring me some noodle soup,” he said.

IT WAS PAST DAWN, and it felt like it. The band had groaned out its last stale set of American hit-tunes when suddenly they began playing the Horst Wessel. I’ve heard since that this is regulation procedure in German night clubs for brightening up the sort of stale crowd that looks as if it wanted to stop drinking and go home. The response now was hearty. People began singing the words and one character near me went so far as to accompany his vocalizing with the Nazi salute.

I stop here to re-state the big fact in Germany: the Occupation. Another fact, even more obvious, is that Germany is a nation, and when it isn’t, it wants to be. Now I’ve a personal viewpoint that has an application to this story: Germany is not so much a civilization as a culture.

The American manner at least, is…a somewhat subtler and deeper influence and it is reaching very particularly the personality and view-point of the young.

With varying degree of success each occupying power is trying to impose in its own zone (along with its own reading of that harassed word “democracy”), its own national culture. In this, only my own people can be said to be getting anywhere. The American manner at least, is everywhere touching and changing the daily lives of Germans in the American zone. This is a somewhat subtler and deeper influence than Coca-Cola and jazz, and it is reaching very particularly the personality and view-point of the young. Like any other foreign influence anywhere, it is sometimes bad, sometimes good, and always a little confusing for everybody concerned. I think the Germans would be happier if they had something more at hand with which to confront, resist, complement and dilute the impact of America. After those many hungry years of Hitler and Hitler’s war they are not very rich in resources. Millions of them are incurably Nazi-bent. Millions more are spiritually impoverished to the point which nothing is invoked by their imagination as a substitute for America that doesn’t bear the trade-mark of the swastika and march in a goose-step. You can’t blame a night club crowd for wanting to hear something more German than Oklahoma. It’s just too bad that the only substitute they could think of was the Horst Wessel. Something had to be done about the Nazi salute, of course, but I couldn’t think just what.

I was alone. I was new in Germany, and it was a numbing sort of experience. What was happening was probably not quite illegal enough to justify calling in the military police. I didn’t want to make a scene but I didn’t like myself at all for avoiding one. I have in my time been scrutinized by certain Government agencies for a tendency known to some investigators as “premature anti-Fascism”. Only a few months earlier I had excused myself from a Venetian dinner table where the host and other guests were calling Toscanini, who was not present, a traitor.

But here I sat, a confessed premature anti-Fascist, pop-eyed, mouth-agape and doing nothing while some great roaring boor poisoned the air with Nazi war chants and stuck his stiff arm in my face. I’d been drinking only coffee, but that’s certainly no excuse, and it’s irrelevant that the young lady who solved my dilemma had been looking fixedly at the wine when it was red.

She now revealed herself as that rarest of German birds: an authentic anti-Nazi. Alas, I never learned her name but she knew several appropriate ones for the gentleman next to me, and these she called out long and clear inviting him to lower his arm. He did not do so, and the band played on. An advocate of direct action as a solution to political difference, the lady thoughtfully removed from a small vase a few dusty geraniums and let swing with it—swinging true. The vase rocketed across the cabaret hitting the Nazi where it could do him the least harm: behind the ears. The martial music fell silent, while cries of shame rang out from the scandalized customers. Yelling like a crazy Indian, an immense female, a good executive type for a concentration camp, rushed from behind the bar and seized the markswoman violently from behind. When she was quite safely pinioned and helpless, her outraged victim—a large man—stepped to her side, and whilst the crowd cheered, commenced striking her in the face.

Gentle reader, I hope you haven’t formed such an opinion of my character that it will surprise you to learn that I didn’t sit this one out. I must tell you that one Nazi is one tooth less pretty than he was. And, I’m happy to add, he kept standing up again and asking for more. It was altogether satisfactory and remains one of the nicest memories of my German trip. A memory indeed but slightly tarnished by the fact that the fair damsel in distress, imperfectly grasping the march of events, took the geraniums out of another vase and tossed it at me.

Also the aftermath—like so many aftermaths—was a let-down. The proprietor, instead of closely superintending my very hurried exit, as would the manager of any self-respecting dive anywhere else—came cringingly forward with offers of free champagne, professing himself grateful to have had the establishment purged of such a Nazi pig. After he was patched up, I was assured this Nazi pig would be sent around to my hotel to apologize. Somehow I found this offer even more dumbfounding than the striking of the helpless girl. Over shrill protests, I paid the check, declined a ride home, and went out for a walk.

The taste of victory was already turning sour. For a short moment of foolish vanity I’d felt like a fair imitation of a brave man fighting the good fight against odds. Now it came to me with a pang of something like shame that if they all didn’t pile up on me in that Nazi nest, it was only because I was an American, a member of an occupying power. But I couldn’t help nursing my loss of pride with the reflection that the Germans are forever making it impossible for us to avoid knocking them down, and—worse still—making us feel guilty for doing it.

His most recent set-back is popularly supposed to have taught Fritz to abhor the sight of uniforms and forever after loathe the sound of march music. Tourists from the victorious democracies can’t seem to get over their astonishment at finding German instincts less damaged than German cities. The truth is that human nature in this forest land is neither an invention of Doctor Goebbels nor an easy target for bombs.

AFTER BERLIN, MY SCHEDULE takes me to another pile of ruins—to Rome, the oldest city in Europe as Berlin is the youngest. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been reading myself to sleep with Tacitus on Germany. The observations of that Latin gentleman are just about what they would be if the Corriere de la Sera sent him up north on an assignment tomorrow. Germans don’t seem to have changed much between Roman and Allied occupations, and the solemn consternation of Signor Tacitus on such a matter as the practical chastity of German wives indicates that Mediterranean reactions have not been subject to much alteration either.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Berlin was. And it was sacked and pillaged only once. It took two thousand years to perfect the ruins of Rome. I took a particularly long walk next morning and watched the city waking up and going to work in the midst of its ruins. I’ve seen bomb damage in London and Coventry, in the north of France and the south of Italy; nothing as total and terrible as Germany though—and Berlin seems the worst of all.

In the tender light of early morning, these crippled streets looked not so much like the remains of a city as the beginnings of one. Not so much a ruin but a sketch.

But in the tender light of early morning, these crippled streets looked not so much like the remains of a city as the beginnings of one. Not so much finished as unfinished. Not so much a ruin but a sketch. It was as if some nervous and rather vulgar god-builder had been called away suddenly from work leaving his studio a mess of half-carved forms, the floor scattered with chips. From the echoing insides of what was once some proud commercial edifice, I heard the plaintive, piping cries of young children at play. Little boys—about four years old, I guessed—dropped into Berlin after the last bomb. I may have imagined it, but they did really seem to be playing soldiers.

Why is it that if you lose a war you’re supposed to lose your faults with it? Can a people be expected to surrender up their personality? I watched the children making their play battle-ground in the stone shell of that office building on Friederich-strasse, and thought of Italians chattering in some trattoria near the baths of Caracala—of young lovers embracing in the shadows of that old Roman sportpalast, the Coliseum. I thought of them all sharing the blithe innocence of never having seen the glory that was. To the lovers and the children does it matter if the silhouette of a street has been chewed to tatters by a couple of bombs or a couple of thousand years?

Orson Welles wrote this for the Fortnightly’s March 1951 issue (p. 145). It has been manually transcribed from our archival copy with non-textual alterations to track usage.


  1. Friedrich Mandl was an Austrian arms manufacturer and an Italo-Fascist opposed to German Nazism. —Ed.
  2. Welles was married to Rita Hayworth; Mandel to Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr. From Life magazine, 4 October 1937, p.12: —Ed.

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