The German Writer Who Foresaw His Own Death

This holiday period is an especially difficult one for many people, who will look up into the cold sky not in expectation of Santa Claus, but in despair. From wartorn Ukraine to the cost of living crisis in Europe, many people are suffering in ways that seemed unthinkable only a year ago.

This night, the seventh night of Hanukkah and the night before Christmas, pay a thought for those who are living insecurely and losing hope. There are many of them. All we have is each other, ultimately. Alas, some of us do not even have that. Here is the story of one such man, Maximilian Bern.

Maximilian Bern, (born Bernstein), was a Jewish German writer who died during the hyperinflation which brought the Weimar Republic to an end almost a century ago, in 1923.

He had been born in 1849 in Ukraine, in Kherson, where his father was a doctor. But then as now, people were leaving Ukraine, and Maximilian relocated with his mother to Vienna after his father died. Though the family fortune was lost, Maximilian’s first novel Auf Schwankem Grunde (“On Shaky Ground”), made his name, and he became a freelance poet, writer and novelist thereafter.

Bern is alas not much read today.

He lived for a couple of years in Paris, and for a time he was married to the renowned actress Olga Wohlbrück, who is now regarded as Germany’s first female movie director. She later left him for a playwright. However, until soon before his death in 1923, he lived an affluent life of artistic renown in Berlin.

In 1904, he published a collection of poems called Die zehnte Muse (“The Tenth Muse”), in which we may read two of his poems which now seem disturbingly prophetic. These are On a Dead Track, and Vagabond Song, which I have lovingly mistranslated below.

What do they appear to prophecy? His own death, which appears almost as a footnote or an aside in Frederick Taylor’s 2013 history The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class. Taylor had borrowed the anecdote about Bern’s death from a book by Otto Friedrich entitled Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the Twenties, wherein on page 126 we hear briefly about Bern’s fate.

Hyperinflation had destroyed Maximilian’s savings as it had so many others, and aged in his seventies, he was in no position to restore the family fortune a second time. He withdrew them all – over 100,000 marks – and spent the entirety of his wealth on a subway ticket, all he could now purchase. After riding one last time around the city, Bern withdrew to his apartment and starved to death.

On a Dead Track

There are people who fall through

old ways and norms, either due

to someone else’s fault or all their own,

to land on a dead track, alone.

Though thousands pass on,

hunting in the world for happiness,

you are chained, unmoving, gone

cheated by the turns of fate, helpless.

You are separated, restricted, forever

from all paths where burns

driving ambition, or wherever

a proudly purposeful force stirs.

Tormented by consuming longing

to storm into the open, into the wide,

even those who miss their lives must

die unnoticed, lonely, set aside.

Vagabond Song

Now I don’t care about anything at all.

What goes up must come down again.

And if I go nowhere, by the road I’ll fall

and stretch out to die, who knows when.

Then the morning finds me dead

like many a bird on a pile of shit,

like many a deer, killed in the night

alone and helpless, in the forest unlit.

When the first fingers of dawn’s light

touch my cold and pallid cheek,

they’ll gleam to show that I was glad

to be freed at last from torment so bleak.

Leave a Reply