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.

Here’s what you should think about the war today

The media is increasingly giving up all pretence at reportage in relation to the conflict in Ukraine. So immersed in propaganda are we now, that the media are now offering us cathartic dreams to resolve the anxieties they themselves fostered and promoted.

Let’s take a quick example from today’s Daily Express. Here is the headline:

Let’s ignore for the moment the lack of grammatical punctuation and acknowledge that at least the key data is presented in scare quote marks, indicating that this is opinion of some kind and not factual assertion. That doesn’t always happen, so kudos for remembering to do that.

So, whose opinion is this? “Former British officer”, Dr Mike Martin of Kings College London, is who. Dr Martin is a visiting scholar at KCL, which means that he borrows their name in order to publish academically. In return, he provides some PhD supervision for students. This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and I’ve done it myself incidentally.

He appears from his KCL profile to be very interested in an evolutionary psychological approach to understanding warfare. It’s a little difficult to gauge his quality as an academic from a paperchase, as he’s not published a lot academically. By far his most impactful work was an oral history of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where he appears to have done his own tours of duty as a soldier. Some of the other things listed on his Google Scholar page, such as articles on leaf-cutter ants, may not be his at all.

So then I looked at his own website, which seems primarily aimed to promote himself as a public speaker and commentator to the media. There we can see that he’s written two other books as well, one on his interest in evo-psych and war, and the other on an adventure he had crossing the Congo river in a landrover.

A lot of his work looks back to, or builds upon his experience as the British Army’s first ‘cultural understanding officer’ in Helmand. There’s a Sunday Times article about that here. I’m not going to dwell on how poorly the British Army’s cultural understanding went in Helmand.

Nor will I dwell on the many narratives of British and American success in Afghanistan that the media published adoringly. Nor will I dwell on how the minute Western military forces, exhausted by conflict, decided to pull out of Afghanistan, it reverted immediately to the Taliban once more.

I will solely point out that the conflict was a huge waste of resources and lives, and had also been the subject of an enormous and persistently reported lie in the media in the West.

Let’s return to Dr Mike Martin. He is a former British Army reserve officer who, after leaving the army, embarked on an academic career. He’s formulated a theory about war’s evolutionary origins and now researches that at KCL. Good for him. It’s an intriguing question, how hardwired the lust for war is.

What he’s not, is any kind of expert on Russia, Russian history, or Ukrainian history; nor has he any expertise about the Kremlin or Russian politics; nor on Russian military forces, on Ukrainian military capacity, or any on the ground knowledge of the current combat theatre.

So what is this story, this headline? Dr Martin likes to see his name in the media, and it helps promote his own work, so he appears more than happy to speak to the press about issues like this where he has no apparent expert knowledge whatsoever. His opinion, based on zero knowledge and expertise, is then inflated by judicious reference to his academic credentials and military background by the newspaper.

From there, it gets promoted to headline, and suddenly a readership fed on months of existential fear of Putin has hope. The hope of his overthrow. This is wishful thinking, it seems to me. After all, Putin’s popularity has actually risen in Russia since the invasion.

Why then is the Express printing this? Because it’s the narrative they want to promote. It’s the narrative they want their readers to experience. It builds on the existing narrative that they and the rest of the media have been assiduously creating since the start of the conflict.

How does it build on it? Well, having created a monstrous, satanic image of Putin, it is now essential to offer their readership some catharsis – specifically that he can and will be defeated in some kind of moral justice. We’ve seen other iterations of this in the Western media recently, mostly speculating about his health and possible imminent demise.

In reality, there’s nothing there. This is the opinion of one guy who has zero expertise in any relevant topic, inflated into a headline by a newspaper which is cheerleading this war endlessly. I don’t mean to pick on this particular paper, or this particular talking head. I understand their various reasons for doing this. I could have chosen so many others.

This example is merely symptomatic of the sick and sickening media environment we now find ourselves in, one entirely divorced from reality and endlessly blaring in favour of war.

As Orwell once wrote, There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” Too much of our media would drive anyone mad, and indeed already appears to have driven much of the population mad.

The Whales are Returning to Kiev

For Ireland’s national poetry day, here’s a poem from a couple of years back with a Ukraine theme. It was from that moment in lockdown when everyone was cooing about nature returning. The first three or so stanzas – all of those things did actually happen.

It imagines not only a world without Ukraine but a world without us. And that’s where we’re headed if we can’t find a way to get past war. Not just this one, but all war.

On that cheery note, as promised here are some whales overhead, courtesy of Kiev’s Maxim Garifullin:

The Whales Are Returning to Kiev

The wolves returned to Pripyat

Once all the people had fled.

Now sheep stroll the streets in Atakum

And goats gambol through Llandudno.

Kangaroos colonise Adelaide,

And deer graze on the lawns of East London.

Fish and dolphins have fled back to Venice,

Peacocks strut proudly through New Delhi,

A puma prowled around Santiago,

And alligators crawl inside shopping malls.

Wild boar root for food in Ajaccio,

Monkeys fight on the road in Lompuri,

The coyotes now run San Francisco,

And a sealion was spotted in Buenos Aires.

The whales are returning to Kiev.

Herds of unicorn gallop through Paris.

Angels can be seen on the streets of Berlin.

And none of them miss us at all.

We are all Ukraine, and that’s not a good thing to be

When I was a journalist, I used to embody the maxim from James Joyce’s Ulysses that ‘sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof’. Or, to use an almost equally antiquated saying, today’s news wraps tomorrow’s chips.

In other words, it’s kind of a foolish enterprise to pontificate (as I am about to do) on matters which are kinetic. Tomorrow, next month, in one hour, the situation will change, radically. One’s assumptions, presumptions and conclusions are at best provisional and likely to become hostages to fortune very quickly.

An additional relevant point is that I’m not any expert on Ukraine. I’ve never been there. I’m not Ukrainian. Of course those attributes haven’t stopped others from spouting their tupennyworth of verbiage, so why should I be shy? At least my lack of knowledge doesn’t feed into the principals in this scenario. I’m not advising world leaders or directing the opinion of nations.

Ordinarily, I’d be silent, on the basis that when one is silent people may only presume you are an idiot, without you providing the incontrovertible proof thereof. But the current crisis in the Ukraine shows a risk of spreading, virus-like, to affect the rest of the planet, and I live here too, so on this occasion I’m prepared to take the risk. I will attempt to be brief, hence the bullet point format.

Crisi Ucraina, donne e bambini in fuga dal Donbass e i leader avvertono:  “Mobilitazione generale” - Il Riformista
  1. The Ukraine is seen by Russia at their sphere of influence. Specifically the Eastern provinces are highly culturally Russian. The Kiev government has not been keen to accommodate this and has banned teaching in Russian in schools, and all discussion about reconsidering Ukraine’s borders. One presumes this Russophobia is a reaction to the occupation/annexation/secessation of the Crimea. Nevertheless, it means that Ukraine, in its current form, is unlikely to be preserved.
  2. NATO did promise, under Bush, not to expand to Russia’s borders, then did exactly that, repeatedly in the Baltic states. Russia is not pleased about this and has attempted to address it in a number of ways. Both Yeltsin and Putin actually applied to join NATO, and were turned down, because of course NATO’s creation and existence is in opposition to Russia. This means that Russia is aggrieved. It doesn’t make them the victims of the current situation, far from it, but that situation derives from the former.
  3. Beyond both the debatable legitimacy of the USA (or indeed NATO or the EU) involving themselves in the Ukraine arena, and the clear unpopularity among the American people for another foreign war, especially one with Russia, there’s the fact that Washington got completely blindsided by Putin this time. They clearly didn’t foresee that he would endorse the kind of colour revolution which the US has been tacitly and overtly supporting in a range of locations. He’s played them at their own game, and they weren’t prepared for that.
  4. This situation is DANGEROUS and fundamentally destabilising to global geopolitics. Already the Baltic states are nervous. But they’re always nervous. More concerning for Moscow is the issue of the US locating missile launch sites in Poland, ostensibly aimed at Tehran but tacitly able to reach Moscow in minutes. One might argue this in turn is a reaction to Russian nukes in Kaliningrad, pointing towards Europe. But what we need is a DE-ESCALATION not an escalation of threat.
  5. What happens in the Ukraine will have knock-on effects across the planet. Not just the possibility that Europe, which receives over 40% of its heating gas from Russia, will freeze, but also massive touchpaper issues like Taiwan. Washington and NATO have positioned themselves such that they must implement serious reaction, as they’ve repeatedly threatened, if they deem that Putin has indeed invaded Ukraine. Putin has already been driven into restoring the old alliance with China, and China will be watching avidly to see how Washington responds to Donbass. There are contradictory precedents all around, and we will no doubt hear of them all. But if NATO/US do NOT react to Putin’s colour revolution in Donbass, China will definitely be emboldened in relation to Taiwan. But if they DO react, these are nuclear powers we’re talking about. The world itself becomes at risk.
  6. As is ALWAYS the case when war-war looms large, what we need is more jaw-jaw. It’s time to talk, with everything on the table. Maybe we need to commission a conference to redraw some borders in Eastern Europe. Maybe we need to stop backing Russia into a corner and into the arms of Xi and China.
  7. Maybe we need to consider what a ‘world beyond five’ might look like seriously. Maybe it’s time to discuss taking nukes off the table for good, from EVERYONE, including other hotheads like India and Pakistan, and, yes, Israel too. Everyone. Maybe it’s time for cool heads to prevail. Am I confident this will happen? Not really, no. But this is another Cuban Missile Crisis, taking place this time when we are ALREADY at a mere 100 seconds to midnight on the doomsday clock, and when global co-operation is needed as it has never been needed before, to address existential risks to us all, like the climate crisis.
  8. Ukraine is under threat tonight (maybe not tomorrow hopefully, but tonight, yes). And we are ALL Ukraine. We are all at risk. It’s time to sideline the sabre-rattling media, the warmongering neocons in Washington, the bored Russian generals, and the neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine and get the grown-ups talking. To do otherwise is potentially suicidal.

Post-Script: It’s always beneficial to recall Field Marshall Montgomery’s rules of military strategy, iterated here in the NYT during the Vietnam War: “The United States has broken the second rule of war. That is: don’t go fighting with your land army on the mainland in Asia. Rule One is, don’t march on Moscow. I developed those two rules myself.” (New York Times, July 3, 1968.)