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Ernest Hemingway and the Aftermath of the Great War

The great virtue for Hemingway of working for the Toronto Star was the chance it gave him to travel throughout the continent of Europe.

In March 1923 Hemingway and Hadley arrived in a Germany rattled by horrendous inflation and violent confrontation between opposing political ideologies and their cohorts of thugs. The German mark was on its way to becoming utterly worthless. And just before inflation reached its peak in late 1923 wheel barrows and horse-drawn carts were needed to carry the money around to simply buy a loaf of bread, if you could find a loaf of bread.

Most German households found it cheaper to burn money than buy firewood. In July 1923 a ten million mark note was introduced, and in November a 100 million mark note came into circulation. Inland postal rates rose from just over half a mark in April 1921, to 1000 million marks in December 1923. The whole situation was ludicrous, and if it hadn’t been so desperate and cruel could have made an excellent Hollywood comedy.

When Hemingway and Hadley arrived at the German border that cold wet
March day they were met by two of the ‘meekest and most discouraged looking German soldiers you have ever seen.’

The soldiers were unarmed, ill-fed and badly clothed, in stark contrast to the heavily armed, well fed, French guards who strutted up and down their sector of the frontier wearing steel helmets and well cut uniforms. The victor and the
vanquished. The trouble was the vanquished had not been beaten militarily. There was a score to be settled.

Hemingway tried to exchange some money in the bank at Strasbourg before
crossing the border but was told the mounting exchange rate had cleaned them out days ago. He eventually exchanged ten French francs - about 90 cents - at the railway station for 670 marks. That 90 cents gave the Hemingways a day of ‘heavy spending’ and still left them change of 120 marks!

The couple bought five apples for twelve marks (one cent), had a five course lunch in a four star hotel for 120 marks (15 cents). A similar meal the day before in French Strasbourg - just across the bridge on the other side of the Rhine - cost a dollar. They drank beir at ten marks a stein (1¼ cents), and ate huge cream-filled cakes for five marks each: nada, nothing.

They met a smart white bearded old man who’d invested his savings in pre-war German industry and German government war bonds who could no longer afford to buy apples, or drink beir at 1¼ cents a stein, and cream cakes for him were a distant dream. But his stiff white collar was still clean, and his fraying tweed suit still smartly pressed, and his down at heel shoes highly polished, and his silver-topped cane still unsold. He reminded Hemingway of his grandfather Ernest Hall.

Then, just before Christmas 1923, the 1000 million mark note suddenly metamorphosed into the new 10 mark note, and by New Year things didn’t sound so bad anymore and you didn’t need a wheelbarrow to carry your money around in. All you needed was money.

But things were bad, very bad. When Hemingway made that trip he witnessed - from the top of Cologne Cathedral - a mob trying to pull down a statue of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The mob, who, he thought, might have been communists, were then attacked by a group of heavily armed right wing Freikorps troops. A brawl became a riot, and a riot a minor revolution.

A couple of days later, from the banks of the Rhine, Hemingway witnessed a group of angry young men fighting six policemen on a bridge. Five of the policemen were thrown from the bridge into the fast moving river   leaving one hanging from the rail of the bridge like a puppet until one of the men chopped off the policeman’s hands with an axe. The policeman fell to his certain death in a black and freezing Rhine.

 ‘Why so much brutality?’ Hemingway asked himself. He then answered his own question, and was sure of the answer: ‘Because Germany had not been
defeated militarily.’

The brutality was happening all over Germany, and one man smiled as he
witnessed the chaos of it all.

Adolf Hitler had, by 1923, taken over the ailing German Workers Party, and was already making it a platform for his own, much more revolutionary ideas. He was speaking in beir halls all over Bavaria, creating hatred against the Jews, against the communists, against anyone, and any organisation - including the weak and stumbling Weimar government - that he considered to be a part of the conspiracy that led to the ‘unnecessary’ armistice in 1918, and the Versailles Treaty of 1919, which he considered to be responsible - and not without some justification - for Germany’s present financial and social crisis.

He was widely believed, and new members - mainly unemployed young men with time and anger on their hands - flocked to his party, which Hitler now
called the National Socialist Party. Nazism had arrived.

But in 1923 it was neither national nor socialist; in fact Hitler declared at meeting after meeting that real socialism actually meant being anti-Jewish, being racist. In Hemingway’s terms it was effectively a party of nada, of nothing. Hitler’s strategy - if it can be called that - was to appeal to the negative feelings and fears of the German voter. In the end it worked and a handful of weak democracies - who had never really been put to the test before - allowed the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century to happen. Not much later those same democracies - and just a few right minded politicians - had to correct those earlier mistakes, but at what a cost in human lives, and human misery.

Those inter-war years created - for a short time - an almost radical Hemingway who vowed to do whatever he could to destroy such people as Mussolini and Hitler.

As a reporter Hemingway warned the world early of the dangers of Hitler,
as he had of Mussolini. But no one listened. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933 the whole world seemed enamoured by the man, by his speeches and his uniforms, by the parades and the mass gatherings, by the new autobahns, and the peoples’ car designed by Mr Porsche, and full employment, and a growing army, and an air force pretending to be an airline called Lufthansa. And the world even seemed to accept the newly built concentration camps where Jews - who had once owned department stores, or engineering works, or were world renowned scientists or scholars, or had played in the great German orchestras - were sent, along with communists and trade unionists and anyone else who had the nerve to speak their mind, to be ‘re-educated.’

But in March 1923, as Hemingway and Hadley left Germany and headed for a
skiing holiday in Italy, and thought about making a trip back home to America, and Hadley knew for sure she was pregnant, an artistic renaissance was taking place - had been taking place for a couple of years - of which Hemingway’s Three Stories, and Ten Poems was a small, but not insignificant part.

In Germany Thomas Mann was writing The Magic Mountain. In Italy a nomadic, and increasingly ill D.H. Lawrence, was working on his novel The Lost Girl, and smarting at the poor sales of Women in Love (the sequel to The Rainbow, published just two years earlier in 1921), and constantly falling out with his German wife, Frieda, and if that wasn’t enough, continually shouting at their small dog which refused to stop barking at the cicadas. He also had the bright idea of writing a book about a game keeper.

In Burma George Orwell (Eric Blair) was serving with the Indian Imperial Police and writing the first draft of a novel that eventually became /Burmese Days/, and becoming increasingly disenchanted with the British Empire. In England the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence was, when not serving as a private in either the Tank Corp, or the RAF, hard at work on the manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. At The Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon the pipe smoking William Bridges-Adams was directing the young Cedric Hardwicke in George Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married; while in London thriller writer Edgar Wallace staged hit play after hit play.

In Paris James Joyce’s Ulysses had been published by Shakespeare & Co and was selling well. Picasso was on a roll. Scott Fitzgerald was living off his short stories and working on The Great Gatsby, while the gorgeous Mistinguett was starring at Le Moulin Rouge.

In Mexico the painter Frida Kahlo was still a student but creating work of an unusual brilliance. A tragic accident would turn her into a genius. In America Bessie Smith had become a huge star and was one of the first black female blues singers to broadcast on the new medium of radio. Duke Ellington had taken his first band, The Washingtonians, to New York in 1923 (with Sidney Bechet in the reed section) where he wowed the invariably white Harlem audiences. In 1927 he’d return as musical director of The Cotton Club.

In fact Harlem had its own cultural renaissance that included such people as Charles Gilpin, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larson, John Bubbles, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Paul Robeson, and of course, Louis Armstrong.

Duke Ellington was barely four months older than Hemingway and had been born in the early hours of the 29th April 1899 as president William McKinley slept peacefully in the White House where his grandfather sometimes worked. As Ellington was born, and just a few hours to the west in Oak Park, Grace Hemingway rose from her bed and made her way downstairs to the music room where she played some Bach on the piano in an effort to comfort her restless unborn child.
As Hemingway’s strongest influences were the Civil War stories of his grandfathers, Ellington’s was the music he heard coming from the ballroom of the White House: the controlled, yet strangely liberated sound of a military band playing favourites tunes of the day. Ellington’s music became the soundtrack of the first half of the 20th century, Hemingway’s stories, and novels, the narrative.

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