The White Morning
by Gertrude Atherton
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I had an apartment for seven years in Munich and spent six or eight months alternately in that delightful city and traveling in Europe, passing a month or two in England, or returning for an equal length of time to my own country. During that long residence in Germany I naturally met many of its inhabitants, and of as many classes as possible. German women do not tell you the history of their lives the first time you meet them, not by any means; they are naturally secretive and the reverse of frank. But they are human, and when you have won their confidence they will tell you surprising things. The confidences I received were for the most part from girls, and one and all assured me they never should marry. Having grown up under one House Tyrant, for whom they were not responsible, why in heaven's name should they deliberately annex another? Far, far better bear with the one whose worst at least they knew (and who could not live forever), than marry some man who might be loathsome as well as tyrannical, and who, unless there happened to be a war, might outlive them?

The idea in my novel of the four Niebuhr girls and their initial rebellion was suggested to me by a family of Prussian junkerdom that I met at a watering place in Denmark. The baroness was a charming woman who used a moderate invalidism in a smiling imperturbable fashion to insure herself a certain immunity from the demands of her autocratic lord. The girls were lively, intelligent, splendidly educated. They were in love with society and court functions, but deeply rebellious at the attitude of the German male, and determined never to marry. That is to say the three younger girls; the oldest had married a tame puppy, and anything less like a tyrant I never beheld. No American husband could be more subservient. But there was no question that he belonged to a small exceptional class: while his wife, with all the dominating qualities of her father, was one of a rapidly increasing number of German women, silently but firmly rebellious.

The Herr baron was a typical Prussian aristocrat and autocrat. The girls could hardly have had less liberty in a convent. When they came from their hotel to mine he escorted them over and often came in. Luckily he liked me or I never should have had the opportunity to know them as well as I did. Nor should I have been able to continue the acquaintance after the day I wickedly induced them to run away with me to Copenhagen, where we shopped, promenaded all the principal streets, then took ices on the terrace of one of the restaurants. When we returned he was storming up and down the platform of the station, and he fairly raved at the girls. "And you dared, you dared, to go to Copenhagen, without permission, without your mother, without me!" The girls listened meekly, but whenever he wheeled laughed behind his military back. Then he turned on me, but I called him a tyrant and gave him my opinion of his nonsensical attitude generally. As I was not his daughter he gradually calmed down and seemed rather to relish the tirade. Finally they all came over to my hotel to tea.

"You see!" said one of the girls to me afterward. "I have not exaggerated. Do you think I want another like that?" And, so far as I know, they have never married.

I did not draw any of my characters on these four delightful girls, but took the episode as a foundation for the incidents and characters that grew under my hand after I got round to the story.

The episode of Georg Zottmyer was also told me by a German girl whom I got to know very well in Munich, and who distantly suggested the character of Gisela (that is to say in the very beginning. As Gisela developed she became more like her own legendary Brunhilda).[1]

This young woman was as independent in her life and in her ideas as any I ever met in England or the United States. But fortune had been kind to her. Her father died just after her education was finished, and as he left little money, she went to Brazil as governess in a wealthy family. She remained in South America for several years, gaining, of course, poise and experience. Then a relative died and left her a comfortable fortune. When I met her she was living in Munich from choice, like so many other Germans who were bored with routine and rigid class lines.

She was a beautiful young woman, with dark hair and eyes and a brilliant complexion, and dressed to perfection, although she wore no stays. This may have been a bit of vanity on her part, as the awful reformkleid was in vogue, and fat German women were displaying themselves in lumps and creases and billows and sections that rolled like the untrammelled waves of the sea. Her own figure was so firmly molded and so erect and supple that it was, for all her fashionable clothes, quite independent of the corset. She had charming manners combined with an imperturbable serenity, and always seemed faintly amused. On the other hand, she displayed none of the offensive German conceit and arrogance.

We spent several days together at Partenkirchen, one of the most picturesque spots in the Bavarian Alps, and as we were both good walkers, and there was no one else in the hotel who interested us, we became quite intimate. She was one of the first to talk to me about the deep discontent and disgust of the German women, and of her own utter contempt for the meek hausfrau type, and for the tyrannies, petty, coarse, often brutal, of the man in his home. Nothing, she was determined, would ever tempt her to marry, and she could name many others who were making an independent life for themselves, although, lacking fortune, often in secret. No matter how much she might fancy herself in love (and I imagine that she had had her enlightening experiences) she would not risk a lifelong clash of wills with a man who might turn out to be a medieval despot.

It was then that she told me of the tentative proposal of one of her beaux (she had many) "Georg Zottmyer," which I have recorded almost literally in the scene between this passing character and Gisela in the Cafe Luitpolt. My object in doing so was to give as realistic an impression as possible of what the German woman is up against in dealings with her male. I knew Zottmyer personally, and he interested me the more (as one is interested in a bug under a microscope) because he had less excuse for his conceit and arrogance than most German men: he was brought up in California, where his father is a successful doctor. But that only seemed to have made him worse. He returned to Germany as soon as he was of age, more German than the Germans, and despising Americans.

I had often wondered what became of this highly interesting young woman, and when I began to write The White Morning she popped into my mind. I believe she could be a leader of some kind if she chose. Perhaps she is.

The cases could be multiplied indefinitely. The Erkels and Mimi Brandt are drawn, together with their conditions, almost photographically. "Heloise" finally married a Scot and went with him to his own country, but her sisters were dragging out their tragic lives when I left Munich.

A few days ago I met a highly intelligent American woman of German blood who, before the war, used to visit her relatives in Germany every year. I told her that I had written this story and she agreed with me that it was on the cards the women would instigate a revolution. "Never," she said, "in any country have I known such discontent among women, heard so many bitter confidences. Their feelings against their fathers or husbands were the more intense and violent because they dared not speak out like English or American women."

There is no question that for about fifteen years before the war there was a thinking, secret, silent, watchful but outwardly passive revolt going on among the women of Germany. I do not think it had then reached the working women. It took the war to wake them up. But in that vast class which, in spite of racial industry, had a certain amount of leisure, owing to the almost total absence of poverty in the Teutonic Empire, and whose minds were educated and systematically trained, there was persistent reading, meditating upon the advance of women in other nations, quiet debating unsuspected of their masters; and they were growing in numbers and in an almost sinister determination every year. Of course there were plenty of hausfraus cowed to the door mat, and, like the proletariat, needing a war to wake them up; but there were several hundred thousand of the other sort.

Now, all these women need is a leader. The working women have their Rosa Luxemburgs, who think out loud in public and get themselves locked up; and, moreover, do not appeal to the other classes—for Germany is the most snobbish country in the world. If there were—or if there is—such a woman as Gisela Doering, who before the war had acquired a widespread intellectual influence over the awakening women of her race, and then, when they were approaching the breaking point, had gone quietly and systematically about making a revolution, there is no question in my mind as to the outcome.

Just consider for a moment what the German women have suffered during this war—a war that they were told was forced upon their country by the aggressive military acts of Russia and France, but which, owing to Germany's might, would hardly last three months. For nearly three years they have never known the sensation of appeased hunger, and, having always been immense eaters, have suffered the tortures of dyspepsia in addition to hunger. But, far worse, they have listened almost continuously to the wails of their children for satisfying food, children who are forever hungry and who often succumb. Karl Ackerman, whose accuracy no one has questioned, states in his book, Germany, The Next Republic?, that in 1916 sixty thousand children died of malnutrition in Berlin alone.

These women have lost their fathers, husbands, sons—well, that is the fortune of any war; but they are beginning to understand that they have lost them, not in a war of self-defense, but to gratify the insane ambitions and greed of a dynasty and a military caste that are out of date in the twentieth century. Their parents, when over sixty, have died from the same cause as the children. Their daughters, both unmarried and newly widowed, are "officially pregnant," or the mothers of brats the name of whose fathers they do not know. The young girls of Lille hardly have suffered more. The German victims are sent for, then sent home to bear another child for Germany.

Now, we know what the German men are. These women are the mothers and wives and sisters of the German men; in other words, they are Germans, body, and bone and brain-cells, capable of precisely the same ruthless tactics when pushed too hard—if they have a leader. That, to my mind, is the whole point. Given that leader, they would effect a revolution precisely as I have described in my story. Nor would they run the risk of failure. The German race is not eight-tenths illiterates and two-tenths intellectuals, emotional firebrands, anarchists and sellers-out like the Russians. They are uniformly educated, uniformly disciplined. They will do nothing futile, nothing without the most secret and methodical preparation of which even the German mind is capable. It will be like turning over in bed in camp: they will all turn over together. They are damnably efficient.

It may be said: "But you may have spoiled their chances with your book. You not only have revealed them in their true character to their men, but all the details of their probable methods in working up and precipitating a revolution. You have, in other words, put the German authorities on their guard."

The answer to this is that no German of the dominant sex could be made to believe in anything so unprecedented as German women taking the law into their own hands, uniting, and overthrowing a dynasty. Nothing can penetrate a German official skull but what has been trained into it from birth. Unlike the women, the system has made the men of the ruling class into the sort of machine which is perfect in its way but admits of no modern improvements. That has been the secret of their strength and of their weakness, and will be the chief assistance to the Allies in bringing about their final defeat. I am positive they go to sleep every night murmuring: "Two and two make four. Two and two make four."

The women could hold meetings under their very noses, so long as they were not in the street, lay their plans to the last fuse, and apply the match at the preconcerted moment from one end of Germany to the other unhindered, unless betrayed. The angry and restless male socialists would not have a chance with the alert members of their own sex—who regard women with an even and contemptuous tolerance. Useful but harmless.

I made Gisela a junker by birth, because a rebel from the top, with qualities of leadership, would make a deeper impression in Germany than one of the many avowed extremists of humbler origin. On the other hand, it was necessary to drop the von, and take a middle-class name, or she would have failed to win confidence, in the beginning, as well as literary success; from opposite reasons. It is very difficult for an aristocratic German of artistic talents to obtain a hearing. Practically all the intellectuals belong to the middle-class, the aristocrats being absorbed by the army and navy. The arrogance and often brutal lack of consideration of the ruling caste, to say nothing of common politeness, have inspired universal jealousy and hatred, the more poignant as it must be silent. But even the silent may find their means of vengeance, as the noble discovers when he attempts recognition in the intellectual world. But if he were a propagandist, with the welfare of all Germany at heart, and won his influence under an assumed name, as Gisela Doering did, the revelation of his identity, together with proof of dissociation from his own class, would enhance his popularity immensely. Moreover, it would be incense to the vanity of classes that never are permitted to forget their inferior rank.

In this country there is a snobbish tendency to exalt and boom any writer who is known to belong to one of the old and wealthy families; and the more snobbish the writer the more infectious the disease. But then in this country, which has never suffered from militarism, there is a naive tendency to worship success in any form. In Germany my heroine would have doomed herself to failure if she had signed her work Gisela von Niebuhr. But her early education, surroundings, position,—to say nothing of her four years in the United States—were just what gave her the requisite advantages, and preserved her from many mistakes. She starts out with no prejudices against any caste, and an intense sympathy for all German women who lack even the compensation of being hochwohlgeboren.

No one knows what the future holds, or what unexpected event will suddenly end the war; but I should not have written The White Morning if I had not been firmly convinced that a Gisela might arise at any moment and deliver the world.


[Footnote 1: For this reason I asked the most beautiful woman I have ever seen of the heroic or goddess type to be photographed for the frontispiece.—G.A.]


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