I WANT TO TELL YOU THE STORY OF a German named Franz. He's not a real person, just the creation of my cynical imagination and, I'm sure, of statistical probability. But I have thought of him so many times in recent months that Franz, quite old but still sturdy, has become real to me. He was born with the century itself into a prosperous family in the gracious city of Weimar. Goethe lived there and Buchenwald was built there and Franz, because it is my wont, began life there.
At the age of 18, Franz was commissioned a lieutenant in the German army. True, it was not the cavalry (his father's branch), but the artillery had status, not to mention a dress uniform Franz recalled as "resplendent." In August, Franz boarded a train for Potsdam and, in a ceremony attended by the Kaiser himself, swore his allegiance to his country and his monarch. Eight days later, Franz was gassed in Belgium.
When the war ended in November, Franz was in a hospital in Bavaria. The bracing mountain air had been good for him, and throughout his life he returned to the area around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, occasionally to ski but mostly just to rest. "I go there to breathe," he used to say. Franz busied himself with the family business, the making of chocolate miniatures -- the annual Christmas collection was renowned in all of Europe. He was in Weimar when the German constitutional convention met there and created the first German democracy. Franz, a reserve officer, swore his allegiance to it. He cried at the time.
Franz maintains that he always favored democracy, but in truth it's hard to tell. He admits that his family's business did not prosper during the Weimar period -- first the incredible inflation and then the worldwide recession. But he was never one of those, he says, who welcomed the Nazis, although bear in mind (he whispers) that the communist threat was great. He was only 33 when the Nazis came to power -- 33 and a captain in the reserves. The new government demanded a pledge of allegiance. Once again, Franz complied.
Franz does not recall the clearing of the forest that occurred not too far outside Weimar nor the hustle and bustle that accompanied the building of the concentration camp. He concedes that Buchenwald was, really, almost walking distance from Weimar, but he never walked that way and neither did anyone he knew. He knew about the camp -- "Who didn't?" he says -- but not what it was for. "Maybe for scouting, we thought. Sounds silly now, I know, but that's what we thought."
My Franz -- I do not know what to make of him. He is my creation, but I don't know when he is sincere and when he is insincere, and, worse, I don't think he knows either. I know he considers himself an essentially good man -- "No different from you," he tells me. Almost certainly he is right. Almost certainly.
By 1940, Franz was once again in uniform. He served for a while in France and then was transferred to North Africa. From there he went to Italy and retreated the entire length of that peninsula. In 1944, after the attempt on the life of Hitler, Franz was once again asked to take an oath of allegiance. Once again he did so.
War's end found Franz in East Prussia, on garrison duty in the area of the Masurian swamps, where the great Hindenburg had won the battle of Tannenberg in 1914. In the general confusion, Franz managed to walk the 700 miles back to Weimar -- "Two months of sights you would not ever want to see" -- and, apparently, avoid capture by Soviet forces. At any rate, Franz managed to reestablish himself in Weimar but not, of course, in the chocolate business. It was nationalized, seized by the new communist government. Rather than stay on as a mere worker in his old factory, he chose instead to become the desk clerk at the Hotel Elephant. He knew the place well. Before the war, he had frequented its dining room.
In 1948, Franz joined the Stasi, the secret police. He did not tell me this, but I found out anyway. As a hotel desk clerk, it could not have been otherwise. It was his job, his duty, to report all those who came and went -- not only hotel guests who, of course, were reported to the police every night at 6:30, but also people who ate in the dining room or simply sat in the lobby, near the stunted palm. Franz missed nothing. He was both a good hotel clerk and a good little snitch. Of course, he had also taken an oath of allegiance. He was getting good at that as well.
In 1965, Franz retired. He spent his days in the Goethe Library and reading the newspaper in the lobby of the Hotel Elephant. I suppose he was no longer in the Stasi since his usefulness would have ended with his retirement, but Franz would not say one way or another. The years passed. In nearby Leipzig, demonstrations were underway and reunification was coming. Franz knew this and said he welcomed it.
I am told that when unification was achieved there was a celebration in Weimar's town square. A Lutheran minister said a prayer and songs were sung, and then Franz, as the oldest man present, was asked to say a few words. With his walking stick held high, Franz was borne to the front of the crowd, and there, facing the Hotel Elephant, he said he had lived under many governments and could only thank God that this day had come. The world had nothing to fear from German reunification, he said, and he proposed -- where did the idea come from? -- a pledge of allegiance.