Littell's Living Age/Volume 144/Issue 1856/A Silesian Country House
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Volume 144, Issue 1856 : A Silesian Country House
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|Originally published in The Saturday Review.|
There is a dismal tract of country between the German Ocean and the mountains of Saxony, bordered on the west by Holland and on the east by Poland, which forms the nucleus of the Prussian kingdom. Berlin is placed in its midst, and no one who has travelled by daylight from Hamburg or Bremen to that most uninteresting of European capitals can fail to understand some at least of the causes which combine to form the singularly unimaginative character of the ordinary North-German. An immense sandy plain on which verdure and cultivation are principally represented by melancholy pine forests, and which is sparsely dotted with tiny, red-roofed villages; no welcome hill to break the oppressive monotony of the distant horizon—such is the landscape which for mile after mile stupefies the faculties of the unlucky traveller. After such a journey we can but feel that the ugliness and the dreariness of the capital are in strict accordance with the fitness of things.
Our destination, however, lies south of Berlin, and as the train speeds onwards we notice with relief some undulations, even reaching the dignity of low hills, and the range of the Riesen Gebirge, which forms the Bohemian frontier, shows faintly blue before us. In the nearer distance rises a curious conical hill, detached from any range, and apparently an outlier of the Saxon volcanic system. It is entirely composed of basalt, and at the mouth of the ancient crater are to be found perfectly fresh-looking scoriæ. Basaltic columns are often placed at the sides of the high-roads of the district, and the hard, volcanic rock is in some request for road-making. Presently, as we are bumping along the paving of the Landstrasse, we perceive a much pleasanter-looking division of the road, free from pavement; but we are not allowed to shirk the jolting for that is the Sornmerweg, and must only be used in dry weather; and somehow, at whatever season of the year we find ourselves on that road, it is never the right time for the Sommerweg. But even long German miles must come to an end at last, and after passing the little white church With its red roof and tiny spire, the carriage draws up before a good-sized house, originally in the shape of a Latin cross, but somewhat altered by modern hands since the Knights of St. John built it some centuries hack. Its date is not known, but it succeeded an alte Schloss, the moat of which still surrounds a tree-covered islet. The first domestic fact which strikes us is the exceedingly small stature of the menservants; the footman, clad in a marvellous green livery turned up with racoon fur, knee-breeches, and gaiters, stands about five feet high, and the coachman is smaller still. It is explained by our hosts that the taller men are more liable to be suddenly called upon to fight for their Vaterland, whereas these small people would only be called out in the case of a very pressing emergency. So there is an amiable rivalry among the great ladies as to who shall secure the shortest servant. The great feature in the day is undoubtedly dinner, which takes place at two or three in the afternoon, when the food is of that frightfully substantial kind wherein the German nation excels. The length of the meal on occasion of a party is appalling, and it is apt to be taken for rudeness if one of the unfortunate guests finds it out of his power to do ample justice to every dish. Two gastronomic delicacies belong especially to Silesia; one is Pumpernickel, the blackest rye bread, which, eaten with cheese, is not unpalatable; the other, Spickgans, being salted strips of raw goose, is somewhat startling to an English mind, but it is eaten with infinite gusto by all classes of the natives. There is a fish, said to be only found in the Elbe and its tributaries, which is in some request—it is the Sande, or pike-perch. As in other parts of the Continent, so also here, the fish appears about the middle of the dinner. After their coffee the gentlemen play a kind of long whist for small points, while the ladies, left to themselves, knit, talk, and play or sing. About seven or eight there is supper, and towards ten the guests depart. Some of the more modern-minded people are beginning to shorten these wearisome entertainments, but they are still carried out to their fullest extent in the country.
Our host probably fills the office of Amtsvorsteher, in which he combines the duties of magistrate and policeman. He has to settle disputes between masters and servants, husbands and wives; to fix the day of any village festivity, such as the Schutz-feste; to give permission for a dance at a public-house; and to arrest and imprison any suspicious characters whom he may come across. Just now, when the dread of Socialism is influencing so strongly the mind of the government, this last duty is no sinecure. Anyone who, on being questioned, cannot give a satisfactory account of himself, is liable to be imprisoned at the magistrate’s pleasure. The prison consists of a room at the back of a cottage close by, where the prisoner is well lodged and fed; and in one instance within our knowledge, where the Herr Baron is the most amiable of mortals, the culprit was sent on his journey the next day furnished, for his physical and spiritual improvement, with some cigars and a New Testament. Where the power is exercised leniently, as in this case, the system may not work badly; but it seems a dangerous weapon to place in the hands of practically irresponsible persons, and one can but tremble at the thought of what may happen when the iron hand that now crushes out all liberty of thought and action shall be relaxed in death, and when weaker wills may in vain strive to stem the torrent so long repressed by force. For liberty does not exist in Prussia in any sense in which we understand the word. A peasant may not build a cottage on his own land without a previous visit from the government inspector to ascertain that the precise legal distance from the road (not what we call a high-road, but simply a footpath through the fields) is not infringed. A farmer may be compelled to keep the servant with whom he has quarrelled. There is incessant petty meddling in the affairs of private persons. And, whatever may be the objections occasionally made to the decisions of a bench of English county magistrates, surely it would be a far worse state of things were single squires allowed to enforce the law on their own estates with no formality or check of any kind.
The village consists of three divisions—Ober, Mittel, and Nieder— but the houses are nearly continuous, and its total length must be four miles. The houses are all detached, and each stands in its own little plot of ground; a little further back a second smaller building is usually to be seen, provided for the comfort of the parents when the eldest son marries. They are all built of wood and plaster, in something of the same style as the picturesque farmhouses in some of our midland counties, with deeply overhanging eaves. A dog is always tied up near the house, and there are usually a few cows, sometimes goats. The peasants appear well-to-do and industrious; but they drink a great deal of the highly intoxicating Schnapps distilled from potatoes, which are grown for this purpose in great quantities all over the district, and drunkenness is but too common. The early or late arrival of the postman is supposed to be according to the number of houses where he has been treated to Schnapps that morning. There is apparently an almost total absence of religious feeling among the peasantry. Very few attend the Sunday services, which are certainly not attractive by their liveliness; and the Herr Pastor, a well-meaning man of the Dissenting-minister type, has little influence with them. Sunday is not observed more strictly than in Roman Catholic countries, the only perceptible difference being that it is not considered correct in Silesia for gentlemen to go out shooting on Sundays; but it is the favorite day for dinner-parties. The government schoolmasters are often professed infidels, besides being a very ignorant set of men; and the children grow up wild, and ready to receive any mischievous teaching that may come in their way.
All about the district are scattered villages of the Wends, a Slav race who have retained their own language, habits, and dress in the midst of the German population for many centuries. They are curious-looking, folk, short and square, with high cheekbones; they intermarry and live entirely among themselves. It is not uncommon to find two villages of the same name a mile or two apart, called Deutsch and Windisch so-and-so. It is asserted that the Wends only became Christian in the last generation, and that they are still very superstitious with regard to snakes, which they will not kill; it is said that some hundreds of snakes (we presume of a harmless kind) once spent the winter curled up together in the lower story of a Wendish dwelling. These strange people are looked upon with considerable antipathy by their German neighbors, and most likely the feeling is reciprocated, as the Wends must consider themselves the original possessors of the country.
People who are interested in the question of the disposal of superfluous female population may take an opportunity of paying a visit to one of those institutions, peculiar to North Germany, for the maintenance of destitute ladies of high birth. Since a well-born German girl can by no means condescend to earn her bread, and since the number of noble paupers is large, benevolent men have built and endowed many a Stift in Silesia and Saxony for their reception. The appointment of the ladies is in the hands of a committee; but each must have a certain number of quarterings, and sometimes preference is given to "Founder’s kin;" the number is limited, and at the head is a Stiftshofmeisterin, who is appointed by the crown, and who in virtue of her office takes a high rank of precedence at court. The ladies need not be orphans, and if their parents are alive they spend so many months in the year with them; if they marry, a suitable dowry is provided for them. In many cases they spend their whole lives in the Stift. The Meisterin has absolute control over the others, and has to keep peace and order, which must sometimes be a difficult task among a dozen or more idle women. One Stift, which is just within the Saxon frontier, and where the ladies are half Saxons, half Prussians, is on a palatial scale. It was built about two hundred years ago in the Italian style, with a grand approach of steps and terraces; within is a great marble hall with magnificent staircases on either side. On the first floor is a saloon forty feet high, with a painted ceiling, and on the same floor are the guests’ rooms and the Meisterin’s suite of apartments. The ladies are lodged above, the seniors having two rooms; they all furnish the rooms themselves, and very pretty many of them are. They have their private laundry, their maids, and their carriages; and, in fact, every luxury to which their birth may be considered to entitle them. The endowment funds are invested in farms, which are rapidly increasing in value; so that there is absolutely a surplus of revenue. One cannot help wondering, how these luxurious institutions would fare under a democratic order of things. Their raison d’être is not likely to be perceived by any but the aristocratic class for whom they are founded, and whom alone they benefit. Wisely, as it seems to us, the committee has recently agreed that some of the superfluous income shall be devoted to the support of a school for the neighboring peasants’ children; and this school is established in the Stift grounds. There seems to be a lack of interests and occupations among the ladies; and no wonder, for cultivation of the intellectual powers does not come at present within the German scheme of female education. They can all play the piano and sing, often very well; but they have little knowledge of the works of the great composers, and prefer the emptiest modern music. It must be a dreary life to enter upon at eighteen; for the chances of marriage are not very many, and no other career is open to them.
As far as a foreigner’s observations go, the Prussian social system appears to be in a most precarious condition. The lower classes are in a state of ferment and upheaval; while the nobility is crystallized, with its medieval institutions, its antiquated habits of thought, and its utter want of sympathy with any class but its own. The Evangelisch form of faith has proved an utter failure, as might have been expected from its origin; it is dead already with respect to any influence it may have over the people; morality is undermined, party spirit runs high, and there is little feeling of security in the country. We have plenty of time for reflection on these and kindred topics during our homeward voyage from one of the free cities to London, which we reach with our feelings of attachment to our native land considerably strengthened by force of contrast.