War is coming, and this installment brings us to the cusp of 50k works: 49,580. If I had to guess right now, Volume One will weigh in at about 175k.
Friday, July 31st. Walter arrived in the workers’ room at six-forty and found it already bustling. He was not the only one who had had the idea of arriving early in order to see the headlines. There were knots of people scattered around the room, each crowded around a newspaper. Walter looked around for people he knew.
Strange how in such a short time -- what had it been, ten days, perhaps? -- new routines had grown up around the endless need for news. Already the crisis seemed to have become a constant. Get up early, eat while walking to the Cycleworks, see and discuss the headlines with the other workers. The normalcy made it seem as if it would go on and on, and that itself was in a sense a comfort because it meant that war would never actually come.
Kurt was sitting atop one of the tables, a short stemmed pipe clamped between his teeth, holding up a paper and reading snatches from it. Walter drew closer to that group and scanned the headline: “RUSSIA MOBILIZES, Government Demands Russia Stand Down”
“Russia claims that it’s only a partial mobilization along the Austrian border,” Kurt said. “The Kaiser and the Tsar both say they want peace.”
“What do they mean partial mobilization?” one of the onlookers asked. “Are they mobilizing or aren’t they?”
Kurt shrugged. “Doesn’t say. The Chancellor demands that they fully cancel the mobilization.”
“Are they attacking Austria?”
“It just says mobilizing.”
“God, what’s wrong with these Russians? Do they want a war?”
Kurt continued to read, summarize and answer questions until the bell rang for the shift to start, when he knocked out his pipe, folded the paper, and headed rapidly for the production line. The groups broke up as well and workers drifted to their stations, though talk continued on the floor.
When Walter reached his station he found a folded piece of paper with his name on it waiting for him. He opened it and read the brief instruction, “Come see me immediately. Meyer.” He folded the paper up, shoved it into his pocket, and headed back across the floor to the iron stair. With others just starting to settle down to work this drew more notice than usual, and one acquaintance at the enameling station shouted, “How’d you get in trouble this early, Walter?”
Meyer was sorting mail at his desk, tearing open letters, scanning them, and then dropped them into different baskets.
“I got your note, Herr Meyer.”
“Good. Sit down. I have something I want to discuss with you.”
Walter sat, and Meyer continued to sort until he had worked through his stack of mail. Then he lined the baskets up neatly on the left side of his desk and turned his attention to Walter.
“I have a form here that I want you to sign.” He pushed a piece of paper with large, official looking, Gothic lettering across the top. “It’s a request for exemption from reserve service due to essential war work. Most of my men here were never selected to serve their two years active duty -- the army doesn’t want a bunch of socialist agitators any more than I do -- so they don’t have anything to worry about unless the Landsturm is called up. More’s the pity. Marching every day under the orders of a good sergeant would make them realize how good they have it here. You, on the other hand, are still active reserve. If there’s a mobilization order, which judging by the papers could happen any day, you’d likely be called up immediately. And you I don’t want to lose. I’ve talked to a friend in the Ministry of War, and he says that if I have you file the appropriate paperwork, even if it’s not processed in time you can simply not show up at mobilization and once the paperwork clears your exemption will be granted. But we need to get it filed now. We can’t wait till you’re already called up, or I’ll have to let you go and then try to get you sent back. So,” he nudged the paper close to Walter. “Fill it out: Your depot. Your regiment. Your Company. Your name and military identification number. Sign at the bottom, and I’ll get it filed and stamped today so that whatever happens we’re in the right.”
Walter tried to skim the block of legal text filling the top half of the form as Meyer spoke but found it impenetrable to his half attention. The excuse seemed an attractive prospect. Certainly, the memories of his two years in uniform were not particularly fond, especially the chronic shortage of food which could only be made up by begging his mother to send packages from home. And yet there was something about Meyer’s assumption that he would apply for the exemption, that he was Meyer’s man rather than the Kaiser’s, which sat poorly with him. Just as the Brandenburg Gate had stood above the peace march three days before, huge and indifferent to the protest of the workers passing below it, there was at least some sense in which the army and the empire was something which stood above and aloof from the divide between management and workers, between Meyer and the Ehrlichmanns.
Ever since the offer of the foreman job people had been demanding that he take sides. Side with Meyer or side with Paul. A future with more responsibility and better pay, or a future in which he had a chance with Berta. Perhaps this other, higher road provided a way to satisfy all of these. Earn responsibility and leadership. Satisfy his mother’s desire for a more respectable occupation. Excel in a way that Berta could still find attractive. What would Berta think of a soldier? Or with a little time, and luck, perhaps a sergeant?
And this paper Meyer was pushing towards him meant turning away from that higher allegiance and taking Meyer’s side in the smaller conflict between bosses and organizers. If only there were more time to think it all out.
“Do you think there really will be war?” he asked. “Or that they’ll call up the reserves?”
“Who knows? I think it’s just as likely it will all blow over. But if so, there’s still no harm in getting this filed. Why have the possibility of being called up hanging over you? You’re not just an East Prussian village boy anymore. You’ll be managing a manufacturing line. That’s important work. They can always get peasants to carry rifles.”
“Protecting the Fatherland is important work.”
Meyer flushed slightly, and Walter realized this last must have sounded as if he were questioning the owner’s patriotism. “Of course it is! But see here: They’ll have five million men carrying rifles if they mobilize the reserves. How many of those men can build a folding bicycle? If war comes that test order for two hundred bicycles will turn into orders for thousands. We’ll run shifts around the clock. Think what a bicycle trooper can do compared to an infantry man on foot! He could cover sixty miles a day instead of twenty. If you want to serve the Kaiser, you’ll do it better here.”
“I understand that, but-” From what came after that there could be no return. He hesitated on the brink.
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