In Germany

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/August 12, 1910

The prosperity of Germany, during the past decade or two, has become the envy and despair of the other countries of Europe. Time was when the Germans, as a people, were pitifully poor. The survival of what was practically feudalism kept them divided into small and antagonistic groups and they lacked altogether those opportunities for progress upon a grand scale which arise out of intelligent co-operation and the pooling of resources. But the Franco-Prussian war lifted that handicap from them, and ever since then, particularly since the beginning of the present Kaiser’s reign, they have been getting ahead with great strides. Today they threaten the manufactures of France and the foreign trade of Great Britain. The mines and factories are working day and night; their ports are crowded with shipping; they exhibit all the outward signs of opulence.

But has this national prosperity brought much of real benefit to the common people of the land? Apparently not. Industrial unrest was never more noticeable in Germany than it is today; the Socialists never faced a situation more favorable to their propaganda. The frenzied enterprise of the past 15 years has made scores of millionaires, but it has also made thousands of paupers. The reason is not far to seek. The upbuilding of German manufactures has been fostered by high protective tariffs, and those tariffs have doubled and quadrupled the cost of the necessities of life. And the upbuilding of the merchant marine, and of the great navy which protects it, has cost billions of marks, and the result has been heavy increase in direct taxes. The average German of today is thus in a worse case than the average American, for the disproportion between wages and cost of living is even greater in Germany than it is in the United States.

This fact is clearly revealed by the report of an English Parliamentary committee, composed entirely of Laborite members, which recently visited Germany. The committee found that in Germany, as well as here, the price of good meat is well over 20 cents a pound and of good butter well over 30 cents and of good tea well over 60 cents. Ordinary coffee costs the German housewife 30 cents a pound, sugar costs 6 cents and common cheese from 16 to 30 cents. The usual price of kitchen coal, despite the short hauls, is $6 a ton, milk costs 8 cents a quart and eggs seldom drop below 18 cents, even in May. Canned goods are beyond the reach of the workingman. Only beer, flour and fresh vegetables in season are cheap.

Consider now the ruling wages. Those of the German printers offer a good opportunity for comparison. The printers of Germany are well organized, fully 95 per cent of them being union men. But what is the union scale? In Leipzig, the centre of the German printing trade, the minimum is 30 marks ($7.50) a week for hand compositors and 37½ marks ($9.40) for linotype operators. The American printer gets between two and three times as much. In Baltimore, for example, the linotype operators in job offices get $21 a week and will get $22.50 after January 1 next. In the afternoon newspaper offices they already get $22.50, and in morning paper offices they are paid $24. The minimum rate for hand compositor on day work in newspaper offices is $21 and on night work $21.60. In New York the minimum for linotype operators is $28 for day work and $31 for night work. The week of the American union printer consists of 42 hours. The week of his German brothers, save in the comparatively few Socialist newspaper offices, consists of 54 hours.

Even England Is Ahead

In Berlin the union scale is about 5 per cent higher than in Leipzig, but in practically all other German cities it is actually lower. In some of the small towns, for example, union printers get 26 marks ($6.50) a week and when dullness strikes the trade many of them accept even less. The English committee, which included George H. Roberts, Member of Parliament, a leader of the English printers and chief whip of the Labor party in the House of Commons, was vastly astonished by these figures, for in London, where the union printers have been agitating for more pay for a good while, the union scale is 39 shillings (nearly $10) for a week of 52 hours, and in most of the provincial cities of the United Kingdom it is 36½ shillings. English printers once looked with envy toward their German brethren. Now they know that they themselves are far better off.

The unskilled laborer in Germany is more fortunate, comparatively speaking, than the skilled workman, for the difference between their respective earnings is a good deal less than in this country. At Dusseldorf, for example, laborers employed in the textile mills, glass works and machine shops are commonly paid half a mark an hour, and so a week of 60 hours gives them 30 marks, or $7.50. But the cost of living is so high in all such factory towns that the workman is scarcely able to provide for his family, even when work is regular and wages high.

A Laborer’s Budget

The English committee made an elaborate inquiry into the average income and expenditures of a typical Dusseldorf laborer. It found that his income worked out to $5.25 a week the year round, and that he had to pay $7.50 a month for the three rooms in which he, his wife and their children lived. In addition he paid the excessive tax of $6 a year upon his scant belongings. That man and his wife ate meat once a week; their children seldom tasted it. Milk, eggs, tea, sweetmeats, canned goods and all the other things which add variety and attractiveness to the American workman’s bill of fare never entered the house. The staff of life there was black bread, bought at 3½ cents a pound.

So much for German prosperity. Enough has been set forth to show that, save on the surface, it is not very real. The trouble in the Kaiser’s empire, of course, is that success in the world’s markets has been bought at too dear a price. The German manufacturer, like his American rival, sells his goods cheaper in England than at home. In order that the export tables may show a gratifying increase each year, the German workman must be content to labor for little more than a dollar a day and must somehow contrive with that dollar to buy enough food, at extortionate prices, to keep himself and his family alive.

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

 The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.