Sunday, October 7, 2018

'Always a German, but only since sunrise an enemy'

L. Patrick Greene's "One Man's Flag" (Adventure, March 15, 1931) is a bit of sentimental hogwash set in South Africa at the outbreak of World War I. "Papa" Haydn is the founder and patriarch of the little community of Williamstown, where nearly everyone is English, but when war breaks out between England and Germany in Europe, the old man remembers his heritage and an obligation to treat his neighbors as enemies. Despite his patriotic conscience, he can't generate very much hatred toward them, and they find his hostile gestures mostly amusing. At first, when he raises a German flag upon hearing of the war, the neighbors think he's simply made a typical old man's mistake. Soon enough, they realize that he knows full well what flag he's raised, but they still find it hard to hold that against him, in part because Haydn, old and fat, is effectively harmless. They have to rescue him from foolhardy attempts to link up with German forces in the wild, but all seem satisfied to let him carry on his old business despite theoretically being a prisoner of war. Given the ethnic tensions that must have existed from the Boer War to 1914, this all seems far too good to be true, especially when you read of how Germany's enemies effectively whipped up hysterical hatred toward ethnic Germans in their midst -- but maybe it was different in South Africa. In any event, when Haydn's shop is appropriated by Allied forces as a temporary command center for Gen. Jan Christian Smuts, the old man sees a final opportunity to serve his native country by informing the Germans of the enemy commander's position and plans. On the way, however, he rescues a lone British homesteader family he'd befriended long before from an attack by a band of native marauders, getting himself mortally injured in the process. His neighbors humor the old man to the bittersweet end, with the military getting in the act as all pretend to award the dying Haydn the Iron Cross. This was already a nauseatingly heartwarming story before the climax with its implication that black Africans, not English or Germans, are the real enemy. I know that wasn't an article of faith for Greene, who created one of pulp's best black characters in The Major's sidekick, Jim the Hottentot. But the more the main story seemed too good to be believable, the more the business with the natives seemed obnoxious if not offensive. No doubt, too, that Greene meant well, and that by 1931 the argument that English and Germans shouldn't be enemies was probably well received. By today's standards, however, "One Man's Flag" is probably too idealistic and at the same time not idealistic enough.

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