Robert N[oleman] McMurry

When men eat dogs

in: The Nation (New York, N.Y.), 136. Bd., Nr. 3522 (4. Januar 1933), S. 15–18.

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When Men Eat Dogs

By Robert N. McMurry

Unemployment begets psychological as well as economic problems. Much emphasis has been placed on its economic aspects; very little upon its psychological effects. It has remained for the psychology department of the University of Vienna, under the supervision of Professor Karl Bühler, and the Oesterreichische Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle, under the direction of Dr. Paul Lazarsfeld, to complete a comprehensive study of the effect of continued unemployment upon the worker himself. The stimulus to this investigation was the fact that Austria alone, with a total population of 6,500,000, has more than 500,000 unemployed, and that a like proportion is without work in Germany. The condition of many of these people is desperate. In parts of Austria it is a commonplace for a man to remark: »Yesterday we ate our dog. I hated to do it because it had been our pet, but this is the third year that I have been without work and we had had no meat in more than a month. I told my wife and children that it was horseflesh and they liked it very much.«

Often an entire community is unemployed because the single industry which gave it support has been forced to close. Dr. Lazarsfeld chose as a typical example of such communities the village of Marienthal. Located approximately eighteen miles south of Vienna, Marienthal has been for nearly a hundred years the site of a mill of the Wool Spinning and Dyeing Company of Trumau and Marienthal. It was the only industry in the village and when it was in operation it employed more than 1,400 persons. It closed in March, 1929.[1] Since then all but 37 persons out of a total population of 1,486 (98.8 per cent) have been without regular employment. Under the guise of an ostensible program of relief work, the residents of Marienthal were studied intensively.

As citizens of Austria the residents of Marienthal have for the most part received an Arbeitslosenunterstützung, or unemployment relief. Its cost is borne jointly by Austrian employers, employees, and the state. After a maximum of thirty weeks the worker is eligible only for Notstandaushilfe, or emergency help, which may continue for as long as one year and amounts to about 80 per cent of the unemployment relief. Both are administered by a district committee, usually a local organization. The amount of help which a worker receives varies from .72 to 1.85 Austrian schillings a day, or between 10 and 20 cents. At the conclusion of the emergency help, the individual is said to be völlig ausgesteuert, that is, ineligible for further assistance. Furthermore, anyone drawing unemployment-relief money is automatically barred from accepting any other employment on penalty of having his relief withdrawn. This limits the possibility of supplementary income to what can be obtained by cultivating small vegetable gardens or breeding hares. A few persons obtain occasional work with neighboring farmers, for which they are usually paid in kind.

Life in Marienthal moves in cycles of two weeks – the


period between payments of the dole. These payment days are more important than Sunday, for Sunday is only the day on which a few more prosperous families have meat. The day of the payment becomes a sort of macabre festival. The Ratenjud,[2] the peddler from Vienna, comes with his stock of potatoes, meal, and fat. This is the day when payments are made on the accounts which everyone runs – the shoemaker alone has 8,000 schillings on his books and the cinema is almost universally attended on credit.

As with all people who live constantly on the verge of absolute want, the diet of the residents of Marienthal is badly balanced and monotonous. Its chief article is a sort of stew whose principal ingredient is potatoes, to which are added such vegetables and scraps of meat as are available, the whole cooked in grease. To conserve the fat, the mixture is usually left in the pot, fresh material being added occasionally to replace that which has been eaten. The effect of this diet is now evident in both the children and the adults. Among the children the health of 34 per cent was found to be very bad and only 15 per cent were rated as having normal health. No child from a family which had passed through the full period of help was found to have normal health. A similar condition, although not as pronounced, prevails among the adults.

When the mill closed, the people of Marienthal had a fairly large stock of clothes. By means of ingenious mending they still contrive to look presentable. In the case of the children, however, this is more difficult. Because of growth and activity they subject their clothing to much harder wear. Furthermore, since they attend school in a neighboring town they mingle with the children of fathers who are still employed. Thus their plight is brought home to them more vividly than to their parents, who have succeeded in isolating themselves from external contacts. No children are permitted by their parents to indulge in any sort of violent activity – even if they had energy enough – because their clothes might be irreparably damaged, and when they are gone, no one knows where any others will be obtained.

Among the parents of these children a certain fatalism has developed. When the mill first closed, there were innumerable rumors of a prompt reopening. But time passed and nothing came of them. Later a portion of the plant was demolished for the brick which composed its walls. Perhaps the best index of the apathy of these people is the record of the library. Between the years 1929 and 1931 the number of books lent decreased 49 per cent. The books are free and Marienthal has an exceptionally good stock of them. Not only has the total number of books lent decreased, but also the number of books per reader. In 1929 each borrower took out an average of 2 23[3] books. In 1931 the average had dropped to 1.6. When the factory was in operation, the village had a kindergarten. Part of its equipment was a set of Montessori toys. The kindergarten is closed, but the balls and the raffia and the building blocks remain, quite unused, in a box in the workers’ clubroom. In the days of its prosperity Marienthal was very proud of its park. The hedges were kept neatly trimmed, the grass mowed, and the walks carefully tended. Of an evening and on Sunday afternoons it was customary to sit in the park or to stroll along the allée. Now no one goes into the park any more. The hedges are unclipped, the grass is dry and dead, weeds grow in the walks.

No longer are newspapers thoroughly read. In the words of Kurt S., one of the village political leaders, »Formerly, I read the Arbeiterzeitung until I knew it inside and out. Now I just look at a little of it and throw it away, in spite of the fact that I have so much more time.« The Arbeiterzeitung is the central organ of the Social Democratic Party. It carries extended discussions of political and economic problems, and its journalistic style is such that for persons of limited education it is not easy reading. Between 1929 and 1931 its subscriptions declined 60 per cent in Marienthal, in spite of the fact that it is sold to the unemployed for only four groschen, or a little more than half a cent. On the other hand, the Kleine Blatt, with identical political affiliations but containing much more simple material, although it costs ten groschen, has lost only 27 per cent of its readers.

A similar lack of interest extends to politics. Formerly politics were taken very seriously in Marienthal. The best athlete of the Deutscher Turnverein commented sadly: »Formerly a man would not have dared to wear a Heimwehr emblem, here! He would immediately have been beaten. Now it is quite different.« At election time there is no longer any intense feeling. In the hotly contested national parliamentary election of April 24, 1932, the only demonstration in Marienthal was the destruction of a few posters. All the political organizations in Marienthal have lost from 30 to 60 per cent of their members. Finances play a small part in this defection because dues have been reduced to a minimum. It is significant, however, that by far the greatest proportion of those individuals who have retained their membership are still employed or, as students, have retained contact with the outside world. While this regression of political interest seems to be in conflict with the behavior of the people of Germany, it must be remembered that in Marienthal almost every man has the identical burden to bear.

Not all the organizations have suffered proportionate losses in membership. Some have actually grown. Chief among these is the cyclists’ club. Since these people can no longer afford car fare, their bicycles remain their only mode of transportation. The Catholic kindergarten, Frohe Kindheit, has also shown a growth. However, the most significant growth, because it conflicts with the religious prejudices of many of the people, is that of the Social Democratic cremation society, Die Flamme. It is simply cheaper to be burned than buried.

Before the factory closed, a moment of free time was a precious thing in Marienthal. Since the women as well as the men were employed, it was necessary for them to do their housework at the conclusion of their work in the mill. Often they were forced to work half the night to keep their homes in order. Now all this is changed. These people are literally drowned in time. To the once busy workers the presentation of this leisure has been a tragic gift. Freed from the necessity of being punctual, or ever hurrying, time has lost its meaning. Nevertheless, a double conception of time prevails in Marienthal – one for the men, quite another for the women. In the case of the women, the necessity of caring for the children, preparing the meals, and doing the housework tends to keep them more closely in touch with reality. Although these women now have infinitely more time than when they were employed, the means at their disposal for keeping house are so much more restricted that


even simple tasks take much longer than before. So much time has to be spent in devising ways to make the old things serve just a little longer. And there is the perennial question of what to cook and how to prepare it. But underlying everything is the fact that as a result of three years of malnutrition these women do not have the strength they had formerly.

The only person who was observed hurrying in Marienthal was the village fool. For hours men stand about the street, alone or in groups. They lean on house walls or the bridge railing. Many smoke pipes. They hold long aimless conversations. If a wagon passes, they raise their heads a little. One day at noon, when street traffic was at its height, the speed of movement of 100 pedestrians was timed. The average gait of the men was one and one-half miles per hour; the women moved slightly faster. Only six men, of the sixty-eight who were observed, walked to their destinations without stopping from one to three or more times. Only eighteen of these men carried watches. Thirty-one others had left theirs at home. The others did not own watches. Many of these men have lost the capacity to judge the passage of time. They cannot distinguish one hour from three. Their day has three points of orientation – getting up, the noon meal, going to bed. They can remember little else. If questioned, they will say: »I got up and presently it became midday. Then presently it was time to go to bed« – nothing more. If pressed to define this »presently,« an individual can usually recall a few of the outstanding events of the day, such as washing the baby or feeding the rabbits. The great majority of its happenings have left no impress upon his memory. Any trifling stimulus may determine the course of his behavior for the ensuing hour. Often these men forget to come in for meals. Frau Lisl K. complained: »Now we have regular quarrels every noon because my husband can never be punctual, although earlier he was punctuality itself.« The behavior of these men strikingly resembles that of decerebrate animals who respond only to immediate stimuli and in the intervals between stimuli lapse into a sort of stupor.

For more than two years, almost to the time of the investigation, the morale of the people of Marienthal was well maintained. The tradition of almost a century of employment as skilled artisans had instilled a certain pride in themselves which would not permit them to break down. This was demonstrated by a stubborn refusal to work in another mill, even when an opportunity offered, at a lower wage than they had received at Marienthal. They will work for a farmer for the equivalent of a few groschen a day, but this is not at their trade, and moreover, as they are nearly always paid in kind, the smallness of the remuneration is not so apparent. Furthermore, because these families have been neighbors for so many years and have intermarried to a considerable degree, there is evident a strong group solidarity.

However, as time passes and conditions do not improve or show any prospect of betterment, several factors conspire to undermine the morale of the people of Marienthal. Probably foremost among these is the realization that they are trapped; that they are in a prison without bars. There is no work for them in Marienthal, or, for that matter, in all Austria. Nor is there any place else for them to go. Nowhere are there jobs, and if there were, there is no money with which to travel. They recognize that they are helpless, that they must remain in Marienthal. Relentlessly the time approaches when they will no longer receive a dole, when, no longer eligible, they will have not even that meager income on which to depend. Meanwhile, their clothes become more worn, their household possessions are giving out, but there is no source from which they can be replaced. It is obvious to all of them that under present conditions it is useless for them even to hope.

This pessimism shows itself even in the children. Twelve-year-old Johann H. writes: »I wish to be either a flier, a submarine captain, an Indian hunter, or a mechanic. But I am very much afraid that I shall have great difficulty in finding a position! I hope that in the future I can have a care-free life. I feel so sorry when I see my parents and all the people in need suffer.« Thirteen-year-old Mitzi M. writes: »I should like very much to become a seamstress, but I feel that I shall be unable to obtain a position and that I shall have nothing to eat.«

The young men in Marienthal are rarely accompanied by the village girls of their own age. The girls have gone off with other young men from the neighborhood who are still employed and who can, in consequence, take them to dances or the cinema. Among the older women, regret at the closing of the mill is as much social as financial. Frau Wetti F., aged thirty-nine, voiced the almost universal plaint of these women: »If I could go again into the mill, it would be my most wonderful day. It is not only the money, but here in my four walls, so alone, I cannot live.«

And inescapable is the fact that the health level of these people is continually sinking. As long as a man is employed in Austria, he has compulsory health insurance, but when he is without work, this protection ceases at once. If he becomes ill and has no money he receives no medical attention. Sporadically the Social Democratic organization sends a physician to Marienthal, but between his infrequent visits the people there are without medical service. If the sick die, the cremation society provides the funeral; if they do not, then they simply constitute an additional load on an already overburdened community.

But one recourse remains to the people of Marienthal – that is to attempt to reduce their requirements to the point where their incomes, no matter how small, will cover them. As they pass from unemployment relief to emergency help with its smaller remuneration, more and more of their wants must remain unsatisfied. There must be less food, of a poorer grade. Sugar must be eliminated entirely. The rent, although it amounts to only sixty cents a month, must be carefully hoarded. There can be no light at night. In the winter the family must remain a great part of the day in bed to conserve fuel. The only source of meat is an occasional cat or dog. When they finally become no longer eligible for any help, even necessities must be given up. Their demands must be constricted within a constantly narrowing circle.

The effect of this deprivation is noticeable in the children. So accustomed have they become to denying themselves everything that they have lost the capacity to wish. At Christmas 100 children were asked to prepare a list of the things which they would like to have if their parents were still employed. In this list the average value of all the items for which they wished, mostly practical or school requisites, amounted to 1.2 schillings. Ten per cent of the children questioned had received nothing at all for Christmas. Sixty-eight per cent received only necessities. The fact that 10 per cent were


given nothing at all is highly significant because the custom of making presents to children at Christmas is very deep-rooted in Austria.

Dr. Lazarsfeld has classified the people of Marienthal in three groups in terms of their reactions to their circumstances. In the first group are those who do not seem to have been affected. These he calls »normal.« In the second division are those who still make an effort to maintain themselves, even though they recognize its ultimate futility. These Dr. Lazarsfeld calls »resigned.« The third category includes those who have simply abandoned the struggle. There is a limit beyond which it is impossible to economize. This he characterizes as the »zero« or »breaking-point.« When an individual reaches this stage, he breaks. Some take to drink. Others run away. If the husband and not the wife breaks, she will usually maintain the home. When she breaks, the home collapses. The children are no longer cared for or sent to school; meals become irregular; housekeeping is neglected; every action is marked by a reckless irresponsibility. These individuals he classifies as »broken.«

At the time of the investigation, December, 1931, Dr. Lazarsfeld estimated that only 19 per cent could be classified as »normal,« 49 per cent as »resigned« and 32 per cent as »broken.« Furthermore, the average monthly income for »normal« families he found to be 34 schillings, or $ 4.76; for »resigned« families, 30 schillings, or $ 4.20; and for »broken« families, 23 schillings, or $ 3.22. As more and more families are taken off the lists of those who may be helped, their incomes will fall to the level of those who have already broken. Whether or not all of these will break is problematical. From the trend of the last two years Dr. Lazarsfeld believes that most of them will.

What effect the reduction to despair and irresponsibility of large numbers of people will have upon the political fortunes of Central Europe, citing it as a single example, is quite unpredictable. However, Dr. Lazarsfeld thinks that it will be considerable. When people abandon nearly all the restraints which have marked their lives from childhood, when the social mores are no longer observed, their behavior can hardly be other than capricious. They are hungry. Their clothes are in rags. Their children are suffering. They themselves are half sick. A demagogue promises them food, shelter, work. Will they stop to analyze the validity of his program or the merits of his claim? Dr. Lazarsfeld doubts it. Rather, they will follow him, no matter how impossible his pretensions or how great a sacrifice on their part it entails.

If Marienthal were a single instance in an otherwise prosperous country, its plight would be pitiable but not profoundly significant. But Marienthal is not an isolated case. There are literally thousands of Marienthals in Central Europe alone. Even though a city or village may not be composed entirely of unemployed, every one has its quota of those without work. Dr. Lazarsfeld believes that probably many of these, too, are approaching the level of despair. Nothing exactly comparable to the present depression has ever faced Europe before. Therefore it is impossible to predict with certainty its final effects. Nevertheless, it seems almost inevitable that the people whom economic pressure has forced to the breaking-point and beyond will play some role in shaping the destinies of Europe. Whatever this role may be, one thing is certain: it will be dictated not by reason but by emotion.

[1] Im März 1929 begann in der Druckerei Kurzarbeit, geschlossen wurden die verschiedenen Komplexe der Fabrik zwischen Juni 1929 und Februar 1930; außerdem betrug die maximale Beschäftigtenzahl in der Fabrik nur rund 1.290. Anm. R.M.

[2] Ratenjud: eine vor allem im Österreich der 1920er- und 1930er-Jahre gebräuchliche Bezeichnung – auch abwertend verwendet –, womit nicht nur jüdische Hausierer bedacht wurden. Das Wort leitet sich von der bei diesen Hausierern möglichen Zahlung in Raten her. Anm. R.M.

[3] Laut Marienthal-Studie recte 3,23. Anm. R.M.