The Good Town

November 9, 2009 at 6:03 pm (Europe, history, Rosie B)

The Secret Life of the Berlin Wall is an excellent documentary, telling the stories of Stasi informers and those they spied on, of believers in the system and those who hated it or died trying to escape it. I was reminded of The Good Town, a great poem by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir which was published in 1949.  The town in the poem was based on Prague.

The Good Town

Look at it well. This was the good town once,
Known everywhere, with streets of friendly neighbours,
Street friend to street and house to house. In summer
All day the doors stood open; lock and key
Were quaint antiquities fit for museums
With gyves and rusty chains. The ivy grew
From post to post across the prison door.
The yard behind was sweet with grass and flowers.
A place where grave philosophers loved to walk.
Old Time that promises and keeps his promise
Was our sole lord indulgent and severe,
Who gave and took away with gradual hand
That never hurried, never tarried, still
Adding, subtracting. These our houses had
Long fallen into decay but that we knew
Kindness and courage can repair time’s faults,
And serving him breeds patience and courtesy
In us, light sojourners and passing subjects.
There is a virtue in tranquillity
That makes all fitting, childhood and youth and age,
Each in its place.

Look well. These mounds of rubble,
And shattered piers, half-windows, broken arches
And groping arms were once inwoven in walls
Covered with saints and angels, bore the roof,
Shot up the towering spire. These gaping bridges
Once spanned the quiet river which you see
Beyond that patch of raw and angry earth
Where the new concrete houses sit and stare.
Walk with me by the river. See, the poplars
Still gather quiet gazing on the stream.
The white road winds across the small green hill
And then is lost. These few things still remain.
Some of our houses too, though not what once
Lived there and drew a strength from memory.
Our people have been scattered, or have come
As strangers back to mingle with the strangers
Who occupy our rooms where none can find
The place he knew but settles where he can.
No family now sits at the evening table;
Father and son, mother and child are out,
A quaint and obsolete fashion. In our houses
Invaders speak their foreign tongues, informers
Appear and disappear, chance whores, officials
Humble or high, frightened, obsequious,
Sit carefully in corners. My old friends
(Friends ere these great disasters) are dispersed
In parties, armies, camps, conspiracies.
We avoid each other. If you see a man
Who smiles good-day or waves a lordly greeting
Be sure he’s a policeman or a spy.
We know them by their free and candid air.

It was not time that brought these things upon us,
But these two wars that trampled on us twice,
Advancing and withdrawing, like a herd
Of clumsy-footed beasts on a stupid errand
Unknown to them or us. Pure chance, pure malice,
Or so it seemed. And when, the first war over,
The armies left and our own men came back
From every point by many a turning road,
Maimed, crippled, changed in body or in mind,
It was a sight to see the cripples come
Out on the fields. The land looked all awry,
The roads ran crooked and the light fell wrong.
Our fields were like a pack of cheating cards
Dealt out at random – all we had to play
In the bad game for the good stake, our life.
We played; a little shrewdness scraped us through.
Then came the second war, passed and repassed,
And now you see our town, the fine new prison,
The house-doors shut and barred, the frightened faces
Peeping round corners, secret police, informers,
And all afraid of all.

                                                  How did it come?
From outside, so it seemed, an endless source,
Disorder inexhaustible, strange to us,
Incomprehensible. Yet sometimes now
We ask ourselves, we the old citizens:
‘Could it have come from us? Was our peace peace?
Our goodness goodness? That old life was easy
And kind and comfortable; but evil is restless
And gives no rest to the cruel or the kind.
How could our town grow wicked in a moment?
What is the answer? Perhaps no more than this,
That once the good men swayed our lives, and those
Who copied them took a while the hue of goodness,
A passing loan; while now the bad are up,
And we, poor ordinary neutral stuff,
Not good nor bad, must ape them as we can,
In sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.
Say there’s a balance between good and evil
In things, and it’s so mathematical,
So finely reckoned that a jot of either,
A bare preponderance will do all you need,
Make a town good, or make it what you see.
But then, you’ll say, only that jot is wanting,
That grain of virtue. No: when evil comes
All things turn adverse, and we must begin
At the beginning, heave the groaning world
Back in its place again, and clamp it there.
Then all is hard and hazardous. We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.’

These thoughts we have, walking among our ruins.


  1. Matt said,

    It’s worth reminding yourself of the numbers to get some idea of what kind of society East Germany was. In 1989, the Stasi had 91,000 agents watching a population of just over 16 million (one to every 176 people). When you add paid informants however – people spying on their neighbours and workmates – the number was probably around two million, i.e. one in eight. By comparison, the Gestapo of the Nazi regime had 40,000 agents watching a population of 80 million (one to every 2,000 people). East Germany arguably had the highest level of secret police surveillance that has ever existed.

  2. Eastern Eye said,

    Actually Matt, the population ratio between the Gestapo and the Stasi was much, much further apart.

    Of the 46,000 agents by wars end, the vast majority were posted overseas in any case, and the domestic situation was thus:

    “Contrary to popular belief, the Gestapo was not an omnipotent agency that had agents in every nook and cranny of German society…

    The District Office in Nuremberg, which had the responsibility for all of northern Bavaria employed a total of 80-100 informers in the years 1943-1945…

    The ratio of Gestapo officers to the population of the areas they were responsible for was extremely low; for example, for Lower Franconia, with a population of about one million in the 1930s, there was only one Gestapo office with 28 staff, half of whom were clerical workers.[9] Before World War II, in the cities of Stettin and Frankfurt am Main, Gestapo personnel totalled 41 for both cities.[12] The city of Hanover had only 42 Gestapo personnel, Bielefeld 18, Braunschweig 26, Bremen 44, and Dortmund 76.[12] In Düsseldorf, the local Gestapo office, which had the responsibility for the entire Lower Rhine region, which comprised 4 million people had 281 employees.[12] After 1939, when many Gestapo personnel were called up for war-related work, the level of overwork and understaffing at the local offices was much increased.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: