Is there an ethical voice in German literature in the 1930s?
Among the Oscar nominees this year (which included no shortage of Nazi tales, including Fury and The Imitation Game) Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel serves as Hollywood’s sweeping take on “fascism, Nazism, prison, uplift.” His whimsical anti-fascist flick is solemnly dedicated to the work of novelist Stefan Zweig, who fled the rise of the Nazis and, despairing at the rise of Nazism, killed himself in exile. Anderson tries to sum up the age at the end of the film, in an elegy to the fair and uptight concierge of the hotel: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it—but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!”
Anderson has no obligation to realism, and yet speaking in epochs prevents his characters from feeling like regular people grounded in time and space. The concierge and his lobby boy are like mythological figures that illustrate history from a vantage point in the present. Real people don’t see themselves through such grand narratives.
Fortunately, the lives of ordinary Germans in the 1930s were central to a German author who has only recently been rediscovered. Hans Fallada became tremendously popular in the U.S. after Melville House translated his final novel Every Man Dies Alone into English in 2009. He wrote it in a whirlwind 24 days and died shortly after. Primo Levi described it as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” In his time, Fallada was one of the most popular writers in the world—his Depression-era novel Little Man, What Now? became a bestseller in the U.S. and was made into a Hollywood movie. Unlike most of his liberal contemporaries, Fallada stayed in Nazi Germany as an “inward migrator,” and retreated to a rural farm to avoid the Nazis. He had only scorn for the emigres.
Of these sensational chapters of Fallada’s life—which include a suicide pact as a teenager that left his best friend dead, and de-Nazifying of a town in East Germany—his prison diary is the most unusual. Written, concealed and smuggled out of a Nazi psychiatric ward, A Stranger in My Own Country documents Fallada’s anger with the Nazis in a frenetic style, using stream-of-consciousness to chart his struggles as a writer under Nazi censorship and as a citizen under Nazi administration. The translation into English is accompanied by extensive endnotes by Fallada scholar Jenny Williams.
Fallada’s perspective is notable because it is singularly unpolitical. Every person he encounters is a character in a morality play, and at its best, A Stranger in My Own Country describes the paths people took in Nazi Germany, like an empirical study of Dorothy Parker’s excellent essay Who Goes Nazi? Fallada traces the lives of several such people “going Nazi,” the first of whom were the “March martyrs” as he calls them—Germans who saw that the Nazis would take power after 1933 election and swiftly joined the party out of convenience, often surpassing the diehards in violence and fervor to prove their loyalty. Other characters include an aging pensioner couple who threw good money after bad on their unstylish lampshade factory (they bitterly draw on Nazi connections to extort Fallada and have him arrested) and a power-obsessed headmaster who groomed a ring of Nazi informants. Several stories of innocent acquaintances caught up in the Nazi machine are poignant. One friend, a music teacher, unwittingly stores a suitcase full of Communist pamphlets in his attic and is executed.
We need no further evidence that the brownshirts were morally bankrupt, but a few anecdotes from the diary are telling. Fallada recalls a story he heard from an S.A. trooper who told him that when the paramilitary men are lying in bed in their barracks, “nobody can ever be bothered to get out of bed and turn off the light. So we just grab our pistols and fire away until the light bulb’s out!” At a time when shortages and rationing were the rule, the S.A. would go to a local shop and commandeer their supply of bulbs. Fallada also writes a fairly accurate contemporary impression of Joseph Goebbles: “[H]e really is two-faced, not a genuine fibre in his whole body! … [I]f need be he would speak about Bolshevism tomorrow in exactly the same way he speaks about Nazism today. Within the group of hysterics, psychopaths, monomaniacs and sadists who make up our ‘people’s government’ today, he is the embodiment of pure evil.”
At its worst, the diary relies on stereotypes of Jewish people while generally seeking to dispel them. Fallada describes two Jewish people as having “allowed themselves to be humiliated for the sake of money, consciously and by their own choice” and reluctantly decides that “the Jews… have erected this barrier between themselves and other nations.” Fallada apologized for these remarks in the 1945 version, but it is clear that while he defended the Jewish people on numerous occasions, he neither understood the plight of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany nor truly empathized with them as fellow citizens.
The Nazi state made it impossible to be completely unpolitical, and Fallada’s desire to play the holy fool would lead him to make deals that compromised his own ethics. Fallada occupied the unusual position of being neither a “certified” nor “undesirable” author; two categories that normally decided an author’s fate. Therefore, he made efforts to cozy up to the publishing establishment, which was inevitably full of Nazis. As the war ended and he became conscious of the atrocities the Nazis committed, he tried to revise his story to make himself look morally steadfast.
One intriguing character study highlights Fallada’s occasionally paranoid and vengeful nature. In his catalogue of ordinary citizens going Nazi, he tells the story of Peter Suhrkamp, a writer who came from a poor farm in Germany who dreamed about the Berlin literary elite. As a young leftist, Suhrkamp organized and led Bertolt Brecht’s escape from the Nazis, but as he grew older he became obsessed with ascending the ladder of German publishing, and he exploited a Jewish publishing executive. At the height of his manipulation, Suhrkamp would leave the room after being overruled by his boss and fake a call from the Gestapo, putting the Jewish executive in a fit of despair before Suhrkamp reluctantly offered to help. Suhrkamp joined the party, but he let his distaste for the Nazis slip out, and he was sent to a concentration camp. Fallada describes Suhrkamp as “a legacy-hunter… much like the rest of us, in fact.” This would be one of the most fascinating portraits if the story wasn’t likely made up, according to an endnote by Williams. She suggests that Fallada was angered by Suhrkamp’s low opinion of his later work, and masterfully wove a number of rumors together about his former friend.
The most intriguing section of the book comes at the very end of the manuscript—the editors call it the “dream vision”—in which Fallada tells a fantasy he had of constructing an underground bunker for his family beneath their home. He imagines his cave as an elaborate construction, with a massive aquarium, fresh air, and all the comforts they enjoyed in prewar Germany. Yet they also sneak into their old house at night and walk through the ruined rooms. Fallada wonders if they could live among Germans again once the war ended: “we’re afraid of the people who have endured all the things that we fled from.”
Hans Fallada is worth reading because he chose to stay and observe a terrible point in history, but he was mistaken believing he could be an “internal migrant” in Germany. Everyone who stayed behind was crazy, or staying behind drove you crazy – either way his writing is undoubtedly compromised by Nazi inhumanity and his own illness. Shunning politics did not help him escape the long arm of the Nazi state; it blinded him to subtler cruelties.
– Nathan Lynch is a freelance journalist based in southern Maine. Find him on Twitter @_nathanlynch.