A Different View of 1930s Berlin: ‘Blood Brothers’ by Ernst Haffner (1932, 2015)

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As a British reader, there never seems to be a shortage of novels set in Germany in the 1930s.  In fact, I’ve found myself getting so tired of them, I’ll only read one after intense decision making and hyped recommendation.  It’s far rarer to see a novel actually written in Germany from this period.

In fairness, I can’t claim to have discovered this on my own.  My interested was piqued after hearing a very interesting discussion about newly translated 1930s German novels on Open Book in the summer.  I was then extremely excited to get hold of one of the books discussed in ‘The Strand’ bookshop in the heydays of my New York holiday.  All I really remembered from the podcast was that ‘Blood Brothers’ was banned by the Nazis; it was recommendation enough.

In the novel, Haffner records the experiences of  the members of the Blood Brothers gang, most of whom ‘have gone through hell and high water to escape from welfare.  The sort of upbringing that claims to guard against moral turpitude‘.  These experiences themselves are remarkable; in an astounding set piece one boy rides from Cologne to Berlin hanging on under a train, hunkered over an axle.  This sets the tone for multiple escapes from prison and other institutions.  The gang is not homogeneous though, one boy is in perpetual flight from his father who is desperately trying to stop him ‘robbing family and friends’.  All of them rely on each other, but such support is precarious at best.  The narrative weaves its way around the different gang members, bringing an unsentimental humanity to their below-the-radar existence.

Haffner has no time for the bohemian ‘anything goes’ city of Cabaret, but ‘Blood Brothers’ did remind me of some of Isherwood’s other stories in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’.  The boys roam the city searching for shelter, warmth and food; some are desperate for work, other are continually seeking opportunities for theft.  It’s a novel of a city twisted upside down so that only the under-class is visible, meanwhile the seedy side of life has become a voyeuristic tourist attraction:
The criminal basements as they are shown to us in scores of films no longer exist in Berlin today.  All those basements … were forced out of business after the inflation.  And the big beer joints with their lively oom-pah-pah music from early morning on, they are just waiting rooms for armies of pimps, unemployed and casual criminals.  But a clientele like that isn’t enough to keep a place in business.  What keeps these places going is prostitution … and when there is something really happening in those places, then you may take it for granted that it’s all a setup, so that the voyeurs order another round, and tell their friends about this amazing underworld bar.
The stage set took up the underworld theme, dished up hundred-percent tall tales, and now the underworld itself is turning to the stage set, so as not to prove too much of a disappointment.’

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The novel is angry and forceful, but also funny and engaging.  According to ‘Open Book’ it was Fallada’s ‘Alone in Berlin’ which showed there is an English readership for early 1930s German writing.  ‘Alone in Berlin’ is still on my To Be Read pile, but it’s crept up several places now I’ve read ‘Blood Brothers’.  As for Haffner’s writing, he gives a gritty and powerful view into a highly specific time and place.  It’s a very good book and also a very welcome addition to my bookshelf.  I do think its re-publication and translation into English is another small triumph over both Nazism and an overly simplistic view of European history.

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11 Responses to A Different View of 1930s Berlin: ‘Blood Brothers’ by Ernst Haffner (1932, 2015)

  1. The Strand – what nostalgia!! I have Alone in Berlin on my TBR pile too, started it a long time ago and think I found the writing style a bit dry so did that thing that always annoys me – put it down to pick up later. Then the months trickle by…

  2. roughghosts says:

    I am intrigued by this one. I have read Alone in Berlin (my copy is titled Every Man Dies Alone – closer to the original and the sole reason I purchased it). I read it with the Guardian Reading Group years ago. I know lots of people love it. I would say that I really enjoyed the first half in spite of some very wooden writing, but it was Fallada’s last book, written for the money in a very short time and the case it was based on is transformed into Socialist propaganda in the second half. Enough said.

    • What a shame; I’d only heard good things about Fallada’s writing, it’s a pity the book doesn’t live up to its promise. Still, its success is more than worth it if it means writers like Haffner get more international recognition, I did really enjoy ‘Blood Brothers’ and I think it likely it the English translation was only published off the back of ‘Alone in Berlin’…

      • roughghosts says:

        I would like to read one of Fallada’s earlier works. And there was much to admire in Alone in Berlin given how quickly he wrote the book. So don’t let my comment put you off. At the end of that month’s Reading Group our special guest for a chat was the publisher who redicovered it and brought it out again in English.

  3. Geoff W says:

    It’s rough saying that time period 1930s-1940s is so over-done, but I agree with you that it takes a lot of hmmming and hawwwwwing before I’ll read one.

  4. SophDoh says:

    I have finished Fallada’s ‘The Drinker’ (a Strand edition too) and have to say it is a neat little story! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very different to ‘Alone in Berlin’ though – there was a clear agenda in AiB, and while I dare say there was one in ‘The Drinker’, it seemed to me as if it could have been set in a number of different countries in the 20th century with the historical backdrop of less importance. It’s hard to separate the writer’s biography from the story, but still horrifying to realise there is probably some truth in what he writes too.

    • Ah – those wonderful Strand book-shopping days…
      I really am going to have to read Fallada this year, especially after doing so well with the other books you’ve recommended. Do you think I should start with AiB or ‘The Drinker’? Clearly, I plan on reading both ;-), but will follow your recommendation for which to start first.

  5. Pingback: Roman Hoodlums: ‘The Ragazzi’ by Pier Paolo Pasonlini | Shoshi's Book Blog

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