On Tuesday, 17 October 1911, 18-year-old Rudolf Ditzen, the future Hans Fallada, got up before dawn to meet his schoolfriend Hanns Dietrich von Necker at a tourist spot outside Rudolstadt in Thuringia. Some weeks beforehand, they had agreed to take each other’s lives in a double suicide, though they hadn’t been able to decide how to do it. Fallada was carrying a Tesching gun, Necker a revolver; each of them had fixed a red bow to his lapel, just above the heart, for the other to aim at. According to Fallada, the duel had been Necker’s idea: his mother was the widow of an army major and would find it easier to accept his death if it was the result of a duel. But Necker’s suicide note, written the night before, frames Fallada: ‘He casts a strange spell over me, and was able to make me completely submit myself to his will.’ With their first shots, they missed completely. With their second, Necker’s bullet missed, but Necker himself was hit in the heart, though he remained conscious enough to beg his friend to shoot him again. Fallada, who was short-sighted, fired three more bullets: one for Necker, two for himself. The first entered his lung, the other narrowly missed his heart. Stumbling back down the path to Rudolstadt, he was found by a forester who took him to hospital. His mother’s first reaction to her son attempting suicide and killing his friend in the process was: ‘Thank God, at least nothing sexual.’
Fallada was never convicted of shooting Necker – a judge certified him unfit for trial – but he was effectively barred from the bourgeois career his parents had in mind for him. School was never completed, a university degree out of the question; instead, there were stints in mental asylums and a fondness for alcohol and morphine. But the persona he created still drives sales sixty years after his death. Michael Hofmann’s 2009 translation of his last novel, Alone in Berlin, sold around 350,000 copies in the UK alone, 100,000 of them in the first three months after publication.
Much of Alone in Berlin’s success has to do with the way the story is told. Otto and Anna Quangel live in an apartment block in Berlin amid staunch Nazis and small-time crooks. After they hear of their son’s death at the front, they decide to write badly spelled anti-Nazi messages on postcards which they leave here and there in public places. For most of the novel, the scheme is reported in parallel with their neighbours’ bungled attempts at petty crime, which are less high-minded but just as hopeless. The atmosphere at 55 Jablonski Strasse is stifling: everyone is looking to profit from their neighbours’ missteps. Even Escherich, the cruel and calculating Gestapo officer who is put in charge of smoking out the postcard writer, is shown to be at the mercy of his superior. Just as Escherich’s net is closing in on the Quangels, Obergruppenführer Prall grows impatient and has him duffed up by SS men until he’s nothing more than a ‘miserable, terrified little manikin’. In the final third of the novel, after the Quangels have been arrested, the plot thins out and the thriller suddenly turns into something resembling a parable: the question is no longer whether Otto Quangel will die, but what it might all mean. As Quangel meets first a cellmate who pretends to be a dog, then a composer who has spoken out against the Nazis, then his priest, then his judge and finally his executioner, the novel turns into a meditation on dying and whether it is more elegant to die of your own free will, or to survive even if you are not in charge of your own fate.
Perhaps Alone in Berlin was such a success because it caught a wave of Anglophone interest in European totalitarianism and the space it afforded for heroes as well as victims and villains. Quangel has a hard shell and little faith in his own talent, but a good heart tells him to do the right thing. In this sense, it offers a National Socialist version of The Lives of Others, a story of good people who resist the depravity of their time. This is especially evident in the version of the text usually used, which doesn’t include some sections that complicate the Quangels’ relationship with the Nazi Party (Aufbau Verlag are publishing an unabridged edition of the novel in April). The key word on the cover of the paperback is ‘redemptive’, and the killer quote on the inside flap is from Primo Levi: ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. It is tempting to see Quangel as a portrait of the author, the untalented but persistent scribbler, but Escherich too is a candidate: the slightly arrogant deskbound functionary with his brilliantly plotted reports, who ends up staging a fake suicide for one of his suspects. Then there’s Doctor Reichhardt, the artist imprisoned for his ideals, but he is more of a Thomas Mann-style grand bourgeois. Perhaps the multiple self-portraits make sense: there’s always more than one Hans Fallada.
In Fallada’s 1942 memoir, Damals bei uns daheim (Our Home in Days Gone By), he describes himself as a Pechvogel, an unlucky devil, who fell down a flight of stairs when he was three and catches at least one life-threatening illness a year. Fallada, born in the university town of Greifswald in 1893, grew up in a relatively wealthy bourgeois household. His father was a district judge, though not quite the hard-hearted autocrat one might expect: unusually for fathers of the period, he spent lots of time with his children. The family wasn’t short of money, and Fallada went to school with the sons of high-ranking officials. In 1906, the year of the first performance of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, the play that invented teenage angst for Wilhelmine Germany, Fallada and a friend planned to run away to sea, but got found out by their parents. Then, in 1909, he crashed his bicycle into a butcher’s cart. He survived, but with a bad limp, and so missed out on dancing classes and all the excitement they promised: ‘My whole life would have panned out differently,’ he wrote in his memoir, ‘if I had been able to dance.’ The memoir ends before his 18th birthday and Heute bei uns zu Haus (Our Home Today), the next volume, starts just after the suicide pact with its unlucky (or lucky?) outcome. For Tom Crepon and Werner Liersch, the East German authors of the two standard biographies of Fallada, it is Fallada’s bad luck that makes him a writer, or at least an interesting one. For them, his early discomfort with his comfortable life prefigures his ideological break with the bourgeoisie in 1918, when his brother died on the Eastern Front and Fallada ‘discovers his heart for the revolution’.
Jenny Williams’s meticulous biography More Lives than One narrates the 1911 episode in painstaking detail, but doesn’t pathologise Fallada’s entire life in the light of the early misfortune, as Fallada himself does. And to her, the outbreak of the First World War is more important than its end. Fallada enthusiastically joined a regiment from Saxony as a stable boy in 1914 but barely lasted a week and spent the rest of the war on an estate where he supervised the milking. It is here, Williams writes, that Fallada escaped the Pechvogel fantasy he had constructed with the help of Wilde and Nietzsche, and started to take the interest in the ‘little man’ that became the hallmark of his writing. ‘The war may have brought misery to many,’ Fallada wrote to his therapist Dr Artur Tecklenburg in 1915, ‘but it did only good to me, because during peacetime no one would have considered me for such responsibilities.’ For all his new-found faith in other people, Fallada went on to write two self-centred novels: Young Goedeschal, an exercise in expressionism, and Anton and Gerda, a semi-autobiographical work about a short-sighted young man in his early thirties. Neither was particularly successful, critically or commercially. The pen name he adopted in 1918 is still in the key of ‘poor me’: ‘Hans Fallada’ comes from two characters in Grimms’ fairy tales, ‘Hans in Luck’, and the less fortunate Falada, the talking horse in ‘The Goose Girl’, whose head is cut off and hung on a wall. Bad luck, a spectacular talent for turning opportunities into failures, was at the centre of Rudolf Ditzen’s creation myth.
In the Golden Twenties Fallada was oddjobbing in Saxony and Lower Silesia. In 1924 he spent six months in Greifswald prison for embezzling money in order to buy drugs. Two years later, he faked a cheque from an estate that had employed him as an accountant: this time he was sentenced to two and a half years. What doesn’t fit into Fallada’s self-pitying narrative is what happened when he got out of prison in 1928: a year later he was married and had a job at a local newspaper in Neumünster, a medium-sized industrial town in Schleswig-Holstein. And 12 months after that he’d been offered an editorial job at Rowohlt publishing house in Berlin, where he had the afternoons off to write his third novel, A Small Circus. Poor man.
Until the success of Alone in Berlin three years ago, Fallada was looked on with scepticism in Germany, and to an extent he still is. There are at least two reasons for this, and A Small Circus illustrates both. The first has to do with the quality of the writing. ‘A great, inventive storyteller,’ the novelist Wolfgang Koeppen called him. And then, after a pause: ‘But literature it isn’t, of course.’ In his work big, fleshy men can’t help bullying; pale men with glasses are always fey; and hen-pecked husbands with red noses are stalked by domestic dragons. In A Small Circus the couples are sad without being moving: either unhappily chained together or unhappily flung apart. In Little Man, What Now?, the novel that followed A Small Circus and which was such a success it guaranteed the survival of his publishing house, Fallada went to the other extreme, and the central couple are saccharine, the scene-setting paragraphs fairy-tale sweet. For Germans, the problem with Fallada’s novels is that they fall between literary fiction and mere storytelling, or Lesebuch literature. Yet he is a much better writer than Erich Kästner, for example, and Kästner is loved in Germany; had Fallada also written a couple of successful novels for children, critics might have found it easier to see value in his writing.
A Small Circus isn’t as much of a page-turner as Alone in Berlin but it is at least as interesting, if not more so. Incorporating stories and observations from Fallada’s year in the murky world of local journalism and regional politics in Neumünster, disguised here as Altholm, it tells the story of Max Tredup, an ad salesman at the Chronicle, a right-of-centre paper struggling for sales in a left-leaning city. As Tredup worries about getting ad bookings, trouble is brewing in the countryside. The farmers of Schleswig-Holstein are unhappy with the government’s refusal to grant them subsidies and its imposition of high taxes. A cattle auction is sabotaged by a group of farmers who set fire to hay bales and send the animals running off into the fields. Tredup, who happens to be at the scene with a camera, takes pictures of the main culprits and the next day rushes to the town hall to sell the photographs to the Social Democrat mayor. He is now rich, but he dithers between sharing the money with his wife and children and running away to start a new life, and ends up burying the cash in a field. Meanwhile, the farmers’ protest gathers momentum and Tredup is crushed in the power struggle between the left-wing mayor, Gareis, and the right-wing chief reporter of the Chronicle, Stuff.
The circus in the title is Circus Monte, which refuses to run an ad in the Chronicle and is punished with a scathing review (‘barely mediocre’): a symbol of the culture of vendettas and petty rivalries that gripped Altholm and the fledgling Weimar Republic. For a state-of-the-nation novel, very little happens in A Small Circus, and the things that do happen – animals running wild, someone’s head being bashed in with a sabre, a bomb exploding in a government building – have little impact on the story. What really changes fortunes are things that people make up: a review by someone who wasn’t even in the audience; the cancellation of an important riding tournament, announced in a fake open letter written by Stuff; the size of the farmers’ protest march, which is exaggerated by an over-zealous official and leads to a disproportionate police crackdown; and the eventual farmers’ boycott of Altholm’s shops, again fabricated by the Chronicle.
Anmisten is the favourite tactic of the journalists at the Chronicle – literally ‘chucking muck at people’ (Hofmann translates it as ‘pissing all over someone’): Stuff doesn’t do it to get at the truth – he smears. Anmisten also nicely hints at the novel’s linguistic innovation, what Kurt Tucholsky called its ‘atmosphere of unwashed feet’ and Robert Musil praised as its ‘human smell’. Fallada revels in the use of such practically untranslatable North German idioms as sich einen hinter die Binde giessen (‘to pour yourself one behind the bandages’, meaning ‘to get drunk’), Leute in den Klumpatsch hauen (‘to bash people into a pulp’) or Polizeiobermuckermuck (‘police supremo’). In German the dense use of dialect can hold the story up: Hofmann’s decision to resist wrenching the prose into Mummerset is a mercy.
In university German departments, Fallada is often taught as an instance of Neue Sachlichkeit, the ‘new objectivity’– a confusing tag which implies a coherence that never existed. But here it makes a sort of sense: A Small Circus is an exercise in authorial retreat: most of the story is told in dialogue, which is the second reason Germans haven’t always been comfortable with Fallada: they miss the guiding hand. A Small Circus is a novel about indecision, or about plain bad decisions. When the Chronicle is bought by a new owner who is reluctant to let its writers chuck muck at his political allies, Stuff leaves and Tredup is promoted to reporting. For his first assignment, he ends up covering a clash between Communists and Nazis in front of the town hall. It’s close to midnight, and he still hasn’t finished his piece:
For the police? Against the police? For the police! Against the police! If there was a flower to hand, he would happily unpetal it.
The best course, finally, is a sort of middle way: the ones who are right are the Nazis, who are fine figures of chaps. Moreover, their cashbox has been nicked, and they’ve had a few bloody noses. They have every right to a little popular sympathy.
Whereas the ones who are absolutely in the wrong are the Communists, who are always so noisy, and stare aggressively at people, and go parading a stolen sabre and are forever bearing witness to something you don’t want to know about, as if they were so many early Christians.
Unsurprisingly, Tredup doesn’t keep his job for long, but there’s very little in the book to make one think that Fallada’s own historical judgment was any better. The Nazis barely feature in the novel apart from the skirmish on the main square, even though the NSDAP was the second strongest party in the 1930 federal elections, and would gain 51 per cent of votes in Schleswig-Holstein in 1932. Egon Monk’s 1973 TV adaptation ends with a horde of swastika-waving Nazis arriving at the central station while the mayor waves the town goodbye from a departing train, but in the novel the arriving group are farmers. Some historians regard the anti-democratic Landvolkbewegung as a feeder movement for the Nazi Party; the former farmworker Fallada had some sympathy for them. In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1930, Fallada insisted that the intended message of A Small Circus had been ‘poor Germany’, rather than ‘poor farmers’. But the first two chapters in particular contrast the moral corruption of the city with the purity of the peasants. That ‘human smell’ is all in Altholm; the farmers either keep a dignified silence or speak like a Greek chorus.
Hofmann’s translation uses Fallada’s original title, Ein kleiner Zirkus namens Monte, which gives the whole thing a satirical spin. In Germany the novel was published as Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben (‘Peasants, Bigwigs and Bombs’), putting more emphasis on the farmers’ rebellion. Traditionally Fallada’s editor has been blamed for the sensationalist title, but recent research by Geoff Wilkes has shown that Fallada came up with it long before he sold the book (he had a knack for silly titles: one unpublished novella was called ‘Die Kuh, der Schuh, dann du’ – ‘The cow, the shoe, then you’). For all the ‘new objectivity’ of a dialogue-driven prose style, the characters are not all treated neutrally. Tredup and the mayor both start out with principles, but are increasingly compromised. By far the nastiest bunch in Altholm turns out to be a group of local politicians who try to appease the angry peasants, a mean crew of boozed-up bullies and whoring paedophiles – all of them good democrats.
In GDR-era Germany, Fallada’s archive was kept in Carwitz, where he bought a house in 1933. According to Fallada – Fall ad acta?, published in 2006 by Sabine Lange, one of the archivists, the papers there were guarded with such zeal that Tom Crepon, the director of the archive, spied on his rival biographer Werner Liersch for the Stasi. GDR publishers were supposed to follow Walter Ulbricht’s advice from 1947: ‘Publish F’s books, but the less you write about the author, the better.’ Williams, however, is under no pressure to protect Fallada’s reputation. She doesn’t neglect to mention that, Tucholsky’s enthusiastic review aside, A Small Circus was written off as ‘fascistic’ in the left-wing press and praised as ‘masterly’ in Goebbels’s newspaper Der Angriff. She notes that Fallada wrote to one enthusiastic fan of A Small Circus advising him to join the Nazi Party, and tells us that he changed the manuscript of Iron Gustav, his twelfth novel, at Goebbels’s behest, ending the story after the Nazi takeover in 1933 and turning the eponymous hero into a Nazi sympathiser. Fallada made three sponsored trips to the front in 1943 in order to gather material for Nazi propaganda, and Williams quotes a famous letter to him from his typist Else Marie Bakonyi, written in December 1945 when Fallada was in the process of being rehabilitated by the Soviet regime, in which she recalled his faith in Germany’s role as ‘the world’s master’: ‘Is that the real Fallada, is that his last reinvention – or do you want to make peace with the ruling powers once again?’ Other biographers have dismissed the letter, as Fallada himself did, as ‘the revenge of a scorned woman’.
Williams thinks that Fallada was ultimately a ‘decent man’, or at least a writer who believed strongly in human decency. He reacted to the problems of his time, she writes, by ‘emphasising the significance of personal morality’. That’s not the same as ignoring his Nazi past, but it does play rather nicely into the image of the good Fallada, which is at the heart of his current revival. What that revival has largely ignored is that Alone in Berlin was at least implicitly dictated to its author by the new Soviet regime. Like A Small Circus, it is a dramatisation of newspaper stories: in 1945, Fallada had met Johannes Becher, an expressionist poet who had also survived a teenage suicide pact. Becher was a leading figure in the Soviet military administration and had been given the task of rebuilding German culture on an anti-fascist basis. Becher gave Fallada a villa in the restricted zone and paid him large fees for short newspaper articles (which Fallada and his wife inevitably spent on morphine, alcohol and cigarettes). Eventually Becher fed Fallada the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a middle-aged couple who were executed for treason in 1943, and encouraged him to write a novel about them. It’s doubtful that he would have written this ‘redemptive’ book of his own accord. What’s certain is that he never published anything that could count as subversion of the regime he lived under. In August 1944, just after the liberation of Paris, a drunk Fallada got into an argument with his wife Suse and fired a gun close to her head. Suse called the police, and the unlucky Fallada ended up in prison once more, where he started writing a series of autobiographical vignettes that emphasised his critical distance from the Nazi regime. But after his release he abandoned the project.
There are at least two Hans Falladas: one a writer who managed to maintain a certain level of decency in adverse circumstances; the other an unpleasant man who made a lot of bad decisions and wrote interesting novels partly as a result of this. I can’t help feeling that the latter predominated. What’s interesting about Alone in Berlin, is that it is a departure from the unlucky me Fallada and more honest in its self-assessment. Early on in A Small Circus, Tredup has a premonition of his own death:
There’s a spot on the back of my skull which I keep feeling. There, just below the crown. I’m not kidding you. I feel a sort of pressure there all the time, and I just know that one day I’m going to get whacked there with a mattock. Right there. I can feel it now. A blow from behind.
And so, just as he’s about to dig up his hidden treasure, Tredup gets whacked over the head with ‘a stout, strong stick, a length of beech’. Poor Tredup, or, as the peasant who does the whacking says, ‘There’s some that have no luck in this life.’
Alone in Berlin starts similarly. Before the Quangels have even decided on their resistance mission, Otto sees a poster bearing the names of ‘three hanged men’. For a second, he has a vision of himself and his wife hanging from the gallows, but reasons himself out of it: ‘Hanging on the gallows is no worse than being ripped apart by a shell, or dying from a bullet in the guts.’ In the event neither of them is strung up. Anna is ripped apart by a British bomb and Otto is set for the scaffold, but has wedged a cyanide capsule between his teeth, which he plans to burst before the blade hits: ‘The vial of cyanide had made him free. The others, his companions in suffering, had to walk to the end of the designated road; he had a choice. He could die any minute of his choosing.’ But he waits too long: just as he’s about to bite on the vial he is overcome by nausea, and vomit washes it away. It’s the executioner’s blade that sends Otto Quangel into the afterlife after all. And, of course, their deaths are entirely pointless: out of 285 postcards, 267 were handed straight to the police.