Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I did the right thing

‘Every ten minutes or so a constable enters my cell, looks curiously at my scribblings and asks me what I am writing. I say, “A children’s story” and carry on writing. I prefer not to think about what will happen to me if anyone reads these lines.’ This is Hans Fallada, the highly-regarded German novelist, who famously or infamously chose to remain in Germany under Hitler and during the Second World War. The quote comes from Fallada’s so-called prison diary, newly published in English by Polity, as A Stranger in My Own Country. However, the ‘diary’ is not a record of his daily life but rather an extended memoir about his life under the Nazi regime, written frenetically over the course of just two weeks.

Rudolf Ditzen (later to call himself Hans Fallada) was born in Greifswald, Germany, in 1893, the child of middle-class parents, both of whom shared an enthusiasm for music and literature. They moved to Berlin in 1899, and to Leipzig in 1909 when his father, a judge, was appointed to the Imperial Supreme Court. That same year Fallada was severely injured by a horse-drawn cart, and the following year he contracted typhoid. Biographers suggest that his life-long drug problems and various suicide attempts can be traced back to these traumas. In 1911, a suicide pact with a friend - by way of a duel - went wrong, and led only to the friend dying. Fallada was labelled insane and incarcerated in a sanatorium.

Fallada used his time in sanatoriums to work on translations and poetry; and, when not confined, he took up agricultural work to support himself and to pay for his growing morphine addiction. In 1920, he published his first (autobiographical) novel, Der junge Goedeschal (Young Goedeschal). Over the next few years, though, he was imprisoned twice, serving sentences for stealing to support his drug habit. Having joined a temperance society, he emerged from prison in 1928 free of his drug habit. He soon found regular work as a journalist, married Anna Issel, and moved to Holstein.

Then, after moving back to Berlin, Fallada worked for Rowohlt Verlag, a publishing company, which also published his books: Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben in 1931, and Kleiner Mann, was nun? (Little Man, What Now?) in 1932. The latter - now considered a modern classic - was praised by the likes of Thomas Mann and Graham Greene, and, eventually, filmed twice. Shortly after Hitler seized power in 1933, Fallada was falsely accused of being an anti-Nazi conspirator, and arrested. Subsequently, he moved into the country, to Carwitz, near Feldberg.

While other authors emigrated to escape the Nazi regime, Fallada decided to stay, and for a while turned his attention to children’s books. At times, Hitler’s regime seemed to warm to Fallada, and to embrace his adult writing; but, with the Second World War, his life began to fall apart. He started drinking, having affairs, and, eventually, he became divorced from his wife. He was also in dispute with neighbours, who threatened to tell the authorities about his past psychological troubles. In September 1944, he was committed to a psychiatric institution for having fired a gunshot and threatened to kill his ex-wife. He was released three months later, in December.

The following February, Fallada married a widow, Ulla Losch. She was wealthy but she was also an alcoholic and morphine addict. With the war over, Fallada was appointed mayor of Feldberg. He soon resigned, and together with Ulla moved back to East Berlin. He died of a morphine overdose in 1947. Further information is available from Wikipedia or Kirjasto.

During his three month incarceration in 1944, Fallada wrote prolifically. He asked for pen and paper and was given 92 sheets of lined paper, ostensibly to fulfil a propaganda assignment for Joseph Goebbels. Instead, however, he wrote several short stories and a novel, one that was highly critical of life under the Nazis. This latter was written in diary form, but in such a dense complicated script that it was effectively unreadable until deciphered later. 

When, after a couple of weeks, the contentious content of his writing had remained undetected, he felt emboldened to set down some direct (as opposed to fictionalised) reminiscences of the Nazi period. He wanted to do this, to bear witness, as it were, and to justify the painful compromises and concessions he had made as a writer living under the Third Reich. He wrote frenetically, using the same pieces of paper as for the novel, but turning them upside down and writing in the spaces between lines, using miniscule writing, Latin, and many abbreviations. He was allowed a day release on 8 October 1944 (having begun to write his reminiscences on 23 September) and took the opportunity to smuggle every page out of the prison.

The novel - Der Trinker - was not deciphered and published in German until 1950. This was translated into English by Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd and published by Putnam & Co. in 1952 as The Drinker. Much of the text can be previewed at Amazon. By contrast, Fallada’s secret reminiscences, written interspacially between the lines of The Drinker and other stories, remained forgotten or lost for half a century. In 2009, Aufbau Verlag, once the largest publisher in GDR, finally published the text as edited by Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange under the title In meinem fremden Land: Gef√§ngnistagebuch 1944. Allan Blunden has now translated it into English for Polity, a Cambridge-based publisher specialising in social sciences and humanities, which issued the book as A Stranger in My Own Country - The 1944 Prison Diary. Reviews can be found online at The Independent, the South China Morning Post, and the Morning Star.

However, it is worth pointing out that Fallada’s diary is no such thing. Yes, there are around 15 dated entries, averaging 15 pages per entry. But the whole reads like a continuous memoir of his life under the Nazi regime, starting in 1933, with almost no references to the present or to his daily life in prison - a sentence or two of the following extract being a notable exception. 

24 September 1944
‘ “If I ask myself today whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing by remaining in Germany, then I’d still have to say today: “I did the right thing.” I truthfully did not stay, as some have claimed, because I didn’t want to lose my home and possessions or because I was coward. If I’d gone abroad I could have earned more money, more easily and would have lived a safer life. Here I have suffered all manner of trials and tribulations. I’ve spent many hours in the air-raid shelter in Berlin, watching the windows turn red, and often enough, to put it plainly, I’ve been scared witless. My property had been constantly at risk, for a year now they have refused to allocate paper for my books - and I am writing these lines in the shadow of the hangman’s noose in the asylum at Strelitz, where the chief prosecutor has kindly placed me as a ‘dangerous lunatic’, in September 1944. Every ten minutes or so a constable enters my cell, looks curiously at my scribblings and asks me what I am writing. I say, “A children’s story” and carry on writing. I prefer not to think about what will happen to me if anyone reads these lines. But I have to write them. I sense that the war is coming to an end soon, and I want to write down my experiences before that happens: hundreds of others will be doing the same after the war. Better to do it now - even at the risk of my life. I’m living here with eighty-four men, most of them quite deranged, and nearly all of them convicted murderers, thieves or sex offenders. But even under these conditions I still say: “I was right to stay in Germany. I am a German, and I would rather perish with this unfortunate but blessed nation than enjoy a false happiness in some other country.!”

[. . .]

But if we happened to be in Berlin and came across formations of brownshirts or stormtroopers marching through the streets with their standards, singing their brutish songs - one line of which I still remember clearly: “. . . the blade must run with Jewish blood!” - then my wide and I would start to run and we would turn off at the next corner. An edict had been issued, stating that everyone on the street had to raise their arm and salute the standards when these parades went past. We were by no means the only ones who ran away rather than give a salute under duress. Little did we know at the time that our then four-year-old son would one day be wearing a brown shirt too, and in my own house to boot, and that one day I too would have to buy a Nazi flat and fly it on ‘festive days’. If we had had any notion of the suffering that lay ahead, perhaps we would have changed our minds after all and packed our bags.’

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