The steady, relentless narrative drive of Ernst Haffner’s singular novel, Blood Brothers, will leave you with the feeling that you’ve been mugged or, at the least, that you’ve been listening to the deadening repetition of a machine gun. This hard-hitting novel about undesirables in Berlin was widely acclaimed at the time of its original publication in 1932. But a year later it was banned, copies of the book were burned, and by the time of the war, “all records of Haffner disappeared.” There’s nothing about the author other than some earlier information that he had been both a social worker and, supposedly, a journalist, but that journalism cannot be located. Fortunately, Blood Brothers has been rediscovered and now brilliantly translated into English by Michael Hofmann. It’s easy to identify the threat perceived by the Nazi party. All the characters are young men (eight or ten of them) surviving by their wits on the streets of Berlin. They’ve mostly come to Berlin to get away from rural life and its own attendant problems, especially dysfunctional households. They bond together in Berlin—form their own close-knit community—and engage in petty crime (muggings and pickpocketing) in order to survive. At least at the beginning, but the rewards are meager, at most, and in time they move on to breaking into houses and automobile theft, criminal activities that are much more lucrative. It’s not the crime that is so revealing in Haffner’s novel (once you’ve described one pickpocketing there’s no need to describe another) as the seedy, underground atmosphere of the city where these young unmentionables (and thousands of others we are to assume) spend their time. Most of the story takes place in winter. Berlin is cold, and the young men have to spend a fair amount of time, money, and ingenuity just to keep warm. There’s poverty and homelessness everywhere; they’re all searching for the same minimal comforts. With a pittance, you can go to a cheap cinema and stay all day in order to keep warm. Or, if you are broke, into a library. But what do you do at night? Cheap hostels and even cheaper flophouses are stuffed with homeless men. One such place, frequented by the brothers, charges 40 pfennigs a night and is described as follows: “Mold thrives on a few dirty scraps of wallpaper, and where the straw mattresses are laid out, sharp eyes might make out numerous disgusting bloodstains from squashed bedbugs. Boys, men, and oldsters lie higgledy-piggledy on the floor, sleeping away the wretchedness of their existence.” The alternatives for the younger men are state-run borstals—or sometimes prisons. But Haffner makes it clear that many young men “prefer to starve at liberty to being half-fed in welfare.” The observation of one man hits dead center at the situation described here (just as it is today), “rich people don’t do charity.” There are entire manicured neighborhoods in Berlin where these men do not congregate but stick mostly to the areas around Alexanderplatz. Nor is it simply men but women and girls: “Prostitution in every form. From the fifteen-year-old girl, just slipped out of welfare, to the sixty-year-old dreadnought, everyone is feverishly on the make. Male prostitutes, flocks of them, outside the toilets, in bus and tram stops, outside the big bars. Homeless of both sexes sniff around. Loiter, move off. Aimlessly.” It’s not the kind of environment the Nazis wanted to present as the New Germany. As Herbert A. Arnold writes in his introduction, “Haffner’s novel does not fit into “the desired idealization of youth prescribed by NS propaganda.” Instead, we observe the steady flow of young men from the streets, into the corrective institutions (after they are caught), then back to the streets again. “The children, committed to the institution whose function is to guard them against turpitude, only learn from their comrades how to make money in the easiest ways. How you make skeleton keys out of wire…how you crack a safe…how you break and enter a window without smashing glass…how and where to sell your body in Berlin…And: how to escape from the institution and make use of the things you’ve learned, or starve to death.” Steady recidivism. Not surprisingly, there’s a dignity to these brothers, living in the cracks of the city, even an honor among them. They share, take care of one another, when the spoils are plentiful, though managing money when they have it is not easy. It’s likely to be squandered foolishly instead. And their plight can be harrowing. Two of the brothers even make a concerted effort to become legitimate, honest working fellows with a business that will provide for their welfare, though the system works against them. Perhaps this is what most frightened the Nazis about Haffner’s novel. Hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off, and that simple dictum reverberates, sadly, with the situation in many European countries today, even in the United States. It takes a dictator to distract people from their terrible lot, provide scapegoats, and lead them to the next promised land. Blood Brothers, in short, shocks because of its relevance to too much of the world we observe around us today
Ernst Haffner: Blood Brothers Trans. By Michael Hofmann Other Press, 165 pp., $14.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.