By Sue Turner in Britain:
A tortured soul in the face of terror
Thursday 16th October 2014
The 1944 prison diary of German novelist Hans Fallada reveals a man torn between his conscience and the diktats of the nazi regime, says SUE TURNER, and he paid a heavy price for it
IN SEPTEMBER 1944 the novelist Hans Fallada finds himself, not for the first time, inside a German psychiatric prison.
Believing that the war is entering its final disastrous phase, with the nazis increasing their reign of terror at home and the Allies closing in on all fronts, he feels compelled to reflect on the nazi years and so begins to write his prison diary.
“I know I am crazy,” he states. “I’m risking not only my own life, but the lives of many people I’m writing about.”
In just two weeks, at breakneck speed, he tries to write himself free of the horrors of the previous 11 years.
Under the eyes of the guards he unburdens his resentment and hatred of the nazis. He writes about friends and colleagues, those who suffered under the regime and those who collaborated.
Using a tiny script, he turns the paper around, writing between the lines in different directions. He uses abbreviations to disguise the content and finally smuggles the manuscript out on a home visit. It is now published in Britain for the first time as A Stranger in My Own Country.
Fallada (1893-1947) became addicted to painkillers as an adolescent after he was run over by a cart and kicked in the face by the horse. He survived a bungled suicide pact in 1911, although he shot his friend dead.
By the time he became an adult he was an alcoholic, a drug addict, an embezzler, a depressive and a suicide risk. He also became a best-selling author.
His novels document the lives of ordinary people as they struggle with life in a Germany hit by unemployment, inflation and the rise of fascism.
Little Man, What Now?, published in 1932 when four out of 10 German workers were unemployed, tells the story of a young couple fighting to keep their heads above water.
Fallada gives a voice to these half-hidden victims of a society that kept them on the edge of starvation. Rather than making the context of the novel explicit, he concentrates on the detail of their daily lives, leaving the reader to connect this with the wider political picture.
Fifty provincial newspapers serialised the book and it was made into a Hollywood film by Jewish producers, thus bringing Fallada to the attention of the nazis.
In 1935 he was declared an “undesirable author.”
As opponents of nazism made plans to flee abroad, Fallada made the fateful decision to remain in Germany, explaining that: “I could never write in another language, nor live in any other place than Germany.”
He felt he should defend his homeland from violent nationalism from within, rather than “slink away to a life of ease in comfortable exile” like Thomas Mann and Bertholt Brecht. The former’s attitude to the notion of Fallada’s internal exile was scathing. “Books published in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless. The smell of blood and infamy clings to them,” he wrote.
Inevitably, Fallada found himself compromising with the regime in the shape of the nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and he spent time in and out of psychiatric units as a result of the stress.
After the war he settled in the eastern sector of Berlin and the Soviet administration appointed him interim mayor of Feldberg.
He was given the Gestapo files of a working-class Berlin couple, the Hampels, who were beheaded in 1943 for distributing postcards denouncing the nazis. In 1947 Fallada used their story as a basis for Alone in Berlin, the novel that redeemed him.
His fictional couple the Quangels follow the same course as the Hampels — individual resistance which is brave and dogged yet ultimately doomed. Primo Levi called it “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the nazis.”
That same year, weakened by drink and drugs, Fallada died of a heart attack. He was 53.
His prison diary is a heartfelt diatribe against the nazis, revealing a highly compromised man riddled with contradictions and ambiguity. In reading it, the high price Fallada paid for living out the war in his homeland is all too clear.
A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary by Hans Fallada is published by Polity, price £20.