Out on November 24, 2014 from Polity
On 4 September 1944 Hans Fallada was committed to the Neustrelitz- Strelitz state facility, a prison for “mentally ill criminals” in Mecklenburg, some seventy miles north of Berlin, where he was to be kept under observation for an indefinite period of time. His fate was entirely uncertain.
This was not the first time that this son of an Imperial Supreme Court judge found himself behind bars. In 1923 and 1926 he had already been jailed for six months and two and a half years respectively on charges of embezzlement. In both cases his drug addiction had been a key factor. In 1933 he had been accused of involvement in a conspiracy against the person of the Führer, and had been taken into protective custody for eleven days. In the autumn of 1944 the charge was a different one: Fallada was accused of having threatened to kill his ex-wife on 28 August 1944.
The divorce had been finalized on 5 July 1944. Yet the couple continued to live together, with others, on the farm in Carwitz: Anna (Suse) Ditzen in the house with their three children, her mother-in-law and a constantly changing number of bombed-out friends and relatives, Hans Fallada in the gardener’s flat in the barn. On that Monday afternoon at the end of August the heavily intoxicated Fallada fired a shot from his pistol during an argument. Anna Ditzen took the gun away from him, threw it in the lake and alerted Dr Hotop, the doctor from the neighboring town of Feldberg. Both Fallada and Anna Ditzen later testified that the gunshot was not intended to kill. Dr Hotop sent the local police constable to escort his patient to Feldberg to sober up. The matter might have ended there, but the story came to the ears of an over-zealous young prosecutor. He insisted on having Hans Fallada transferred to the district court in Neustrelitz for questioning. On 31 August the accused was ordered to be ‘temporarily committed to a psychiatric institution’. On 4 September the gates of the Neustrelitz- Strelitz state facility closed behind Hans Fallada. He was placed for an indefinite period in Ward III, where insane or partially insane criminals were housed. It looked like the end of the road for him: an alcoholic, a physical and mental wreck, an author who was no longer capable of writing.
Yet Fallada used his time in prison to recover from his addictions – and to write. As early as 1924, when he was in prison in Greifswald, he had kept a diary as a form of self-therapy. So now he requested pen and paper once more. His request was granted. He was given ninety-two sheets (184 sides) of lined paper, approximating to modern A4 size. As well as a series of short stories, Fallada wrote The Drinker. On 23 September, noting that his novel about alcoholism remained undiscovered, he was emboldened to start writing down his reminiscences of the Nazi period. He was one of ‘those who stayed behind at home’ (as distinct from those writers and artists who went into voluntary exile when Hitler came to power): he spent the years of the Third Reich in Germany, for the most part in rural Mecklenburg, where he ‘lived the same life as everyone else’. Now he wanted to bear witness. Here in the ‘house of the dead’ he felt the time had come to settle personal scores with the National Socialist regime, and also to justify the painful compromises and concessions he had made as a writer living under the Third Reich.
In the autumn of 1944 the catastrophic war was entering its final phase, and the collapse of Hitler’s Germany was clearly imminent. The Allies were approaching from all sides, American troops were at the western frontier of the German Reich, while the Red Army was advancing towards East Prussia. At the same time the Nazi regime was stepping up its reign of terror and tightening its stranglehold on the German people. In committing his thoughts and memories to paper, Fallada was now putting his own life at risk.
Surrounded by ‘murderers, thieves and sex offenders’, always under the watchful eye of the prison warders, he wrote quickly and frenetically, freeing himself, line by line, from his hatred of the Nazis and the humiliations of the past years. He proceeded with caution, and in order to conceal his intentions and save paper he used abbreviations – ‘n.’ for ‘nationalsozialistisch’ (National Socialist), for example, and ‘N.’ for ‘Nazis’ or ‘National Socialism’ – while the minuscule handwriting was enough in itself to deter the prison warders. But Fallada went further in his efforts to ‘scramble’ the text, turning completed manuscript pages upside down and writing in the spaces between the lines. The highly compromising notes, part micrography and part calligraphic conundrum, became a kind of secret code or cryptograph, which can only be deciphered with great difficulty and with the aid of a magnifying glass.
On 8 October 1944, a Sunday, Hans Fallada was allowed out on home leave for the day. He smuggled the secret notes out under his shirt.
…Meanwhile we had grown to like our villa so much that we decided to stop looking for somewhere else and to stay where we were – but to become owners rather than tenants. That would not be possible without the consent of the Sponars. So we went to see them and made the following proposal: I would buy up the mortgages from the individual mortgage lenders, and he would agree to let the house be put up for compulsory auction. At the sale I would then acquire the house for the value of the mortgages, the property being so heavily mortgaged that there was no danger of anyone outbidding me. In return for his consent to the auction I would grant him and his wife a lifelong right of residence in the ground-floor apartment – admittedly half the size of what they had now – and in addition I would pay them both a monthly annuity that was twice as much as the pension they were getting from social services. In return, he would help out in the garden as far as his strength permitted.
I was offering the Sponars an incredibly good deal here. The protection against foreclosure would not last indefinitely; the house would come under the hammer one day, and he would lose the right of residence there, lose the garden, and not get a penny in compensation. So I was astonished when the couple seemed unsure about accepting my proposal. I pressed them, and eventually he came out with it. He felt that by agreeing to let the house be put up for auction he was placing himself entirely in my hands. Once the house had been sold at auction, he said, the Sponars would have no rights at all, and I could do with them whatever I wanted. It was easy to make promises – no offence intended – but keeping them in these uncertain times was even less certain . . . I said with a laugh that his concerns could very easily be laid to rest: all we needed to do was go and see a notary together and put our mutual obligations in writing. He promised to think it over for a day or two. I couldn’t understand it – I thought he should have been grateful to me, simple as that. What I was offering was a pure gift. But people are strange, and old people especially. But he came to me next morning – it always pays to sleep on things – and gave his consent. I suggested that we go straight to the notary and get it all down in writing, exactly as he wanted. But all of a sudden he wasn’t in such a hurry any more. He had a touch of bronchitis, he claimed. Besides, there was no great hurry, he said: he knew I was a man of my word, the end of this week or the beginning of the next would be soon enough. Which was fine by me. I was exhilarated by the prospect of owning a house of my own, when just a short time ago I had had nothing to my name. Thinking that everything was settled, I travelled to Berlin and went to one of the big banks to arrange the transfer of the prime mortgage. They were happy enough to give it to me, and were just pleased to be rid of this instrument that had hardly ever yielded any interest. Then I set about buying up five or six smaller mortgages with a value of a few thousand marks each, which Sponar had presumably taken out when he was really up against it, in order to keep his head above water from one month to the next and carry on making alabaster lampshades that nobody wanted to buy. Having sorted all this out, I sat at home feeling very pleased, and waited for my landlord to get over his mild attack of bronchitis so that he could come with me to the notary.
Now comes a strange interlude, not without deeper significance, on the eve of Easter, when we planned to organize an Easter egg treasure hunt for our little boy. On Maundy Thursday we had a visit from a Mr von Salomon, who worked at my publisher’s. Mr von Salomon was not Jewish, as one might assume from his name (and as some people did assume), but came from Rhineland aristocracy. Salomon was a Germanized form of the French ‘Salmon’. He had three brothers, and anything more different than these three brothers it would be hard to imagine. They perfectly exemplified the condition of the German nation: disunited and riven by conflict. One of the brothers was a respectable bank clerk, an upright citizen, who was only interested in his own advancement. The second was a committed Communist, and if one is to believe his brother, the one I knew (although one certainly shouldn’t believe everything he said!), this brother had been honoured by Stalin in person with a distinguished award. At all events, this Mr von Salomon was soon one of Germany’s ‘most wanted’ men, defying the Nazi terror regime as he traveled constantly back and forth between Paris and Moscow as a courier, wearing a hundred disguises, braving dangers of every kind, and stopping off regularly in Berlin too, where the brothers met up from time to time. The third Salomon brother was a big cheese on the staff of the later notorious Mr Röhm, with whom, however, he did not perish: on the contrary, he rose ever higher through the ranks. He had the – for me – unforgettable first name ‘Pfeffer’. Pfeffer von Salomon – now that’s what I call aristocracy! And my Salomon too, still young as he was, had already had a fairly chequered past. As a young lad he had fought with the Iron Division in the Baltic, then he had joined the Consul Organization, had taken part in the Ruhr resistance campaign, and finally had been involved somehow in the murder of Rathenau. For that he spent some time in prison, where the fiercely nationalist sympathies of the prison staff at the time meant that he was feted as something of a celebrity. He even made a habit of going into town with the prison governor for an evening in the pub, where he found an admiring audience among the bar-room regulars for the tales of his exploits, although it was not unknown for him to get so carried away in the heat of the moment that he mixed up other people’s exploits with his own – for example, telling anecdotes from the Battle of the Marne as if he had been there in person, whereas he couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen at the time. When he came out of prison he wrote a couple of books about his experiences; he wrote well and fluently, as long as he stuck to his own adventures. In one of these books, Die Geächteten [The Outcasts], he sought to glorify the murder of Rathenau, turning things round somewhat to present the murdered Rathenau as a better kind of man, but with a dark and sinister side to him, while the poor murderers were forced to go on the run in Germany, innocents hunted like wild game. Another book, called Die Stadt [The City], is something of a curiosity, a hefty volume, written and printed as a continuous stream of words without any chapter breaks, or even paragraphs, to enliven the tedious uniformity of the text, or give the reader’s eye a chance to rest and pause. Booksellers were quick to dub the book ‘the book with no returns’ – and they were right on both counts: no paragraph breaks, and the book failed to sell, much to the chagrin of my good friend Rowohlt. Mr von Salomon soon discovered, however, that the business of writing books requires a lot of hard work, and often brings in very little money. Like many people who have bright ideas and don’t care for hard work, but do like to live well, he went into films instead. That suited him very well, and when I last saw him on the Kurfürstendamm he had put on a lot of weight, and the acquaintance of a minor writer was clearly a thing of very little importance for a man who was constantly hobnobbing with the film stars of the day. But back then, when he visited me that Maundy Thursday, all this still lay in the future. At that time Mr von Salomon was as lean as a whippet, to which he bore a striking resemblance with his aristocratic, sharp-featured face. I don’t remember any more why he came to see me, he probably just wanted to tell me the latest jokes about Hitler and the Party: back then it was a sort of parlour game – people couldn’t spread the word fast enough! Von Salomon was a funny and talkative man, who knew everybody in the world of literature and art, and the hours passed quickly enough in his company. It would have been a bit wiser, perhaps, to have had this conversation not out in the hall, but in a room where we could have closed the door behind us: but which of us is wise all the time? At that time, certainly, we were anything but. And which of us can always keep in mind that someone downstairs only needs to leave a door ajar in order to hear every word that’s spoken upstairs? The acoustics of a house are unpredictable: sometimes you can hear everything, some-times nothing at all, and on this Maundy Thursday afternoon someone damned well heard just a little too much!
Now comes interlude Number 2, again not without deeper significance, particularly for the study of the human character. By now it was Good Friday, my wife and I were walking in the garden, while our son tottered gamely along between us on his three-year-old legs. It was still mid-morning, the bell up in the village had just started to ring for the morning service, so it must have been shortly before ten o’clock. We were just admiring the crocuses and tulips and hyacinths that had pushed their way up through the withered leaves, their blooms a blaze of color in the bright sunshine. We did our best to stop our son picking the flowers – with varying degrees of success.
And then the Sponars emerged from the house, prayer books in hand, ready to set off for church; she looked, more than ever, every inch the dethroned queen, while he, having exchanged the velvet jacket for a black frock coat, was the eternal artist, playing the part of a graveside mourner. They marched straight up to us and halted in front of us. ‘It is our custom’, said Mrs Sponar in that deep and slightly doleful voice of hers, ‘to take Holy Communion on Holy Friday.’ (This excess of holiness was already making me feel uncomfortable.) ‘It is also our custom’, Mrs Sponar went on, ‘before we take Holy Communion, to ask forgiveness of our friends and acquaintances and relatives for any evil that we might have done them in thought or deed, either knowingly or unknowingly. And so, Mr Fallada, Mrs Fallada, we ask your forgiveness – please forgive us!’ Tears of emotion actually welled up in their eyes, while we, my wife and I, felt so angry and embarrassed that we wanted the ground to swallow us up. ‘They can keep their private religious claptrap to themselves!’ I thought, thoroughly infuriated. ‘It’s all sanctimonious humbug! The queen never regrets anything, is without fault, and cannot ask for forgiveness, and he’s just an old fool! It’s sickening – why can’t they just leave us alone!’
But what can you do? We’re brought up to hide our true feelings and just put on a good face in these situations. I’m afraid my face wasn’t up to much as I assured them we had nothing to forgive them for, and as far as we were concerned they could take communion with a clear conscience. They thanked us again very emotionally, while the tears coursed down the old hypocrites’ faces. Had I known then what I suspected twenty-four hours or so later, and what I knew with absolute certainty some twelve days after that – that these two bastards had already shopped us to the Nazis even as they begged us for forgiveness, and that in return for money they had stored up trouble, illness and mortal danger for us – I think I would have strangled them there and then with my bare hands! But as it was, I just watched them walk out of the garden in their solemn black garb, prayer books in hand, and turned to my wife: ‘What do you make of that?’
‘It makes me sick!’ she burst out. ‘We could have done without their play-acting. Or did you believe a single word they said?’
‘Not a word’, I replied, and then we walked down through the garden to the Spree, where our little boy’s delight in the rippling waves and river barges soon made us forget all about the two old hypocrites.
HANS FALLADA was born in Greifswald, Germany, on July 21, 1893 as Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen; he took his pen name from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. He died from an overdose of morphine on February 5, 1947 in Berlin. Fallada was the author of many bestselling novels including Little Man, What Now? (1932), Wolf Among Wolves (1938), and Every Man Dies Alone (1947).Allan Blunden
ALLAN BLUNDEN is an acclaimed translator, specializing in German literature. He was awarded the prestigious Schlegel-Tieck prize for his translation of Erhard Eppler’s The Return of the State?