Review: A Stranger in My Country – The 1944 Prison Diary, by Hans Fallada
Novelist’s daring chronicle provides a keyhole view of the daily paranoia of life under the Nazis
Not just a pawn: Hans Fallada
A Stranger in My Country - The 1944 Prison Diary
Hans Fallada, translated by Allan Blunden
Hans Fallada, the literary pseudonym of Rudolf Ditzen, was far more contradictory than any of the many characters he invented in his colourful fiction, which took as its theme ordinary people struggling to live.
Fallada’s erratic behaviour shaped his personality from his earliest years. When, at 18, he failed to keep his side of a suicide pact made with an unfortunate school friend, Fallada’s father, a prominent judge in the Prussian high court, was forced to declare him insane to avoid murder charges. Injuries from a bad road accident led to morphine addiction, which caused him to dabble in embezzlement, earning him a couple of stints in gaol.
Fallada was a handful. As a soldier in the Great War, he lasted just 11 days. Born into privilege, he experienced life behind bars, was a heavy drinker and a liar, a bit of a cynic, a dreamer and a confirmed realist – all very useful qualities for a writer. But beyond all of that, he was a natural storyteller who revered Charles Dickens.
By 1944 Fallada was famous thanks to the publication of his bestseller, Little Man, What Now? (1932), which balanced the literary with the popular. On August 28th that year, he just happened to fire his pistol during an argument with his wife, and again found himself behind bars. His wife protested, claiming he was merely drunk, a frequent occurrence.
Fallada’s track record of drugs and depression was sufficient to see him committed to a psychiatric prison. While there, he requested, and was given, some paper of which he made very good use. A skilled survivor who never harboured any delusions of heroism, Fallada set down to write at his usual breakneck speed. He claimed to be working on some stories; he also wrote a novel (The Drinker) and, most daringly, his memories of 12 years under Hitler.
Although presented as a 1944 prison diary, A Stranger in My Country is not a diary. This wonderful volume, painstakingly transcribed from his microscopic handwriting by his gifted biographer, Jenny Williams, and her fellow Fallada scholar and archivist, the poet Sabine Lange, is a conversational memoir: blunt, whimsical, outrageous, anecdotal and often hilarious. Allan Blunden’s translation conveys the exasperated humour.
Ruled by thugsIt is Fallada giving his side of the story, in parts explaining, in parts justifying his survival – just about – as an apolitical writer in a country ruled by thugs. Their rise to power appears to have been facilitated, at least in the beginning, by the fact that, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, few hard-pressed German citizens took the swaggering National Socialists all that seriously – until it was too late.
“I wasn’t living at the heart of events, I wasn’t the friend and confidant of ministers and generals, I have no great revelations to make,” Fallada wrote. “I lived the same life as everyone else, the life of the ordinary people, the masses. And for those of us who were not Party members, life in the Third Reich really was one long series of wrangles, small battles that we had to fight in order to make a living and survive.
“Nothing big happened . . . When I think how much I myself had to change in writing my books! I had to abandon all thoughts of writing the books I really cared about. Any portrayal of darker characters was strictly forbidden. I had to be optimistic and life-affirming, in an era that was negating the very meaning of life through persecution, torture and executions.”
Fallada was 51 in September 1944, when he began his prison stay, and divorced his first wife, although they still lived in the same house. Throughout his memoir, he presents himself as he had been some years earlier, a husband and father of three small children. At no time does he indulge in heroic rhetoric.
One thing is certain: he loved Germany and he could never leave. The decision to stay was deemed suspicious by many German writers, including Thomas Mann, who dismissed all writing produced in Germany during the Nazi regime as tainted. Fallada countered with the irony that runs through the memoir:
“I’m sure it was all very well to be sitting in Paris or Prague and exhorting us German writers to engage in active resistance against the Nazis: ‘Refuse to obey them! Sabotage their initiatives! Call the people to arms! The fate of Europe lies in your hands, you are the spirit and soul of Europe!’ And so on – there was plenty more of this tripe written from some safe haven.
“It all sounded fine and dandy, as I say, but to commit suicide cheered on by a bunch of émigrés did seem somewhat pointless to me.”
At times he toyed with compromise, particularly in his dealings with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who insisted the storyline in the screenplay of Iron Gustav (which, never filmed, became a novel of the same name) should be continued up until 1933. Fallada did so without elaborating on the political situation. It seems it may have been sheer naivety that caused him to feel that he could write it in such a way. The actor Emil Jannings, the central figure in the project (he was to play Gustav, a character based on a real-life Berlin cab driver), reported back to the writer the views of Goebbels: “If Fallada still doesn’t know where he stands on the Party, then the Party knows where it stands on Fallada.”
Admitting that he wasn’t “given to grand gestures before the thrones of tyrants”, Fallada agreed to do the work. “How I squared this with my conscience in private, that’s another story. The month I spent writing this Nazi sequel is outlined in black on my calendar, I hated every minute of it – and I hated myself even more.”
Each time Fallada introduces an incident, he can’t resist allowing his novelist’s eye free rein. The various real-life people are summoned fully formed, ranging from his beloved friend, the legendary publisher Ernst Rowohlt, to the appalling schoolmaster Stork, whose face “was pale and wan, with a yellowish tinge, his eyes were dark and deep-set; you quickly became aware that the man could not look anyone straight in the face”.
Smuggling out his manuscriptHaving written at speed in his cell, Fallada took advantage of a day trip home to smuggle out his manuscript in which the memoir was written literally between the lines. Later, after the war had ended, the Soviets invited him to publish whatever he had, and he mentioned the memoir. He revised his text, even removing the casual anti-Semitism – Fallada had always been friendly with Jews and so felt easy making comments that could offend others. Williams and Lange went back to the original and, defying various obstacles, eventually published the German edition in 2009. This memoir from the author whose novels include Wolf Among Wolves and the glorious A Small Circus as well the posthumous Alone in Berlin had a disarmingly human stubborn streak which was also naive and is most poignantly expressed in his final letter to his mother, in which he wrote: “Some part of me has never been completely finished, something is missing, with the result that I am not a proper man, only a human being who has aged, an old grammar-school boy . . . I know I am weak, but not bad, never bad.”
Williams sees this awareness of his weakness as the source of Fallada’s literary inspiration as well as his mental torment. The candour of this memoir, which provides a keyhole view of the daily paranoia of life under the Nazis when, as Fallada recalls, in every group of three people, at least one was a spy, reflects the wit and the rage, the very human contradiction that was Rudolf Ditzen the man, Hans Fallada the writer.