Iron Hans

Iron Hans

Novelist Hans Fallada resented the constraints of the Nazi era but did not desist in his craft.



Hans Fallada is the romantic nom de plume invented by a man who lived through some of the most difficult episodes in his country’s history and came out indifferently, neither a hero nor a villain. “Hans” recalls the Grimms’ Lucky Hans, a fairy-tale fool who smiles even as he is cheated; and “Falada” is the talking horse in another Grimm tale who, though slaughtered by his mistress’s treacherous chambermaid, continues to speak truth to power as a taxidermied trophy. Fallada the man avoided the fate of Falada the horse. “I do not like grand gestures,” he said, “being slaughtered before the tyrant’s throne, senselessly, to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of my children, that is not my way.” He made this excuse, rather grand itself, in 1938, after accepting edits of his latest novel, Iron Gustav. The book was part of a Nazi film project, and Joseph Goebbels wielded the blue pencil. Iron Gustav tells the story of a coachman whose authoritarian parenting ruins most of his children but who becomes a national hero after he refuses to relinquish his horse and carriage for an automotive taxi. Taking up his editor’s suggestions, Fallada extended his narrative’s endpoint from 1928 to 1933, twisted Gustav’s one decent son into becoming a Nazi storm trooper and made the other, criminal son a member of the Communist Party.

Fallada was not sanguine about these revisions; he complained to his mother that “I am not satisfied with what I’m doing…. I cannot act as I want to–if I want to stay alive.” Yet he never disowned Iron Gustav or any of his other works that were compromised, to varying degrees, by the editorial expectations of the Third Reich. In an autobiographical address given after the war, “Wie ich Schriftsteller wurde” (“How I Became a Writer”), he tried to explain:

Perhaps it is best to say, that I am now so far along, that I have learned my craft so well–my occupation being like any other occupation very much a craft–that I would say that I have by now mastered my craft to the extent that I can make the most foreign, chance material quite my own.

It was the weaving of the story, out of whatever threads were at hand–political or otherwise–that consumed Fallada. In “How I Became a Writer,” he describes the writing process as a sudden, propulsive outpouring, an intoxication, a poisonous addiction, a race to get it all down, a day-and-night binge. It was never a moment for exploratory imaginings or close moral deliberation. He resented the constraints of the Nazi era but saw no reason to abandon his craft.

In 1938, after a last walk on the property of his small farm north of Berlin, he decided not to meet the boat his publisher had sent to ferry him to London: he couldn’t bear to leave Germany. He was a man who, after his rootless youth, valued home life immensely. One of the only important writers to remain in Germany for the duration of World War II, Fallada appears to fill an important gap in literary history. But as he might have admitted, he didn’t have anything profound to say about the period. He never came close to defending the Nazi Party, as did a more profound writer, Gottfried Benn. He didn’t go willingly into exile only to turn around and preach the dangers of National Socialism to his fellow Germans, as did Thomas Mann. And he didn’t experience anything that would make for important documentary realism, as did so many witnesses of the Holocaust. His achievement lies elsewhere.

Melville House has reissued two of Fallada’s novels, Little Man, What Now? (1932) and The Drinker (1950), translated by Susan Bennett and Charlotte and A.L. Lloyd, respectively, and published the first English translation of a third, Every Man Dies Alone (1947), making the last the centerpiece of an effort to reintroduce Fallada to American audiences. Translated by Michael Hofmann and marketed as the great novel of the German Resistance, Every Man Dies Alone showcases Fallada’s talent for fluid storytelling. But of the three titles Melville House has brought to light, the real gem is not Every Man Dies Alone but Little Man.

Published eight months before Hitler came to power, Little Man made its author world famous. Movie versions of the story were produced in Germany, in 1933, and in the United States, in 1934. Set against the economic troubles that brought the Weimar Republic to an end, the novel follows two newlyweds attempting to feather their nest even as unemployment looms. Despite Fallada’s ambition as a social commentator, he would always make the family unit the building block of his stories. This was his signature pattern, and Little Man was its crystallization.

Born Rudolf Ditzen in 1893 in Greifswald, in northern Germany, Fallada was almost 40 when he composed Little Man. As Jenny Williams makes clear in her indispensable biography, More Lives Than One, Fallada had by that time been humbled by events and was clinging to the normalcy that his wife afforded him. During his youth, in the years preceding World War I, Fallada fit the profile of the bourgeois Wilhelmine rebel: discouraged by arbitrary philological rigor in school, hampered by puritanical attitudes toward sex, intimidated by the militarism of his society. He vented his feelings by turning to fin de siècle writers like Oscar Wilde. For a time he went by the name Harry, after Dorian Gray’s aristocratic corruptor, and he composed a poem titled “The Great Weariness” while still a teenager.

Fallada typified the extremes of this era when he and his friend Hanns Dietrich von Necker made a pact–each would submit a poem to a third party for judgment, and the author of the work judged inferior would be shot. Their poems were never submitted, understandably. But Fallada’s desperate obsession with a girl led to a second, more serious pact with Necker. Hoping to disguise their suicides as a duel, the two precipitous youths climbed to a famous lookout, paced off and fired. Having missed their targets, the two young men were forced to reload–with Necker tending to Fallada’s rifle for him, as Fallada didn’t know how to service it. In the next round, Necker missed, but Fallada hit his man. At Necker’s request, Fallada took his friend’s pistol and finished him off. Then he turned it on himself. The bullet skipped past his heart and punctured a lung. He was found and rescued.

Fallada’s father, who served on the Imperial Supreme Court at Leipzig, was in a position to ensure that his son was deemed disturbed, saving him from a criminal sentence. But Fallada’s fall from grace, though not adjudged criminal, saw him committed to a sanitarium, knocking the 19-year-old off course for his university entrance exams. Suddenly second-class, the would-be writer stood cut off from education in the large German sense of Bildung. Fallada was sent to work as a steward on private estates and was eventually based in Berlin, working for a “seed potato company” set up in 1916 to improve agricultural production during wartime. He claimed, shortly before he died, that he had learned to identify 1,200 varieties of the tuber.

Fallada’s time in the wilderness was punctuated by episodes of debauchery in Berlin and other cities. He once sold his 3,000-volume library to buy morphine, but more often he subsidized his binges with funds stolen from his employers; and he ended up serving two jail sentences for theft and embezzlement. Reporting for his first prison sentence, in June 1924, Fallada traveled north through the provinces. In a notebook entry dated August 2, he recorded the desire to write a novel about an ex-convict’s struggle to make his way in the world “with the help of a simple young woman.” On the next day he followed up, “I really ought to find out more about ordinary people…. But I know nothing about it.” He seems to have been generally unhappy during this period; he later disowned the two Expressionist novels he published in the early 1920s, Young Goedeschal and Anton and Gerda, claiming that they did not come from his true self. (They were the first books he wrote under his pen name, which he took in order not to embarrass his father.) Though Young Goedeschal is autobiographical, about the angst-ridden son of a judge, Fallada’s artistic fingerprint is faint: the adolescent hero thinks out loud while pacing his room, looking in the mirror, leaning his forehead against a windowpane, snubbing out a cigarette and burying his face in his hands. The eventfulness of Fallada’s later work, by contrast, seems designed to prevent such narcissism. Goedeschal was subtitled “A Novel of Puberty”–not the traditional Bildungsroman but a Pubertätsroman.

By the time he sat down to write Little Man, What Now?, Fallada had reformed himself significantly. He saw his vocation as stemming not from desperate teenage vigils but from his years as a farm steward, walking rows of beets, monitoring the gossips who were weeding them, chatting with suppliers and standing for hours after work as his boss lectured him on the business of the farm. Fallada’s mature stylistic modesty, if you looked it up in manuals of German literature, would come under the Neue Sachlichkeit, the “new objectivity” or “new sobriety,” a wash of cold water that overtook the inflation-ridden, decadent Berlin of the ’20s. The Expressionist publishers of the 1910s–including Fallada’s legendary house, Rowohlt–began to do translations of Balzac and Zola, and the youngest poets, including immigrants like W.H. Auden, studied the bone-dry verse of Bertolt Brecht. Fallada’s evolution from Expressionist to fluent storyteller certainly fits the “new sobriety” label. He became a craftsman who respected money and always tried to turn his books in ahead of schedule. Fallada achieved this transformation not by drifting into a chilly objectivity but through a much more personal influence–marriage.

After his second stint in prison, 1926-28, Fallada took a job with a newspaper and joined a temperance society called the Good Templar Order, where he met a working-class woman named Anna “Suse” Margarethe Issel. Fallada married her in 1929. George Grosz once sketched Suse: she has a round face with level cheekbones, a ski-slope nose and small teeth. Her expression is alert and almost apprehensive, the soul of responsibility.

She was just what Fallada had been looking for. He was marrying down, from his parents’ perspective, confirming but simultaneously redeeming the fall from grace that had begun with his suicide attempt and his failure to finish high school. Suse became a kind of savior for Fallada; his enthusiasm, as recorded in this letter of 1930, might seem fake, were it not borne out in his work:

If I have ever loved another human being on God’s earth, then Suse is the one…. I have a wonderful wife. She is goodness, tranquility, gentleness, calmness in person. There can be no better, more loyal, more courageous partner in the world.

She was his muse, a muse of good common sense and sound home economics. Few change so much, between their juvenilia and their maturity, as Fallada did. Once the careening romantic son of a Supreme Court judge, he had his little wife, his temperance society and his new leaf, which he kept turning over and over, pondering the magic of his own reform.

“Perhaps I did once–at the very beginning–I really cannot remember now–want to write a novel about unemployment,” Fallada recalled with a characteristic show of carelessness a few months after the publication of Little Man, What Now?, “but gradually and imperceptibly this book became a tribute to a woman.” He had started the book only one year earlier, in October 1931, when he outlined a political novel with a weak man at its center, a man whose brother-in-law was a Communist and whose co-workers were intense Fascists. Writing to keep his publisher and his young family afloat, he finished the manuscript in only four months.

A tribute to Suse emerged from the very mechanics of Little Man‘s plot. The young man, Pinneberg, nicknames his girlfriend Lammchen–which alludes to Fallada’s pet name for Suse, Schäfchen (little sheep). Pinneberg gets Lammchen pregnant, frets and decides to marry her while standing in the stairwell of her building. As a married woman, Lammchen is expected not to work, and the Pinnebergs suddenly have one income rather than two. Lammchen can’t cook, but she does keep a ruthless budget. Pinneberg loses his job with a food wholesaler and takes Lammchen to Berlin. Living for a month with his disreputable mother, he cadges a job selling menswear at one of Berlin’s famous department stores. Holding that job amid the rising tide of unemployment, taking care of an infant son (“the Shrimp”) in an illegal two-room apartment accessible only by ladder, Pinneberg and Lammchen become true partners in their marriage. In the end, Pinneberg loses his job, and then his sense of decency and worth–which only Lammchen can restore to him. Fallada sent Pinneberg back home with bad news again and again, and then propped him up each time with Lammchen’s love and support.

Mock-heroic chapter headings gently suggest the tentative pride of the newlyweds. Fallada is never quite a satirist. In “Kessler Reveals Himself. How Pinneberg Stays on Top and Heilbutt Saves the Day,” Fallada sketches the dynamics of floor sales and grants Pinneberg a memorable colleague, the reserved and slightly wizardly Heilbutt, who in “On the Three Types of Salesman and Which Type Is Preferred by Under-Manager Jänecke. Invitation to a Snack” rebuffs Jänecke, the overpaid consultant whose job it is to cut costs. “Pinneberg Receives His Wages, Behaves Badly to a Salesman and Becomes the Owner of a Dressing-Table” narrates the bourgeois impulses that lead Pinneberg to purchase a hulking piece of furniture, and “Lammchen Has a Visitor and Looks at Herself in the Mirror. No One Mentions Money All Evening” takes up the ensuing awkwardness.

Pinneberg’s misfortunes have little to do with the wild vicissitudes of Fallada’s previous life; indeed, they unfold with an incremental dailiness that had more to do with Fallada’s new life and its strong domestic rhythms. Fallada was writing for money, perhaps, but he was so proud to win money for his young wife that his workaday novel became imbued with authentic feeling. Posing as a man of taste, sweating buckets to sell his quota of cummerbunds, Pinneberg was a type–the salaried workers of the Weimar era who, lacking the strong unions of the proletariat or the wealth of the bourgeoisie, took unemployment and inflation on the chin, and turned to Hitler sooner and in greater numbers than any other class. (Fallada had read Siegfried Kracauer’s groundbreaking study The Salaried Masses, published in 1930, which took this group as a demographic novelty.) Pinneberg and Fallada had one thing in common: they brought order to chaos by starting a little family.

After Little Man, Fallada wrote most of his novels in a frenzy of self-discipline. Indeed, like a writer of thrillers, he was praised primarily for his narrative–it was fleet, an engine of short strokes. His preferred form, from Little Man on, was the mini-chapter. Not episodic in the parti-colored, wandering, quixotic sense, these were tiny similar narrative units that ran like a course of dominoes, quickly falling, quickly clicking. Fallada even had a law that he could never on any day write less than on the previous day, and his minimum would inevitably creep up as the weeks passed. Conditions may have demanded it, but speed became his style. His publisher saluted him in letters: “Lieber Meister Ditzen,” using the word “Meister,” for a master craftsman. Fallada’s professionalism was a form of modesty–he made a hard-to-translate distinction between literature and mere writing, disclaiming the title “Dichter.” Disdaining the Faustian aspirations of his youth, however, he forfeited some of the stature traditionally afforded serious German writers, and with it his right to take himself seriously.

Fallada’s first major experience of Fascist rule came in 1933, when he was briefly imprisoned by brownshirts on suspicion of conspiracy against Hitler. Two years later, he was declared an “undesirable author,” but this designation was rescinded after three months. Little Man was a novel that basically kept to itself. Fallada was too content with his own stint as a little man–with his marriage and his new sobriety–to really get angry about unemployment. But he would spend the mid-1930s producing novels that skirted politics completely. Writing in The New Republic, Lionel Trilling called one of these, Once We Had a Child (1934), a tale of a remote island farm, a “retreat”: “though Fallada has lost nothing of his sound minor talent, he has lost immeasurably in dignity and relevance.”

In 1938 another of these books, Wolf Among Wolves, about inflation in the 1920s, inadvertently earned the approval of Goebbels. Fallada hated the strutting arrogance of the Third Reich and never joined the Nazi Party, but Goebbels was determined to make use of him. Fallada was soon offered a contract with Tobis Film Company to write a novel for adaptation: Iron Gustav was the result. (The movie was to star Emil Jannings, but it was never made.) Meanwhile, Fallada’s position deteriorated. On July 1, 1938, Rowohlt was banned for publishing the work of a Jew under a pseudonym. Fallada and the rest of Rowohlt’s authors were relegated to Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, a risk-averse publisher based in Stuttgart; and when Goebbels asked for changes to Iron Gustav, Fallada may have felt he had no other protector. He later claimed that fear of concentration camps forced him to take Goebbels’s revisions but that “nevertheless the guilt of every line I wrote then still weighs on me today.” In 1939 the Stuttgart Hitler Youth offered Fallada a commission for a children’s story, and he fulfilled it: “Sweetmilk Speaks: An Adventure of Murr and Maxe” is the tale of a boy who saves his father’s factory from a revolutionary Communist. In the fall of 1939, a few weeks after Germany declared war on France and Britain, Fallada accepted a commission from Carl Fröhlich, president of the Reich Film Chamber, to write a Zarah Leander vehicle about a German girl who has been in America and returns to learn about the “New Germany.” Fallada wrote the script, This Heart Which Belongs to You, in seventeen days and was paid 25,000 marks.

As the war dragged on, Fallada’s life fell apart. As a major in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (the Reich Labor Service), he took three official trips to the front in 1943. He grew apart from Suse, drank heavily and resumed his morphine habit, and by 1944, they were divorced. During an argument with Suse soon after their break, he fired a gun. For this he was sent to a psychiatric prison.

Written in prison, in secret and at a moment of great exasperation, Fallada’s darkest book has little to say about the year it was written. The Drinker, for Fallada a rare first-person novel, is told by Erwin Sommer, a middle-aged wholesaler whose lassitude about his business and his marriage relaxes him to the extent that he decides to try schnapps for the first time. Fallada rushes him into alcoholism and then lets him spin–Erwin pretends that his failure is merely a personal choice and accuses his wife, Magda, of being too “efficient” when she tries to help him. This cycle of marital misprision runs exactly counter to that of Little Man, in which the two partners are learning what Erwin and Magda unlearn. The writing is less comic, and Erwin’s inebriated narration involves deft psychological writing closer to our conventional notions of literary excellence than anything in Little Man. But Little Man has more character and éclat.

The end of the war found Fallada making overtures to the Soviets, who regarded him as a famous man whose record was sufficiently ambiguous. Fallada gave a speech in the small town of Feldberg, proclaiming, “The Russians come as your friends.” Johannes Becher, director of the Cultural Association for the Democratic Renewal of Germany, provided Fallada with a Gestapo file that would make interesting material for an anti-Fascist novel. Fallada found the material thin but took a second look when a film company sweetened the deal. He wrote the novel in a monthlong spree.

At heart a cops-and-robbers story, Every Man Dies Alone begins with the couple described in the file–the Hampels, whose details Fallada alters slightly. The Quangels, as he calls them, are two working-class Berliners who decide to foment something like a word-of-mouth campaign against the Third Reich. By dropping handwritten notecards that question the Führer’s judgment in stairwells and hallways around the city, they hope to remind like-minded citizens that dissent is possible and perhaps even inspire others to launch copycat projects: “We will inundate Berlin with postcards, we will slow the machines, we will depose the Führer, end the war.” After two years of painstaking work, lettering the cards on Sundays and dropping them on Mondays, Otto Quangel finally drops a card on the floor of his own factory and is caught. Dogged Inspector Escherich can’t wait to tell his culprit “what panic, ruin, and hardship he has brought to so many people.” The inspector’s map of Berlin, crammed with pins denoting drop-off points, shocks Otto. Out of 285 cards, 267 were voluntarily turned in to the authorities by terrified citizens. Nothing comes of the campaign but the couple’s arrest and execution.

This scenario could have come alive in Fallada’s hands. The Quangels are a marital team blundering through with dignity intact, badly calibrated to the forces around them, just like Pinneberg and Lammchen in Little Man. To work their story up into a novel, however, Fallada had to resort to “all the tricks, old and new,” as he boasts in “How I Became a Writer.” He surrounds Inspector Escherich with ne’er-do-wells–lovable, wheedling drunks; miserable, conniving drunks; sadistic SS men; and criminal children–padding the novel with their cat-and-mouse games. Meanwhile, the marital crisis reflected in The Drinker–a book that falters, perhaps, because Erwin loses touch with his wife after she has him institutionalized–continues, subterraneously, here. If there is one deep and ever fruitful tendency in Fallada’s fiction, it is his obsession with marriage. But the Quangels barely talk, and Otto ignores his wife’s qualms about the scope of their campaign: “Isn’t this thing that you’re wanting to do, isn’t it a bit small, Otto?”

The question can also be asked of Fallada. His complacency and work ethic survived the war, and he accepted the commission from the Soviets as he had accepted those from the Nazis. Though Every Man Dies Alone is much better than some of his Nazi-era books, and reflects the benefits of postwar freedom, it is more concerned with the art of storytelling–with generating clever subplots and minor characters–than with an examination of evil. When the film company approached Fallada about writing a Resistance novel based on the Hampels, he had been about to start a very different book, one about a young refugee trying to make a life amid the rubble of Berlin. There’s no evidence that Fallada regretted Every Man once he wrote it–he thought it was one of his greatest books. But the story about the kid living in the rubble sounds so much better suited to Fallada’s interests and talents–not resistance but a little hustling, a struggle to put together a life. It’s a pity he had to hustle so much to live his own.

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