Book review: A Stranger in My Own Country - a tortured writer's memoir

The memoir of Hans Fallada, one of Germany's most well-regarded writers, is finally published. Cameron Dueck reads about a dissenting life during Nazism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm

A Stranger in My Own Country
by Hans Fallada

With time, the insidious creep of censorship makes outcasts of all those who dare to differ. And those who believe in the rhetoric, or give themselves to it, sow fear among others in order to consolidate their righteousness.

"The little tyrants are more dangerous than the big ones," writes Hans Fallada, whose memoir A Stranger in My Own Country is finally in print - half a century after its writing.

Fallada, one of Germany's most well-regarded writers of the 20th century, tells the tale of a writer and his friends, and how the swell of Nazism means there's always a listening ear outside the door - except this time he's telling his own story.

In 2010, the English translation of Fallada's Alone in Berlin, a thriller set in Nazi Germany, became a publishing sensation six decades after he wrote it, creating some anticipation for his memoir. This story of censorship and a government intolerant of criticism will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in China or been witness to the slow march of mainland policies in Hong Kong.

Fallada, who died in 1947 aged 53, was a drug addict and alcoholic whose family was falling apart. In 1935 he had been declared an "undesirable writer" following the publication of Once a Jailbird and Once We Had a Child. He was hounded by the Nazis, and had already seen the inside of prison cells for his political transgressions.

In July 1944 he and his wife Suse divorced, although they continued to live in the same home. A month later, during a drunken fight with her, Fallada fired his pistol. He missed - and landed up in a psychiatric prison.

It was in his cell, shared with "a schizophrenic murderer, a mentally deficient and castrated sex offender, and another disturbed inmate locked up for attempted rape and murder", with Allied bombers visible through the window bars as they carried payload for Berlin, that Fallada penned a memoir of the preceding years.

Telling the story could have cost him his life: Fallada wrote his memoir under the eyes of the guards, putting him in constant fear of discovery. He used abbreviations and a secret code, and wrote in tiny handwriting. He would then turn the page upside down and write between the lines, creating a dense and confusing manuscript. Fallada eventually smuggled his papers out of the prison when he was allowed a day's leave, under guard.

A Stranger in My Own Country is a long rant about the decline of Germany, the rise of Nazism and the damage this did to free speech. The main dialogue of the book is broken up by "separate entries" which update the reader on his situation, attempts to see his wife, get out of prison, or complete his manuscript. It is in these separate entries, often written in a more urgent, immediate style, that Fallada's emotional strain comes to light. His writing captures the despair and resignation of those who try to stand up against the popular tide, and the satisfaction when small moral battles are won.

Fallada traces the arc of Nazi oppression of dissenting voices through his own experiences and fragmented career, as well as the lives of those around him - mostly writers, publishers and artists.

At one point, he describes the growing terror of an ageing Jewish publisher who is coming under persecution. "If he stood at the window and gazed down into the street, the moment always came when the band struck up, the banners fluttered, the tramp of marching feet was heard, and he saw the brown columns filing past, and gazed once again into these young and oh-so vacuous, so coarse faces, faces quite different from those he had looked upon all his life, hard faces without a trace of pity in them. And when they broke into song, and he heard a line about the blade that must run with Jewish blood, he trembled all over and cried out and tore at the curtain and wrapped himself in it to block out the light, as though he could shut out the new world that was so darkly dawning with a few metres of fabric."

While Fallada resolutely objects to the anti-Semitic goals of the Nazis, his writing reveals that prejudice, when fuelled and fed for years, may creep into one's view. "I did not succumb, like most of my fellow countrymen, to the endlessly repeated propaganda claiming that all the ills of the world stem from the Jews, and that the Jew is the devil incarnate. I made no distinction, and had never given it any thought."

[Hans Fallada] was hounded by the Nazis, and had already seen the inside of prison cells for his political transgressions

But that doesn't stop him from describing a man as "a little degenerate Jew" and referring to someone with a "typical Nazi face". He writes: "I realised that the Jews themselves are the ones who have erected this barrier between themselves and other nations, which we refused to believe when the Nazis claimed as much; and that it is the Jews themselves who feel the difference in blood, and insist on it, when we had always smiled at the notion. This realisation did not make me an anti-Semite. But I did come to see the Jews in a different light. I'm sorry, that's just how it is. I really had to say it: but I can't alter the fact."

Fallada's friends had far greater troubles than he did. Cartoonist E.O. Plauen a close friend of Fallada's, said too much while in raucous discussion with his friends, unaware someone was eavesdropping. The snitch ran to the Gestapo and Plauen was packed off to prison. When he entered the cell he found a revolver on his bunk. The Gestapo "left it to him to anticipate the verdict" and he took his own life.

Another acquaintance popped across the street from his home for a shave only to find the Nazis had come for him on his return. He fled the country with only the clothes on his back. "Like the rest of us, he had no idea how much danger he was already in," writes Fallada.

Indeed, Fallada sometimes appeared blind to the risks that he himself took - or was he simply thumbing his nose at authority when he welcomed a Jewish woman to stay in his house when he knew he was already being watched?

Fallada was asked by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda and a man he describes as "a great admirer of other men's wives", to write a story that could be made into a film with a role for Emil Jannings. The recipient of the first-ever best actor Oscar in 1929, Jannings had begun starring in Nazi propaganda films, and Fallada felt pressured to take the commission.

In 1938 he wrote Iron Gustav: A Berlin Family Chronicle, a powerful portrayal of the devastating effects of the first world war on a family and a country. Goebbels forced Fallada to revise the ending, but Iron Gustav was still a success. It has just been translated and released in English for the first time.

"Under the National Socialist regime, every artistic activity was inhibited and rendered almost impossible by the need to defer to the tastes and prejudices of senior government figures," Fallada writes of the experience.

The one tiresome feature of this book is the constant recriminations and outright vengeance Fallada expresses. While understandable, it sometimes reads as if written by an angry, drunken but intelligent old uncle. However, the reader may feel some of the same catharsis Fallada admits towards the end of his story.

"I've written the worst of it out of my system: the old hatred of the Nazis is still there, but it doesn't hurt so much."

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