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Hans Fallada : a stranger in his own country...



How Hans Fallada’s memoir finally made it from prison into print

Jenny Williams 2015.jpg

Irish academic Jenny Williams played a key role


Eileen Battersby - Sat, Jan 24, 2015, 05:00 

This is the background story to the writing and eventual publication of Hans Fallada’sA Stranger in My Own Country (Polity), a memoir of life in Nazi Germany written secretly by him while in prison in the autumn of 1944 and smuggled out under his clothing during a day trip home. It is a fascinating book with revealing insights into the ordinary life as lived in Hitler’s Germany but it also give us many glimpses of the singular personality of Fallada.

I don’t understand why it has been calledThe 1944 Prison Diary. This is, most assuredly, a memoir. That slight gripe aside, all praise is due to Polity for publishing not only Fallada’s words but the collaborative scholarship of Prof Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange, in Allan Blunden’s superb translation.

Many books tell strange and wonderful stories, while some are themselves surrounded with mystery as to how they ever got written, never mind published. Novels have appeared lost or been rediscovered years after the deaths of their authors. Novels that had been assumed to have existed merely in their author’s imaginations had actually been written, at times, not finished, yet manuscripts have been found by willing champions. Other books have been banned or heavily censored. Writers from Latin America in particular devised a distractingly lush allegorical style, magic realism, to disguise or deflect the political message contained within exciting fictions. There are brave legions of books that first won a readership by being passed around in samizdat, or underground, editions. Instead of the hype generated by conventional publishing, these books eventually triumphed by word of mouth, by the power of readers.

Writers are artists, entertainers and teachers. Yet they can also be heroes. Many have written books, poems and plays that could, and did, cost them their lives. Art is often about dangerous truths. Rudolf Ditzen, known to literature as the German writer Hans Fallada, eccentric by nature, may not immediately appear to be of heroic material. Yet he was, most certainly, a truth teller and a writer very aware of his reader.

Born in Greifswald in 1893, the son of a high court judge, he began adult life as a wayward youth surviving a suicide pact in which his friend died. His father had to plead the boy’s insanity to protect him from a murder charge. Fallada was always a maverick. After various breakdowns, difficulties with drugs and alcohol, and ultimately heart trouble, he died following an accidental morphine overdose and cardiac complications, in 1947.

His posthumous career began in earnest with the publication of Michael Hofmann’s English-language translation ofAlone in Berlinin 2009. This would be followed byWolf Among Wolves (2010), The Drinker(2010) and possibly his finest novel,A Small Circus, in 2012. Still, it should be stressed that Fallada did not have to wait for literary glory courtesy of translations. He had enjoyed bestselling success from early in his career, initially with Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben (Farmers, Bosses and Bombs) based on his experiences as a newspaper reporter in Schleswig-Holstein which coincided with a period of rural revolt. Then he turned to the short story form, again with success. A major breakthrough came with the publication in 1932 ofLittle Man – What Now? Within months it had been published in English.

Fallada was a literary writer who was also a popular one and he shared a feel for the ordinary trails and tribulations of life so brilliantly handled by his hero, Charles Dickens. Much of his huge body of work is now available in English translation while his life and motivations have been explored in an outstanding biography by Prof Jenny Williams, More Lives Than One, which was published in 1998 and in a revised edition drawing on additional material in 2012.

Unlike many German writers, who left Germany as the Nazis came to power, Fallada, in common with Wolfgang Koeppen (1906-1996) who was also born in Greifswald, stayed. This drew the suspicion of writers such as Thomas Mann. But Fallada didn’t care. He was apolitical and loved his country. He fathered three children by his first wife, divorced and married a beautiful drug addict 28 years his junior. He was often in trouble with the authorities because, as he enjoyed saying – he was famously indiscreet – under the Nazis paranoia ruled. As did betrayal. Fallada pointed out that during those years, anytime three people got together, at least one of them would prove to be a spy.

So how did this most apolitical of men end up writing a scathing, and at times, very funny, memoir of life in Nazi Germany from a prison cell? In August 1944 he had been arrested, for allegedly attempting to murder Suse, his wife. They were already estranged at the time, although living in the same house. She later claimed that he was merely drunk. Anyhow he was committed “under observation” to a psychiatric prison, Neustrelitz-Strelitz.

Ever the writer, Fallada requested paper, announcing that he had some stories to develop. His request was granted. On September 23rd, he began, secretly, writing his memoirs of the Nazi period. Just two weeks later he was granted a day trip home for the purpose of gathering material for a project that the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was keen on, an anti-Semitic novel.Iron Gustavhad originally been intended as movie.

Fallada smuggled the manuscript he had been working on in his cell out of the prison by concealing it under his shirt. The manuscript, written in tiny handwriting, included a novel,The Drinker, as well as short stories and the memoir. Fallada wrote incredibly quickly. Those two weeks proved productive. He was to be accompanied by a prison guard. On leaving his cell, he cleverly offered to show the guard the contents of his briefcase. The guard showed little interest. One can imagine Fallada smiling to himself, his main concern being that he had not the time to write more.

Fast forward to May 1945; the war in Europe is over. The Soviet army arrived in Feldberg and as Jenny Williams explains, the Soviet cultural attaché knew of Fallada’s work and asked him if he had any work pending. Fallada mentioned the memoir – he said nothing aboutThe Drinkeras he intended that to be published only after his death. The cultural attaché suggested that he edit and prepare the memoir for publication. Fallada began work, and quickly produced about 100 typed pages but did not finish the job. Possibly, Prof Williams suspects, because he had just been made mayor.

After his death on February 5th 1947, his second wife, Ulla Ditzen (formerly Losch, nee Boltzenthal), a young widow whom he had married on February 1st, 1945, was declared his heir. But she was a morphine addict and had caused Fallada to resume his addiction after a 20- year abstinence. Her addiction dominated her life. She had also by then married a con man. Together they began selling off Fallada’s papers. Eventually Ulla, alone and desperate, ended up in Brunswick in West Germany where the local butcher, Hey, took pity on her and purchased the remaining manuscripts.

The butcher made no pretence at establishing a literary archive but the material was kept safe. For more than 30 years, scholars such as Prof Williams and other interested parties wishing to research Fallada had to make their way to the butcher’s cellar in Brunswick. One regular visitor was Guenter Caspar, of the Aufbau Publishing House in Berlin which published the standard GDR edition of Fallada’s collected works.

The GDR purchased the Fallada papers from the by then widowed Frau Hey in the late 1970s and set up a Fallada archive in a beautiful lakeside villa in Feldberg. By the time all of the papers had been catalogued, there was no trace ofThe Drinkermanuscript. It was assumed that it had been lost.

Time passed. In 1996 the missing manuscript reappeared, apparently, as Prof Williams surmises, in the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Caspar had borrowed it from Frau Hey and had not returned it. Its belated appearance solved the mystery that had kept many Fallada scholars, including Prof Williams, guessing as to how Caspar appeared to have access to material which he alone seemed to have and had used in his editions of Fallada’s work. It was known that in the interval between Fallada’s death and Ulla Ditzen being declared his heir, Fallada’s papers had been stored in the Aufbau offices.

Caspar had consulted the borrowed documents and when he was finished returned them to the temporary archive in Berlin. He died soon afterwards.

In 2001 Jenny Williams as his biographer and poet Sabine Lange, archivist at the Fallada Archive from 1984 until 1999, were given a contract by Aufbau to transcribe and edit the memoirs. They had to work with a Frau Giesecke, an editor who had been trained by Caspar. She believed that the manuscript should be edited in the reader-friendly style of Fallada who was always aware of his audience. From looking at the 100 typed pages he had left Williams and Lange could see that he had intended the memoir for a wide readership. Changes had been made and the casual anti-Semitic references had been removed. The women began their transcription of the microscopic handwriting in December 2001 and completed it six months later, in July 2002.

By February 2003, they had submitted their manuscript to Aufbau. Fallada’s elder son, Uli (named for Fallada’s beloved younger brother who had died in the first World War) had been very helpful. He had read the edited manuscript and answered various queries.

Then the long wait for publication began. “We rang up twice a year,” recalls Prof Williams, “and were always told that Aufbau were concentrating on other authors”.

After reunification, a wealthy west German with an interest in Fallada and the arts in general, purchased the Fallada Archive in Feldberg. On hearing of the plight of the completed, edited but still unpublished memoir, he instructed a West German lawyer to approach Aufbau. This elicited a speedy response from Aufbau. Williams and Lange were invited to meet the managing director and given assurances, along with a new, and very different, Aufbau editor, who insisted that the editors do a new edition of the original manuscript. Aufbau wanted authenticity – including original typos and abbreviations. “Not very reader-friendly,” says Prof Williams, conscious of Fallada’s instinctive awareness that he was writing for posterity.

By late 2008 the new edition had been submitted. But another problem arose. Both of Fallada’s sons objected to Sabine Lange’s name appearing on the book. Aufbau held all rights to Fallada’s works, but his family owned the personal papers, including the memoir. Lange had been dismissed from the Fallada archive for refusing to read her poetry at a writer’s centre that had supported the Stasi. The centre was known to have continued working with authors who had been Stasi informers. Lange took her case to court and won. The experience encouraged her to write a book about the involvement of the Stasi in the literary life of the GDR, including the Fallada Society. Fallada’s younger son was the president of the Fallada Society and he took Lange and her publisher to court.

Prof Williams refused to have only her name on the book. A letter written by Fallada’s older son, praising the work, proved vital in helping the publication. The German edition was published in 2009. The names of both editors appear, admittedly only once and in very small print. There was no publicity in Germany.

To date that German edition has been translated into Polish, Dutch, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, French and now English as well as having been the Book of the Month in November 1913 on the most influential arts programme in the Netherlands. Aufbau has been very quiet. Hans Fallada is not.

He remains one of the most exciting and human of storytellers, to which the English-language edition of the strongly Dickensian Iron Gustavpublished last year, testifies. It means that for the first time, that entire novel, charting the life and times of a Berlin cab driver, is available, as Fallada wrote it. All of the cuts, many due to censorship, have been re-instated. The English edition is more complete than the current German edition. Hans Fallada or rather Herr Ditzen would smile gleefully at the chaos.




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

Eileen Battersby


First published:Sat, Jan 24, 2015, 05:00


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 Countryis 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 thugs

It 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 ofémigrésdid 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 ofIron 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 manuscript

Having 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 includeWolf Among Wolvesand the gloriousA Small Circusas well the posthumousAlone in Berlinhad 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.