Drunkards, Nazis, and Fascist Masculinity: The Ambivalent Resistance Lit of Hans Fallada
Clayton Wickham Rereads The Drinker
In August 1944, the internationally best-selling German author, Hans Fallada—born Rudolph Ditzen—was sent to a Nazi psychiatric prison. Sober for the first time in months, he set about writing The Drinker, a novel that charts the descent of a small-business owner, Erwin Sommers, from a life of bourgeois respectability into abject drunkenness and institutionalization. Written in just two weeks, in tiny handwriting on 24 sheets of paper, the novel offers a relentless tragicomic anatomy of German masculinity. What begins with a series of perceived domestic slights—a cobweb left above the stove, the “affair of the doormat”—concludes with a chilling series of transgressions: theft, threats of violence, attempted murder.
Though the Nazis are never mentioned, it is difficult not to read The Drinker as a response to Fallada’s broader social context, especially since he wrote it secretly, at great risk. A 2019 English-language translation frames the novel with the language of the center-left, “never Trump” resistance, describing Erwin Sommers as a small businessman fighting “valiantly to blot out an increasingly oppressive society.” But readers looking for a hero in Sommers will be disappointed to find the anti-hero par excellence. By the end of the novel, through a peculiar blend of weakness and obstinacy, Sommers has ensured that he is one thing and one thing only: a drunkard. Sommers’ love affair with intoxication—like Fallada’s own, perhaps—is less a response to National Socialism than a counterpoint to Germany’s collective crimes.
For fascism to succeed, Umberto Eco writes in his classic essay, “Ur-Fascism,” the followers must feel humiliated. Fascism feeds on this humiliation—whether economic, national, gendered, or racialized—and encourages followers to direct their frustration at enemy-others who, through some tenuous logic, turn out to be the source of all society’s problems. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak,” according to Eco. This allows supporters to be both victims and conquerors, supermen and noble underdogs. In the case of Germany, Hitler harnessed the perceived emasculations of the Weimar Era—rampant unemployment, women in the workforce, the humiliation of Versailles—and cathected these frustrations in the figure of the inherently inferior, but nonetheless cunning and powerful, international Jew.
While Erwin Sommers is not concerned by the threat of international Jewry, he is a self-styled victim—at least when drunk. As his habit worsens, doctors, townspeople, bank tellers, and employees coalesce around his wife, Magda, in a blurry feminist conspiracy: Magda is out to get him, Magda wants his property, she thinks she should be the boss. “It doesn’t suit me that you play yourself up here, and try to ride roughshod over me, with all this talk about being blind drunk,” Erwin tells her, before demanding a divorce. “I’m as sober as an eel in the water and ten times more clever and more efficient than you are.” And yet, as he admits at outset of the novel, Magda is the superior businessperson, more active and enterprising, “better at dealing with people.”
Though Sommers is, more or less, aware of his limitations, at every step his fear of his own weakness drives him deeper into drunkenness. “I have always been a sensitive man,” he says in the novel’s opening passage, “needing the sympathy and encouragement of those around me, though of course I did not show this and liked to appear rather sure and self-possessed.” This dissonance between his private self and his public identity creates a chasm only alcohol can fill.
At key moments, opportunities for apology and self-correction, minor or imagined humiliations prompt Sommers to escalate his problems, either by lying, drinking, or lashing out at Magda. The result, often, is a hypermasculine grotesque that even Sommers recognizes as performance. For example, after trying for hours to scale a wall “with the obstinacy that drunkards develop towards impossible tasks,” Sommers gains entry to a tavern by pretending to have a gun in his pocket. He threatens to shoot an old lady and feels determined “to be awe-inspiring and wicked, and to show my power over people.”
These bouts of violent bravado are complicated, however, by moments where Sommers glories in “a painful and voluptuous sense of self-abasement.” Early in the novel, a barmaid sends him a glance that seems “to penetrate right to the root of my manhood, as if seeking to find out how much of a man I was; it seemed positively physical, something painfully, sweetly insolent, as if I were stripped naked before her eyes.” If Sommers had a catchphrase, it might be, Lower and lower, deeper and deeper!, a sentiment he repeats in various forms. So what, then, is driving Erwin Sommers? Is he destroying himself with alcohol in order to, at least temporarily, feel himself a man? Or—overwhelmed by his failure to perform successful masculinity—does he ultimately long to be embarrassed, caged, dominated, revealed for what he is?
Sommers is ultimately incarcerated, in part, for threatening to kill his wife during a brawl over their silver. The way this plays out is murderously sadomasochistic: “Suppose you were to kiss her suddenly, whisper loving words in her ear?” he thinks as they are wrestling, but instead he says, “Tomorrow night I’ll come and kill you.” He grabs the suitcase full of silver and staggers off. After his apprehension, he does a stint in the local prison (which, ironically, used to be his business’ biggest contract), then is moved to an insane asylum, where he spends his time making brushes and studying his fellow degenerates. By the end of the novel, he informs us, he has infected himself with mucus from the sputum flask of a tubercular patient in order to die “a death of my own choosing.”
Though the year of Sommers’ downfall is left unclear, perhaps deliberately, his experiences are entirely consistent with National Socialism’s contradictory approach to alcohol. The leaders of the Third Reich viewed alcoholics as diseased and “anti-social.” Drinking among soldiers and militia, on the other hand, was encouraged. From the start, the Nazis used drinking rituals to create a sense of fraternity and prepare its members for acts of violence. SA members drank and sang during gatherings in taverns, often spilling out into the street afterward to wreak havoc.
Later, as barroom brawls and streetfights escalated to mass killing and genocide, alcohol served as incentive for murder, a lubricant for male bonding, and a coping device, according to historian Edward Westermann. In the Gestapo, men took part in drunken “victory celebrations” after acts of “liberation from the Jews.” In Poland, one Jewish woman described smelling the odor of burning corpses while watching “a group of Gestapo men who sat by the fire, singing and drinking.”
Alcohol consumption among the German civilian population, however, was tolerated but discouraged. Dyed-in-the-wool alcoholics were ousted from the Volksgemeinschaft or “people’s community,” often spending years behind bars. Of the 350,000 people sterilized by the Nazis under the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring,” thousands were likely alcoholics. When instrumentalized in acts of homosocial communion and mass murder, in other words, alcohol consumption was welcome, but when pursued in its own right, as a consuming addiction or abiding passion, drunkenness became “anti-social,” a threat to both the to the gene pool and the totalitarian order.
This brings us back to Erwin Sommers. Though he may be fly in the ointment of the existing social order, Sommers remains symptomatic of that order in many ways. His impracticality, disaffection with bourgeois life, desire to extinguish himself, and general aggrievement are all qualities that Hannah Arendt ascribes to the ideal subject of mass movements like National Socialism. It is people of this type, according to Arendt, who were most susceptible to the Hitler cult and to National Socialism’s all-encompassing ideology, which offered them freedom “from the chaos of opinions” and ultimately sought to “extinguish the individual identity completely.”
Like Nazism for the German people, alcoholism, for Sommers, is a simplifying potion, a temporary respite from social calamity and the tensions of his personality. In The Drinker, at times, Sommers seems to be seeking less an escape from the dissonance of emasculation than to escape his life completely: “I was the wildest and the drunkest of the lot,” he says, shortly before an unfortunate encounter with two local doctors. “I felt myself absolutely liberated, I really was a stone hurtling into the abyss—I absolutely ceased to think.”
Notions of masculinity, like fascism and totalitarianism, thrive on contradiction. Using the Italian writer Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, scholars have described dominant forms of masculinity as “hegemonic.” In order to maintain dominance, Gramsci says, hegemony slyly incorporates that which appears subversive to its laws. Applying this concept to the paradoxes of white male victimhood, Claire Sisco King writes that “white masculinity prevails not by expelling that which is Other, but by sacrificing its own fictions in order to absorb, assimilate, and make room for Otherness, offering up, for instance, cherished narratives of masculine strength, aggression, and invulnerability in order to indulge in femininity, passivity, and lack.”
Maybe then, Erwin Sommers, with his sadomasochistic longing for the abyss, is less a subversive Nazi subject than a failed one. In Elinor “la reine d’alcohol,” a saucy barmaid who metonymizes his love for drink, he has merely chosen the wrong idol; he should be saving all his love for Hitler, channeling his destructive urges toward the Nazi cause. The same could be said of Fallada, an alcoholic and morphine addict, who attempted to emend his books to please the Nazis, only to receive savage reviews from the National Socialist press.
What, then, do we make of The Drinker’s politics? Fallada wrote the book at great risk in a Nazi asylum, at the same time he was penning A Stranger in My Own Country, his anti-Nazi memoir. Earnest, self-justifying, and politically uninsightful—if this memoir is Fallada’s ego under fascism then The Drinker is his id. The novel offers a meticulous dissection of a German male psyche at a time when German masculinity was being mobilized in a vast genocidal enterprise. As the grim course of the Nazi regime suggests, male fragility and hypermasculinity enjoy a dangerous intimacy with violence: “We have got to appear tough here or else we will lose the war,” one SS officer wrote home to his wife, referring to the mass murder of the Jews. “There is no room for pity of any kind.”
The question remains though: Is The Drinker deconstructing the humiliation that fascism weaponizes or, like its narrator, merely indulging in that humiliation? Perhaps the answer lies in the novel’s refusal to transubstantiate Sommers’s disgrace into something more noble or palatable. In contrast to more philosophical novels with “fallen” narrators (Camus’s The Fall, for example), The Drinker resists finding anything redemptive, profound, or usefully authentic in Sommers’s bibulous revolt. In fact, some of the novel’s funniest passages mock Sommers’s sentimental efforts to find meaning in his benders. If fascism relies on a convenient self-deception—the displacement of blame for one’s problems on some outgroup or other—then a book that chronicles, painfully and minutely, the process of that displacement is a potential antidote to fascist hate.
Hans Fallada lived many lives: drug addict, potato seed salesman, embezzler, reluctant Nazi propagandist, drunkard, Soviet mayor. He was, like Hans Castorp of The Magic Mountain, the sort of person who lives “not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.”* Though naïve in many ways—even his eulogist admitted he was “no profound thinker”—Fallada had a talent for rendering the complex tensions of his experience as a political subject. He possessed, in the words of John Willet, “an extraordinarily sensitive political subconscious.” Maybe here, finally, we see the appropriateness of Rudolf Ditzen’s pen-name: Hans for “clever Hans,” a happy-go-lucky fool from a Grimm’s fairytale, and Fallada, for another Grimm’s creation, a horse who goes on speaking the truth, even after a queen has chopped off its head.
*This phrase and insight appear in Jenny William’s excellent biography of Fallada, More Lives Than One.