Early on the morning of October 17th, 1911, 18-year-old Rudolf Ditzen and his friend Hanns Dietrich von Necker armed themselves, walked out into the countryside around the Thuringian town of Rudolstadt (where they were attending school), and fired on each other in the manner of duelists. Like many other young men in imperial Germany, Ditzen and von Necker had struggled to reconcile their developing sexuality with the prevailing social conventions, and were seeking escape in a suicide pact, but they staged it as a duel (purportedly to uphold the honor of a young woman) to protect the reputations of their families.
Von Necker missed, but was fatally wounded by Ditzen, who then used his friend’s revolver to shoot himself in the chest. Miraculously, Ditzen survived, and he was charged with von Necker’s murder. However, Ditzen was declared unfit for trial on psychological grounds, and committed to a private sanatorium for the mentally ill in February 1912. Although Ditzen had been studying for his university-entrance exams in Rudolstadt, upon his release from the sanatorium in September 1913 his parents and doctors decided that he should pursue an agricultural career, and he spent the next several years working mainly on farms and for farming organizations.
These years were also characterized by the intermittent dependence on various drugs against which Ditzen struggled for all of his adult life. No single factor or incident can be isolated as the immediate cause of his addictions—which at different times encompassed alcohol, sleeping drugs, cocaine, and morphine—though Ditzen often relied simply on whatever was most readily available: for example, he was sometimes prescribed sleeping drugs for insomnia and nervous complaints, and morphine was particularly accessible during and immediately after the two World Wars.
But neither his legal problems, nor the abandonment of his formal education, nor his recurrent substance abuse could extinguish the interest in writing which Ditzen first showed during his schooldays, and in 1920 the Ernst Rowohlt publishing house issued his debut novel, Young Goedeschal, which deals with the sexual and psychological tribulations of the eponymous male protagonist. Rudolf Ditzen’s father Wilhelm, a retired justice of the German Supreme Court, had urged him to publish Young Goedeschal under a pseudonym, to avoid reviving public memories of how he had killed von Necker. So Rudolf chose the nom de plume “Hans Fallada,” and adhered to it throughout his literary career.
The name was inspired by two Grimm fairy tales, “Hans in Luck” and “The Goose Girl.” In the first tale, Hans retains his naïve optimism while losing the wages of seven years’ labor in a series of bartering deals with smooth-tongued strangers: he starts with a lump of gold, and ends with two stones, which he lets fall into a well before continuing happily on his way. In the second tale, a talking horse called Falada saves a dispossessed princess from her lowly work tending geese by testifying to her true identity.
Rudolf Ditzen’s choice of a literary pseudonym in 1920 reflected both his protracted struggle to come to grips with the realities of the world around him, and his defiant conviction that he would still somehow succeed in asserting himself against it. That struggle and that conviction persisted for the remainder of his life, and were embodied in many of the characters he created.
Neither Young Goedeschal nor its successor Anton and Gerda (1923), which also deals with adolescent sexuality, attracted much critical or popular attention, and Hans Fallada—as I shall now call him—continued his agricultural career. He was twice convicted of embezzling from employers, serving prison sentences in 1924 and 1926–28, and after the second sentence he settled in the north German town of Neumünster, where he worked on a local newspaper and married Anna Issel, a woman of working-class background from Hamburg.The political hostility which Fallada encountered in Nazi Germany was not confined to his everyday life, but extended to his literary work.
In 1930 Fallada took a clerical position with his publisher Rowohlt in Berlin, where he also completed a novel about provincial politics which was based on his experiences in Neumünster, and appeared in 1931 under the title Farmers, Functionaries and Fireworks. Although this third novel was a modest literary and financial success, the Rowohlt firm was placed in receivership a few months after it was published, and employees were then asked to continue working at reduced salaries. Fallada refused, and instead negotiated a contract that guaranteed five modest monthly payments which were to support him while he wrote his next novel, and to be treated as advances against his earnings from it.
That novel was Little Man, What Now? (1932), the story of how the sales clerk Pinneberg struggles to provide for his wife and their baby during the Great Depression, though finally he joins the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Little Man, What Now? was a major hit, and restored the Rowohlt firm’s finances. Forty-eight thousand copies were issued before the end of the year, serializations were printed in dozens of newspapers, translation rights were sold in numerous languages, a film version was made in Germany, and a stage version was performed in Denmark.
In the US, the novel was published by Simon & Schuster (with Richard Simon describing it as “perilously close to a masterpiece” in a letter to Fallada on March 2nd, 1933), and selected as the Book of the Month Club’s choice for June 1933. It was also filmed by Universal Pictures, with Douglass Montgomery and Margaret Sullavan in the lead roles, premiering in New York on May 31st, 1934. The reviews of Little Man, What Now? were mostly positive, and scores of readers wrote fan letters to Fallada. On the evidence of the reviews and fan letters, the novel’s success was based not on its intermittent and unsystematic attempts to analyze the Pinnebergs’ predicament in economic or political terms, but on its emotional affirmation of their family life as a refuge from their material difficulties.
This is the aforementioned combination of struggle and self-assertion that recurs often in Fallada’s works. The Pinnebergs do not so much resolve their problems as defy them, so that in the last paragraphs of the novel, even after months of poverty and humiliation, the despairing Pinneberg is consoled by his wife’s insistence that “You’re with me, we’re together,” and they feel elevated “higher and higher, from the tarnished earth to the stars.”
Although the Nazis’ accession to power in January 1933 prompted many authors to leave Germany, Fallada remained, partly because—as he told his parents in a letter on March 6th, 1933—his next novel would be “a quite unpolitical book which can’t give offence.” He was also preoccupied by more immediate personal problems, because among other things he had resumed his habit of heavy drinking. Fallada sought refuge from political and personal hazards in what he hoped was the obscurity and tranquillity of the countryside by buying a house in Berkenbrück, on the outskirts of Berlin.
However on Easter 1933 Fallada was denounced as an anti-Nazi conspirator by the previous owner of the house, who hoped to regain possession of it, and he was arrested by a local stormtrooper unit, and spent several days in prison. The denunciation was of course spurious, and Fallada gained his release in a similarly irregular manner, after Ernst Rowohlt engaged a prominent lawyer with connections in the German National People’s Party (which had long collaborated with the Nazi Party) that he exploited on Fallada’s behalf.
Several months later—in what seemed to have been an effort at “out of sight, out of mind,” as well as to escape the recurrence of his heavy drinking after the success of Little Man, What Now?—Fallada acquired a smallholding in the village of Carwitz, about 50 miles north of Berlin, where he lived for most of the next 12 years. But Carwitz was not immune from Nazism either, as was exemplified by its virulently pro-Hitler schoolteacher. Fallada’s experiences in Berkenbrück and Carwitz have obvious echoes in Every Man Dies Alone.
When Trudel Baumann and Karl Hergesell move just outside Berlin to start their life together after their resistance cell is disbanded, they make “the painful discovery that recrimination, eavesdropping, and informing were ten times worse in the small towns than in the big city.” And when Eva Kluge settles in a village after leaving her post-office job and the Nazi Party, she finds that the local schoolteacher is “a rampant Nazi, a cowardly little yapper and denouncer,” though he is later drafted, and replaced by the humane Kienschaper.
The political hostility which Fallada encountered in Nazi Germany was not confined to his everyday life, but extended to his literary work. His fifth and supposedly “quite unpolitical” novel, The World Outside (which he began before 1933 but did not complete and publish until 1934), was viciously attacked by Nazi critics for its comparatively sympathetic portrayal of convicts. Fallada’s literary career in the decade following The World Outside developed a remarkable diversity, as he searched for genres in which he could avoid political controversy, retain his artistic integrity, and earn a sufficient income.
More than anything else, he wrote light novels with non-contemporary settings, often designed partly for magazine serializations, and sometimes commissioned by film studios. But he also produced short stories for children, fictionalized autobiographies about his childhood and his life in Carwitz, the first part of a projected medieval mock epic (which was not published until 1995), and translations of Clarence Day’s Life With Father and Life With Mother. And he planned books based on journeys to France, Spain, and the Czech town of Mimoň, which had been sponsored by the Reich Labor Service, and on a financial scandal of the 1920s which had involved Jewish stockbrokers, but no manuscripts of these have survived.
By the time of the Nazi defeat, Fallada had completed only one work that stands comparison with the novels about contemporary society which he published in the early 1930s. This is Wolf Among Wolves (1937), an intricately detailed but tightly plotted panorama of life in Berlin and the countryside during the hyperinflation of 1923. The main characters, Wolfgang Pagel and Petra Ledig, echo the Pinnebergs by adhering defiantly to their own conceptions of love and morality while the ever-deepening financial crisis threatens the social contract no less than the economic foundations of postwar Germany.
Fallada’s next novel, Iron Gustav (1938), is the most notorious of his Nazi-era works. It was commissioned as the basis for a major film featuring star actor Emil Jannings, and traces the fortunes of the Berlin-based Hackendahl family from shortly before the Great War. Fallada’s original manuscript ended the Hackendahls’ story in the late 1920s, but he was induced—partly, he claimed later, by Joseph Goebbels’ reported comment that if Fallada still didn’t know what he thought of the Nazi Party, then the Nazi Party would know what it thought of Fallada—to continue the action into the 1930s. The novel was then published in this extended form, with the final section showing first one of Hackendahl’s sons as a stormtrooper, then Hackendahl himself—hesitantly, at first, then firmly—accepting the extended hand of his son’s senior officer in the book’s last lines.
However, the film was abandoned. In a letter to his friend Nico Rost on September 19th, 1946, Fallada wrote candidly that he had agreed to revise Iron Gustav in fear of the concentration camp, though “nevertheless the guilt of every line I wrote then still weighs on me today.” In a letter to Ernst Rowohlt on March 20th the same year, he had said somewhat less candidly that: “Apart from the ending of Iron Gustav, I can be accused of nothing at all.” Fallada’s opinion of Jannings can perhaps be inferred from his portrayal in Chapter 19 of Every Man Dies Alone of the film actor Harteisen, who is obsessed by regaining the friendship which Goebbels has capriciously granted and then capriciously withdrawn.
The constant threats to Fallada’s individual liberty and artistic integrity after 1933 prompted him to reconsider his decision to remain in Germany, but not to reverse it. According to an account which Anna gave decades afterwards, in late 1938 the Putnam publishing firm arranged transport to England for the couple and their children, and the family had literally packed their bags and were about to set off when Fallada decided to take a farewell walk to one of the lakes around Carwitz, and declared when he returned that he could not leave. The restrictions on Fallada’s literary creativity adversely affected his personal life, in his recurring abuse of alcohol and sleeping drugs, and in a growing deterioration of his relationship with Anna, from whom he was divorced in July 1944, although the exigencies of wartime meant that they both continued living on the smallholding.
On August 28th, 1944, Fallada threatened Anna with a gun. She disarmed him easily, hit him over the head with the gun, then called the local doctor. The doctor in turn called the police, who committed Fallada to a psychiatric hospital in nearby Alt-Strelitz for observation; a court document confirming the committal stated that he had drunk 12 bottles of wine from August 26th to 28th. On November 28th Fallada was sentenced to three months and two weeks in prison, but he remained in the psychiatric hospital until that sentence expired on December 13th.
It was during his incarceration in Alt-Strelitz that Fallada, having secured permission to work on his novel about the financial scandal, wrote a deliberately almost illegible manuscript—writing in a very small hand, and first filling the pages, then writing upside down in the spaces between the lines, then writing in any remaining spaces, so that the manuscript was not deciphered until some years after his death, when it was found to consist of several different texts. In addition to some uncontroversial short stories, it contained both his politically sensitive account of his clashes with the Nazi authorities, and his novel The Drinker, which was not deciphered and published until 1950.
The Drinker describes how a provincial merchant called Sommer succumbs to alcoholism, is confined to an asylum, and finally tries to commit suicide by infecting himself with tuberculosis in the asylum’s infirmary. Thus in one sense the novel reverses the pattern which I have identified in some of Fallada’s works by showing how Sommer—in contrast to figures like the Pinnebergs or Pagel or Petra—is resoundingly defeated by his problems.
But in an autobiographical sense The Drinker shows Fallada’s characteristic defiance, not simply by thematizing and criticizing his own substance abuse, but also by daring to do so in Nazi Germany, where eugenic and cultural policy encompassed extreme sanctions (including physical abuse or sterilization or death) both for alcoholics and for authors who wrote about them (whether privately or for publication) with any degree of empathy.
There is no simple concept which adequately describes Fallada’s career in Nazi Germany: he was neither an eager collaborator nor a resistance fighter. In his life as an author, Fallada cooperated with the Nazi regime, most obviously by accepting officially sanctioned commissions and writing or revising with the official ideology in mind, but he also challenged the regime, among other things by reasserting his humane values in a novel such as Wolf Among Wolves and attempting anti-Nazi allegory in ostensibly light fiction like Old Heart Goes A-Journeying (1936).
In his life as a citizen, Fallada complied with most of the Nazi system’s demands, for example by enrolling his oldest son in the Hitler Youth, but he also gave financial and legal support to some of the system’s outcasts, particularly authors and publishers’ employees who suffered discrimination on political or racial grounds. And there were contradictions in the way the Nazis treated Fallada, sometimes promoting his work and sometimes censoring it, sometimes sending him on propaganda tours and sometimes imprisoning him. It is not overly generous to point out, however, that what resistance he made put him in actual, deadly jeopardy, and what compromises he made were in the same context.
While the debate about the justifications for emigrating from or remaining in Nazi Germany which has not ceased since 1933 is too complex to recapitulate here, it is worth noting that the conflicting currents in Fallada’s story are not untypical of the stories of those who remained: collaboration was not necessarily prompt, uncoerced, or unconditional, and resistance was not always immediate, impassioned, or uncompromising. The only certainty for Fallada, as for all those who remained, was that even moderate acts of resistance carried the threat of imprisonment or death.
From the afterword to Every Man Dies Alone (10th Anniversary Edition). Used with the permission of the publisher, Melville House. Copyright © 2019 by Geoff Wilkes.