Nazi-banned Novel About German Street Teens Is Still Shrouded in Mystery

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Youths playing on a street in Berlin in 1931. Author Ernst Haffner wrote about marginal teens in his recently republished and acclaimed book "Blood Brothers."
Youths playing on a Berlin street in 1931. Author Haffner went with his Jewish publisher to meet Nazi Minister Joseph Goebbels.Credit: Ullstein bild via Getty Images

When “Blood Brothers,” a novel by Ernst Haffner, was rediscovered in Berlin two years ago, 81 years after it was first published, it received rave reviews and garnered the lion’s share of attention literary festivals in Berlin and Frankfurt. The interest stemmed not only from the novel’s plot, which paints a tough, realistic and dark picture of life for a group of homeless youths in Berlin during the 1930s, but also due to the mystery shrouding the author, who was exiled by the Nazis and disappeared at the end of that decade.

Following the novel’s success in Germany, translation rights were bought in 12 countries. The book came out in English this year (in a translation by Michael Hofmann) and was also just published in Israel, translated into Hebrew by Yosefia Simon.

Haffner joins a select list of German authors who achieved fame during the Weimar Republic only to be persecuted by the Nazis and then forgotten. Many of their works were rediscovered over the last decade and earned international recognition and praise, albeit belatedly. The list of these authors includes Hans Fallada ("Alone in Berlin"), Irmgard Keun ("The Artificial Silk Girl") and Hans Keilson ("The Death of the Adversary," "Comedy in a Minor Key").

In contrast with those three, however, very little is known about Haffner’s life. He was a journalist and a social worker who lived in Berlin between 1925 and 1933, and apparently was well acquainted with the slums in the eastern part of the city. “Blood Brothers,” his first and apparently only novel, was first published in 1932 under the title “Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin” (“Youth on the Road to Berlin"), by German publisher Bruno Cassirer. The book received some positive press, including from cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer, a leading Weimar intellectual. But when the Nazis came to power the book was banned, and most copies were destroyed in the book burnings of 1933.

When Berlin-based publisher Peter Graf decided to republish the novel in 2013 at his publishing house, Metrolit, he changed the title of the book to "Blutsbrüder" (“Blood Brothers”) – the name used by the gang of youths in the novel.

“I was introduced to the book by Helmut Wietz, one of my authors, who gave me his copy,” said Graf during an interview with Haaretz conducted over the Internet. “Wietz tried to make a film out of the story in the 1980s, but the topic had already been treated with the sequel of [the German TV mini-series] 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' by Rainer Werner Fassbinder,” which was based on Alfred Döblin’s novel from 1929.

Cover of 'Blood Brothers'.Credit: Courtesy

Graf explained that Wietz “did a lot of research in various archives to find out more about what had happened to Haffner. But unfortunately the publisher’s archive, which Cassirer had to leave behind when he left Germany, went up in flames in Hamburg.”

Graf himself also tried to find details about the mysterious author, “but apart from some newspaper clippings of Haffner and one entry in the index of persons of the City of Berlin from 1931, I could not find anything.”

In addition there was no photographic documentation to be found of Haffner. The most significant piece of information uncovered was a record of a visit Haffner made along with his editor, during the 1930s, to what was referred to as the literature department of the Propaganda Ministry, headed by Minister Joseph Goebbels.

It is possible that Haffner was taken to a concentration camp – like many other German artists and intellectuals who were deemed by the Nazis to be the eternal enemies of the German people – or that he was executed during the war, but there is no evidence to back up either scenario. Nor is there any record that he was drafted into the German army, which was also a possibility, or any information regarding his exploits after the war, assuming that he survived. Graf notes that following the re-issuing of the novel in 2013, the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag beseeched its readers to come forward with any information about Haffner, but none surfaced.

Contagious violence

Haffner’s book excited critics when it was first published as it provided a comprehensive look into the subculture of poor, homeless teenagers in Berlin, a troubling phenomenon during the waning years of the Weimar Republic. Haffner shined his spotlight on the adventurism, the hardships, the distress and the meager joy that filled the lives of street urchins as they constantly tried to survive in the presence of underworld crime centers and among “the depressed masses of the big city,” as Haffner wrote. “With endless Berlin, lacking in compassion, it’s impossible to survive alone.”

According to publisher Graf, the book “referred to something that was rather virulent after World War I: Tens of thousands of youths lived on the street at that time and formed gangs, because they gave them at least some kind of social protection and [enabled them] to survive. Many of these teenagers were runaways from youth asylums, where they had to endure brutal educational methods. Ernst Haffner portrays this kind of environment and survival – where prostitution and criminality belonged to everyday life of these children – in a very honest way.”

Graf adds that realistic prose similar to Haffner’s style can be found among what is called “new objectivist” works, a school that developed during the Weimar era. Graf believes that Haffner’s work will strike a chord with readers today because of its authentic style, and they will also understand why critic Kracauer was so enchanted with the novel when it was first published.

In his review, Kracauer mentioned Hafffner’s descriptions of members of street gangs, meeting in abandoned factories to forget their troubles for a few hours with dancing, drinking and prostitutes. He described these as “romantic celebrations, ‘penny operas,’ and mysterious rituals.” In his review, he also noted that the book was reminiscent of the decadent works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil.

Reading “Blood Brothers” also reminds one of other iconic works from the Weimar period, including Erich Kästner’s “Emil and the Detectives,” and “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” by Alfred Döblin. From a different viewpoint, “Blood Brothers” also seems to be reminiscent of the autobiographic essay “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” written by philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1932, the same year Haffner’s book was published.

No real ideology

Haffner’s disappearance during the Nazi era is not the only unsolved mystery. The Nazis' decision to ban his book is also a puzzle. Although the book was published toward the end of the Weimar period, during the height of a national political and economic crisis, “Blood Brothers” does not seem to make any ideological claims or direct references to the political reality of the time. And although it contains many characters belonging to groups persecuted by the Nazis (including Jews, gays, lesbians criminals and others perceived by the Nazis as undesirable, such as prostitutes, the homeless, drunks, beggars and the unemployed) – it’s hard to identify any clues as to what the author thought would happen to those individuals.

Haffner’s criticism of the German bourgeoisie, as well as the education and welfare systems which prevented the country's youth from developing its own personality and integrating into society, is expressed in reserved language and without pathos. He mocks the blindness of the liberal ideology, and criticizes the institutions that were meant to deal with criminal and at-risk youth. Some believe that the fact that publisher Bruno Cassirer was Jewish was enough to put the novel on the list of books banned by the Nazis.

Asked for his opinion on the subject of politics in the"Blood Brothers" and the fact that the work was banned, Graf said, “It would be untrue to say that the novel is not political. But," he added, "it is not about the political developments in Germany. It does not refer to the troubles and street fights, which led to radicalization. At first this may seem disturbing, because the goon squads of the SA and SS, and the supporters of Rote Frontkämpferbund [the communist Red Fighting League], must have been everywhere in the district of the Blutsbrüder.

“But I think the teenagers in the novel – just like their real-life equivalents – disconnected themselves from every kind of authority. After the violent experiences in youth asylums or broken families (fathers had died in war, mothers were unable to cope by themselves), they were not able to integrate into society, they did not expect anything from anyone. They did not believe in any kind of ideology, in religion or in public welfare.”

Reading the novel now, decades later, inevitably prompts one to wonder what became of those German street teens, not necessarily during the era in which the book was written, but later on, as the Nazis came to power. Did they join the Nazi organizations? Were they sent to the camps? Or sent to fight as cannon fodder? Despite the shadow cast by the Third Reich upon the reality described in the book, it seems that the future awaiting the protagonists – in Haffner’s mind – would be cruel and painful enough, even without the context of the murderous Nazi dictatorship.

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