A Stranger in my own Country

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Written in the late 1930s Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To Those Born Later” concludes with a plea to the reader for their forbearance:
Remember/ When you speak of our failings/ The dark time too/ Which you have escaped.

It is useful to bear this in mind when reading Hans Fallada’s 1944 Prison Diary which, even its editors admit, is prone to “inventing dialogue…embroidering and embellishing scenes”; a book where “memory and imagination merge, fiction and truth are conflated”. Indeed it contains an account of Brecht’s own flight from Germany in 1933 which “is not supported by any evidence”.

What we have here then is not an entirely factual and truthful account of the author’s life in fascist Germany but an attempt to justify (to himself and to those who would read the diary) his decision not to flee and to continue writing after the Nazis had seized power. And Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin is arguably the best account of everyday life in those years, a story that Primo Levi called “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”.

How then are we to approach Fallada’s diary without either simply pointing the accusatory finger of collaboration or airbrushing out his role under the regime?

Born Rudolf Ditzen in northern Germany in 1893, the son of a respected judge, much is rightly made of his tragic personal life: an accident and illness in his teens whose treatment and cure would lead to a destructive life-long drug addiction; a botched joint suicide attempt at 18 that left his best friend dead, him badly wounded, charged with murder and ending with him being committed, for the first of several times in his life, to a mental institution.

His drug addiction was soon to be added to by alcoholism, which in turn led to an early life of crime and imprisonment. And yet for all these personal tragedies Fallada is also typical of many German middle class people of the time. Crushed, devastated and defeated by a period of war, revolution and acute economic crisis, they lived on the edge of pauperisation and in fear of further upheavals.

Fallada speaks of how “decent Germans contemplated the advent of Nazi rule”, saying that, although they had “read quite a bit about the brutality”, they (and he) thought “it won’t be that bad! Now that they’re in power, they’ll soon see there is a big difference between drafting a party manifesto and putting it into practice.”

This volume, for all its intense prose, is not much of an insight into Fallada and his life — indeed I was immediately struck by a sense of “thou doth protest too much”. Jenny Williams’s biography, More Lives Than One, is more useful in understanding the complexities and contradictions of his life.

This diary presents us, no matter how hard he tries to show otherwise, with a picture of a shamed and defeated man who, as the regime was falling, looked in the mirror and saw the negative answer to the question he had posed so powerfully in 1932, “What Now, Little Man?”