A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary by Hans Fallada – review

During the 1930s and 1940s, Hans Fallada was one of the most famous writers in Germany. In 2009, over sixty years after his death, his reputation was resurrected in the English-speaking world with the first English translation of his bleak anti-Nazi masterpiece, Alone in Berlin. In 1944, following an altercation involving a pistol with his recently-divorced wife, he was sent to prison.

It wasn’t his first experience of German penal hospitality; twice before Fallada, born 21 July 1893, had been locked up on charges of embezzlement. Now, during his three-month spell in a psychiatric institution, he had chance to reflect on his life as a writer, husband and father living under Nazi tyranny, and felt impelled to write it all down. His request for pen and paper, in order, he said, to write a children’s book, was granted. Thus, with 92 sheets of paper at his disposal, he began to write.

It doesn’t hurt so much

Incarcerated in the ‘house of the dead’, as he called it, and sharing a cell with ‘a schizophrenic murderer and a castrated sex offender’, and checked on at regular intervals by the prison guards, Fallada wrote in minuscule letters, full of abbreviations and code words. His project was foolhardy, criticizing the very people holding him captive, and could have ended badly for himself and his friends and family. Nonetheless he pressed on, venting eleven years of ‘anger, bitterness and sometimes fear’ on the regime that had done so much to ruin the ‘unfortunate but blessed nation’ he loved so much. At the end of it, he writes of the cathartic release – ‘the old hatred of the Nazis is still there,’ he writes, ‘but it doesn’t hurt quite so much.’

Other German writers had fled abroad, but not Fallada despite being labelled for a while as an ‘undesirable writer’. Starting his memoir in January 1933, the month Hitler came to power, Fallada, a staunch anti-Nazi, wrote of living under the new, brutal regime. Laced with irony, Fallada begins by mocking the dim-witted Nazis, ‘psychopaths and sadists’, with their absurd obsession for uniforms, rituals and petty rules. But of course, living in Nazi Germany was no joke, and the mocking is soon replaced by expressions of incredulity and mounting anger.

Arrested previously in 1933 and temporarily detained in a filthy cell, Fallada experienced first-hand the Nazi ability to disregard an individual’s rights, and the presumption of guilt based on no more than the say-so of a Nazi informant. The law may have been on his side, but justice was easily trumped by loyalty to the regime.

All-pervading the poisonousness  

He witnesses the rising anti-Semitism in Germany as Jewish friends find their lives increasingly straitjacketed by new edits and pronouncements. Yet in describing one Jewish acquaintance, Fallada uses an alarming number of stereotypical and frankly anti-Semitic terms, right down to the hooked nose and the words ‘little, degenerate Jew… and grotesquely ugly’. A footnote tells us that in revising the text after the war, Fallada realised what he had written. It just showed, he said, how invidious and all-pervading the poisonous atmosphere of anti-Semitism and how, unbeknownst, it seeped into ‘even the healthiest of bodies’.

Continually droll and occasionally funny, we admire Fallada as a man prepared, even in minor ways, to stand up to the knuckle-headed Nazis. But we also glimpse a man who could be prone to self-pity and often vain. Perhaps conscious of this, Fallada tries to use a self-deprecating tone, occasionally referring to himself in the third person, but the true meaning is still there to be seen. He bore grudges heavily and for sustained periods, often for years. He comes across occasionally as rather high-handed. His treatment of an elderly couple, which in his mind was perfectly justifiable, comes over as bullish. But so convinced is he in the justice of his cause, he fails to see how his actions can impact on others. He makes no mention of his disintegrating marriage, or his violent outbursts, let alone the argument that resulted in him being locked up in an asylum.

Small Battles

But, as we must remember, Fallada was writing under the most difficult of circumstances, fearful of being found out, and, until after the war, without the benefit of a second draft. What we are left with is a vivid, honest account of everyday life under a cruel, unforgiving regime. His is not an account of a brave resistance hero but, as Fallada himself states, merely of the daily struggle, the ‘small battles’, experienced by all those who didn’t fawn in front of the Nazi demagogues.

One day, half way through his sentence, Fallada was allowed home for the day. He took the opportunity to smuggle out his manuscript and hide it where it remained to the end of the war. Now, seventy years later, it is for the first time available in English.

Hans Fallada died 5 February 1947, aged 53.

A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary by Hans Fallada is published by Polity Press.

 

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