In a tiny bookshop in Berlin International Airport, I hunted for a distinctly German book to read on my long-haul flight home. When my eyes fell on the gritty, black and white cover image of Ernst Haffner’s novel, Blood Brothers, little I did I know that it had been burned by the Nazis in 1933 with Haffner deemed an ‘un-German’ writer.
Blood Brothers was published in 1932 as Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Youth on the Road to Berlin) and banned by the Nazis a year later. It would take another eighty years before the novel was unearthed and republished as Blutsbrüder (Blood Brothers) by a small German publisher, Metrolit.
Set during the social and economic turmoil of 1930’s Berlin, Blood Brothers is the story of eight boys ‘tiny individual links of an exhausted human chain…’ all runaways, petty thieves and orphans, living rough. Aged between sixteen and nineteen, lead by the charismatic and brutish Jonny, the gang is typical of the underclass who emerged from the trauma and dislocation of WWI – the Lumpenproletariat or ‘rags’ of society.
Haffner’s eye-witness, unsentimental descriptions brilliantly capture the drama of the gang’s hand-to-mouth life as they scrounge, steal and hustle to survive. When lucky, they sleep in straw-filled crates, warehouses and flea-pit cinemas. When flush with dodgy earnings, they hang out in seedy bars, scoffing liver sausage and potato cakes, downing schnapps, getting leglessly drunk until every last ‘pfennig’ has been spent.
The vivid documentary style proves immersive as Haffner propels us from one enthralling scene to next. Travelling on an axle beneath a train, one of the boys clings for his life as icy winds numb him senseless. If he falls he will be ‘cat food’.
The icy wind drills deeper and deeper into his clothes… Willi can no longer feel his hands cramping… All he feels is his body hurtling along at incredible speed, as though shot from a gun.
At times we share the feral pleasure of devouring stolen food.
He sinks his teeth into meat and fat, chews and grinds… He closes his eyes in animal bliss, snuffling and grunting.
In the seamy underbelly of Berlin, Haffner’s characters find solace too, a home of sorts, and a family among themselves. The Blood Brothers are ‘boys who prefer to starve at liberty to being half-fed in welfare’. Haffner, who was a social worker and journalist, has no love of steely-eyed bureaucrats and often rails against the dehumanising institutions and echelons of society that blame and shun his misfits. Perhaps his determination to pen harsh truths is what the Nazis disliked, as undermining their supremacist agenda.
Very little is known about Haffner. The facts gleaned from surviving records are scant: He lived in Berlin between 1925 and 1933. His novel was banned and burned by the Nazis in 1933. The next and final mention is ominous: In 1938 he was summoned to appear before the Reichskulturkammer, a ministry of culture headed by Joseph Goebbels. After that he vanishes. It’s impossible not to wonder the horror he must have felt watching the shadow of Nazism plunge his country into darkness.
While immersing us in bleak times, Blood Brothers is a compelling read. Its stark, gritty detail resonates with the voices of our own marginalised and dispossessed, and there is much tenderness between the boys. In their glory moments there’s joyous camaraderie, fierce loyalty and courage – enduring human qualities Haffner clearly celebrates above all.
My edition: Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner, translated by Michael Hofmann, publisher Vintage (2016)
Watch: short archival documentary clips – The Depression and Germany