Why an Obscure Nazi-Era Writer Is a Best-Seller in Israel

Article Summary
In an interview, historian Moshe Zimmerman discusses the popularity in Israel of Nazi-era German author Hans Fallada. Prof. Zimmerman says people want to read ‘history from below’ about the period, and that Fallada provides Israelis with a fresh perspective on the Third Reich: that of a simple, confused, not necessarily ideological citizen.

In August 1944, during an argument with his ex-wife, German writer Hans Fallada drew his pistol and shot at the window. Fallada, who suffered from drug and alcohol addictions, was indicted as a result of that act and sent to the hospital wing of the prison. Yet it was precisely there, when under surveillance, that Fallada did something even less logical than shooting at a window: between the lines of a book he was commissioned to write, he chose to risk his life by telling the story of his life under the Nazi regime.

Professor Moshe Zimmerman, who wrote the introduction to the Hebrew version of the prison recollections (called Once it was our Home), is not surprised that Fallada side-steps the reason for his arrest. “It is a very painful subject,” Zimmerman says. “When he wrote [the book], he almost murdered his wife and therefore he was sentenced, and he writes in the prison hospital. But he doesn’t write about that [the reason for his arrest]. He writes to settle his accounts with the regime. It is hard to understand how he believed that he would be able to smuggle his work out of prison. He developed a system to write the book. He has no computer. He writes another novel, and inserts his memoirs in the spaces between the lines. We are talking about an author with a very organized concept, who writes a work like this in a very small time period. I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided in advance what to insert, and what not.”

The Fallada name (pen name of Rudolf Ditzen) became a familiar one in Israel about two years ago, when his book Alone in Berlin became an enormous mass-market success. Zimmerman, director of the Minerva-Koebner Institute for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is familiar with Fallada and how he is perceived in Germany. “Fallada is not the most prominent German author of his era. He was a successful writer who answered the needs of the German public at that time. A book of his, for example, is found in my father’s library—my father was exiled to Israel from Germany in 1938. But he was not a writer on the level of Thomas and Heinrich Mann. He is usually not rated as a great writer. That’s the reason that after his death in 1947, he was rather forgotten. He was resurrected now, because his writings answer today’s needs.”

In his writings, Fallada deals extensively with the lives of artists under the Third Reich. How would you describe the world of art and artists in that time period?

“The tendency during the Third Reich was towards conservative art. Avant-garde was identified with the Jews. It was important for artists to avoid art that was identified with Communism or Bolshevism. An artist had to be very careful so no-one should claim he painted a cow like a Communist. How can anyone know if the cow he draws, looks like a Communist cow? For this reason there were plenty of moralists willing to conduct thorough investigations of artists to see if they were faithful to Nazi principles while searching for miniscule faults.

“I am now reading a book about Herbert Selpin, a movie director. In 1934 he directed the movie “Der Springer von Pontresina,” [The champion of Pontresina] whose protagonists are involved in winter sports. An anonymous person complains to the propaganda ministry that Rudi Ball [a German-Jewish hockey player] appeared in the movie, and why on earth should that be permitted. The answer from the Ministry was that they were aware of the fact and they had approved it. In other words, the informer tried to be holier than the pope. Post factum, we know the reason—Ball was only ‘half Jewish,’ and he was allowed to appear in the movie because he participated in the German ice-hockey team. That was ‘allowed’ due the requirement of the Olympic committee that a Jew be included in the German delegation to the Berlin Olympics. The story shows us the pressure under which the German artists of the time functioned.”

That same, familiar ‘Jewish problem’ appears in Fallada’s work with a slightly strange twist. On the one hand, Fallada describes himself as a person who does not hate Jews. On the other hand, he writes the following sentence in his book, “Therefore I revealed that the Jews have a different approach to money than we do…” (p. 99). Doesn’t this also constitute an anti-Semitic utterance, in a culture in which anti-Semitism is considered legitimate?

“Anti-Semitism as a cultural code (in Shulamit Volkov’s formulation) serves as a marker of one’s emplacement in the public at large,” says Zimmerman. “Fallada agrees with some of the things that the Nazis say about the Jews. That doesn’t mean that he wanted the Jews to be murdered, but when a person exhibits a prejudiced view of the Jews, that places him within the same cultural world represented by the Nazis. The disappearance of the Jews that appears at the beginning of the book is not an important topic in Fallada’s eyes. At the time that he writes, the Jews have already vanished from the environment. He almost does not write about what is happening to the Jews, that isn’t what interests him, only his personal experiences.”

Fallada talks a great deal about informers [to the Nazi regime] and the constant fear of someone informing on you. Was that really so common in life under the Nazi regime?

“There were informers all the time. They made problems for Fallada over the novel he published in 1932, and claimed that his book reflected the spirit of the Weimar Republic. A person who told a political joke in his own home could receive the death sentence on the basis of someone who heard the joke and informed on him. The whole phenomenon ballooned to such an extent under the Third Reich that even the Gestapo began to tire of all the informers. A Gestapo official who wanted to go out for lunch couldn’t get out the door due to all the informers [waiting to talk to him]. Some of the informers were really Nazi fanatics, some simply wanted to settle accounts with people. Let’s say there’s a neighbor upstairs that you argue with, so you inform on him that he listens to jazz at home and they bring him to trial for harming the national spirit.”

So if his situation was so grim, why didn’t he flee the country like other writers?

Fallada explains in his book why he remained: he felt that his role was to address the German community. But beyond the claim of his mission, there is a practical consideration: the artist-writer is closely linked to language. Erich Kastner also remained and explained that his mother remained in Germany, and that he wrote for German readers. This was despite the fact that his books were banned in 1933.”

How was Fallada’s writing affected by this decision [to remain in the country]?

“There is continuity in Fallada’s writing. A novel like Iron Gustav, published in 1938, could have been written during the Weimar period. He didn’t write literature that could be considered Nazi ideology. It should be noted that most of the literary works of the Nazi period were not pronounced ideological tracts, and the list of best-sellers at the time proves this. The Nazi regime preferred good culture and entertainment over ideological overstatement. It was the same in the movies, you don’t see too many swastikas there, instead people were provided with good entertainment for enjoyment and to be satisfied with a regime that provides good entertainment.”

But Fallada didn’t only provide good entertainment. Although he opposed the Nazis from the very beginning, at a certain stage he did try to collaborate with one of the strongmen of Nazi Germany-- Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister.

“The simplistic approach recognizes only two categories, Nazi and anti-Nazi, and then the story is very simple. A person who was a Nazi was completely and totally Nazi, while the anti-Nazi resistors opposed Nazism from the first moment. The truth is that most of the people were [on different locations of the continuum], more difficult to categorize. Fallada was unenthusiastic over the rise of the Nazis to power, when he writes post-factum about their shortcomings. But he takes no action against the regime, and tries to continue to write. He even tries to make a film with the support of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, and out of his personal relationship with Goebbels. He collaborates [with the Nazis] in order to produce a film based on a story he wrote. He doesn’t like the S.A.[storm-troopers] but he doesn’t only see the Jews as victims. He reveals the less favorable sides of the Jews. He has prejudices that allow him, and also the regime, to accept anti-Semitic assumptions.”

What, in your opinion, is the reason that an author who collaborated with Goebbels, met with so much success in recent years, especially in Israel?

“My German-language books and Fallada’s books are published by the same publisher, Aufbau. I asked the publishing house to explain the success [of Fallada’s book], and they answered that Israel is not their first success. The book was also successful in the United States and France. One of the explanations they gave for the success of Alone in Berlin, is due to the change of the original title of the work, Every Man Dies Alone. The Berlin title sells itself more readily.

“But the deeper answer is that people want to read what we call ‘history from below’ about the Third Reich. They want to read about daily life in the Third Reich and not what happened in the chambers of the leaders. They identify more easily with the common folk. In Israel, which deals more intensively with the personal experiences of the Nazi victims, there is a special challenge in gaining familiarity with the rank-and-file person from the other side, the side of the persecutors and murderers.

Another thing that contributed to the success of Alone in Berlin in Israel, is the fact of its success [elsewhere]. When a book becomes so popular that people buy it for bar mitzvah presents, a spin is created. The question to ask if whether the new book, Once it was our Home, will be more successful than the new edition of Little Man, What Now?, a book that Fallada published before the rise of Nazism. If the new book sells more, that will show that there is a connection between Fallada’s success and people’s desire to read about life under the Third Reich.”

Found in: israel, germany

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