The Magazine

The Fallada File

The torment of a novelist in Nazi Germany.

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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In 1911, when he was 18, Ditzen and a fellow student staged a duel, which was supposed to serve as a respectable cover for a suicide pact. Ditzen fatally wounded his friend, whose shot missed him. Ditzen then shot himself with his friend’s gun, but survived. Charged with murder, he was declared unfit to stand trial and was committed to his first stint in a mental institution, followed by drugs, treatment centers, and subsequent work on farms and a series of other jobs. He was twice caught embezzling to feed his drug addiction, leading to his first jail sentences.

Ditzen’s father was a retired justice of the Supreme Court, and his son must have been a continuing source of embarrassment. When he began to make good on his ambition of becoming a writer—the publisher Ernst Rowohlt printed his first novel, Young Goedeschal, in 1920—his father was unnerved by its autobiographical story and suggested he use a pseudonym. Rudolf chose Hans Fallada, both names associated with the Grimm brothers. In their story “Hans in Luck,” the title character is a simple fellow who convinces himself he’s lucky even when he’s swindled again and again. In “The Goose Girl,” a horse named Falada (one “l”) bears witness to the treachery of a maid who usurped the identity of the princess she served. Frightened that the horse may reveal all, the maid orders it beheaded—but the truth ultimately comes out when the horse’s head is nailed on a city gate and starts to talk.

In his more mature novels, Fallada infuses his characters and plots with many of the same themes: naïveté and the search for identity and truth, despite the brutality of the world that his characters inhabit. Little Man, What Now?—his 1932 novel that has been reissued in paperback—was a huge bestseller in Germany, and an international hit translated into more than 20 languages. It was made into separate films in Germany and the United States. It tells the story of a young couple whose struggle to survive and start a family plays out against the backdrop of the Depression. Johannes Pinneberg loses one job and then another after marrying his pregnant girlfriend Lämmchen (the diminutive for “lamb” in German). Pinneberg believes that he will be able to provide for his small family even when everything looks relentlessly grim. But it’s Lämmchen who is the anchor of the book: She is determined, tender, and willing to put up with all hardships.

Fallada’s literary style is often held up as an example of Neue Sachlichkeit, the movement for more literal, realistic representation in the arts. The Manchester Guardian ascribed the success of Little Man, What Now? to its “unsentimental realism,” and much of its appeal is, indeed, its unsparing description of the life of two individuals caught up in an economic crisis they can hardly understand. At one point a policeman singles out the shabbily dressed Pinneberg in a crowd of window shoppers, ordering him to move on. The unemployed ex-salesman suddenly understands “that he was on the outside now, that he didn’t belong here any more, and that it was perfectly correct to chase him away. .  .  . Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offence, poverty is a stain, poverty is suspect.”

But realism isn’t enough to explain why the novel captured the popular imagination of readers around the world. Nor is the sympathetic portrayal of Lämmchen. The narrator saves the couple by departing from harsh realism when it suits his purpose: Thus, Fallada makes sure that whenever it looks like the couple will sink too far, a near-miraculous intervention keeps them afloat. For all the talk of realism, the narrator is susceptible to sentimentalism, which adds to the book’s appeal. There is always hope, the narrator is saying: The Guardian didn’t have it completely right.

The narrator also sets the political context. Lämmchen comes from a working-class family and her “heart was with the Communists.” But the couple isn’t much concerned with politics; they simply want a roof over their heads and enough to eat. Fallada dismissively mentions a coworker of Johannes who is a Nazi, and injects the occasional rumination about social injustice.

How could one really laugh in a world where captains of industry are allowed to line their own pockets and make hundreds of mistakes, whereas the little people who had always done their best were humiliated and squashed?

Major literary figures such as Hermann Hesse, Carl Zuckmayer, and Lion Feuchtwanger, all of whom would become anti-Nazi voices outside of Germany, were enthusiastic about Fallada’s bestseller. The Nazis were put off by its negative portrayal of the party activist and by Fallada’s empathy for Jews, but they also applauded its harsh spotlight on life in Weimar Germany.