‘Blood Brothers’ by Ernst Haffner (Review)

Today’s German Literature Month post sees us taking the bus back to Berlin in the early 1930s.  It’s a story of life on the streets for a gang of young men trying to get by, and it’s certainly a fascinating piece.  However, what’s even more intriguing is the backstory of the book and the author, a man of mystery if ever there was one.  If that was the good news, here’s some bad news – if you want to read it (in English), I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait for quite a while…

Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers (translated by Michael Hofmann, review copy courtesy of Other Press – released on the 3rd of March, 2015) begins with a group of young men in Berlin.  They’re part of a generation growing up after the First World War without parents, and most of them have run away from state homes for orphans – being under the age of twenty-one, they are deemed unable to fend for themselves.

Which, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth – these boys are extremely resourceful.  However, they’re also young and careless, and their lives are spent chasing a few groschen for a bit of fun, falling prey to the temptation of helping fate a little by bending (and then breaking) the law.  The heady feeling of getting one over on society is  a rush the boys enjoy.  However, the reader always has a feeling that it’ll all end in tears…

Blood Brothers caused a minor sensation in Germany recently, and the story behind the book explains the interest.  It was originally released in 1932 under the title Jugend auf der Landstraße Berlin (Youths on the Country Road to Berlin), and it was rereleased last year under the new title Blutsbrüder (Blood Brothers).  Novels portraying life during the interwar period are always popular, and this one, showing life in Berlin immediately prior to the Nazi rise to power, was a big hit.

What we see perhaps helps explain the attraction of the far-right at the time as it’s often a journey through a sordid underworld of Dickensian squalor:

“Each of them counts out his due, and is then permitted without further ado to seek out a place for the night.  A wretched oil lamp sputters.  Mould thrives on a few dirty scraps of wallpaper, and where the straw mattresses are laid out, sharp eyes might make out numerous disgusting bloodstains from squashed bedbugs.”
p.65 (Other Press, 2015)

There are dingy shops as fronts for illegal businesses, ‘warming halls’ where the homeless are permitted to spend a few precious hours out of the cold and, as described above, the boarding houses where, for a few pfennigs, the down and out can rest with a roof over their heads.

The Blood Brothers of the title are a group of boys from all over the country, held together by Jonny, a clever schemer with big plans.  When a newcomer, Willi, a friend of Ludwig (one of the gang), arrives in Berlin, we begin to be shown the choices the boys have.  It may seem as if the boys have it good at times, but it’s (quite literally) a choice of selling body or soul.  Jonny’s followers can either join in his lucrative schemes or look for other, warmer ways to earn a mark or two.  It can be a hard life, but the Blood Brothers make sure they have fun, with fighting, drinking and the odd prostitute or two making their lives worth living.  When money comes in, it soon flows out quickly enough, but there’s always more to be found if you know where to look…

There is a serious side to the Blood Brothers, though.  One of the main issues the book deals with is the importance of a support network in tough times, especially in a society with no real safety net:

“Is there another way?  Work, honest to goodness work?  Even if such a miracle came to pass and someone came along asking “Will you work for me?” it would be over as soon as it was asked!  The papers!  The official confirmation that so-and-so, born on such-and-such a date is allowed to run around freely and isn’t condemned to be in a welfare home… This confirmation will break anyone’s neck because it hasn’t been provided.  Because they aren’t allowed to run around freely.  They are welfare kids, liable to be locked away, even if they’ve done nothing wrong!” (p.145)

It’s little wonder that, given the choice between living on the streets and suffering in what is little more than a prison, many choose a life of petty crime…
Of course, there are parallels with other books set around the same era.  One that immediately springs to mind is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (a much more literary version of the struggles of the poor in interwar Berlin).  Another German writer who trod the same territory is Erich Maria Remarque, especially in his novel Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades).  However, in many ways I’m reminded more of his most famous novel, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front).  Why?  Well, it has a similar theme of young men banding together in a time of crisis, but also the same flow of it all being fun until, suddenly, times turn sour…

The text is in the capable hands of renowned translator Michael Hofmann, and it’s an enjoyable read with a rather idiosyncratic style.  There’s a strong narratorial voice which, while not intrusive, is certainly ever-present, and you can’t help but be struck by some of the interesting choices the translator makes, particularly regarding vocabulary choice.  There’s a definite decision (in my early version, at least) to go with dated British lexis (e.g. rozzers, chum, borstals, knackered, do one (run away), spiv, flying squad) – I’ll be very interested to see if those all make it into the final version 😉

Blood Brothers isn’t the most demanding book, but it’s definitely enjoyable, especially if you’re interested in this era (and for me the interwar era is much more intriguing than the war that followed).  Added interest is provided by the fact that the book was one of the many banned and burnt by the Nazis in 1933.  But what about the author?  Well, Haffner was actually a social worker who knew what he was talking about, and consequently fell foul of the Nazi regime.  Very little is actually known of his whereabouts after the early 1940s, as he disappeared from view, presumably to meet an unfortunate end.  His legacy, though is still around in this book – it’s definitely something to remember him by…


12 thoughts on “‘Blood Brothers’ by Ernst Haffner (Review)

  1. And why are we going to have to wait to read it in English – was this a very early version of it that you read? Sounds like it was only recently rediscovered in Germany too – and a miracle, really, that it escaped the Nazi purges. What an intriguing back story as well – clearly, it was easy to 'disappear' in those years (voluntarily or not).


  2. Marina Sofia – It was an incredibly early review copy, and I really should have waited. However, this seemed like the perfect time (with a captive audience), and I probably would have forgotten about it by next March…


  3. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I have never heard of the author and missed somehow the reviews when it was re-published in Germany. Subject matter and style remind me a bit of Georg K. Glaser's book Schluckebier. Glaser's autobiography Geheimnis und Gewalt (Secret and Violence) simply blew me away and it is on my big TBR pile.


  4. That goes on the wish list. It sounds amazing. Like Thomas I had't heard of it and also missed anything in the news. I'll have to wait to get it. It's only available as a hardback for the time being. Thanks for this review.


  5. This sounds great and I've added it to my TBR list – I'll just have to make sure I remember it amongst the others. the subject matter seems to be one more usually covered by US authors, such as tales of hobos in the '30s or earlier. It'll be great to read a similar book from a German perspective.


  6. Jonathan – Yes, I wasn't sure about writing a review now, but I felt that I'd forget otherwise. This era is actually quite well covered in German-language literature, but it's always a time that's worth reading about.


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