‘A self-consciously public document, something like a witness statement’ – A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary by Hans Fallada
Hans Fallada’s memoir of his life in Nazi Germany, A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary, opens with a drunken dinner interrupted by the burning of the Reichstag. On the night of 27 February 1933, it was only a year since the publication of Fallada’s hugely successful fourth novel Little Man – What Now? and the internationally bestselling author was at the height of his fame. Dining with his friend and publisher Ernst Rowohlt, this ‘supremely relaxed and contented scene’ is unceremoniously punctured by the arrival of an agitated waiter who dashes around the restaurant, crying ‘The Reichstag is burning! The Reichstag is burning!’ The collision of world-shaking political events with the, often almost farcically petty, concerns of a private life, sets the tone for this very personal account of life at home in Nazi Germany.
Under the new regime, Fallada found himself an ‘undesirable’ author whose publisher was, at times, unable to print his books for want of government-allocated paper. While his work wasn’t exactly censored, he tells us, unwise or unpolitic decisions had subtle and insidious long-term consequences. This book gives the resolutely civilian perspective of a writer whose life and work was made uncomfortable and, at times, frightening during the war years, but who was never a perpetrator or direct victim of Nazi persecution. Nevertheless, he describes a personal and professional life that felt precarious and threatened: ‘by such gossamer threads’ he says ‘does the fate of any author hang in the Third Reich!’ His resistance was in being belligerent and uncooperative with a regime he hated but was seldom in a position to directly disobey. Commissioned to write an anti-Semitic novel, he agrees but plans a book so long that its composition will, he hopes, outlast the war. His analysis of events unfolding around him is informed by this point of view and is fervently personal rather than political; he is more interested in the behaviour of ordinary people – sometimes corruptible and mean, less often selfless and kind – than in currents of political allegiances or the machinations of the party.
Fallada’s account of life in Nazi Germany bristles with small but corrosive acts of oppression which are, on rare occasions, met with glimmers of kindness and solidarity. We see large corruptions and venial ones: a former friend who, having struggled for limited success through a difficult life, seizes the chance to play on the fears of his Jewish boss; the small town mayor who sends his enemies to fight at the front but keeps his friends at home; officials who withhold much-needed fuel or clothing rations out of spite; neighbours who inform on each other for financial gain. The list is long and dispiriting, taking in every drab shade of malice and mean-spiritedness.
This diary ends prematurely, with a fantasy about hiding his family underground and waiting for the war to end; he imagines emerging into a world that has changed beyond recognition, unable to speak for want of practice and regretting the experiences his children were deprived of during their subterranean upbringing. Living in the Third Reich, he suggests, was a wearying ordeal which took its toll on his work, family life and health. But hiding from the changes his beloved country was undergoing, he suggests, would have been a cowardly evasion. His record of ordinary life struggling on under a fascist regime, then, takes on its own tint of subdued heroism. For the most part these pages, written at great personal risk, dwell on the accretion of small injustices and petty torments that made up the everyday lives of ‘ordinary people’ in an intolerable situation.
The mundane facts of life went on and this diary documents the everyday struggles of ordinary people living at close quarters to one of the most terrible catastrophes of modern history. As his account draws to a close, Fallada worries that its concerns are too petty to interest his audience and that the minute details of the life he describes will seem boring:
All the things I’ve been through come across as just a bunch of petty squabbles, it seems to me, which everyone else must find boring. At the time I felt anger, bitterness, and sometimes fear. But now, writing about these things much later, I haven’t even felt that any more. So how am I to communicate anger, bitterness and fear to the reader? He’ll be bored stiff reading it!
His answer to this self-criticism is that, not being the ‘friend and confidant of ministers and generals’, he had no other story to tell, no ‘great revelations to make’. Instead we are given an account of life in the Third Reich for a man for whom ‘nothing big happened’, only ‘one long series of wrangles’ that made up day-to-day life surviving a totalitarian regime. Fallada’s diary encapsulates the tense and disorientating experience of living an ordinary life during an extraordinary period of history.
Despite this resolutely personal angle on historical events, calling this book a ‘diary’ is subtly misleading; it is a self-consciously public document, something like a witness statement, evidently designed for publication. It sits on a fault-line between diary, memoir, history and biography, finessed into shape and coherence with novelistic flair. Reminiscences fade into an account of the conditions in which the book is being written – in miniscule handwriting, under continuous threat and surveillance. And the whole project takes on the tone and tense of a historical document; Fallada assumes the inevitable downfall of the Third Reich and, with something of the ambiguity of Orwell’s Winston Smith, writes for a time when the present government is only a bad memory.
Any Cop?: Fallada’s diary brings a fascinatingly personal perspective on Nazi rule and illuminates an aspect of this much-scrutinised period of history that has been relatively neglected: the fate of the majority who – neither willing participants, active resisters nor direct victims – struggled on with their lives in a nation transformed by war abroad and totalitarianism at home.
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- February 3, 2015 / 7:41 am