By Ernst Haffner
Translated by Michael Hoffmann
Other Press, 2015
176 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
Blood Brothers was the talk of the town for the Berlin Literature Festival and the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013 after its re-release earlier that year through MetroLit. The Guardian even went so far as to say the novel “stole the show from Rushdie and Coetzee.” Much of the hype was due not only to the buzz about the book itself—an acclaimed portrait of post-Versailles Treaty Germany first released in 1932 and banned by the Nazis the following year—but the mysterious nature of the author, Ernst Haffner, rivaling the enigmatic auras of Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger.
Other than reports that Haffner was a social worker and a journalist, with both occupations evidenced in his writing, and indications that he was a resident of Berlin, there is little else know about the man. In a Sunday edition of the German paper Bild, the paper asked for anyone to send any information they might have on Haffner at the end of a story on Blood Brothers. There were no responses. With the Nazis banning his book and The New York Times reporting that, “in 1938 [Haffner] was summoned to the office of the culture ministry of the Third Reich,” there is speculation that Haffner met the fate of so many others during the Nazis brutal ascent to power.
Interestingly, with all the talk of Haffner’s fate and the novel’s setting on the eve of Nazi rule, Blood Brothers is not an overtly political work. It follows eight young men, aged sixteen to nineteen, and their attempts to survive in the underworld of Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic. Beyond this gritty portrait of the peripheries of city life, it appears Haffner had no ulterior motive.
The prose of the novel is not exceptional, but admirably propels the story onward—you fall into the text’s rhythms, its descriptions of the liminal lives of its protagonists. The boys do what they have to do to survive, including selling their own bodies. The gang pools their money, ensuring they are all able to eat, all able to get out from the cold. Perhaps drawing from the structure and camaraderie of the titular gang of blood brothers, Eric Weitz, author of Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, speculates that Haffner may have been a communist, saying this would have been enough to have Blood Brothers burned by the Nazis. (And if that played no role, the fact that the initial publisher was Jewish may well have.)
If you were looking for a new take on Hitler’s rise to power, you won’t find much in Blood Brothers. If you are looking for a documentarian portrait of life on the streets during a tumultuous time in German history, however, Haffner’s novel delivers. In unflinching detail, Haffner describes a world he knew well, much as George Orwell could have crafted a similar account instead of the lauded Down and Out in London and Paris. The boys aren’t portrayed as anything more than human, both in their capacity for good, and their desperation and willingness to do whatever it takes to see another day. As Haffner himself writes, the boys “even as they were about to be washed away, weren’t washed away.” While this does not appear to be the fate of Blood Brothers’ author, thankfully it was the fate of his work.