Berlin's Youth Between the Wars
by Ernst Haffner
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Other Press (2015), 165 pages
It cannot be ignored that one of the main allures of Ernst Haffner's Blood Brothers is the mysterious life of the author himself. Blood Brothers—originally published in 1932 under the title Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Youth on the Road to Berlin)—is the only known novel of Haffner, a social worker and journalist; all record of him disappears in the 1940s and his fate remains unknown.
His only novel is pointed; translated by award-winning writer Michael Hofmann, it darts quickly with unembellished prose winding from one situation and point of view to the next. Told in present tense, the multi-threaded plot has an immediacy even though the events are from a decade some eighty odd years ago. The Blood Brothers—a gang of runaway teenage boys who live and hustle on the streets of Berlin in abject poverty—are clawing their way through every day and their moment-by-moment desperation is felt. Simply put, “The Blood Brothers are sitting quietly at their table. Another day ahead of them. They face it without a plan.” Like the boys themselves, Haffner's sentences are unadorned and Hofmann is more than aware of that, not allowing for unneeded flourishes.
It is obvious that Haffner's main point in writing Blood Brothers is to bring to light the hardships and desperation felt by the people—and, in this case, young men and boys—in the years between both World Wars. The gang (made up of Ludwig, Walter, Erwin, Heinz, Fred, Konrad, Hans, Georg, and Jonny, the latter being their anointed leader) are in the age range of seventeen to nineteen. They've absconded from youth welfare institutions, which sound helpful, but are more like prisons; the boys would rather take their chances on the streets of Mitte, a central borough which is now known more for its tourist attractions and once being a point where East and West Berlin met during the Cold War.
[The] boys were able to capture a whole bench and, serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They've spent the whole endless winter's night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go...stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.
Blood Brothers is not merely a portrait piece; Haffner does delve into back stories and proper plots involving some of the boys. The reader's attention soon becomes allied with Ludwig, the nineteen-year-old Brother who ran away from a welfare home two years prior. He stays in the company of the gang until their activities turn too illegal for his conscience. Always trying to stay one step ahead of the law while also earning his keep through legal means, Ludwig meets up with another runaway who has come to Berlin after holding on to the underbelly of a train car that disembarked from Cologne.
The boys are dirty, underfed, and often thinking only of the moment. They're always cobbling together just enough money for that day's rolls, cigarettes, and beer. The idea of thinking ahead is a luxury and when their pockets are occasionally flushed, the money is spent on the present. It is hard to fault these boys for not thinking of the next day or week. In 1930/31, Berlin alone had 45,000-50,000 homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 21.
Besides the boys, much of Blood Brothers focuses on the city of Berlin. Haffner pays special attention to specifically naming the streets the boys go down and noting when they have changed neighborhoods. Mitte, and Berlin as a whole, is no doubt its own character. It interacts with them: gives them both their daily troubles and meager moments of relief. It's a cramped city, and, in Haffner's eyes, filled with inevitable misery, but enduring friendships.
In his introduction to the book, Professor Herbert A. Arnold writes, “The Nazis banned the novel and included it in their public burning of unwanted books.” After reading Blood Brothers, a book that makes the reader feel grimy and attuned to the humanity of post-WWI turmoil, it is so obvious why the Nazis would attempt to wipe the book away: it is not a clean, aspiring depiction of their Reich, but one of neglect and desolation.
According to The Guardian, there is a record of Ernst Haffner being called by Joseph Goebbels in the late 1930s to the Reich chamber of literature. Then any reference of him disappears. His original publisher burned down soon after. One can assume that any documentation referring to Haffner went with it.
Unfortunately, we won't know what became of the writer who presents a Berlin not of politics, but one of the people. One which is home to the vagrants, prostitutes, and forgotten boys. After one of the Blood Brothers is shot and wounded, another character comments: “That's Berlin for you.” There's nothing else left for them to say.