In the black earth of Berlin’s Grunewald, the dense urban forest that hugs the city’s western fringe, the stones are engraved “Unbekannter, Unbekannte, Unbekannt” (“Unknown man, unknown woman, unknown”). Thousands of victims of the Allied bombing raids during the second world war were so disfigured that their sex — let alone their names — could not be determined. In such a grave may lie the remains of Ernst Haffner, a journalist and social worker whose life had been erased from memory until the recent discovery of his remarkable book.
In 1933 the Nazis burnt Blood Brothers, published the previous year as Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Youth on the Road to Berlin). With it almost all knowledge of Haffner went up in smoke, unlike other “un-German” writers such as Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. We know only that Haffner lived in Berlin between 1925 and 1933 and was ordered to appear before Goebbels’ Reich Chamber of Literature in 1938. After that he vanished. There is no record of him dying on a battlefield or in a camp. All correspondence between him and his publisher was destroyed in a raid. In every surviving record he seemed to have ceased to exist, until the republication in 2013 of this “most mysterious book of the year”, according to Bild am Sonntag, the German tabloid.
Blood Brothers is an enthralling and significant novel, authentic in its gritty documentary detail, dispassionate yet empathic in its characterisation and starkly objective in its portrayal of Berlin’s pre-Nazi social underbelly. In urgent, breathless prose — and in the present tense — Haffner tells the story of a “blood brother” teenage gang who move from one petty crime to the next, living on their wits and in makeshift hostels, finding in one another the legitimacy denied them by society.
Jonny is their charismatic, calculating, criminal leader. Fred, his 18-year-old lieutenant, is a former male prostitute. Under them are pop-eyed, 16-year-old Walter “with his pigeon chest bulging out the front of his shirt” and beanpole Erwin, also 16, “whose stringy arms show not the merest trace of muscle”. The book’s two central characters are Willi and Ludwig, escapers from remand school who strive against the odds to break out of the downward spiral and establish their identity through honest work.
“Eight Blood Brothers — tiny individual links of an exhausted human chain,” writes Haffner of these orphans and runaways, all underage and without identity papers. Blood Brothers who spend the “endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go.”
The book’s hard, heartless set pieces are shocking in enthralling detail. Willi first makes for Berlin under an express train. All night he hunkers over an axle, wrapped up against the bitter cold, wearing hood and gloves to protect him from flying stones and the locomotive’s spewing, glowing ashes. If he drops off to sleep he’s dead. He makes it, falling off his precarious perch when the train stops, “crawling and slithering like a stoned dog” to find that “the great and compassionate city of Berlin” has afforded him a place to sleep — inside a roadside sandbox. Through him, Haffner introduces us to the gang’s sly craft of pickpocketing and takes us into the Alexanderplatz bars that are homes from home for those without a home — places where toothless, starved and drunken boys and girls reel from table to table offering their “scrawny charms” for 20 pfennigs or a few cigarettes.
Blood Brothers shrugs off the seductive “Golden Twenties” myth, penned and perpetrated by Christopher Isherwood, which in truth only ever touched a tiny minority of Berliners. No tall tales are spun of “Brylcreemed villains [and] classy two-mark whores with fire-red mops of curls”. Instead Haffner captures the cold truth of the merciless capital: bitter winter nights, hungry, monotonous days, unbending bureaucrats, and the feral pleasure of hot pea soup on an empty stomach.
In part it’s this raw honesty, along with Michael Hofmann’s masterly translation, which makes the book so contemporary and vital. Time and again Berlin has reinvented itself, reconciling a mythic idea of itself with its bitter, bloody, buoyant past. Even modern-day Berlin revels in fiction, spinning its “poor but sexy” myth to entice tourists and property speculators who seek out the once edgy, just-reunited city.
Tellingly, in the book’s final pages Haffner’s narrative becomes rushed as if he sensed — in those last months before Hitler came to power and the fires consumed both his book and the continent — that he had to finish Blood Brothers. Thanks to his efforts — and those of his small, sleuth-like, new German publisher Metrolit — its truth will not be forgotten.
Blood Brothers, by Ernst Haffner, translated by Michael Hofmann, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99/Other Press, RRP$14.95, 216 pages
Rory MacLean is the author of ‘Berlin: Imagine a City’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)