Like so many visions from that time, the nightmarish spectacle of Nazi public book burnings is hard to forget. It's not just the sight of thousands of books in flames -- it's the thunder of the brass and drums, the pageantry of the uniforms and flags, the maniacal glee on the faces of the young men hurling books into the inferno. But a question continues to worm away: which books are they burning? What texts are so incendiary (no pun intended) that they need to be not just banned or redacted, but ceremoniously destroyed? An answer of sorts arrives in Blood Brothers, Ernst Haffner's 1932 novel now being republished in a translation by Michael Hofmann (who also gave us 2013 favorite Every Man Dies Alone) for Other Press. In fact, we know this to be a book that the Nazis banned and burned. But it also answers a more disturbing question about that scene: who are those boys throwing the books? Why are they laughing? And where do they fit in the story of Hitler's Germany?
Blood Brothers is a strange little book, even before Chapter 1 begins. Haffner was a social worker and journalist in the shaky peace of 1920s and 30s Weimar Germany. Blood Brothers was published in 1932 as Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin [Youth on the road to Berlin] and banned by the ascendant National Socialist Party one year later. All traces of Haffner vanish in 1940. As far as we know, this is his only work. (Read more about Haffner and the background of Blood Brothers in this great New York Times piece). And yet there are hundreds of journalists and writers who would have killed to write this book. It is passionately, angrily partisan but avoids the soapbox, promoting plot over pamphleteering. It's hyper-realistic and somehow anti-cynical. Even 80 years later, it remains fresh and startling to read, maybe because of its unique prose style, or because its lessons still need to be learned. It's decidedly of its time and place and yet shockingly relevant to urban America in 2015.
It's telling that a book so swift -- constantly moving, running, shaking, catching fire -- begins with its title characters waiting in line. The Blood Brothers are a loosely associated gang of Berlin boys between 10 and 20 who are orphaned and homeless, drifting from odd job to petty theft to bar to brothel to warehouse floor. In these opening lines they are among the thousands standing in the welfare queue. But watch how Haffner illustrates this scene of societal ennui:
"Eight Blood Brothers -- tiny individual links of an exhausted human chain stretching across the factory yard and winding up two flights of stairs -- stand and wait among hundreds of others to be admitted from the awful damp cold into the warm waiting rooms. Just three or four minutes to go now. Then, on the dot of eight, the heavy iron door on the second floor will be unlocked...the coiled line jerks into life."
It is with this restless tone that Haffner unspools the entire tale. For the Blood Brothers, life is tedious, uncertain, gray, cold, and hungry. The only comfort is from each other and the only excitement comes from bursts of feverish activity. Thus, even when they are waiting in line, sleeping on the floor of an abandoned train station, or grinding their teeth in an institutional cot, Haffner keeps the language recklessly brisk. In this book there are no recollections, no scene-setting, no lengthy descriptions, no meditations on motive, character, purpose, or the greater world. It's all action all the time, and the effect on the reader is intense and dizzying.
In the early chapters, Haffner follows the gang's misadventures with a detached, objective eye that nevertheless provokes empathy. Soon, however (nothing in this book happens slowly), it becomes the story of two boys in particular: Ludwig and Willi. Ludwig is a younger member of the gang who follows Jonny, the de facto leader, with the same dogged loyalty as the other boys. We first meet Willi as he's scheming to break out of the juvenile detention center where he's been imprisoned for several months. His escape is breathtakingly suspenseful, and he hops a freight train hoping to make it back to his comrades in Berlin. Realizing to his horror that he's heading in the wrong direction, he heeds the advice of another tramp in the boxcar. Obviously, Willi is on the lam and can't buy a ticket or be seen by the guards, so the tramp urges him to ride a passenger express line hundreds of miles back to the capital - by clinging to the axles underneath the carriage. What follows is the most unforgettable sequence you've read in a long time:
"The icy wind drills deeper and deeper into his clothes, bites under the strips of material wound round his trunk. The body hanging there, stock still, loses its flexibility, becomes numb. Willi can no longer feel his hands cramping in their handholds, he can no longer move his fingers. He can't even feel himself hanging on the axle. All he feels is his body hurtling along at incredible speed, as though shot from a gun. He feels the occasional dull thump of a stone hitting him, but it's not a pain as such. He is released from his physical self, from time and space. How long has he been hanging like this? Is it one hour, is it four?"
Does it need to be restated? The whole book is like this! The only reason to stop reading before you finish it is to take a breath.
This stylistic feat would be enough to recommend the book, but its greater implications are what push it over the top. It seems like this period - 1930s Germany - is repeatedly invoked to warn people about the insidious evil they are blindly submitting to, as if comparing anything to the advent of World War II has ever been accurate or appropriate. The work that comes quickly to mind is Tony Kushner's 1985 A Bright Room Called Day. Also set in Berlin in 1932, Kushner's play centers on an upper class coterie of artists and actors who feebly attempt to maintain their way of life in the gathering storm of the Weimar Republic. By switching between 1932 and then-present-day America, Kushner (not very subtly) suggests that the Reagan administration is an echo of that chaotic time of misplaced idealism. Where Bright Room falters is in attempting the comparison.
Blood Brothers, in contrast, never tries to make itself bigger than the boys themselves, and this is exactly what makes it so frighteningly relevant. The Brothers are not so much cogs in a system as the clods of dirt that are crushed by its gears. There are no adults in the book. Indeed, there are welfare workers, cops, guards, and citizens, but they are only the faceless, inhuman tools of bureaucracy. When Willi and Ludwig are finally reunited, they make one last desperate attempt at the straight-and-narrow life. Since they're under 21 and without documentation or guardians, it's nearly impossible. And near the end, the smallest slip-up spells disaster for them. The horrifying similarity to today's America is not in the suggestion that we are living in some new dawn of evil Fascism, but that our own dispassionate bureaucracy is the same machine that threatens to crush the Blood Brothers. Who knows -- Haffner himself may have been one of its victims.
And so it is obvious now why the Nazis destroyed this book. It completely upended their assertion that organizations like the Hitler Youth and Labor Service eradicated inner city crime and gave purpose to shiftless young men. But the Blood Brothers were swallowed up by these groups -- the same institutions they knew but covered in a different shade of cheap paint. They were still there as the machine rumbled toward a new kind of war. And they are the same boys whose laughing faces seem so haunting in those scenes of public burning. We'd be wrong to think their exhilarated grins come from the gleeful destruction of literature. Rather, their gleaming eyes in those mountains of flame reflect the same elation they once chased in the streets of Berlin.