Title: Blood Brothers (original German title Youth on the Road to Berlin)
Author: Ernst Haffner
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 15905 1704 8
Set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Blood Brothers was first published in 1932. Adolf Hitler will be appointed German Chancellor a year later. The economy, already being crushed under the weight of WWI reparation payments, will be devastated by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. (The Weimar government had received huge loans from the United States and, when faced with their own financial crisis, the U.S. called those loans in). And by 1932 between five & six million Germans will be unemployed.
All over Germany, but particularly in the cities, boys & young men ranging from age 14-18 formed gangs in order to survive. In Berlin these gangs were surprisingly well organized – each holding a specific territory (divided into “Rings”) and conforming to a rigidly structured hierarchy led by a “Ring Bull”. This organization is only loosely hinted at by Haffner – he prefers to focus on the correlation between the youths and vagabonds. We are introduced to the Blood Brothers of the title as they stand in line at the welfare office. They’re not there for aid. They have no papers and if they’re caught by the authorities they’ll be sent to youth detention facilities until they come of age.
The eight 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. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather. Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals (detention centers). Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.
The Blood Brothers are led by Jonny. A sympathetic and likeable character, in the early chapters he is shown taking care of his crew – spending what little money the gang has on food and a place where they can sleep unmolested. He organizes the boys – making sure they move around the city in pairs so as not to attract attention. At this point in the story their focus is on the basic necessities of survival and Jonny is more a protective big brother figure and less a criminal Fagin.
This will change as Jonny and the Blood Brothers, under the guidance of Jonny’s lieutenant Fred, discover the benefits of a criminal lifestyle. Only two members, Willi & Ludwig (who are, notably, sepearted from the gang when it begins organized pick-pocketing), remain unconvinced and determined to leave the gang. These two pairs of boys serve as moral contrasts – demonstrating the two paths available. The tone of the book, though, is not moralistic. Haffner doesn’t judge, instead he laments the society that allows these boys to slip though the cracks. Though “lament” may be too strong of a word. Blood Brothers is written in the odd, yet incredibly effective, style of a newsreel voice over. Or a YA novel. The gangs’ crimes range from prostitution & petty theft, to pick-pocketing and eventually breaking & entering – all described in a hearty narrative voice. I couldn’t get the word “sanitized” out of my mind. For example: Willi & Ludwig, out of desperation, sell themselves to two rich men. Men who, “Along with their silk-lined tuxes…stripped off their manners. What was left were two scrawny little men whose wallets allowed them to buy young healthy, if half-starved, boys”. The next morning when the boys wake the men are gone. ‘Details of the night just past swim into the boys’ consciousness. “Yuck!” says Ludwig. “Yes, it makes me feel sick. Never again…”‘ They then proceed to go out for breakfast and plan their future – the episode entirely forgotten.
There’s a lot to recommend Blood Brothers. It reads like a first hand account of the economic conditions in Germany that allowed the Nazi Party to come to power. For anyone interested in the Hitlerjugand and their counterparts, the Edelweiss Pirates (an underground youth movement that fought for the Allies) it has that added layer. In addition, Blood Brothers is extremely entertaining and easy to read. Haffner shows real empathy for these boys’ situation. There are elements of adventure, suspense and – perhaps most important – a sense of hope. Hope that these boys are victims of a broken system and not inherently bad. Despite the events that we know loom over Germany’s, and the boys’, future – events that Haffner had no knowledge of when writing the book – we are left incongruously hoping that everything will still work out.
*Very little is known about Ernst Haffner – some believe he was a social worker. A critic reviewing Blood Brothers at the time of its original publication refers to him as a journalist. We know that the book was critically and popularly successful when first published. That it was burned by the Nazis a year later and that Haffner & his publisher were called before the Cultural Ministry. That is where the trail ends. No picture exists. No record of whether he survived the war. The only reference I found of him was a chapter in a 1980 book (written in German) on the youth gangs: Wilde Cliquen : Szenen e. anderen Arbeiterjugendbewegung by Hellmut Lessing & Manfred Liebel and I’m not sure if it’s a excerpt from the novel or a separate article entirely.