Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner (translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann)

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
Haffner_BloodBrothersFinalA galley arrives in my mailbox proclaiming itself “BANNED BY THE NAZI PARTY” in bold letters across the cover – as if the Nazi Party were still in the business of banning anything or anyone. The announcement doesn’t appear on the cover of the finished book, which is unfortunate as it provides a historical context for Ernst Haffner’s only known novel* – a book that seems to have come out of a 19th century “muck-raking” literary tradition rather than the years between the two World Wars.

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.

Bare Facts – The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin

Welcome to Bare Facts: a new, monthly *crosses fingers* feature for 2013 which is all about non-fiction.  The books reviewed in Bare Facts are intended to help provide a historical, geographic and political context  – with subjects ranging from international history, politics, personalities on the world stage, religion, philosophy, etc.


BerlinBaghdadExpress
“The Great Game” is the term used for the 19th and early 20th century struggle between Russia & Great Britain for control of the Middle/Near East.  Sean McMeekin’s book, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, examines the period surrounding the first World War, when Germany made their play at the region through strengthening their relations with the Ottoman Empire and building a railroad that ran from Berlin to Baghdad.  You’ll want to keep a map at your elbow while reading this book.

A warning:  train and railroad enthusiasts should contain their enthusiast because the title is somewhat misleading.  It refers to McMeekin’s premise that Germany & the Central Powers’ failure in the region was in a large part the result of their inability, due to geography and political conflicts, to build a continuous rail network between Berlin and Baghdad.  Unfortunately, as I just demonstrated, you don’t need 400+ pages to make this point. So, while some discussion happens at the beginning and the end of the book, the bulk of The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power focuses on the complicated (and often preposterous) German machinations to incite a global jihad.

The Porte – the governing body of the Ottoman Empire – had recently been taken over by a group known as the “Young Turks”.  This new, progressive government attempted to put the nation on a more secular path.  In an attempt to reach his goal, the “sick old man of Europe” decided to throw his lot in with the Central Powers.  And while it played the board surprisingly well, the Ottoman Empire was in a tenuous situation from which it never managed to escape.  Germany and the British actively courted the Porte with gold and weapons, but Russia was a constant threat in the East.  The reality was that the “sick old man” was never viewed as more than a pawn in the Great Game played by these three powers.  Albeit a well-payed pawn.  (I particularly like this cartoon from Punch Magazine, showing the Kaiser loading a cannon with a shell representing Turkey – which pretty much shows the situation Turkey found themselves in)WWI Cartoon

But what a game it was!  Berlin-Baghdad Express is filled with fascinating historical minutiae – the kind of spy vs. spy drama seemingly more suited to a John LeCarre novel than something published by Harvard University Press.  (McMeekin is all too aware of the genre element in his story and makes frequent references the novel Greenmantle by John Buchan).   No author could ask for a more romantic period or place – this was the time of Lawrence of Arabia and the setting for the Indiana Jones films.  A colorful cast of whirling dervishes, sheiks and sultans, Bedouins and dragoman, archeologists and Orientalists, traipse across the page.  At one point even “the Duke of Westminster made an appearance, commanding a ‘Light Armoured Car Brigade’ which included ‘six armoured Rolls-Royces mounted with machine guns’.

The failure of Germany rested on more than an incomplete rail system.  Despite having what they thought were the necessary men on the ground, Orientalists who (like Lawrence) had supposedly “gone native”, there were still large holes in German understanding of how the Muslim religion operated.  Only after it was too late did they understand the subtle but important differences and delicate relationships between different sects (Shia & Sunni), tribes and – perhaps most importantly – between Arabs & Turks.  The following extract is wordy, taken from two separate chapters of the book, but it eloquently explains the opportunistic way in which the European powers attempted to manipulate their supposed allies.  That the Germans wore rose-colored glasses is an almost comical understatement of the situation.

Despite his own holy war promises to Kaiser Wilhelm, in October even Enver had cold feet about issuing a full-on global jihad declaration, for fear the Germans, too, would be ensnared if it were taken literally.  The result was a ‘proclamation of holy war against all Europeans with the exceptions of Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans’ – was something of a mess, neither uncompromising enough for the Germans, nor theologically proper enough to satisfy Muslim clerics.  Read literally, moreover, it meant that citizens of neutral countries could be targeted.  So, too, could Belgians, who were specifically named in Ottoman jihad decrees, and Serbians.  By contrasts, US citizens resident in Turkey were specially exempted, along with employees of American missionary colleges….

…Considering how much blood, arms and treasure the Germans had invested in summoning up the ancient spirit of Islamic holy war to bring down the Entente empires, one can understand the creeping sense of disappointment for each successive failure of Oppenheim’s jihad to ignite.  But a true scholar of Islam could have told the Germans exactly what to expect.  As infidels themselves, the Germans could hardly summon up a holy war on their own.  In terms of Islamic jurisprudence, the notion of selective jihad against some, but not all, Christians, as we saw in chapter 6 above, is nonsensical.  On the other hand, the practice of infidels paying for protection – as the Germans, in effect, were doing each time they asked Muslims to spare them while attacking other Christians – is firmly established in Islamic law.  The theological grounds for this jizya, or compulsory tax paid by non-Muslims, is explained clearly in the Koran, Sura 9:29: ‘Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden with hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book [i.e. Christians and Jews], until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued’ (emphasis added).  German requests for Islamic fatvas and jihadi uprisings against the Entente powers may not have been conceived in Berlin as jizya offerings, but that may have been just how they were interpreted by many Turkish, Arab and Persian imams and clerics.

The product of ignorance?  A lot of gold was spent in the Middle East during the period between 1914-1915 to negligible effect.

The book’s final chapters carefully explain the context and future repercussions of these events.  Because WWII is essentially the lynchpin of 20th century history, McMeekin takes the time to discuss how the German’s cynical attempt to incite a targeted jihad was a precursor to the anti-Semitism of not only the Holocaust, but the attitudes that exist in the Middle East to this day.  He shows how Zionism, a movement which actually began in Germany, was embraced/co-opted by the British.  He deals with the Russian situation: where the Central Powers successful nurturing of the Bolshevik Revolution produced results beyond their wildest dreams.  Thankfully, The Berlin-Baghdad Express goes far beyond how for lack of proper train schedules a war was lost.

Publisher:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 674 05739 5

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Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated from the Russian by Arch Tait)

The title Daniel Stein, Interpreter is loaded with meaning. The novel’s namesake and hero is a Polish Jew gifted with languages. He survived WWII by acting as an interpreter for the Germans, the Belorussians and Soviets. Each time the city of Emsk changed hands, so did Daniel. At times re-translating the same documents over again for each new occupier. It was through his position that he was able to save the lives of hundreds of men, women & children – both Jews and non-Jews.

After the war Daniel converted to Catholicism and immigrated to Israel as a monk in the Order of Barefoot Carmelites. There he built a sometimes controversial congregation that embraced both the Christian & Jewish faiths. He took on a new role as interpreter – elucidating church doctrine and dogma. He taught that Christianity is an extension of Judaism. He lobbied and eventually sued to gain Israeli citizenship as a Christian Jew.  His teachings, while not entirely unique (we’re told there were rabbis who felt the same), were revolutionary.

People wrote denunciations against him. I had one sad little paper here for a long time which Daniel brought. He was summoned one time by the abbot and given a notice to attend the Office of the Prime Minister. Daniel came and sowed it to us, wondering what it was all about. This was after his court case. All that fuss in the press seemed to have died down. I looked at the paper and the address there was not the Prime Minister’s Office at all but the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet. Something along the lines of your CIA. I told him not to go. He sat there, said nothing, scratching behind his ear. He did that when he was thinking.

“No,” he said. “I shall go. I’ve been dealing with these services the whole of my life. I worked in the police, and I was in the partisans. By the way, I have two medals, one with Lenin on it and one with Stalin. I even worked for the NKVD for a couple of months before I ran away.”

In case there’s any doubt – Daniel Stein, Interpreter is about religion.  As such the text sometimes takes dense, philosophical tangents.  I’m not particularly religious, yet I found the book fascinating.  It might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with either the Jewish or Christian faiths to understand all the nuances of the story being told.  I think other readers will shy away specifically because of the religious subject matter. They shouldn’t. Because it is an interesting, well-written and – though it might seem a contradiction –  accessible.  A story that is also about the difference a single person can make in the world by (forgive the cliché) doing what they believe is right.  In a way, Ulitskaya redeems both these religions by demonstrating in Brother Daniel what they might represent.

___________

Ludmila Ulitskaya is an award-winning (most recently France’s Simone de Beauvoir Prize in 2011) Russian author. She was nominated for the Man Booker International in 2009. She’ll be speaking at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in NYC. Daniel Stein, Interpreter celebrates the life of the real Brother Daniel Stein by piecing together a fictionalized history of letters, recorded interviews, diary entries and transcripts spanning a period from 1960 up to almost the present day.  She numbers and dates them (i.e.-the letters, interviews, etc.) like items in an auction catalog. She even inserts her own correspondence about the writing of the novel in a post-modern twist.

I am not a real writer and this book is not a novel but a collage.  I snip out pieces of my own life and of the lives of other people and glue together “without glue” (pause…) “a living tale from fragments of days.”

Ulitskaya’s prose is consistent and she establishes strong identities for each of her characters. Their voices remain interesting – though at times some of the female characters become a little homogeneous. Regardless, we get to see Brother Daniel’s life through multiple lenses.  As he sees himself – in unvarnished, practical, matter-of-fact terms.  And also a more complicated figure – as viewed by his friends, family, colleagues and the institutions whose lives he touched.  It is a life interpreted for the reader.

The plot and portrait are developed with subtlety, forming a story that has no arc other than what can be found in the life of this man.  Ludmila Ulitskaya accomplishes this – without emphasizing the emotional peaks or valleys.  She minimizes the drama, breaking Brother Daniel down to a series of anecdotes and burying the significant events amongst the trivialities of her characters’ daily lives.  This author chose to leave a good portion of the ‘boring bits’ in the book. The overall effect, once you realize what she is doing, is startling in its breadth and accomplishment.

Publisher:  Overlook Duckworth, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 1 59020 320 0

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Bookshelf Show & Tell: The Holiday Edition

The holidays are over and I thought it might be fun to do some bookshelf Show & Tell.  Here’s a list of what I found at the bottom of my stocking (in no particular order):

  • In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor
  • The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin
  • Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson & Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon
  • Krakatoa – The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester
  • Nada:  A Novel by Carmen Laforet (translated by Edith Grossman)
  • Life by Keith Richards (audiobook narrated by Johnny Depp)

That’s a whole lotta non-fiction!  The two books I’m most excited about are the Emily Dickinson bio and The Berlin-Baghdad Express (I’m a complete sucker for WWI history).

Use the comments below if you’d like to do some Bookshelf Show & Tell of your own.  🙂



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