The play “Cabaret” heavily informs modern perceptions of Weimar Germany. We recall garter clad Liza Minnelli and elegant Joel Grey slinking their way through a decadent underworld of sex and style. It all seems so glamorous, but the reality for most Germans at the time was colder, duller and much more miserable.
Blood Brothers, a novel written by journalist Ernst Haffner in 1932, delves beneath the glossy veneer of Berlin nightlife to relate the story of a gang of German street boys on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power.
Haffner’s writing is of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity or realism, which rejects romanticism. He writes a collage of the exploits and exploitation of these boys in a non-emotional, journalistic style, relying on facts to indict German society and social inequality rather than the gang members. In this, his prose pairs well with the vitriolic caricatures of anti-Nazi artist Georg Grosz, a contemporary of Haffner’s who left Germany for the US in 1933. Haffner’s tough, troubled, vulnerable boys are not the picturesque blond blue-eyed gods the Nazis sought to portray their youth as. They are social outsiders, the type of people the Nazi’s labeled “Asoziale” and persecuted.
Haffner, in Blood Brothers, deftly shows the absurdity of society demonizing those who steal in order to live their very lives. He writes, “Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment they took 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. Malignant little beasts.”
Jonny, their leader by virtue of his cold cunning, intellect, and ruthlessness guides them through the cold, hostile streets, organizing their thievery. He is the thread that gives these vulnerable boys a sense of belonging and safety. This kind of life can’t be lived for long without something going wrong, and something does.
In addition to Jonny, we read of Ludwig, who is arrested when he is tricked into attempting to claim a stolen baggage ticket, and of Willi, who runs away from a home for underage youth after he is hit once too often, making his way to Berlin by strapping himself beneath the train for the journey, and of Fredrick, who advocates graduating from petty crime to major theft, resulting in the gang’s downfall.
One cannot survive the streets of Berlin alone. “Berlin – endless, merciless Berlin – is too much for anyone on their own… If there’s two of you, it feels different. A night is only half as long and half as cold; even hunger is only half as bad.”
Haffner’s humane depiction of the gang members in his book might have been a grave political error. The Nazis burned and banned Blood Brothers within a year of it being first published. Sometime after, the writers’ union affiliated with the Third Reich, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, summoned him to appear. It is believed that Haffner complied. He was never seen again. If Jamal Khashoggi’s recent disappearance is alarming, it’s because we’ve seen this sort of thing before.