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17 February 2016

The latest “lost classics” offer two divergent portraits of 1930s Berlin

After the success of recent re-releases, publishing PR is increasingly searching for the next classic book - could one of these books be it?

By Philip Oltermann

The currency of the word “classic” in publishing PR is increasingly threatening to go the way of the word “legend” in the music business, in which it is these days habitually employed by radio DJs to announce minor Britpop bands. After the word-of-mouth buzz around Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and John Williams’s Stoner, every dusty archive suddenly looks like a potential publishing gold mine.

Two recently reissued short novels set in 1930s Germany, Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers and Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, are examples of this trend, with one of them described by its publisher as a “lost German classic” (if it was long forgotten, how can it also be long cherished?) and the other confidently presented as a Vintage Classic. Neither of these works is a “classic” in the proper sense of the word yet, although one of them deserves to be.

Set in Stuttgart in the twilight years of the period before the Third Reich, Reunion is a slim novella about an unlikely friendship between two teenagers: Hans Schwarz, a middle-class boy from a secular Jewish family, and Konradin von Hohenfels, a dashing young aristocrat who wears immaculately creased herringbone-pattern trousers and polka-dotted neckties, and whose parents are feverish admirers of Adolf Hitler.

Uhlman was a born Stuttgarter who found refuge from the Nazis in Britain and, in his guise as a painter, established himself as one of the leading lights of the London émigré scene that also included figures such as Oskar Kokoschka and Stefan Zweig. In Reunion, which he wrote in English, he offers an important reminder of how integrated into their nation’s cultural life Jewish Germans were before the war.

“True, I couldn’t trace myself back to Barbarossa – what Jew could?” Hans announces at one point. “But I knew that the Schwarzes had been here in Stuttgart for at least two hundred years, perhaps much longer . . . Foremost we were Swabians, then Germans and then Jews.”

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Hans’s father has only incomprehension for Zionist relatives (“What had he, a Stuttgarter, to do with Jerusalem?”) and a tragic faith in Germany’s humanist tradition. Nazism, he believes, “is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?”

The score underlying Hans’s infatuation with Konradin is similarly melodramatic. Here, at last, is a boy who lives up to the narrator’s romantic ideal of a friend “for whom I would have been willing to die and who could have understood my demand for complete trust, loyalty and self-sacrifice”. So when Konradin betrays Hans, renouncing their friendship (but only temporarily, because “the Führer is perfectly able and willing to choose between the good and the undesirable Jewish elements”), the disillusionment is even more complete.

The autobiographical elements of Uhlman’s tale are fascinating, though not nearly as interesting as his autobiography proper, The Making of an Englishman, published in 1960. Reunion was written in the same year and the three-decade gap between its inception and the period it describes often feels problematic. The tragic irony of Hans’s and Konradin’s friendship looms constantly and brightly, so that characters outside this shining halo – the bullying wannabe SS recruits in his class and the fanatical Hitlerite history teacher – come across as propped up by history books, rather than experience.

Like Reunion, Haffner’s Blood Brothers explores friendships formed by 16-year-olds in Germany in 1932. Beyond that, it couldn’t possibly be more different. Where Uhlman’s teenagers collect Greek coins, talk about Baudelaire and have yet to meet a girl, Haffner’s boys are scrawny juvenile delinquents who get drunk on cheap schnapps, sleep with withered old prostitutes and sell their bodies to rich West End gentlemen to pay for a proper night’s sleep in a hostel.

The novel gains its title from the name of a gang of eight boys who thieve and whore their way around the backstreet bars and warming halls of what is now Berlin’s Mitte district. In terms of narrative and characterisation, it is far less ambitious than Reunion, which strains to deliver a killer punch with the final denouement.

In Blood Brothers, we constantly watch the boys scatter on the run from the law or rival gangs, celebrate their union and then scatter once more. There is a glimpse of redemption when two of the boys, Ludwig and Willi, try to make a living by repairing and reselling old boots, but their return to the straight and narrow is cut short by a vindictive legal system. Yet the staccato beat of Haffner’s short and concise narrative arches, deftly rendered into English by Michael Hofmann’s typically dexterous translation, is never anything but gripping.

The book never had the chance to become a classic: it was banned by the Nazi regime a year after its first publication and wasn’t reissued in Germany until a small publisher, Metrolit, unearthed it from the archive in 2013. Little is known of the author, though his unflinching and detailed documentation of everything from drinking rituals to initiation ceremonies seems to confirm theories that Haffner had a background as a social worker and a journalist.

Had Blood Brothers been rediscovered earlier, it should have found its rightful place next to Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives (1929) and Fritz Lang’s film M: a City Looks for a Murderer (1931), two other detective stories featuring Berlin street gangs, in which the city becomes the investigator. Like those works from the Weimar Republic era, Haffner’s novel never explicitly engages with the rise of Nazism, and yet it provides a much more revealing glimpse of the dynamics and anarchy that bred fascism than Uhlman’s more knowing portrait. Neither the leader, Jonny, nor his fellow gang members would have been old enough to vote National Socialist in 1933 – but would they have been able to resist the glorification of gang culture offered by Hitler’s SS?

Philip Oltermann is the Berlin bureau chief of the Guardian and the author of Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters (Faber & Faber)

Reunion by Fred Uhlman is published by Vintage (96pp, £6.99)

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner, translated by Michael Hofmann, is published by Harvill Secker (224pp, £12.99)

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle