Ernst Haffner’s “Blood Brothers”

Reviewed by Scott Borchert

Image of Ernst Haffner’s “Blood Brothers”

There is a certain pleasure to be found in reading a book that was publicly burned by the Nazis. It is, perhaps, the main pleasure of reading Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner. Not that this slim novel isn’t well crafted. But the world of early 1930s Berlin it portrays is bleak and despairing, and the lives of its collective protagonist—a teenage street gang, the Blood Brothers—are miserable. The most gratifying moments occur when you put the book down and think of how, ultimately, the book-burners lost—that they are gone and this book remains. Blood Brothers nearly didn’t survive, though: history almost did the book burners’ work for them. After the war, Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin ( the original title, which means “Youth on the Road to Berlin") was gradually forgotten in Germany and remained so for decades. But a new edition was published in 2013 to wide acclaim. It is now available in English, masterfully translated into kinetic prose by Michael Hofmann.

The book remains, but Ernst Haffner does not—probably. No one knows. He disappeared during the Second World War and no trace of him has been discovered since. William Grimes, in a February 2015 edition of The New York Times, describes how very little is known about Haffner, other than that he was a journalist and possibly a social worker. (Some of this information comes from a review of Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin by Siegfried Kracauer, the influential cultural theorist and progenitor of the Frankfurt School.) The last known details of Haffner’s life, as related by Grimes, are chilling: “An official city registry puts him in Berlin between 1925 and 1933, and in 1938 he was summoned to the office of the culture ministry of the Third Reich. That is it.”

Readers today will inevitably see the shadow of German fascism fall over Blood Brothers, but it is not the concern of this novel. Blood Brothers is set in the waning days of the Weimar Republic and follows a street gang of impoverished teenaged boys as they roam through the Berlin underworld. There are eight of them, between sixteen and nineteen years old, mostly orphans or otherwise disconnected from their families. They spend their days and nights scrounging around for sausages and rolls and cigarettes, hanging out in seedy nightclubs, visiting prostitutes, working as prostitutes themselves, and looking for places to sleep. They live a subsistence lifestyle, as it were, foraging through the urban landscape and keeping themselves alive, but that’s about it.

The Blood Brothers are just one of many similar gangs, some of which are allied to each other, some of which are bitter enemies. They all belong to a vast lumpenproletariat class of children that emerged from the trauma of the First World War. They’ve known scarcity and isolation since early childhood. Haffner’s narrator describes the world into which they are born:

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 with gas-blind soldiers and grieving widows, the turnip-bellied kids embody the social aftershocks of the war. They are cut loose from the potential security of nuclear families and funneled into substandard welfare homes, Dickensian centers of punishment and boredom. But they long to escape, and some of them do. The Blood Brothers are “boys who prefer to starve at liberty to being half-fed in welfare,” and the novel follows them along that knife-edge of starvation as they teeter between a life of dehumanizing control by institutions or the absolute freedom of death in a gutter. “Die of hunger, sure!” exclaims Ulli, the leader of an allied gang. “But at least where I wanna be!”

Haffner is preoccupied with this contradiction: the boys are driven by a desire for freedom but, because they are poor, they lack the material security that meaningful freedom requires. This is most vividly illustrated by a scene in which one boy, Willi, flees from a juvenile detention center and escapes by clinging to the undercarriage of an express train all the way from Cologne to Berlin. As the tracks fly past beneath him and he loses feeling in his limbs, he pictures himself, “a rigid lump clinging on for dear life to still colder iron,” one slip away from death, all because he wanted some control over the direction of his life. 

It is an old problem, and the boys struggle to address it in a similarly old (and simple) fashion. They are viciously loyal to the gang and deeply supportive of each other, even surprisingly tender. Their leader, Jonny, seems to spend most of his time finding everyone a warm place to sleep and looking out for the boys who get into trouble. He gained his position through brute strength and charisma, but he comes across as a kind of benignly paternal figure whose example is followed by the rest of the gang. When one member, Ludwig, ends up in jail, he receives a care package of food from “Aunt Elsie,” including the postscript “PS Uncle Jonny sends his best.” In the hands of a more cynical writer, such a gesture might be made into an ironic joke, and the gang might be riven by manipulation, self-interestedness, and betrayal: a reflection of the cruel social order around them. But Haffner, without being sentimental, allows his characters to care for each other and establish bonds of solidarity that don’t reflect but rebuke the circumstances in which they live. He insists that “Berlin—endless, merciless Berlin—is too much for anyone on their own,” and when the gang threatens to split over a different moral question as their criminal activity escalates, the novel stands firm on this conclusion.

Perhaps because Haffner emphasizes the collective life of the group, few of the Blood Brothers ever emerge as fully-realized characters. Instead, they resemble the subjects of an article or a sociological study (which is fitting considering the author’s background), and their stories are related in a kind of breathless, present-tense prose style. The effect is claustrophobic at times, but it reflects the experience of those who can think of nothing but the most immediate details: where to sleep, what to eat, whether there’s a cop around the corner or someone with an easy pocket to pick. Haffner’s narrator does occasionally step back and rail against the order of things, sounding very much like a disaffected social worker. On the cycle of poverty and criminality that traps so many from an early age because of minor infractions, he writes: “Untold numbers fail at the difficult glass-hard wall of bourgeois prejudice and desire for retribution. Untold numbers who might have liked to try a law-abiding life for a change.” Elsewhere, Haffner writes with open empathy for the dispossessed and the weak, criminals or otherwise, and this may have been what landed his books in Nazi bonfires.

There’s a tension between what Haffner sets out to do in Blood Brothers and how the novel reaches us today, more than eighty years later. One scene demonstrates this tension quite powerfully. After escaping a youth institution, the character Willi survives his harrowing train ride and arrives in Berlin, where he will eventually join the Blood Brothers. He has neither money nor the papers to prove that, as a minor, he is eligible to work. But he is intoxicated by Berlin’s promise of freedom, and, strolling down “the luxury street Unter den Linden,” he is “even allowed to pass through the central archway of the Brandenburg Gate, if it suits him, the one that was once reserved for the Kaiser. The republic made it possible. No more restrictions. We are all citizens, all enjoy the same rights.”

Willi believes these words. It is an optimistic moment. But for the reader, knowing the world of deprivation and conflict that Willi is about to enter, the harsh underworld of Weimar Berlin, the words sour on the page. (Immediately afterwards, Willi tries to get a job as a casual laborer but is beaten by a mob of men and boys vying for the same, scarce work.) Haffner’s aim is to trace out the limits of a liberal society that promises formal equality under the law, economic opportunity in the marketplace, and some degree of personal freedom. By examining the lives of this society’s most marginalized and dispossessed members, Haffner suggests that such promises have been betrayed by widespread poverty and unfair laws aimed at the young and the poor. That the Blood Brothers carry an irrepressible desire for freedom is an indictment of that society, but also a confirmation of its basic values. In this sense, Blood Brothers remains relevant to us today.

But then again: “No more restrictions. We are all citizens, all enjoy the same rights.” The historical irony in these words is awful, in a way that Haffner could have scarcely imagined. He suggests the betrayal of these rights without knowing that, before long, the Third Reich would not only betray but demolish them. Haffner himself will likely be consumed by the horror to come. And yet his novel remains, salvaged from the wreckage of history, insistent in its message that all our endless, merciless cities—and towns and suburbs and wherever else our desperate lives play out—are too much for anyone on their own.