EVEN HALF A CENTURY ON, Cabaret heavily informs perceptions of Weimar Germany. The popular, Oscar-winning 1972 musical features garter-clad Liza Minnelli and elegant Joel Grey slinking their way through a decadent Berlin underworld of sex and style, and it all seems so glamorous. The reality for most Germans at the time was, of course, colder, duller, and much more miserable. 

But no one wants anything to do with misery. It’s not the kind of thing viewers and readers pay money to experience. If you dress up misery with tuxedos and boas, though, and hide the accompanying desperation under makeup and sequins, you get decadence, and decadence sells. German writer Alfred Döblin filtered this aesthetic into his classic 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Christopher Isherwood was similarly taken in — his 1937 novella Sally Bowles, later collected in The Berlin Stories (1945), was the basis for Cabaret. 

They wrote of Berliners who knew how to commodify decadence. Of aristocratic gangsters who wouldn’t do a job without top hat and tails. Of Apache dancers, Brylcreemed villains, and two-mark whores with fire-red curls. There were discreet champagne lounges in basements, secret entrances, and trapdoors. The observer of this falsified and superficial milieu would find Berlin’s actual criminal underworld deathly dull. Nothing of interest there at all. Except, perhaps, real people with real needs, and few ways to get those needs met.

It took social worker and journalist Ernst Haffner to cut through the allure of the greasepaint and pretension. In his 1932 novel Blood Brothers, originally titled Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Youth on the Road to Berlin), the ill-fated Haffner delves beneath the cinematic gloss of Berlin nightlife to relate the story of a gang of street boys on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. Haffner’s tough, troubled boys are not the picturesque blond, blue-eyed gods of Nazi propaganda. They are outsiders, the type of people the Nazis labeled Asoziale and persecuted.

The book, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, opens with the boys in the dismal Urgent Assistance room of the local welfare office referred to by cynical Berliners as “United Artists.” Homeless, they survive by sleeping where they can, stealing, fighting, running, and, most of all, sticking together in a de facto family unit as Blood Brothers.

Willi has run away from a home for underage youth after being hit once too often and made his way to Berlin by strapping himself beneath a hurtling train. Ludwig is arrested when he is tricked into attempting to claim a stolen baggage ticket. Fredrick advocates graduating from petty crime to major theft, which pushes the others into even riskier terrain. And Jonny, the gang’s leader by virtue of his cunning, intellect, and ruthlessness, guides them through the cold, hostile streets as he organizes their thievery. He is the thread that ties these vulnerable boys to a sense of belonging and safety. After all, Haffner writes, one cannot survive the streets 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 writing is of the short-lived Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, movement that rejected romanticism and expressionism in favor of realism. His collage of the exploits and exploitation of these boys shows them fully responsible for their actions but also indicts German society as a whole. In this, his prose pairs well with the vitriolic caricatures of Dada/New Objectivist artist George Grosz, a contemporary of Haffner’s who left for the United States in 1933.

Grosz’s works were mainly done in pen and ink to emphasize the starkness of his subject matter. Of his claustrophobic collage A Funeral: Tribute to Oskar Panizza, he sought to portray, he said, “[A] gin alley of grotesque dead bodies and madmen […] A teeming throng of possessed human animals […] think that wherever you step, there’s the smell of shit.” A Funeral is an artistic analogue of Blood Brothers, in which Haffner writes, “And the big beer joints with their lively oom-pa-pah music from early morning on, they are just waiting rooms for armies of pimps, unemployed and casual criminals.”

Similar to Haffner, Grosz was attempting to depict some essential, unromantic truth. He wanted his drawings to be seen as realistic, perhaps something akin to photography. Grosz wrote:

I was arrogant enough to call myself a natural scientist, not a painter nor, heaven forbid, a satirist. But in reality I myself was everybody I drew, the rich man favored by fate, stuffing himself and guzzling champagne, as much as the one who stood outside in the pouring rain holding out his hand. I was, as it were, divided into two.

We see both types of men in Haffner’s novel. Shedding their manners with their tuxedos, well-off dilettantes buy Willi and Ludwig for a night of nightclubbing and soft sheets only to abandon them to the air the next day. The contrast between “two elderly gentlemen in furs” and the boys with their one “tattered jacket and defunct tracksuit bottoms” couldn’t be starker. Willi and Ludwig move self-consciously through the nightclub, but their young, muscled bodies provoke lust and covetousness among the well-dressed gentry. It is literally predation and figuratively vampirism: “Desires, weary of bathed and anointed bodies, flicker to life at the sight of the less clean, but rawer, prospect of these working-class boys.”

In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner wrote of a character being doomed from the moment of conception. This fear of the inevitability of a dark fate seems to be an inescapable theme for anyone writing about the closing years of Weimar Germany. It’s there in Haffner’s Blood Brothers, and it’s there in Berlin Alexanderplatz, in which Döblin delivers a similar assault on the senses while comparing these people’s grim lives to the workings of a slaughterhouse in a chapter titled, “For it happens alike with Man and Beast; as the Beast dies, so Man dies, too.” You can practically smell the bleakness.

Characters in both novels try to go straight. In Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf tries to build a new, honest life hawking neckties when he is released from Tegel Prison after murdering his girlfriend. Toward the end of Blood Brothers, Ludwig and Willi try to make legitimate money by repairing and reselling shoes. Do the gods reward these attempts at a clean life? Haffner and Döblin answer in the negative. Their characters are dragged down again by a past that trails them like the old tin can on the tail of a kite that destroyed Blanche DuBois. As Haffner writes, “[P]rior convictions! 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.”

Haffner writes with sarcasm and irony, ultimately insisting that the marginalized are not to be disdained for a “youth spent in welfare, more or less apprenticed to crime, that isn’t a self-chosen destiny.” In Blood Brothers, he deftly shows the absurdity of demonizing those who steal in order to survive:

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.

Beyond being a creative risk, Haffner’s humane depiction of the gang members turned out to be a grave political error: the Nazis banned and burned Blood Brothers within a year of its publication, during the notorious May 1933 Bebelplatz book burning. Sometime after, the writers’ union affiliated with the Third Reich, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, summoned him to appear. It is believed that he did.

Haffner was never seen again.

¤

Marilyn Macron is a graduate of New York University and Fordham University School of Law. She is a practicing attorney, voracious reader, and book collector. She promotes reading and events as The Literary Chick™ (www.theliterarychick.com).