A Writer’s Retreat

The increasing evidence of social and political oppression came more and more to trouble Martha, in spite of her enthusiasm for the bright, blond young men whom Hitler attracted by the thousands. One of the most important moments in her education came in May when a friend, Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, a regular in the salon of Mildred and Arvid Harnack, invited her and Mildred to accompany him for a visit to one of the few prominent authors who had not joined the great flight of artistic talent from Nazi Germany—an exodus that included Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Walter Gropius, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, and composer Otto Klemperer, whose son, actor Werner Klemperer, would go on to portray a kindly, befuddled Nazi prison-camp commandant in the TV series Hogan’s Heroes. Ledig-Rowohlt was the illegitimate son of publisher Ernst Rowohlt and worked as an editor in his father’s company. The author in question was Rudolf Ditzen, known universally by his pseudonym, Hans Fallada.

The visit was supposed to take place earlier in the year, but Fallada had postponed it until May because of his anxiety over the publication of his latest book, Once a Jailbird. By this point Fallada had achieved considerable fame worldwide for his novel Little Man—What Now?, about one couple’s struggle during the economic and social upheaval of the Weimar Republic. What made Once a Jailbird a subject of such anxiety for Fallada was the fact that it was his first major work to be published since Hitler had become chancellor. He was uncertain of his standing in the eyes of Goebbels’s Reich Literary Chamber, which claimed the right to decide what constituted acceptable literature. To try to smooth the way for his new book, Fallada included in its introduction a statement that praised the Nazis for ensuring that the awful situation at the center of the book could no longer occur. Even his publisher, Rowohlt, thought Fallada had gone too far and told him the introduction “does seem rather TOO ingratiating.” Fallada kept it.

In the months following Hitler’s ascension to chancellor, the German writers who were not outright Nazis had quickly divided into two camps—those who believed it was immoral to remain in Germany and those who felt the best strategy was to stay put, recede as much as possible from the world, and wait for the collapse of the Hitler regime. The latter approach became known as “inner emigration,” and was the path Fallada had chosen.

Martha asked Boris to come along as well. He agreed, despite his previously stated view that Mildred was someone Martha should avoid.

THEY SET OUT on the morning of Sunday, May 27, for the three-hour drive to Fallada’s farmhouse in Carwitz, in the lake country of Mecklenburg north of Berlin. Boris drove his Ford and of course left the top down. The morning was cool and soft, the roads mostly free of traffic. Once outside the city, Boris accelerated. The Ford sped along country roads lined with chestnut and acacia, the air fragrant with spring.

Halfway through the drive, the landscape darkened. “Little sharp lines of lightning lit up the sky,” Martha recalled, “and the scene was wild and violent with color, intense electric green and violet, lavender and gray.” A sudden rain sent pellets of water exploding against the windscreen, but even here, to the delight of all, Boris kept the top down. The car raced along on a cloud of spray.

Abruptly the sky cleared, leaving sun-shafted steam and sudden color, as if they were driving through a painting. The scent of newly moist ground filled the air.

As they neared Carwitz, they entered a terrain of hills, meadows, and bright blue lakes, laced together with sandy paths. The houses and barns were simple boxes with steeply pitched roofs. They were only three hours from Berlin, yet the place seemed remote and hidden.

Boris brought the Ford to a stop at an old farmhouse beside a lake. The house stood at the base of a tongue of land called the Bohnenwerder that jutted into the lake and was mounded with hills.

Fallada emerged from the house trailed by a young boy of about four and Fallada’s blond and buxom wife, who held their second child, a baby. A dog bounded out as well. Fallada was a boxy man with a square head, wide mouth, and cheekbones so round and hard they might have been golf balls implanted under his skin. His glasses had dark frames and circular lenses. He and his wife gave the new arrivals a brief tour of the farm, which they had bought using the proceeds from Little Man. Martha was struck by the apparent contentment of both.

It was Mildred who brought to the fore the questions that had been in the air since the group’s arrival, though she was careful to shade them with nuance. As she and Fallada strolled to the lake, according to a detailed account by one of Fallada’s biographers, she talked about her life in America and how she used to enjoy walking along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Fallada said, “It must be difficult for you to live in a foreign country, especially when your interest is literature and language.”

True, she told him, “but it can also be difficult to live in one’s own country when one’s concern is literature.”

Fallada lit a cigarette.

Speaking now very slowly, Fallada said, “I could never write in another language, nor live in any other place than Germany.”

Mildred countered: “Perhaps, Herr Ditzen, it is less important where one lives than how one lives.”

Fallada said nothing.

After a moment, Mildred asked, “Can one write what one wishes here these days?”

“That depends on one’s point of view,” he said. There were difficulties and demands, words to be avoided, but in the end language endured, he said. “Yes, I believe one can still write here in these times if one observes the necessary regulations and gives in a little. Not in the important things, of course.”

Mildred asked: “What is important and what unimportant?”

THERE WAS LUNCH AND COFFEE. Martha and Mildred walked to the top of the Bohnenwerder to admire the view. A soft haze muted edges and colors and created an overall sense of peace. Down below, however, Fallada’s mood had turned stormy. He and Ledig-Rowohlt played chess. The subject of Fallada’s introduction to Jailbird came up, and Ledig-Rowohlt questioned its necessity. He told Fallada it had been a topic of conversation during the drive to Carwitz. Upon hearing this, Fallada grew angry. He resented being the subject of gossip and disputed whether anyone had a right to judge him, least of all a couple of American women.

When Martha and Mildred returned, the conversation continued, and Mildred joined in. Martha listened as best she could, but her German was not yet expert enough to allow her to pick up enough detail to make sense of it. She could tell, however, that Mildred was “gently probing” Fallada’s retreat from the world. His unhappiness at being thus challenged was obvious.

Later, Fallada walked them through his house—it had seven rooms, electric light, a spacious attic, and various warming stoves. He showed them his library, with its many foreign editions of his own books, and then led them to the room in which his infant son now was napping. Martha wrote: “He revealed uneasiness and self-consciousness, though he tried to be proud and happy in the infant, in his self-tilled garden, in his simple buxom wife, in the many translations and editions of his books lining the shelves. But he was an unhappy man.”

Fallada took photographs of the group; Boris did likewise. During the journey back to Berlin, the four companions again talked about Fallada. Mildred described him as cowardly and weak but then added, “He has a conscience and that is good. He is not happy, he is not a Nazi, he is not hopeless.”

Martha recorded another impression: “I saw the stamp of naked fear on a writer’s face for the first time.”

FALLADA BECAME, ULTIMATELY, a controversial figure in German literature, reviled in some quarters for his failure to stand up to the Nazis but defended in others for not choosing the safer path of exile. In the years that followed Martha’s visit, Fallada found himself increasingly compelled to bend his writing to the demands of the Nazi state. He turned to preparing translations for Rowohlt, among them Clarence Day’s Life with Father, then very popular in the United States, and to writing innocuous works that he hoped would not offend Nazi sensibilities, among them a collection of children’s stories about a child’s pull toy, Hoppelpoppel, Wo bist du? (Hoppelpoppel, Where Are You?).

He found his career briefly invigorated with publication in 1937 of a novel entitled Wolf Among Wolves, which party officials interpreted as a worthy attack on the old Weimar world and which Goebbels himself described as “a super book.” Even so, Fallada made more and more concessions, eventually allowing Goebbels to script the ending of his next novel, Iron Gustav, which depicted the hardships of life during the past world war. Fallada saw this as a prudent concession. “I do not like grand gestures,” he wrote; “being slaughtered before the tyrant’s throne, senselessly, to the benefit of no one and to the detriment of my children, that is not my way.”

He recognized, however, that his various capitulations took a toll on his writing. He wrote to his mother that he was not satisfied with his work. “I cannot act as I want to—if I want to stay alive. And so a fool gives less than he has.”

Other writers, in exile, watched with disdain as Fallada and his fellow inner emigrants surrendered to government tastes and demands. Thomas Mann, who lived abroad throughout the Hitler years, later wrote their epitaph: “It may be superstitious belief, but in my eyes, any books which could be printed at all in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are worse than worthless and not objects one wishes to touch. A stench of blood and shame attaches to them. They should all be pulped.”

THE FEAR AND OPPRESSION that Martha saw in Fallada crowned a rising mountain of evidence that throughout the spring had begun to erode her infatuation with the new Germany. Her blind endorsement of Hitler’s regime first faded to a kind of sympathetic skepticism, but as summer approached, she felt a deepening revulsion.

Where once she had been able to wave away the beating incident in Nuremberg as an isolated episode, now she recognized that German persecution of Jews was a national pastime. She found herself repulsed by the constant thunder of Nazi propaganda that portrayed Jews as enemies of the state. Now when she listened to the anti-Nazi talk of Mildred and Arvid Harnack and their friends, she no longer felt quite so inclined to defend the “strange beings” of the fledgling revolution whom she once had found so entrancing. “By the spring of 1934,” she wrote, “what I had heard, seen, and felt, revealed to me that conditions of living were worse than in pre-Hitler days, that the most complicated and heartbreaking system of terror ruled the country and repressed the freedom and happiness of the people, and that German leaders were inevitably leading these docile and kindly masses into another war against their will and their knowledge.”

She was not yet willing, however, to openly declare her new attitude to the world. “I still attempted to keep my hostility guarded and unexpressed.”

Instead, she revealed it obliquely by proclaiming in deliberately contrarian fashion a new and energetic interest in the Hitler regime’s greatest enemy, the Soviet Union. She wrote, “A curiosity began to grow in me as to the nature of this government, so loathed in Germany, and its people, described as so utterly ruthless.”

Against her parents’ wishes, but with Boris’s encouragement, she began planning a journey to the Soviet Union.

BY JUNE, DODD HAD COME to see that the “Jewish problem,” as he continued to call it, was anything but improved. Now, he told Secretary Hull in a letter, “the prospect of a cessation appears far less hopeful.” Like Messersmith, he saw that persecution was pervasive, even if it had changed character to become “more subtle and less advertised.”

In May, he reported, the Nazi Party had launched a campaign against “grumblers and faultfinders” that was meant to reenergize Gleichschaltung. Inevitably it also increased pressure on Jews. Goebbels’s newspaper Der Angriff began urging readers “to keep a sharp eye on the Jews and report any of their shortcomings,” Dodd wrote. The Jewish owners of the Frankfurter Zeitung had been forced to abandon their controlling interest, as had the last Jewish owners of the famed Ullstein publishing empire. A large rubber company was told it must provide proof that it had no Jewish employees before it could submit bids to municipalities. The German Red Cross was suddenly required to certify that new contributors were of Aryan origin. And two judges in two different cities granted permission to two men to divorce their wives for the sole reason that the women were Jewish, reasoning that such marriages would yield mixed offspring that would only weaken the German race.

Dodd wrote: “These instances and others of lesser importance reveal a different method in the treatment of the Jews—a method perhaps less calculated to bring repercussions from abroad, but reflecting nonetheless the Nazis’ determination to force the Jews out of the country.”

Germany’s Aryan population also experienced a new tightening of control. In another dispatch written the same day, Dodd described how the Ministry of Education had announced that the school week would be divided in such a way that Saturdays and Wednesday evenings would be devoted to the demands of the Hitler Youth.

Henceforth Saturday was to be called the Staatsjugendtag, the State’s Day for Youth.

THE WEATHER REMAINED WARM, with scant rain. On Saturday, June 2, 1934, with temperatures in the eighties, Ambassador Dodd wrote in his diary: “Germany looks dry for the first time; trees and fields are yellow. The papers are full of accounts of the drought in Bavaria and in the United States as well.”

In Washington, Moffat also took note of the weather. In his diary he called it “the great heat” and cited Sunday, May 20, as the day it had begun, with a high of ninety-three degrees. In his office.

No one knew it yet, of course, but America had entered the second of a series of cataclysmic droughts that soon would transform the Great Plains into the Dust Bowl.

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