This piece was originally published in The Australian in March 2021. It was never put online, so here it is. It concerns the German writer Hans Fallada (Rudolf Ditzen), and the price he paid for being honest.
Of all the possible professions, careers, whatever you choose to call them, making up stories seems to me the most time-wasting, money-sapping, mentally-damaging and unglücklich (a. unhappy, sad). My interest in the most unfortunate writers has led me to the kings of twentieth-century angst: the Germans (to be fair, German speakers and writers). So that, as I get older, my book shelves groan under the weight of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the sanitorium-dwellers, the over-thinkers, the noose-makers of middle Europe.
There’s Ernst Haffner, Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, the Roberts Walser and Musil, Lion Feuchtwanger – and then there’s the special case of Rudolf Ditzen (Hans Fallada). The writer who, to me, seems most mid-century German, most complex, most unglücklich.
It starts with eighteen-year-old Ditzen standing in a field. Opposite him, his schoolmate Hanns Dietrick von Necker. Ditzen with a pistol; von Necker with a hunting rifle. The young men’s feelings for each other are beyond disgraceful in imperial Germany in 1911. So a ‘duel’ has been organised to end things, with little fuss (Ditzen’s mother later said, ‘Thank God, at least nothing sexual’). According to Philip Oltermann: ‘With their first shots, they missed completely. With their second, Necker’s bullet missed, but Necker himself was hit in the heart, though he remained conscious enough to beg his friend to shoot him again. Ditzen … fired three more bullets: one for Necker, two for himself. The first entered his lung, the other narrowly missed his heart.’
Ditzen survived and his father, Wilhelm (a retired Supreme Court judge), used his connections to ensure his son was declared mentally unsound, and placed in Tannenfeld Sanitorium. The template for a man who lived his life between the real and imagined; pain, and medication; a love of country, and the shame of necessary compromises; the need to keep writing, and giving up (seeing his work forgotten in his own lifetime).
Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen was born on 21 July 1893 in Greifswald, on the Baltic Sea. A close family, the house full of music and literature. When Ditzen told his father he wanted to write for a living, Wilhelm demanded he use a pseudonym. Ditzen settled upon Hans Fallada. The young man was unglücklich from the beginning. In 1909, he was run over by a cart and, for good measure, kicked in the head by the horse. He survived, but went on to catch typhoid in Holland the following year. This – as well as his duelling injuries, the death of his brother Ulrich in World War I, and several failed suicide attempts – provided a conclusive end to childhood, as well as his introduction to a life-long morphine (alcohol, cocaine and sleeping pill) habit.
Ditzen published his first novel, the coming-of-age Der junge Goedeschal (Young Goedeschal), in 1920. He worked as an agricultural labourer, in part to support his growing addictions. After Anton und Gerda (Anton and Gerda) in 1923 he was convicted of theft and imprisoned for six months. Released – returning to drugs and alcohol, more stealing – back in prison from 1926-1928, after which he emerged drug- and alcohol-free.
1929. As the Germany economy crashed, Ditzen’s life improved. Bauern, Bonzen and Bomben (1930) was a riff on the Landvolkbewegung (Rural People’s Movement), a late twenties rural protest movement. Ditzen showed a keen eye for social injustice, a theme he pursued in his 1932 commercial success Kleiner Mann – was nun? (Little Man, What Now?) Here, Johannes Pinneberg marries his girlfriend when she finds out she’s pregnant. Johannes loses his job, eventually finds work in a department store, fails to meet his quota, is sacked again. The struggle most Germans knew; the same conditions that would soon lead to the rise of Hitlerism. Little Man ensured some measure of economic stability for the writer and his new wife, Anna ‘Suse’ Issel.
But an undercurrent was forming. Goebbel’s censors had cut Kleiner Mann before its 1933 release; Ditzen was imprisoned (again) in April 1933 after being denounced by a bitter neighbour for ‘anti-Nazi activities’– and by 1934 the propaganda ministry had recommended the removal of Little Man from public libraries. Ditzen’s next novel, Wir hatten mal ein Kind (Once We Had a Child), was criticised by the Nazi Völkischer Beobachter; in 1935 he was branded an ‘undesirable author’; and in 1938 he re-wrote his sprawling saga about the life and family of Berlin ‘cab-man’ Gustav Hartmann (Der eiserne Gustav, Iron Gustav) to include the rise of the Nazis.
Later, Ditzen regretted his decision to stay in Germany. ‘But if we happened to be in Berlin and came across formations of brownshirts or stormtroopers marching … singing their brutish songs … [then] we would turn off at the next corner.’ But, unlike Mann and others, he couldn’t convince himself to leave the country he loved.
In 1944, Ditzen wrote the autobiographical Der Trinker (The Drinker) in an encrypted notebook in an asylum after being arrested for threatening Anna with a gun. The story describes Erwin, a small businessman losing control of his life (as was the 51-year-old Ditzen). At the same time he wrote (in intentionally indecipherable lines), In meinem fremden Land (A Stranger in My Own Country). A secret credo, a message to the future, that wasn’t published until 2009.
After the war, Thomas Mann made it clear what he thought of Ditzen. ‘… 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.’ But in 1944 Ditzen had explained, ‘I’m living here with eighty-four men, most of them quite deranged, and nearly all of them convicted murderers, thieves or sex offenders. But even under these conditions I still say: “I was right to stay in Germany”.’
During the war, Ditzen limited himself to writing children’s stories. Meanwhile, Anna discovered he’d been having an affair with 22-year-old Ulla Losch, and applied for a divorce. This led to an argument in which Ditzen pulled a gun on Anna, fired a shot, and was arrested. Ditzen was sent to a mental asylum where, claiming he was writing an anti-Semitic novel for Goebbels (Kutisker), he was given pen and paper, but instead, started upon The Drinker and In meinem fremden Land (the contents of which, if discovered, would have led to a death penalty).
The epilogue is no better for the unglücklich Rudolf Ditzen. He separated from Anna and married Ulla on 1 February 1945, and they settled in the small town of Feldberg, near Carwitz (spending their days in a drug-induced haze). After the arrival of the Red Army, Ditzen was appointed Feldberg’s mayor for eighteen months. Depressed, the glory days of Little Man behind him, he slipped into depression and dependence.
But at such times Ditzen always returned to writing. The habit. The addiction to words, as much as anything. Der Alpdruck (The Nightmare) tells the story of the morphine-addicted Dr Doll and his wife fleeing the rubble of Berlin for a small town in north-east Germany. Ditzen describing his own dilemma as much as Dr Doll’s: ‘But what Doll had not seen was a loss of self-esteem … They would be left naked and empty.’ Between September and November 1946 he produced what he claimed to be his ‘great’ novel. Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone) was written in a fury, in an attempt to recapture past glories. Here, the story of Berlin couple Otto and Elise Hampel who, after the death of their son (actually Elise’s brother) during the war, leave anti-Nazi postcards around the capital as a protest against der Hitler Krieg.
Soon after completing the manuscript, Ditzen had a heart attack and was sent to a Berlin hospital to recuperate. While there, he wrote to his mother, explaining: ‘I always work hard, and long, and carefully, and I really love my family, but then I myself often destroy in a few hours what it took me months and years to create.’
Ditzen died on 5 February 1947, aged 53, a few weeks before the publication of Every Man. Even now, unlucky. In his final novel he believed he’d written a book as good as Little Man – an inner focus, a strong, driven narrative that made no concessions, this time, to anyone. Maybe he’d worked out it wasn’t a case of lucky or unlucky. Maybe it was more about priorities. If not for him, or Ulla, then for his children – Ulrich, Lore and Achim. ‘I’m really only living for the children now, and I’m glad that they’re both such good and promising children, and I wish so much that their lives will be rather easier than their father’s.’
More than anything, I think, Ditzen was brave. In facing the slow physical and spiritual destruction of his country, his body and mind, and dispassionately recording what he saw, and felt. He might have died of a weakened heart, but not will. And in this sense, Mann (and many others) misunderstood the nature of a writer’s life.
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.