Book Review: Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada

In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire distinguished between history and fable. The former, he said, is “the recital of facts represented as true” whereas fable is “the recital of facts of facts represented as fiction.” In terms of historiography, that is a fair distinction. In terms of grasping history, though, fiction may be as effective as a history book.

The recent revival of German novelist Hans Fallada’s works is a case in point. Last year, his novel about personal integrity and resistance during the Nazi regime, Every Man Dies Alone, was first published in English. Publisher Melville House has now released the first unabridged English translation of Wolf Among Wolves. While Every Man Dies Alone was based on the true story of a working class couple in Berlin who mounted their own modest campaign of resistance by dropping postcards containing anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages throughout the city, Wolf Among Wolves takes an even closer look at the struggle for integrity and survival amid the post-World War I economic disaster that contributed to Hitler’s rise to power.

Although first published in 1937 (with an abridged translation published in the U.S. the following year), the book is emblematic of the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) movement that arose in 1920s Germany. It was a school of artistic expression that “vividly depicted and excoriated the corruption, frantic pleasure seeking and general demoralisation of Germany following its defeat in the war and the ineffectual Weimar Republic which governed until the arrival in power of the Nazi Party in 1933.” Using a highly descriptive approach tinged with reportage, Fallada looks beyond the broad causes of Germany’s economic struggles to show its impact on a wide range of the German public. His characters served in the war or come from a variety of social classes, all struggling with finding or holding on to a place in a collapsing economy in 1923. Akin to a tolling bell, from the first page Wolf Among Wolves periodically details the value of the German mark in the rampant hyperinflation of the times. (In the roughly five months covered by the book, the number of marks it took to equal a U.S. dollar increased from 414,000 to 4.2 trillion.)

The copious detail with which Fallada — the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen — creates his characters and explores the dismay and decadence of German society is established at the outset. Just under half the nearly 800-page book deals only with July 26, 1923. The day is not notable in German history. It is a simply an average day Fallada uses to portray life at the time. He builds Wolf Among Wolves around Wolfgang Pagel, a former army second lieutenant and current inveterate gambler, his live-in girlfriend Petra, and his former military comrades, Rittmeister (Captain) Joachim von Prackwitz and Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Etzel von Studmann. Numerous other characters, most family members or individuals who work at the large farming estate von Prackwitz leases from his in-laws, make up the complete cast and several occasionally disappear for large portions of the book before returning. By focusing on the details of a particular day in several lives, this portion of the book portrays the decadence and decay of German society in its most vivid detail.

Describing the area around one of Berlin’s major railway stations, Fallada writes that “to the dreariness of the facades, the evil smells, the misery of that barren stone desert, there was added a widespread shamelessness, the child of despair or indifference, lechery born of the itch to height a sense of living in a word which, in a mad rush, was carrying everyone toward an obscure fate.” Shortly thereafter, in the Friedrichstrasse section of central Berlin, von Prackwitz comes across a bazaar-like setting full of prostitutes, both female and male, war-wounded beggars and drug addicts. The description of the area of central Berlin where Pagel and Petra live also helps explain the sex trade:

It was a poor district in a starving age, and everywhere, at every hour of the day, stood women, girls, widows, miserable bodies rigged up in the most ridiculous rags, hunger and misery in their faces. To find a buyer for that miserable body was the last hope of war widows done out of their pensions; working-class women whose husbands, even the soberest and most industrious, were tricked out of their wages by every devaluation of the mark; girls, some almost children, who could no longer witness the misery of their younger brothers and sisters.

Yet even when the focus of the book — and Pagel and von Studmann — moves largely to von Prackwitz’s rural estate, the impact of the failing economy remains a core element. There is not only the economic burden imposed by the Versailles Treaty but also the French occupation of Germany’s industrial heartland, both contributing to even more political unrest and economic dislocation. When these macroeconomic factors are brought to the level of the individual it all sets the stage not only for an overarching love story but personal and political intrigue, the escape of prison inmates helping with the harvest and a failed putsch (coincidentally or not, just five weeks before the Beer Hall Putsch that led to the imprisonment during which Hitler wrote most of Mein Kampf). They also continue and bear out the theme suggested by the title — virtually every character becomes a lone wolf at times, with self-preservation often taking precedence over the overall interests of the pack that is society. Some characters eventually raise themselves up; others descend further into chaos.

The second half of the book moves more briskly, although still not at a rapid pace. Pace seems to have been a primary motivation behind the abridgment of the 1938 English translation. In an Afterword, Thorsten Carstensen, who did the additional translations with Nicholas Jacobs, observes that many of the earlier omissions involved paragraphs that did not advance the plot but delved into characters’ feelings or behavior. That could give rise to a criticism of the unabridged edition. Although the reader does not know which passages were restored, there are times the detail becomes almost too minute. Although the second half of the book does not contain as much detail, Fallada often uses foreshadowing at the end of various sections to keep the reader on task.

Unquestionably, the realistic detail of events and characters’ psyches was key to making Every Man Dies Alone and The Drinker, Fallada’s posthumously published novel about a businessman’s descent into alcoholism, exceptional works. In Wolf Among Wolves that attention helps readers better understand the realities of life in Weimar Germany, even if it doesn’t fully examine the causes. Still, even though there is benefit to reading the work as originally published, the continuing attention to seemingly minor points could perhaps dissuade modern readers from completing what is still a rewarding read, one which may take them further inside the times than a straightforward work of history.

We ought to tell that to God, but he’s got a bit fed up with his job in the last five years and he’s deaf in one ear.

Hans Fallada, Wolf Among Wolves

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