Countless books are lost to the sands of time. The number of authors and stories that become forgotten relics can, and often do, fill landfills. Such was the case with Blood Brothers, a recently re-published German novel written in the years before World War Two but destroyed by the Nazis. Sadly, Blood Brothers author Ernst Haffner also disappeared during
WWII. Although he was lost, the rediscovery of his novel is a triumph of the human spirit against the overwhelming fact of eternity, made all the more jubilant because Blood Brothers is a well-written tale that legitimately deserves preservation.
The story is of homeless youth--specifically the “Blood Brothers” who live on the streets of Berlin and try desperately to survive. For these young boys, the only life aside from vagrancy is either prison or orphanages, institutions that seem worse than death. Living on the streets exposes the boys to many terrible things: starvation, theft, prostitution, and drunkenness. These events are chronicled as happenings with each boy, but the narrative focuses primarily on two, Ludwig and Willi, and the story of their eventual coming together and escape from gang life.
The story of young men living on the street, presented by a male journalist in early 1930s Germany, sustains an exclusively male viewpoint. The reader is given only the slightest glimpse of what life on the streets is like for women. Females are presented almost exclusively as prostitutes, usually villainous or disease-ridden. A modern novel told in such style would likely be cast as misogynistic, but Haffner’s presentation of women realistically captures the often dismissive and self-serving attitude of teenage boys, especially those consumed by poverty and crime.
Blood Brothers is a novel that is heavy on narrative and sparse with its dialogue. This style is likely a byproduct of Haffner’s journalistic training, but it also reinforces his understanding of young men: more action and less words. Violence, danger, and fear are all fairly consistent elements of the world these boys live in. Haffner catalogues that world with intensity, such as when he describes the terrifying ride Willi has while hiding under a train car, hanging just above the tracks. In this way, Haffner adds gritty descriptions of the harsh world he describes, a world that is painstakingly detailed with beautiful images that suggest a not-beautiful world:
Rain, endless and monotonous, dribbles onto the asphalt. Rain that softens up ancient shoes, till the unhappy wearer has the impression of going around in sodden dishcloths. (102) Observational detail is welcomed when applied to the setting and plot, but the occasional descriptions of less adventurous circumstances drown in detail; the economics of street life is especially tedious. Still, vivid descriptions reinforce the poor conditions of the setting, which is necessary for understanding the characters’ behavior.
Berlin is described most often as an obstacle to the necessary development of adult realization, so Blood Brothers reads more as parable than a coming-of-age tale. The city is, by turns, the boys’ hope and destruction, a temptation that perpetuates a cycle of ruin with promises that are rarely fulfilled. “Berlin, Berlin …The name sounds like music to his ears. As if Berlin were a laid table and a soft bed waiting …” (40). The city entices the young men with the possibility of adventure. However, the characters realize quickly the hardships of life on the streets, and Haffner bluntly states the reality of the situation with statements like “My God, doesn’t Berlin look different when there’s something in your pockets that jingles!” (76) and
What are two beggars doing here? They don’t belong in the area. They’ve come from the other Berlin, from some musty cellar or squalid back building, to beg here. The other Berlin … (116) With these words, Haffner clearly illustrates that the city is kind only to those with money, and he turns the novel into a stunning indictment of elitism: “ …be it in Berlin or Italy or some burg in Silesia: rich people don’t do charity. They’d rather turn their dogs loose on beggars or slam doors in their faces (94). Such commentary suggests Haffner as championing the lower classes, though his narrative shows he does not condone the life the boys lead. This is evidenced by the story’s plot, which concludes differently for different characters. Some problems are forced upon them but others are embraced willingly, so Haffner calls for social justice but also personal responsibility, making Blood Brothers a novel that critiques but does not condescend.
The story certainly connects with readers despite a lapse of decades and would likely have been even more successful had it not been lost. The eerie thing about Blood Brothers is how everlasting the story seems to be. This story is far older than the eighty-three years that have passed since its first publication. A story of societal castoffs who lack the most basic human needs is familiar for the frequency with which it is told because of the consistency
with which it happens. And these conditions persist, making Blood Brothers relevant not only as a historical piece but also as signaling the need to address an ongoing social problem.