A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary
If Mein Kampf is one dictator’s racist, dogmatic manifesto, then A Stranger in My Own Country is one German citizen’s sardonic rebuttal. Translated by Allan Blunden and edited by Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange, Hans Fallada’s A Stranger in My Own Country is a memoir describing the life of a writer under the Nazi regime. While imprisoned in 1944, Fallada hand wrote the manuscript using abbreviations, writing in between lines, and flipping pages upside down to keep the text as illegible as possible lest it be confiscated.
Fallada’s diary begins in 1933, the first day of the Third Reich and recounts a decade’s worth of injustices and persecutions he and his friends suffered at the hands of the newly established National Socialist Party. Whether it was Fallada’s sense of humor landing him jail (ratted out by his tenants and former landlords no less), having his property seized or his home raided, or vilifying his books as anti-Nazi propaganda, there was virtually no part of his life that wasn’t in some way affected by the bullying tactics of the Party.
Following these altercations with the new regime, Fallada’s already rebellious beliefs grew even stronger. As he states, “I’d like to die without insignia or decoration of any kind; if I reach a ripe old age, they can put me on display by the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with a sign saying: ‘This is the only German who never received a medal or decoration, never earned a rank or title, never won a prize and never belonged to a club.'” This quote, aside from showing Fallada’s sense of humor, reminded me of Frederick Henry’s views on war in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. It points to Fallada’s growing disillusionment and steadfast refusal to think and act along party lines. Unlike many contemporary artists such as Paul Klee and George Grosz, Fallada remained in Germany during the war in part to fight the regime from within and because, as he put it, “I like it here!”
Fallada’s refusal to leave his home country was met with criticism from the artistic community, and it appears that some of the Nazi propaganda may have rubbed off on him. Though Fallada himself was not anti-Semitic, he was unable to escape some of the more common stereotypes, believing the Jews to be group orientated and overly concerned with money. He also defended the bizarre notion that Germany’s downfall was to blame on the French and British following World War I. In 1937, he was commissioned to write a pro-German screenplay entitled Iron Gustav. Although Fallada lamented writing it, stating such a project was "a test of the conscience" he begrudgingly conceded, writing a modified version to appease the producers and the all-powerful Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
These issues notwithstanding, A Stranger in My Own Country is an engrossing book that reads more like a novel than a memoir. Fallada’s life was full of strange characters, both German and Jewish alike; there’s the remarkable story of Peter Surkhamp, a friend and fellow writer whose constant run-ins with German authorities ended his promising career; E. O. Plauen, a famous illustrator and cartoonist, who committed suicide after being condemned and hunted for his illustrations. There’s mayor Stork, a corrupt politician who hired provocateurs to expose anti-Party citizens, and Fallada’s good friend and publisher, Rowholt, who fought for his author and his books at the risk of his own career. By incorporating suspense and dialogue seamlessly, Fallada blurs the lines between genres leaving the most powerful story till the very end, whereby he imagines an "underground palace" where his family lives in peace and quiet, without fear or provocation from the Nazi menace. It’s an escape from reality we can all relate to.
Editors Sabine Lange and Jenny Williams deserve special recognition for culling together an expansive notes section, elucidating otherwise difficult passages. Every person Fallada mentions—every error and omission—is corrected in painstaking detail and in certain cases, added to the text. For instance, while relating a story about his friend Sas, an elementary school teacher, Fallada mentions a letter he wrote to his lover after being sentenced to death. Obviously since he was penning the diary in prison, Fallada could not write the letter from memory, planning on adding it later. This is not only clarified, but also includes Sas’s letter in full, as the author intended. While penning his prison diary, Fallada also wrote several short stories, one of which was included: "Swenda – A Dream Fragment, or My Troubles."
There are those who claim that all literature from this era in German history should be considered tainted, condemning such literature as complicit in the continued torture and suffering of its citizens. This attitude does a great disservice to authors such as Fallada who ardently opposed the tyrannical rule of the Party, as A Stranger in My Own Country demonstrates. He loved Germany, and despite his credulity in political matters, penned what is arguably as significant as The Diary of Anne Frank. It is the account of an ordinary man, living under perhaps the most oppressive government of the 20th century. “I lived the same life as everybody else ... ” Fallada opines, which is all it is and all it needs to be.
Cardoso is a writer of science fiction and comedy and sometimes both. He has published one essay and graduated from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s degree in English.