Haffner, Ernst. “Blood Brothers”, translated by Michael Hoffman, Other Press, 2015.
Banned by the Nazis
“Blood Brothers” was originally published in 1932 and banned by the Nazis one year later, the plot follows a gang of young boys bound together by unwritten rules and mutual loyalty. It is the only known novel by Ernest Haffner, a German social worker and journalist. All traces of Haffner were lost during World War II so we know very little about the man himself but his legacy is this book.
In great detail, Haffner takes us into the illicit underworld of Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. We see how the blood brothers of the title go from one petty crime to the next, sleeping in underground bars and seedy hotels as they together struggled to survive not only Nazi Germany but also the realities of gang life. They found in each other what they were not allowed to find in society.
The book is an unflinching yet deeply affecting portrait of life on Berlin’s darkest and most desperate streets. What makes this book stand out is its documentary detail. In the first pages we get a description of the hours-long queues at the labor exchange and then move on to a vivid picture of the gang’s initiation ceremonies, drinking rituals, and the glorious satisfaction of hot pea soup on an empty stomach. The plot drives the book forward and it is told to us in a simple and straightforward style.
Michael Hoffman’s translation captures all of the detail and the gorgeous prose. This is not an easy read because its subject matter is so difficult but it is a rewarding read.