Book Notes: Hans Fallada’s Iron Gustav

Hans Fallada is a German writer who wrote about Germany in the first half of the twentieth century better than any other author I read. His novels about World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi Germany are devastating. You can almost physically feel the darkness gathering from one novel to another and then culminating in the horror of Nazism.

I always thought Fallada believed that the source of Germany’s darkness was the defeat in WWI. This is a conventional approach which positions the humiliating reparations and the subsequent economic collapse as the reason for the rise of Nazism.

Iron Gustav, however, makes it clear that this wasn’t what Fallada believed at all. The whole point of the novel is that the darkness was already there before WWI started. Fallada locates the root of the problem in German culture. The novel was written in 1937, and Fallada was in Germany at the time, so obviously he couldn’t explain in great detail exactly what he meant by all this. But it’s completely clear from the novel that he sees in pre-war Germany a fixation on death and destruction that later culminated in Nazism.

I read the preface after finishing the novel, so it’s only when I completed the reading that I found out what the publication history was and why the novel seemed so disjointed and deficient. It turns out that Goebbels supposedly asked Fallada to add some bits about the rise of Nazism to the novel. Fallada seemed to have been reluctant but he ended up doing it. Two of the main characters ended up joining the Nazi party.

For a reason I will never be able to fathom, the publishers of the edition I was reading – the only complete edition of the novel in English, supposedly – decided to edit out the parts about Nazism. This left the novel disjointed and often incomprehensible. It’s obvious from the logic of the text – and from our knowledge of history – that these characters were going to join the Nazis. We know for a fact that somebody joined the Nazis. Nazis were real. There’s nothing unsavory in portraying the rise of Nazism and letting readers know that there were Germans who became Nazis.

Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi leadership’s hated what Fallada ended up writing about their party and prevented the book from being sold. So it’s not like Iron Gustav was glorifying Nazism. Be that as it may, I don’t understand the decision posthumously to edit a novel because you don’t like how it came to exist. I would have preferred to read the complete novel. The way writers do their work in totalitarian societies is fascinating.

I’m upset by this because my German is rudimentary and I’ll never be able to read the actual text of the novel.