When I was nineteen I spent a couple of days in Belfast. I went on a ‘mural tour’ and saw streets painted to mark territory, to act as memorials, or in celebration. I saw gutters of roads painted in the colours of the Union Jack to mark it as Protestant territory. I saw kindergartens and playgrounds behind barbed wire. I saw boom-gates that would come down at curfew, like railroad crossings forbidding entrance to the other side. It was confronting, it was emotional, but it made me understand the Troubles in ways I never had before. I saw bullet holes on public buildings, but I also saw a surging arts community. I saw derelict shipyards, but I also saw bustling retail areas and new industries bringing jobs into the city. Being in Belfast wasn’t just seeing where the city had come from, it was also about seeing where the city was going.
In many ways living in Berlin was very similar. It was like being in a living, breathing museum. I guess that’s what attracted me to the city in the first place – being there would be a way to understand so much of the twentieth-century. And it was, but it was also overwhelming. I’d ride over the path that marks where the Berlin Wall used to be every day, free to move from one side to the other of a reunified city, but I’d also see marked differences in buildings and infrastructure and wealth from one side to the other. I’d see beautiful memorials to the Holocaust in very public places, but I’d also see police standing guard outside of Jewish schools. There were parts of German history that people were comfortable talking about, parts that were memorialised, and parts that were commodified for tourism. But there were also gaps in history that were not accessible to an outsider like me. This was partly due to language barriers and partly due to my not being there long enough to spend time with multi-generational families. But I think there’s also an element of needing to leave some things behind. Germany is a country with a difficult past – a lot of this is acknowledged in ways that other many other countries would shy away from, but there are still gaps in history that feel too raw and too personal to keep out in the open.
Nightmare in Berlin tells us of one of these periods that are generally kept quiet. It examines the period at the end of the war, in the lead-up-to and immediately after the German surrender. It takes us to the evacuation sites, it walks us through the rubble, it takes us inside the bomb shelters. It tells of empty pantries, of shattered windows, of addiction and depression and hopelessness. It bridges the gap between the enormous number of books and films about the Holocaust and to the Germany that emerged in its’ aftermath. And in tackling this period of history, Hans Fallada shines a light on a Berlin few of us have ever heard of before.
Nightmare in Berlin tells of Dr Doll, a mayor in a small-town in north-east Germany that has been occupied by the Red Army, as he and his wife return to Berlin hoping to return to their pre-war home. They are quickly confronted by the mess of a city barely standing. It’s a city in ruins, its’ remaining population struggling to get by, and Fallada does not hide the desperation: ‘For these people from a nation that bore its defeat without dignity of any kind, without a trace of greatness, there was nothing left worth hiding.’ Life is lived in the present, with little hope held out for the days to come. There is no ability to plan for the future – after living through years and years of sustained attack, it’s difficult even to store food when they’ve been without:
They didn't care about overfilling their stomachs, or the effect this would have on their already disturbed night's sleep, nor did they think about keeping something back for the next day. They'd said goodbye to all such thoughts during the years of sustained aerial bombing. They had become children again, who live only for today, without a thought for the morrow; but they had nothing of the innocence of children any more. They were uprooted, the pair of them, this herder of cows and this carrier of sacks; the past had slipped away from them, and their future was too uncertain to be worth troubling their minds about it. They drifted along aimlessly on the tide of life – what was the point of living, really?
In fact food becomes a central concern of the Doll’s lives and allows Fallada to demonstrate the black markets in play over so much of the country. There’s a desperation in the civilian population which reaches boiling point when in one scene Mrs Doll – while working alongside a team of women clearing out old army shelters – discovers stock piles of food kept by the SS while the population starved.
… what really made the women’s blood boil as they lugged all this stuff about was the thought that all this abundance had been withheld for years from starving women and children, including many children who had never tasted chocolate in their lives, only to be crammed into the greedy mouths of swaggering SS bully boys, who were directly responsible for much of Germany’s misfortune.
The demon of collective guilt hangs over the shoulders of the country throughout Nightmare in Berlin, but where Fallada excels is in his ability to hit on the apathy that ran through much of the German population in the years immediately after the surrender. In Fallada’s world there are many who continue to fight, there are many who continued to ask questions, but there are also many who are desperate to take the pain away in any way they can, many through morphine addiction. But as time passes, as wounds begin to heal, as the streets begin to clear of debris, there is hope:
He’d dismissed Berlin as a ‘city of the dead’, a ‘sea of ruins’, in which he’d never be able to work: but just look how much work was being done in this city now! Anyone who wasn’t doing their bit should feel ashamed of themselves. They had been living in a state of blind selfishness for the past few months – a parasitic, self-centred existence. All they had done was take, take, never stopping to think how they might give something back.
When Doll had put down his last newspaper that evening, that night, laid down on the couch and turned out the light, he didn’t need to resort to some pathetic Robinson Crusoe fantasy in order to get off to sleep. Instead, all the things he had read were going round and round in his head, and the more he went over in his mind all that had been achieved so far, the more incomprehensible it seemed to him that he had stood idly by, resentful and blank, while all this was happening. These reproaches pursued him into his dreams at dead of night.
Reading about the food shortages and desperation across Europe reminds me to be conscious of the food I both purchase and consume. Eating on a budget can often feel like a sacrifice, but in the scheme of things it is still a position of incredible privilege. As I now cook just for myself, I like to make pots of soup or stews that can last me throughout the week, but can also easily be frozen to avoid waste and become a convenience in the future. This Jamie Oliver recipe for red lentil, sweet potato and coconut soup is incredibly hearty, and perfect for cold winter nights. Because I try to prevent buying ingredients that I won’t use again and again, I topped my soup with a little coconut milk and some roasted peanuts, which gave a crunchy contrast and worked well with the Asian flavours in this soup. In the poorly built rental properties of Victoria, it’s easy to feel the draught sting your bones. But as I read of blown out windows, of crumbling walls and of rampant homelessness, I was grateful for my little apartment and a bowl of soup to wrap my hands around.
Nightmare in Berlin is less well-known than Fallada’s landmark novel Alone in Berlin, and indeed this publication by Scribe is the first time The Nightmare has been translated from German to English. As the news becomes filled with nightly reports of terrorist attacks, of coups and of bigoted fear, we may not need to be reminded of war and atrocity. But there’s something to be said for considering what comes afterwards: in the short-sightedness of building towards conflict, we forget how long the damage can last. In the West we have been in denial of the damage that is still rippling through countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, our collective guilt becoming blind-sided by apathy for a part of the world that can feel so far away. But as racism continues to brew like a poisonous spell across Australia, the UK and the USA, and indeed again in many parts of Europe, we need to be reminded of not just the horrific consequences of the direct actions, but also how widespread the repercussions can be indirectly. We seem to have forgotten that it took decades to repair the scars of the last world war, that in many ways they have never left us. This is a timely publication of this new translation, one that should send a warning at a time when we need as many as we can get.