In This Review

Berlin Alexanderplatz
Berlin Alexanderplatz
By Alfred Döblin. Translated by Michael Hofmann
New York Review Books, 2018, 480 pp.

Published in the fall of 1929, two weeks before the Wall Street crash, Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz is a classic of the turbulent late Weimar period, an era that provides a favorite point of comparison with the politics of our own day. The story of Franz Biberkopf, reissued now in a new edition, is a kind of morality tale. It shows a man who is repeatedly knocked down and gets up again, before he finally opens his eyes to what is happening around him. But the novel also presents a morality tale about the politics of resentment on the right and sectarian conflict on the left, and where they can lead.

Newly released from Tegel prison, where he served four years for killing his girlfriend in a jealous rage, Franz tries to go straight, selling shoelaces, neckties, and newspapers, before being cheated and going on a bender. He gets back on his feet, meets Mitzi, a prostitute, falls in with a criminal gang, is run over by a getaway car after an attempted heist and loses an arm. He becomes Mitzi’s pimp, rejoins the gang, and has a breakdown when Mitzi is murdered. After a spell in a mental hospital, Franz is “reborn.” He faces yet another new beginning as the book ends. It all sounds very grim and seedy, just as Crime and Punishment would in summary. (“Student kills old lady with ax, then becomes riddled with guilt, despite the support of a prostitute.”)

In fact, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a work of extraordinary exuberance, its narrative interspersed with human interest stories from the newspapers, weather forecasts, reports of events such as the Tunney-Dempsey fight in September 1928, articles about nutrition, popular songs, fragments of courtroom proceedings, and lists of businesses and advertisements. The novel’s jump cuts and syncopated rhythm, borrowed from the cinema and jazz music of the 1920s, mimic the street life of the city. But a firm structure contains the freewheeling energy. Carefully placed episodes from the Book of Job and Greek tragedy comment on the action. As Michael Hofmann, the translator of this new edition, says, the book has good bones.

This edition marks a literary event because of Hofmann’s translation. Hofmann, who teaches at the University of Florida, is a poet and critic; he is also arguably the world’s leading translator of German literary fiction into English. He has translated classics by Franz Kafka and Elias Canetti, as well as recent Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller; he has also helped to boost the reputations of previously marginalized writers such as Wolfgang Koeppen and Hans Fallada (the pen-name of Rudolf Ditzen), whose Every Man Dies Alone (1947, translated 2009) has now received due recognition as a major work about anti-Nazi resistance in World War Two. More than any other writer, however, it is Joseph Roth whose work Hofmann has brought to life in English, with a dozen translated books that include novels, a volume of translated letters and a selection of journalistic pieces on Berlin street-life in the 1920s (What I Saw).

Berlin Alexanderplatz presented Hofmann with a particular challenge because of its rich seam of local dialect and the boastful, big-city idiom known as Berliner Schnauze, as well as constant wordplay. An early translation by Eugene Jolas stayed on the sedate side; Hofmann throws himself into the slang, rendering Berlin speech as Cockney, and serving readers up with a rich assortment of “innits”,”nuffinks” and “well I nevers!” This took me back to years spent in the Camberwell district of London, but may be less accessible to American readers. Yet every reader will surely register the big-city swagger of the characters’ language, and admire Hofmann’s sure-footedness when it comes to finding English equivalents for the sardonic, knowing, quickly-changing tones of the narrator.

Döblin in c. 1946
Döblin in c. 1946
Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Politics repeatedly intrudes on this story—especially the raucous and violent politics of the street. The book’s politics are mostly of the left, but Franz Biberkopf is not part of that world. He sells the Völkischer Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper, which gets him into a bar brawl with left-wingers. Franz scorns Marxists; he goes to bars with his drinking pal, Willi, who provokes everyone he encounters on the left, from radicals to a calm, gray-haired carpenter, a Social Democratic type, who argues that no one needs to read Marx to see that society is rigged against the workers. The initially skeptical barman comes around, but not Franz, who “laughs and laughs” at the idea of solidarity. He is “our Franz Biberkopf, who tells politics to get lost.” But it is not obvious how we are to read this. Selling the Völkischer Beobachter, the result of a chance encounter with a Nazi, seems little different to Franz from hawking neckties or the magazines on “sexual enlightenment” he also sells for a time. His cynicism seems to result more from disappointment than from ideology.

The novel suggests that disengagement is not the answer. In a remarkable scene toward the end of the book, Franz is visited during his breakdown by Death, who accuses him of not noticing things: “I say you never opened your eyes, you crooked hound.” Death continues: “The world needs different people than you, more alert, less impudent, capable of understanding how things work.” In the book’s last pages, Franz has discovered solidarity—“Much misfortune comes of walking alone. If there are several of you, that is already better”—but he has also learned caution. He hears those “who march past his window with flags and music and singing.” The novel leaves it ambiguous who the marchers are and where they are headed. They may be marching off to war, and Franz knows what war is like. Images of it run through the book, as does the parallel motif of animals in the slaughterhouse. But perhaps they are marching with linked arms to somewhere better: “The road is into freedom, into freedom, the old world is doomed, wake up, dawn air.” Whatever the destination, Franz is going to bide his time: “Men have been given reason, oxen have herd instinct.”

Döblin’s own politics were on the left. He was a founding member of “Gruppe 1925,” which brought Communist and non-Communist writers together. But he was also a nonconformist. He harbored bitter memories of the revolutionary uprisings in 1919, when his sister Meta had been killed by shrapnel during a confrontation between right-wing paramilitaries and Marxist revolutionaries. He blamed the far left for irresponsibly urging further revolution; they were “just playing games.” One is reminded of Max Weber’s scathing indictment of a “bloody carnival that does not deserve the honorable name of a revolution.” Döblin’s dislike of easy slogans comes through in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Communist critics repaid the author in kind. Writing in Linkskurve, Klaus Neukrantz called the book “a reactionary and counterrevolutionary attack on the thesis of organized class struggle” because it offered no positive proletarian hero, only a common criminal.

The novel’s narrator says of the arch-villain Reinhold, the man who kills Mitzi and is responsible for Franz’s losing his arm, “there’s actually no knowing at this stage how things will pan out with him.” So it was with the Weimar Republic. The book ends before the economic crisis triggered by the Wall Street crash, which led to widespread unemployment, a ferocious final bout of mass political mobilization, and street fighting. It ends a full year before the election of September 1930 propelled National Socialists and Communists into the Reichstag in much greater numbers than before, narrowing the room for political maneuver and bringing authoritarian rule in its wake. Döblin had planned to write a sequel about the life of “reborn” Franz Biberkopf. Instead he worked on a radio play version of the novel, which was scheduled for broadcast in September 1930 but cancelled at the last moment because of fears about Nazi protests.

We have no idea how Franz, Willi, Herbert, and the rest might have reacted to the political polarization of the early 1930s. We do know that street fights erupted between Nazi Brownshirts and Communist Party members in the neighborhood around the Alexanderplatz. We also know that the Communists enjoyed significant support in the semi-criminal, Lumpen-proletarian world of that quarter. That they did is not surprising. Many better-off workers had moved out of the central city, and the line blurred between the working-class poor and the criminal underworld that remained. True, the professional thieves, such as the ones Franz Biberkopf fell in with, did not lean left—professional thieves are always conservative—but the Communists successfully mobilized some of the street gangs of young men in their teens and early twenties. The Party also embraced strategic acts of illegality, such as “cashless” or “proletarian shopping trips.” Such support was savvy given that by 1932, 85 percent of Communist Party members were unemployed and could not participate in workplace-based resistance.

During this same period, the Party advanced the fateful “social fascism” argument, which held that the Social Democrats, not the Nazis, were the people’s real enemy. One need not let German Communists off the hook for this evident folly in noting that it reflected the social circumstances of the party’s base—young, desperate, and above all, unemployed—as much as it did Moscow’s rigid line. The Social Democrats, too, were slow to recognize the danger of National Socialism, and their earlier reliance on military and paramilitary support to crush the far left in 1919 had left a lasting bitterness. Whatever the reasons, the mutual hostility between the two great left-wing movements proved tragically self-defeating. Today’s references to the circular firing squad of the left seem frivolous by comparison.

If the parties of the left failed to stop Hitler from coming to power, their responsibility was indirect. It was not German workers who voted for the Nazis; it was everyone else. Döblin shows us some of the places where the Nazis’ message would have gone over well, especially among shopkeepers who loathed big retailers and feared the working class. Among the many lists that dot the pages of Berlin Alexanderplatz are lists of businesses and the things they sell: fruit liqueurs, shoes, fountain pens, food and beer, fish, rejuvenating products, ladies’ stockings, rubber sponges. Döblin starts chapter four with a tour of businesses around the “Alex,” before interrupting himself mid-paragraph, first with an advertising pitch, then a Nazi speech: “Bars and restaurants, greengrocers and grocers, delicatessens and haulage businesses, painters and decorators, ladies’ outfitters, flour and grain products, garages, insurance: the advantages of the fuel injection engine are simple design, ease of use, light weight, no clutter. My fellow-Germans, never has a people been more shamefully deceived, more shamefully, wickedly cheated than the German people.”  The speech is interrupted, in turn, by more lists (“plumbing goods, window cleaners”), before it resumes and ends with a promise to protect the small business middle class.

In other words, Döblin shows the so-called Mittelstand, or petty bourgeoisie, already under stress in 1929. There is also an undertone of their hostility to the “Jewish department store”—for the great retail emporiums of Tietz and Wertheim were on the Alexanderplatz. The potent theme of “law and order” sounds. It even seduces the old, unreformed Franz Biberkopf. (“He has nothing against the Jews, but he’s for order.”) In German cities small business owners, along with white-collar workers, provided the core Nazi voters, although plenty of doctors, lawyers, professors, and businesspeople joined them. The Nazis won the mail-in ballots from cruise ships, and there were not many greengrocers or sellers of rubber sponges to be found on board those.

But Berlin and other big cities did not carry the Nazis to power. The party never received more than 20 percent of the vote in the capital, little more than half its nation-wide total of just over 37 per cent in the election of July 1932, its best performance. The Nazis did poorly in most big cities. To find Hitler’s base, you have to go to rural and small-town Germany, to East Prussia, Brandenburg, Hessen, and Württemberg. There the Nazis appealed to a wide array of fears. Some were economic—the price of farm products, lack of cheap credit, foreclosures, the flight of young people from rural areas. The power wielded by distant economic elites offered a unifying grievance. The Nazis played on it, invariably appending the adjective “Jewish” to the pejorative “economic elites.” A belief among Germans in the provinces that “the system” was rigged against them, a visceral dislike of what was widely considered the decadence of the big cities (especially Berlin), a suspicion that urban sophisticates looked down on them and their wholesome values—all of this helped to fuel heavy Nazi voting in rural and small town Germany. Now, of course, such sentiments sound very familiar, because populist appeals have achieved a broader resonance than at any time since the interwar years. Aggrieved Americans in “flyover country,” seek to take it out on coastal elites, and sour, struggling voters in provincial Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom mean to send a message to Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Warsaw, and London.

Populist revolt in the provinces, then and now: we have traveled a long way from Berlin, the setting of Döblin’s great novel, and from Döblin’s main character. But provincial revolts succeed only if they have metropolitan enablers, as the Nazis did. There is no trace of those elites in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Döblin gives just a few vignettes of high politics, a sentence or even half a sentence, wedged between news of a round-the-world flight or a robbery on the Tempelherrenstrasse—“fatalistic speech from Marx, the Chancellor Marx,” “crisis talks in the Reichstag, fresh elections possible,” “[Foreign Minister Gustav] Stresemann goes to Paris” (“or again perhaps he doesn’t”). These asides are no more than noises off, and the politics to which they refer is the messy business of democracy prior to the fall of 1929, what the Nazis called the “system.” Those who helped Hitler to power—authoritarian conservatives, key elements of the army, corporate Germany, and the Junker aristocracy—loathed the “system,” too. They thought they could make Hitler do their bidding. They were wrong. But that is another story.

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