‘Blood Brothers’: A Glimpse into Nazi Berlin’s Street Gangs

Translated into English for the first time by Michael Hofmann decades after it was first published in German, Blood Brothers remains the only known novel by Ernst Haffner, records of whom strangely disappeared during the Second World War. In 1930s Germany, the reality of young men caught in a cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration started conflicting with the Nazi vision of the country’s productive youth. And so books like Blood Brothers, which chronicled the lives of Berlin’s underclass, were burnt to prevent any damage to the national ideology.

This depiction of the Berlin milieu is about the city’s streets which serve as a home for those who have fallen through the social safety net and now find themselves either on the road or in correctional institutions for young offenders. The worst off, among them, are those under 21 – being unregistered, they find themselves caught in a web of bureaucracy, unable to access legal employment even if they want to. Having slipped through the cracks of the legal system, these boys risk institutionalisation without even committing a crime.

The story starts with an escape – a boy, Willi Kludas, has run away from a custodial institution and a life of punishing discipline, in hopes of getting to Berlin. Haffner wastes no time establishing an air of danger early in the story, with Kludas clinging to an axle beneath a train running from Cologne to Berlin.

Descriptions of the conditions of a ‘warming hall’ show us why any exit route, no matter how dangerous, seems like an inviting option to Kludas:

“The hall is painted in the favourite colours of Berlin welfare organizations: grey-green distemper, with dark-green gloss. Scraped, worn, rubbed away and dirtied by thousands of recumbent backs… Everywhere dirt, grime, rubbish. Signs of years of use, signs of barely masked dilapidation…”

However, once he arrives, Kludas realises that Berlin’s streets are merciless and the kids who run them are rough. While some like Kludas and his friend, Ludwig, try to escape their illegal underground existence, most members of the city’s youth gangs are content with the companionship and safety of these groups.

Blood Brothers
Ernst Haffner, Michael Hoffman
Harvill Secker, 2015

As they grow up, the youths graduate from pickpocketing at supermarkets to more serious offences like breaking and entering and auto-theft. Kludas and Ludwig, however, establish an honest line of work. Having acquired some money from shovelling snow off the streets, they start up their own business – buying old shoes, refurbishing them and then reselling the improved versions at lucrative prices. With a little money, self-esteem and authority, Kludas and his friend manage to overcome overbearing institutional odds, relying only on each other for safety and comfort. Relationships like these are the only source of comfort in a city that has left its working class out in the cold.

“The discreet champagne lounges in the basements, and the trapdoors. All provided by the glib and deficient imaginations of directors and other second-raters. The amusement industry clamors for the like. It wants cheap thrills for its expensive balcony seats… The superficial observer of this falsified milieu would find Berlin’s actual criminal underworld deathly dull.”

That is Haffner’s damning indictment of Berlin’s bourgeois. He writes of destitution and despair in their rawest form, without any romanticising to soften the blow for readers. Haffner uses these harsh descriptions to call out those who are only interested in poverty and issues of class when they’re made into entertainment for the big screen.

Blood Brothers ends on a note true to its name – brothers who have sworn loyalty to each other and are committed to protecting each other. As Haffner writes, “If there’s two of you, it feels different. A night is only half as long and half as cold; even hunger is only half as bad. One gives the other a nudge in the ribs: ‘Well, what about it? Let’s go! Two trips from Schlesischer Bahnhof to Charlottenburg, and the night’s over.'”

Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.