Fallada’s Portrait of a Police Detective in Nazi Germany

Fallada’s 1946 novel, Jeder stirbt für sich allein  recently acquired best-seller status in the English-speaking world through the translation of Michael Hofmann in the new Melville House edition, Every Man Dies Alone.  It was based right after the war on Gestapo-files, acquired for Fallada’s use by the writer, Johannes Becher, who had just returned from exile to the Soviet Zone of Occupation, and was engaged in the task of re-building post-war German culture along anti-fascist lines. He hoped to inspire Hans Fallada to take a leading part in these endeavors.

The files documented the case of a working class couple who for a couple of years at the height of the Nazi terror, 1940-42, managed to elude capture by the Gestapo while leaving more than 200 postcards with block-lettered messages in Berlin buildings, mainly in their own working-class district of Wedding. On the postcards, they condemned in simple and crude terms the Hitler regime. Eventually they were caught, tried, condemned to death by the so-called People’s Court—and beheaded.  This was the outline of the real case against a couple called Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed with minutes of each other on the evening of April 8, 1943 in Plötzensee Prison in Berlin, and this case gave Fallada an outline for his last great novel where the amazingly dogged but doomed couple, a resistence-cell unto themselves, are called Otto and Anna Quangel.

Does this novel belong in a blog about mysteries, about detective fiction? It is not a murder mystery in the conventional sense where a detective tracks down a murderer and brings him or her to justice. It is however in large part a work of detective fiction in which a policeman tracks down a criminal, as defined in his own police state, and brings the person to justice, as defined in that state, now more readily defined as judicial murder. About three hundred pages of this 668 page-novel (in the latest German edition) focus on one police detective’s hunt for the enemy of the state who is distributing the cards.  Fallada fictionalizes the case of the Hampels—and one could write a great deal about how he does this (I might do that in a later post)—but there is not a character in the novel more interestingly fictionalized than the police detective who hunts down the Quangels:  Kommissar Escherich of the Secret State Police, known world-wide in its notoriously abbreviated from, the Gestapo—the Geheime Staatspolizei.

Who does not have a picture of the Gestapo?  The dreaded, ruthless, brutal body of men who in Hitler’s Germany and its colonies tracked down “enemies of the state,” from the small desperate cells of resisters who somehow maintained a presence, albeit small, throughout the Thousand Year Reich, to the individuals who committed a variety of smaller crimes such as listening to foreign radios or complaining carelessly about the conditions in the country or the conduct of the war. Many were the denouncers, who sold their friends and acquaintances for a lot less than  thirty pieces of silver, and many were the denounced who ended their lives in Gestapo cellars or concentration camps.  This was life in the Nazi state, and in the popular, sensational versions of it that have been aired many times across the film and TV screens of the world, chief among the responsible villains were the Gestapo, the SS, the known thugs of the Nazi world.

But where, one might wonder, were the ordinary policemen? Was there no civilian police force entrusted in a general way with keeping order in the country?  Was the entire police force of Nazi Germany engaged in tracking down, imprisoning and sending to their death all groups who “threatened the health of society,” i.e. Jews, as is well known, but also all kinds of  “asocials,”  homosexuals, handicapped persons, prostitutes, “foreigners” of various kinds  . . . and so on? There certainly were no police in evidence as protectors of these threatened people.

In Fallada’s Escherich, we see a police detective well on into the years of Nazi domination in the early war years of the forties. What kind of a policeman is he?  He introduces himself at one point, with the deliberate intent to intimidate: “I am Kommissar Escherich of the Gestapo.”  But he is not a uniformed Gestapo officer. When he makes his first appearance in the novel, Fallada describes him as “a tall gangling man with a loose sandy moustache, light gray suit, everything about him so colorless you could have taken him for an outgrowth of the file cabinet dust” (Hofmann’s translation), and when he makes his last exit from the novel, by self-inflicted violence, his thuggish superior Gestapo officer describes his exit as  “desertion! All civilians,” he rages, “are swine! Everything that doesn’t wear a uniform . . . belongs behind barbed wire.”

Escherich is one of the non-uniformed police inspectors, and he is proud of his status, as he often says, as an old “Kriminalist.”  He clearly comes out of the generation who were detectives of the old school and he has a much higher regard for the police methods of the old detectives than for those of the new Gestapo. “If we had a real police force,” he says at one point, “the postcard writer would be in our hands in twenty-four hours.”  Escherich works methodically, putting his little flags on the street plan of Berlin, to show where his boogey-man, as he calls him, has left his cards, gradually narrowing them down to three streets where no cards are found, and where he therefore assumes the man lives; he is no hurry to make arrests, preferring to do time-honored police work, and wait for the perpetrator to make a mistake and thus reveal his identity.  His superiors in the Gestapo headquarters want a lot more action, and have a greater inclination to nab possible subjects or witnesses and beat the truth out of them. Not so Escherich.

Do not imagine, however, that Fallada ever tries to suggest that this is because Escherich is a man of old-fashioned principle, a man who is out of sympathy with the state he now serves, or in any way in sympathy with the people he is tracking down.  The latter are of no interest to him. “Escherich hunted,” writes Fallada. “This old Kriminalist was a real hunter. It was in his blood. He hunted criminals as others hunted pigs. That the pigs and the criminals died when they were tracked down, that didn’t bother him.”  When he is handed the first card, and the functionary who gives it to him asks what will happen to the perpetrator, Escherich replies sardonically: “Do you really want to know? . . .People’s Court and off with his head. What’s it to me? What forces this guy to write such a silly card that no one will read or want to read? No, it’s nothing to me.  I draw my salary and whether I sell postage stamps or stick little flags in a street map, it’s all one to me. . . But when I get the guy . . . I’ll invite you to the execution.”

He says this in mocking tones, a way of impressing his listener with his superior posture of the disinterested professional—he may be indifferent to the kind of state he is serving, but Fallada leaves us in no doubt that he knows exactly what that state is all about. He knows that dropping postcards about the place denouncing Hitler leads straight to the executioner’s block.  Not his problem. Escherich knows what he is doing and for whom he is doing it.

So no doubt did Kriminalsekretär Püschel know, the man who in reality hunted down the Hampels in a similar methodical way.  Manfred Kuhnke, in his well-researched book on Fallada’s Last Novel (Falladas letzter Roman. Die wahre Geschichte) has assembled a good deal of information about Püschel, the externals of his life, the slow, stubborn way in which he pursued the Hampels  through two years of old-fashioned detective work and brought them in to the Gestapo prison and to the People’s Court, how he, along the way, pursued for a while the false trail of a work-shy gambler, and how he was himself kind enough in his manner (“I had the most pleasant treatment from the Kommissar” writes Hampel of Püschel, the man who knowingly turned him over to his executioners).  Püschel had been a policeman since 1924 and since 1934, a police detective, and shortly after the beginning of the war, he was transferred to the Gestapo in Berlin. This might have been Escherich’s career up to this point, since his career as a “civilian” police detective clearly predates the days of the Gestapo, but Kuhnke has traced Püschel’s career up to 1947, so, unlike Escherich, Püschl outlived the war and the Nazi state. It is possible that, like many other policemen of the Nazi era, he went on to pursue his career in post-war Germany. Kuhnke found no further trace.

Fallada had some of these details, but whereas he saw a mug-shot of Hampel, he never saw an actual picture of Püschel, and his colorless Escherich with the sandy moustache is purely his own creation.  He repeats these external descriptive details in classic leitmotif fashion again and again, but his Escherich, as he develops, turns out to be anything but colorless. How does Fallada create his living, breathing, fictional man out of the routine police officer and hard-boiled detective of the Gestapo files?  Not by filling in any of his personal life—we only ever see Escherich on the job.  What Fallada does is show the gradual transformation that takes place in him over his two-year obsession with his boogey-man, a transformation  nowhere to be found in the documents available to Fallada on the real Püschel.   Escherich becomes more and more obsessed with his boogey-man as a person, and ends up wanting to know what it is that makes this man do what he is doing. He is more and more under pressure from his thuggish superiors to show some action in the case, and it is essentially in the process of trying to keep them off his back and allow him to pursue the case in the way he knows best that he finds his own picture of himself and his job changing.

He is from the beginning a skilled interrogator, and Fallada never pretends that he has sympathy with the victims of his interrogations. He does not go in for fisticuffs—the man who succeeds him in his job frequently strikes his interlocutor, man or woman, in the face between questions—we never see Escherich hitting anybody, but he takes considerable long-drawn-out pleasure in verbally tormenting, for example, the pathetic Enno, the work-shy gambler (of the Gestapo files), tying him in knots, trapping him into signing a false confession. He literally kicks the small-time crook and denouncer,  Borkhausen out of his office, and cheerfully lets the bigger thugs outside in the corridor kick Borkhausen downstairs.

Because of the slowness of his methods, his lack of quick results, he eventually becomes himself the quarry of the men who drink themselves into a stupor, who scream at their victims, who punch them in the face.  Escherich is no hero. When his own teeth are knocked out onto his own office carpet, yes, then he realizes what violence really feels like.  When he is kicked down the same stairs as Borkhausen was, he feels in his own bones the distinctly unfunny side of physical violence.

There are commentators on the novel who suggest that when he is exposed to physical violence against himself, Escherich realizes that he has assimilated into a corrupt system.  I would say rather that he has always known it was a corrupt system, and it is not so much the experience of violence that illuminates for him his assimilation into it, but the slow dawning on him which begins much sooner that he is himself already corrupt. The actual turning point in Escherich comes when he blatantly violates his own policeman’s ethics by deciding that he will pass off the whining little gambler Enno deliberately as the perpetrator, even though he knows himself very well that he is not.  This decision leads him to one of the most impressively frightening and brilliantly narrated scenes in the novel when he, to use the jargon of our times “takes out” Enno for no better reason that to gain time for himself. I shall not describe this scene and so ruin the effect for a reader of the novel (this after all is a mystery blog), but it is to me a highpoint of the novel, and surely the low point of Escherich’s moral disintegration, rather than the scenes of his later mistreatment in the hands of his superiors. It constitutes the dramatic turning point in his career as a man and a police officer. Fallada signals this, describing how Escherich leaves his office on that fateful night, “with the dark suspicion that he will not be the same man when he comes back. Up till now, he was a civil servant, who hunted men as other people sell postage stamps, decent, industrious, according to the rules.”  When he comes back, he will be different.

And so Fallada shows the slow rot taking place in the man who knowingly but almost incredulously in his hunt for criminals becomes a criminal himself.  What happens later in the novel as Escherich is himself brutalized, is rescued from the Gestapo cellars to search again for the card-dropper, finds him, is then forced by his superiors to join in the physical tormenting of Quangel in his cell, recognizes that Quangel is a better man than he is, and puts an end, highly dramatically, to his own life, recognizing that he is the only actual convert that Quangel made, all this is pure Fallada drama and highly effective fiction. The melodrama of the last scene is heightened by a detail restored to the text in the latest unexpurgated version of the novel where the sandy moustache of Escherich is seen hanging bloodily on a lamp. (The early Aufbau editor did well, in my opinion, to leave that out.)

The last-ditch “conversion” of Escherich has, I would suggest, impressive though it is, not much to do with the reality of what went on in the police force in Nazi Germany.  But the sense of inner rot that enters his soul with the disposal of Enno, this does perhaps come close to the reality of what actually happened to the rank and file of the police in Germany, the mass of the police after the initial widespread weeding out of potential trouble-makers, as they gradually accommodated themselves to the undeniable fact that they were working for a vicious and criminal state.

The recent exhibit in the German Historical Museum in Berlin documents in terrible detail the Nazi take-over of the police.  It proves what one might have not wanted to know, namely that there was ultimately no distinction to be made between “ordinary policemen” doing their duty and servants of the Nazis fulfilling all the duties of the racist, totalitarian state. I quoted in an earlier post on this blog from the introduction to the Catalog from the section entitled,  “The War against Crime.”

Promises of career advancement were an important reason for the fact that that many criminal investigation officers after 1933 acted not merely as opportunists and receivers of orders, but worked quite consciously for the Nazi-regime and developed their own initiatives in keeping with the wishes of their superiors. There were indeed policemen who withdrew into niches of supposedly innocuous crime detection work;  some few even helped the persecuted. Typical however were the others: policemen who did not hesitate to use their time-honored methods of law enforcement searches, their finger-printing and photographic techniques and their card-catalogues of criminals in the service of the Nazi-system, civil servants who put into action the guidelines and procedures of the Nazi war on crime with bureaucratic precision and decisiveness  . . .  (p.48)

Here we see policemen of the generation of Escherich and Püschel, civil servants, concentrating on maintaining and furthering their professional standing as detectives, doing what they were told with zeal, no matter what it was. By the time Escherich or the real Püschel takes the stage in 1940-42, the chances of any active opponent of the regime remaining in office were virtually nil. The exhibit documents the way in which the Nazis very early went about eliminating any and all men and women in the police force who opposed or were likely to oppose them.  A prime example: the Berlin Police President, Grzesinski, his deputy Weiss, and another commander Heimannsburg, all of whom were outspoken defenders of the Weimar Republic, were imprisoned as early as 1932 and only released on their agreeing to give up their offices.  And by 1936 already, the leadership of all the police came under the office of Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.

There is no evidence at all that Püschel in reality suffered a change of heart because of the example of Hampel. But Fallada cannot resist making his Escherich a much more interesting character than the Püschel of the files.  Fallada makes Escherich aware of his own inner rot.  Not, I suspect, because he necessarily imagined that this was typical of German policeman—that is something we will never be able to judge—but because inner rot was something Fallada knew about. This is not a novel by a writer who is trying to imagine what life was like in Nazi Germany. He had lived and worked there, and had himself accommodated in various ways to the Nazi-regime. He was certainly not an instrument of the Nazi horror, as his Escherich was, but neither was he a resister, like his Quangel.  Kuhnke describes how, when Fallada was first asked by Willmann, general secretary of the Cultural Association for the Democratic Renewal of Germany and close colleague of Johannes Becher, to write a novel based on the Gestapo files on the Hampels, he firmly refused, saying that he had not been a resistance fighter himself, he had let himself be carried along in the mainstream, and he did not want to appear better than he was (p.16).  The reasons for his changing his mind and writing the novel belong in another discussion, but Fallada with his many weaknesses had a certain honesty about himself that shines through his character-creation in his many novels.  In “Every Man Dies Alone,” Fallada gives his police detective a kind of self-knowledge, born not of Fallada’s knowledge of the German police, though in his own checkered career he had known many policemen, but born rather of his knowledge of himself.

Details of easily available editions of the novel in German and in English are given in my last post.

10 Amsterdamer Strasse, site of the house where the Hampels lived

Manfred Kuhnke’s book on the reality that underlies the fiction is, as far as I know, only available in German, but  perhaps he will be prepared to answer some questions for this blog.  I do not think that this post is my last word on Fallada. I hope interested readers will stop by and make some comments.

About dorothyjames

Welsh-American writer, German scholar, translator, traveller.
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4 Responses to Fallada’s Portrait of a Police Detective in Nazi Germany

  1. rdstudio1 says:

    Thank you. I just saw the movie and your article did a good job filling in the gaps and answering my questions.

  2. dorothyjames says:

    Thank you! I’m glad you found the article useful. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but hope to. Fallada is surely an intriguing writer — and historical figure.

  3. Ivymayhalsal says:

    Thank you for the information regarding the police officer. I saw the movie and had questions about how true to the facts it was. I will look for the book. It seems to me the truth is always more interesting than the made up parts. It’s good to learn how ordinary working people felt about what was happening in their country and that they resisted in the only way they saw available.

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