In Little Man What Now, we read about life for ordinary people in Germany in the early 1930s. Unemployment has reached frightening levels and inflation is rapidly reducing the value of wages and savings. Berlin is a city in which wages are low and employees have to compete with their colleagues to keep their jobs, breeding mistrust and back-stabbing among the workforce. At a time like this, to get your girlfriend pregnant and have to marry her is a frightening prospect. So sets the scene for the story of Sonny and Lammchen as they embark on marriage and parenthood just before the Nazi Party comes to power.
Hans Fallada's novels were international best-sellers before the war, similarly acclaimed by those of fellow Germans, Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse. In 1932, Hollywood even turned Little Man What Now into a movie, but when Hitler learned that the film had been produced by Jews, Fallada began to attract the attention of the Gestapo leading in 1935 to him being classified as an "undesirable author".
Fallada's characters are not politically-minded as such, but are among the little people, caught up in the round of daily life where politics gradually impinges on them but without attracting their adherence or enthusiasm. They feel affronted by world events which are slowly wrecking their peaceful lives, but do not move into an analysis of why these titanic changes are happening. Fallada's characters are simply trying to make ends meet, to find a room to live in and to put meat on the table two or three times a week.
The book opens in the gynaecological clinic, where Sonny and Lammchen have gone for advice on contraception, only to hear the doctor say, "Its a bit too late for prevention. Beginning of the second month I would say". On the journey home, Sonny proposes to Lammchen who gratefully accepts, and then being the young couple's troubles.
Sonny's employers taunt him with threats of redundancy, and in any case, his job seemed to depend on him marrying the bosses daughter forcing Sonny to conceal his recent marriage. The truth comes out before too long and the inevitable termination follows soon after.
They move to Berlin where life continues to be fraught with difficulties and disappointments. but among these events, Fallada is able to find space of humour and satire. Some classes of people never suffer whatever happens in the world around them, Sonny's mother being an example of someone who lives between the cracks, holding invitation-only parties at which men come to meet attractive young women who are clearly available for more than just socialising. Her boyfriend, Herr Jachmann is the classic wide-boy, wheeling and dealing his way through 1930s Berlin, a roll of money in his pockets one day, destitute the next, but with a constant optimism which draws others to him, despite his propensity to remove the contents of their wallets from them.
Fallada's books give a fascinating glimpse of what life was like on the ground level while national leaders prepared for war. Fallada's books are immensely readable, and with both Little Man What Now and Alone in Berlin, I found myself speeding through them to find out what happened next. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Europe between the wars.