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Art on the Breadline in Hans Fallada's "Little Man, What Now?"

Updated: Jul 25, 2019

By Ruth Pearson

"How little things have changed. Despite an ocean and a world war between us and Johannes Pinneberg, capitalism continues grinding ‘little’ people to the bone"

Divided Communities

For a book published 86 years ago, the themes of Hans Fallada’s 1932 novel Kleiner Mann, Was Nun? (Little Man, What Now?) are horribly familiar. Little Man, What Now? * follows a young couple who, upon realising their birth control is somewhat lacking, get married and attempt to establish a home on a single man’s salary.

The novel is set in the economic turmoil of Weimar Germany’s final years. Our eponymous little man, Johannes Pinneberg, spends so much time contending with low wages, inflation, exploitation, and the constant, looming threat of unemployment, he takes little notice of the increasingly polarised politics which surround him.

Fallada, writing in 1931, could not have known the seriousness of the threat posed by the Nazis, nor that their rise to power was imminent. The book is therefore a snapshot of the period’s contemporary thought, untarnished by hindsight.

Without wishing to doom-monger about the current political moment, there are a few striking similarities between Pinneberg’s world and ours. The most obvious are the vile, rising tides of fascism.

The Mundanity of Evil

The novel characterises this through a Nazi working with Pinneberg. He has joined the party out of boredom: enthused by the violence, military regalia, orders from on high, and the weekly opportunities to fight the “friends of the USSR”. Pinneberg has no interest in him, nor in the blossoming Communism movement of the period advocated by the family of his working-class wife, Lammchen (Lambkin). They condemn white collar workers such as Pinneberg for their lack of solidarity: their reticence to strike facilitates the bosses’ exploitation, something the unionised working-classes would never accept.

Their arguments are validated. Pinneberg is exploited, underpaid, and eventually unemployed; yet his apathy makes him unwilling to commit to the cause.

Rather than delve into the politics of either side, Fallada paints a candid portrait of disenfranchisement. Pinneberg is alienated by politicians telling him “to tighten his belt, to make sacrifices, to feel German, to put his money in the savings-bank” (sound familiar?). “[T]hey all want something from me, but not for me. It’s all the same to them whether I live or die.”

This feeling of powerlessness is observable today. A lack of faith in democracy is triggering greater levels of disengagement and ‘protest votes’ from those who believe it makes no difference.

Fallada’s refusal to directly investigate the politics of Weimar Germany was a clever move because it ensured the novel’s wider appeal. However, to claim that he cynically profited by not taking sides is inaccurate: Little Man, What Now? makes a profound statement about poverty and exploitation, exposing the day-to-day reality of a couple who, though they do everything right, struggle to survive.

The Potency of Reality

Rather than attempting to encapsulate the grand scale of contemporary political arguments, a more authentic depiction arises by centring on the domestic lives of this little family. Politics is, as the main characters see it, on the periphery of their world; this allows Fallada to make his point without ever being heavy-handed.

We see instead an old woman thinking her life savings have been stolen because she doesn’t understand inflation. We see the couple’s budget in full, with deductions for taxes, insurance, health costs and union dues, and how far a monthly salary must stretch. We see the bureaucracy Pinneberg encounters to claim back the hospital costs from his wife’s birth. We wince when Pinneberg leaves his one-year old son alone in the cold house to collect his unemployment benefit.

These scenes, equally maddening and moving, supply a genuine, human quality at the book’s core. The book is extensively researched, yet Fallada’s lived experiences are key to the novel’s potency.

Although he was born into a bourgeois family, Fallada suffered mental and physical illnesses from a young age, and developed a morphine addiction. His life was characterised by spells of institutionalisation - both in prisons and mental hospitals – as well as constant battles with addiction and poverty.