For about the first eighty percent of Wir sind Gefangene (We Are Prisoners), my assessment of the book was that I could see why it was a sensation in the 1920s but couldn’t see much to recommend it for readers of the 2020s. It begins with Graf is at school in the small Bavarian town of Berg, on the shores of Lake Starnberg not quite 30 miles south of Munich. His teacher tells him that he can go home, along with his sister Anna, because his father is very sick. Graf’s father is in fact dying and, in this account, succumbs mere minutes after Graf arrives at his bedside.
The first chapter is titled “Changed Life,” and after his father’s death, Graf’s life changes considerably for the worse. His older brother Max takes over the family bakery business and the small farm that had supported the household. Graf gradually reveals that Max had been bullying their father, pushing him ever more to the sidelines of the business until his father essentially gives up and commences to drinking himself to death. At which he eventually succeeds.
As head of the household and bakery Max reveals himself as a brutal tyrant, beating his siblings and the apprentices for the smallest infractions. The rhythms of the bakery are hard enough: up in the dead of night to make the bread, out before dawn to deliver it across the town and to other farmsteads, back to take care of farm chores, then prepare the dough for the next day. It’s not quite the apocryphal Yorkshiremen who woke up every day two hours before they went to bed and had to go to school uphill both ways in the snow, but it’s close. Even in the best of circumstances, it would be punishingly difficult labor, and Max’s direction is far from the best of circumstances. From an early age, Graf has a strong imagination and a talent for invention. Another older brother, Maurus, introduces him to the world of literature, lighting a lifelong fire in Graf. Max will have none of it. Graf has to acquire books secretly and keep them hidden, lest Max destroy them. Graf portrays his mother as a sentimentally pious woman who retreated into herself and did nothing to counter Max’s tyranny.
Graf reacts with patterns of behavior that will haunt him throughout the period he depicts in Wir sind Gefangene. First, he rebels passively: he steals, he does a bad job, he lies to nearly everyone around him about what he has or hasn’t done. Second, he grasps for solutions that promise him instant deliverance from his difficulties. It’s somewhat charming when as a child he comes up with ideas for inventions and writes to various manufacturers and offers to share his notions on terms that he deems generous for the people who merely have to implement them. It’s quite another when, years later, he borrows money from a sister to pay the production costs claimed by a publisher who says they will print a play that Graf has written. The publisher, predictably, vanishes. Third, Graf is unable to stick with anything. Some of that is understandable, as he is a teenager for much of the first half of the book, but it continues into an age when most people are not bouncing from situation to situation. It’s hard to watch him so diligently make a mess of his life.
Nearly every description I’ve seen of Wir sind Gefangene calls it “unsparing,” and I think that is a big part of why the book was such a sensation on its publication in 1927. Graf’s description showed how brutal and stultifying small-town life could be, at a time when rural idyll and familial piety was more the norm in literature. He showed the backbreaking conditions endured by workers in the city — Graf eventually runs away from Max and tries to make his way in Munich — along with the petty tyranny exercised by bosses, landlords and other people determined to exercise the small amounts of power that they have. Many of them also complained about the softness of Graf’s generation and talked about how much harder life was in their time.
Graf also shows his entry into both the world of worker activism and Munich’s budding bohemian scene. Graf’s staggering naiveté soon earns him an arrest and interrogation by the police about what he is doing with anarchists and socialists. Among the artists and intellectuals, he feels out of his depth, his sincere excitement about literature contrasting with their ironic detachment. He tries imitating that attitude, and it doesn’t fit him either.
There’s a German word, fremdschämen, which means feeling shame on someone else’s behalf. I felt a lot of it in most of Wir sind Gefangene. Graf gets a little bit of money somehow, and fritters it away. He gets a job and either shirks or gets into a fight with the boss and loses the job. He won’t go to organizations that are set up to help him. He refuses to work in a bakery, even though he could readily find the work necessary to keep a roof over his head. He’s self-aware enough to know that he’s messing up, but not able to do anything about it. He cons his siblings often enough that eventually they just let him sink or swim on his own.
Much, much later in the book, Graf reveals that both of his parents had anti-authoritarian streaks, at least when they were younger, little patience for the militarism of the period of German unification or for the clericalism that shaped Bavaria in that era.
As far as I can recall, nobody in our family ever had a particular inclination for the fatherland. Law, patriotism, and war fever were all foreign to us. With the exception of my older brother Max none of my brothers or sisters ever thought much about being civil servants or soldiers, or much valued the institutions of state and military; quite the contrary, we found it all more or less ridiculous and addleheaded. My mother never hated anyone more than the gendarme and lied instinctively when one of them came to the house wanting to question her about one of our pranks. (p. 290, all translations mine)
His sister Emma, who is slowly dying of tuberculosis for most of the book, says “We Grafs, we’re all a little bit crazy.” The brief interludes with Emma give a glimpse of a different kind of family life that might have been, that would have suited Graf better. As she wrote him in a letter one time when her illness had already made her bedridden:
I’m building castles in the sky here in my warm bed. Our little house is very nice now, and I am very much indulged. I often think to myself about how we could all come together and make things pleasant for ourselves. Maurus opens a confectionery and next to him [Theresa] her hat shop, while [Anna] cuts the ladies’ hair while you help out a bit and get a nice little room all the way up in the attic where you can write poems. You know, I’m gushing a bit. But it is so nice. (p. 259)
Another reason why Wir sind Gefangene was a sensation was its portrayal of World War I and the Munich revolution that followed. Graf shows a completely unheroic version of the war. He never sees any combat, and takes advantage of the system whenever he can. He bounces himself between units, takes travel passes to spend quite a long time between Berlin and Munich, or in the capital among friends. He finds an assignment in a motor pool and makes sure that he doesn’t ever have to do much work. Eventually, though, he comes into conflict with authority, refuses orders, and winds up in an insane asylum. I couldn’t help but think that in a later war he would have been shot out of hand, and I was also surprised how — even late in the war — the German Empire made sure that the inmates of the asylum were treated humanely and had sufficient provisions.
Graf showed a teeming underground of deserters, draft dodgers, people slipping through the cracks in the system. Once Graf is discharged from the asylum, one of his short-term jobs brings him into contact with speculators and black marketeers. Many of these would have been part of the lived experience of the book-buying public that lived through the war and its aftermath, but it was not part of the official story of heroism at the front and unstinting support back home. Part of Germany needed to hear these stories, and that part finally gave Graf a steady literary career.
Thanks to some patronage he finds in Munich — support he initially regards as another clever scam he is pulling off — he attends some classes at the university. He gives voice to his views about the ways society is ordered, views that had been inchoately anarchist.
I looked more closely [at the students] and then thought about the career of such a person. Someone like that will, after a number of years, also become a professor and then also stand at the front behind a lectern and talk? And those? They will become judges and judge us. These will become priests, preach and hold masses, and these will later enter the civil service, start as very junior people, marry fruitfully, get promoted, gain title and rank, and in the end govern us.
The university, thus, was the institution where one listens again and again for years, and then reads this many books, and finally becomes something.
So that produces the educated, better society.
The workers work, the peasants plow and harvest — but these people say what is right and wrong, what is lawful and unlawful, what is customary and uncustomary. In a word, these people set the tone, they give the orders. (p. 287)
Graf wants to be a part of it and he wants to tear it all down and he can’t decide what or how. Once out of the asylum, he joins up again with the socialists and others working for a revolution. At the same time, he spends many of his nights with a rich black marketeer from Holland, drinking and carousing at a villa in one of Munich’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Graf never overcomes these contradictions, and only partly comes to live with them. He is all in favor of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that overturn the Bavarian government, but he is unable to do much to help bring revolutionary governance to city or (former) kingdom. His one attempt at public speaking to convince people of the correctness of his program is a flop. He gathers money and support of a new literary magazine, but then fritters away the funds. His descriptions of how he gets swept up in the revolutionary crowds, and later his time in prison for the same are powerful and affecting, but at the end he’s much the same as before.
After the defeat of the Munich revolution, Graf comes close to articulating the subtitle of Wir sind Gefangene: Ein Bekenntnis, A Creed. He writes:
They are all my brothers, I thought contritely, someone brought them into the world, beaten them into adulthood, thrown them out; they went to a master where they were beaten some more, as journeymen they were used and finally they became soldiers where they fought for the ones who beat them. — And now? (p. 437)