A 'Midnight' Tale Of The Rising Third Reich

After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun
After Midnight
By Irmgard Keun
Paperback, 176 pages
Melville House
List Price: $16
Read An Excerpt

All Sanna Moder wants is to get across town. She needs to start preparing for her roommate Liska's party, but she and her friend Gerti are being detained by, of all things, the Fuhrer's visit to the city. All the roads are blocked off, and the SS is not letting anyone through. This is Frankfurt, Germany, in the mid-1930s, but Sanna is not thinking much about the police state her homeland is turning into. After all, she promised she'd find a blacklisted journalist who Liska is head over heels in love with and put in a good word for her.

Sanna may be oblivious to the changing times, but it's not like those paying attention in Irmgard Keun's recently reissued After Midnight are having a better time of it. Sanna's brother's novels have been banned, due to their contrarian political views. He's thinking about writing a fawning epic poem about Hitler in order to get back into print. Liska's too-prescient love interest comes to a bad end, and others are finding their husbands or daughters suddenly whisked off, never to be heard from again. Sanna herself understands enough to know what she shouldn't say — for the most part. As she listens to the radio and a propaganda speech assuring the destruction of anyone who would stand in the way of Germany's future, she wonders if she could possibly, unintentionally, be one of the dissidents. The complexity of the politics in these aggressive messages is too much for her to fully grasp. "I still don't know what it is all about, or what they mean. And it's far too dangerous to ask anyone." The safest route is to keep her head down, go about her life and concentrate on parties — not the political ones; the ones that require dresses.

After Midnight begins lightly enough. Sanna opens her narration by making jokes about the SS, but her wry cracks quickly take a dark turn. "I mean, it's pure chance that poison gas isn't eating my body away right now," she tells us. Try as she might to stay in a fantasy world where she can marry her lover Franz, open a little shop and travel to Nice, that parade she and Gerti are trying to circumnavigate might as well run right through her living room.

Through the '30s, Keun wrote tiny, explosive novels about life in Nazi Germany and the obliviousness of the citizenry as its nation plunged into madness. Even reading After Midnight today feels dangerous. I kept turning to the copyright page, unable to believe that such a sexually and politically frank book could have been published in 1937 Europe, a time of blacklists and book burnings. Keun's bravery eventually got her into trouble with the Nazis, to the point that she was forced to leave Germany, fake her own suicide and return to the country only under a false identity.

After Midnight is the second Keun novel to be reissued in English this year; the first was The Artificial Silk Girl, her story of a young woman trying to survive the desperate economic times of Weimar Germany. Keun has an amazing gift for exposing the conflict at the heart of the average citizen, whose naivete is eventually and sometimes violently stripped away. Sanna is a rare spark in a dark time, funny and warm and alive. And because neither she nor Keun in 1937 could possibly know how much darker things would get, After Midnight haunts far beyond its final page.

Excerpt: 'After Midnight'

After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun
After Midnight
By Irmgard Keun
Paperback, 176 pages
Melville House
List Price: $16

Gerti wanted to have one more vermouth. She suddenly looked dead and drained. The way a woman looks when she's been waiting with all her might, waiting and longing, and all for nothing. Gerti did not want to buy a pink blouse any more, and anyway there wouldn't have been enough money left. We decided to go home without the blouse. It was five in the afternoon. There was turmoil around the Opera House. People, and swastika flags, and garlands of fir, and SS men. The place was in confusion, all excited preparations, much like preparations for the handing out of Christmas presents in a prosperous family with quantities of children. You get used to feverish celebrations of something or other going on all the time in Germany, so that you often don't stop to ask what it is this time, why all the fuss and the garlands and the flags?

Suddenly we felt cold. We were in a hurry to get home. But the SS wouldn't let us cross the Opera House Square to get to the Bockenheim Road. We asked why not; what was going on? But the SS are always arrogant and inclined to put on airs. This lot had nothing better to do than stand around, but they still couldn't find time to answer us. Possibly their minds were working away so frantically that they could only manage to give a contemptuous shrug of their military shoulders.

Gerti's eyes went dark as coal with rage. I know her in that mood: it makes her dangerous, and then of course she's the greatest danger of all to herself. So I asked one of the SS men again, sweet as sugar, very humbly, as if I thought he was one of the greatest rulers of Germany — well, that's the way men like a girl to treat them.

So then the SS man said the Führer would be coming down the Mainz Road to the Opera House at eight. If we wanted to get to the other side of the square we'd have to go round. Yes, of course the Führer was coming! How could I have forgotten? After all, little Berta Silias was due to break through the crowd with flowers, and Frau Silias had talked of nothing else for days.

It was beginning to rain. People were gathering in the square, more and more of them all the time. It looked quite dangerous, as if they'd crush each other to death. Everyone wanted to see something, some of them may not even have known what there would be to see, but all the same they were risking their lives.

Possibly the Führer thought, afterwards, that the people had come flocking up out of love for him. No, being the Führer he'll be too clever to think that. Thousands more people join the carnival parade in Cologne, and clamber up on lampposts and high rooftops, breaking arms, legs, anything — they don't mind. It's just a kind of sport: they're proud to have got a good viewpoint, so they can say, and believe, they were in the carnival. And classy people always want to have been at some­thing classy — like Press balls and first nights. But as those things cost a lot of money, there isn't usually such a dangerous crush as in the enormous crowds of people who don't have any money and can only go to shows that don't cost them anything.

We reached the Mainz Road. It was officially lined the whole way down by SA men, who always look broader than usual on these important occasions. Mostly they don't have anything much to do these days, and go about looking as if they've shrunk a bit. Kurt Pielmann and Herr Kulmbach, for instance, resent the fact that there isn't a campaign on any more. Today, how­ever, they could form an imposing cordon, which puts new life into them.

A thin, grey man with a bicycle was going on angrily about not being allowed through. He had finally got a new job, he said, and he had to be on time. Unpunctuality could mean bad trouble for him. And even if his employers did realize he couldn't help being late, they might still be angry with him. Life's nearly always like that: you put difficulties in a person's way, and a slight aura of something dubious and unpleasant still clings to him whether it is his fault or not. "Look, be reasonable, will you?" a fairly high-up SA man, drinking coffee from his flask, told the thin, grey cyclist. "Don't bleat on like that! Just you be thankful to the Führer for his high ideals!"

"That's right," said the thin, grey man, "the Führer gets to have the ideals and we get to carry the can." His voice was trembling; you could tell his nerves were worn to a shred. The people who'd heard him were struck dumb with alarm, and the SA man went red in the face and could scarcely get his breath back. All at once the grey man looked utterly broken, extinguished. Three SA men led him away. He didn't put up a struggle.

His bicycle was lying on the ground. People stood around it in a circle, staring in nervous silence. It shone dully in the rain, and had a subversive look about it; nobody dared touch it. Then a fat woman made an angry face, flung her arm up in the air in the salute of the Führer, said, "Disgusting!" and kicked the bicycle. Several other women kicked it too. And then the cordon opened and let us through.

Excerpted from After Midnight by Irmgard Keun. Copyright 2011 by Irmgard Keun. Excerpted by permission of Melville House.

Correction June 3, 2011

A previous version of this story indicated that 'After Midnight' was published in Germany in 1937; in fact, it was published in the German language in Amsterdam in 1937.

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