All That I Am, A Novel
By Anna Funder
370 pp, $29.95
Germany at the end of World War I entered a political and cultural maelstrom that tested the integrity of all its participants. This factually based narrative, or “open-source novel” as author Anna Funder calls it, brings to life some of those who committed their lives to trying to bring socialism to Germany and combat Hitler.
Such names as Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian and Berthold Jacob are little more than historical footnotes today, but All That I Am grants them and the revolutionary circle they inhabited the honour that they deserve.
In October 1918, one year after the Russian Revolution, the German Admiralty ordered the fleet to take to the seas for a suicidal attack on the British Navy. The sailors mutinied, establishing revolutionary committees that swept the Kaiser from power and terminated the war.
Briefly, Germany was aflame with revolt. In Bavaria, Toller shot to fame as the leader of a soviet republic, which the Social Democrats quickly crushed by mobilising a thug militia that later formed the swamp out of which the Nazi Party emerged.
Again and again in the early 1920s, the German working class rekindled the revolution, but slowly the Communist Party came under the disastrously sectarian influence of Stalinism. The Social Democrats preferred to cozy up to capitalism rather than unite with the communists against the Nazi common enemy.
With the workers misled and betrayed, Hitler was able to come to power with a minority government and then to use that position to violently repress the left and establish his Reich.
Ruth Blatt (named Ruth Becker in this story) was a minor figure in all this history. However, as a young militant of the Socialist Workers Party (SAP), a revolutionary organisation that attempted to draw the Communist Party and the Social Democrats into a common fighting front against the Nazi threat, she witnessed many of these tumultuous events up close.
While her brave cousin Dora Fabian worked with (and was a lover of) Toller, Blatt worked alongside many of the other shining lights of the anti-Nazi movement, such as the remarkable radical journalist Berthold Jacob ― whose heroism deserves a book all of its own.
Together they struggled in Germany and later in exile in London, where the appeasing British government refused them the right to work or engage in legal political activity ― and the long arm of the Gestapo threatened them.
No matter the risks, the SAP comrades worked tirelessly to get the truth about Nazism out. But within the claustrophobic atmosphere, with every comrade having to trust their life to the others, betrayal came to haunt them. This is classic material for a novel, made all the more haunting because it is based on reality.
After serving five years in a Nazi jail, Blatt, the only survivor of her circle, was lucky enough to make it to Australia as a refugee, living out her life in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Anna Funder, author of the award winning book Stasiland, befriended her and learned her story.
Funder, basing herself on scant documentary evidence and the stories that Blatt had told her, “reconstructed p[the novel] from fossil fragments, much as you might draw skin and feathers over an assembly of dinosaur bones”.
All That I Am is technically complex, using two narrative voices, several different time zones and one narrator (Blatt) who only discovers the truth of the events she is retelling late in life, so that they can unfold coherently for the reader. For all that, it is immensely readable and compelling.
“The plotting was hard and intricate; I confined myself to using only real evidence,” Funder told Green Left Weekly. She spent 18 months researching and another three and a half years writing intensively. “I felt unfaithful to my life while I was writing it,” she says.
The characters are all extraordinary. For example, Funder believes that Toller was probably manic depressive.
“I think he lived a life ― war, revolution, injustice, wild hopes ― in a time that would have tested the sanity of many sensitive people,” she says.
Among his other achievements Toller was a radical playwright. His plays “combine a critical intelligence like filmmaker Michael Moore's, with George Grosz's contemporary expressionist critical eye for types,” Funder believes.
“Toller was able to make very astute observations about the razed and crazy post-war world around him, and wrote very moving plays. The productions were expert and lavish.”
One of the narrative threads in All That I Am has Toller living in the US in 1939 trying to persuade the government to allow the SS St Louis to land its cargo of German refugees.
Shockingly, the US government refused them entry, sending them back to their fate in Europe ― which is one reason we have the Geneva Conventions protecting refugees today.
Given the Australian bipartisan assaults on refugee rights today, this has a contemporary resonance. As Funder told GLW: “I'm horrified and ashamed by the camps in which the asylum seekers are held. I can't believe that there isn't a more humane way to deal with these people seeking refuge in Australia.”