Spies in the bedroom, spies on the roof,
Spies in the bathroom, we’ve got proof.
Spies on the lawn where the shadows harden,
Spies behind the gooseberries in the kitchen garden,
Spies at the front door, spies at the back,
And hiding in the coat-stand underneath a mac.
Spies in the cupboard under the stairs,
Spies in the cellar, they’ve been there for years.

(Ernst Toller translated by W H Auden)

The amazing thing about this poem is its comedic tone. Admittedly it formed part of Ernst Toller’s 1935 comedy No More Peace, but, by that time Toller was in exile in London, having fled Germany for his life along with other left-wing friends, declared enemies of the state by Nazi Germany. Can I assume that Toller wrote this comedy before the mysterious death of Dora Fabian, his lover and fellow exile and, therefore, before the hopelessness of their unequal fight against the Nazi state became undeniable? Dora’s death, the trigger of a downward spiral into depression that ended in Toller’s suicide in a hotel room in 1939. Not sure if that is a historical fact but it’s certainly portrayed that way in Anna Funder’s 2012 Miles Franklin Award winning novel, All that I am.

The novel recreates the life of the left-wing German exiles, people who were allowed to stay in Britain on the condition that they reneged on further political activity. The British government of the mid-1930’s wanted to keep the peace. It simply did not want any uncomfortable facts uncovering about Hitler’s regime. Even when that implacable regime sent its assassins to foreign lands to rid it of its opponents. The exiles were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. And so with extraordinary courage, they continued their attempts to bring the truth of Nazi Germany to light.

The spy song above is quoted at the start of Part II of Funder’s novel, by which time it is no longer comedic but claustrophobic. Who knew that the Gestapo spread is tentacles so far, so soon? I certainly didn’t. In fact I was completely unacquainted with this period of history and so this novel was a constant surprise to me and as the net tightened around the historical cast, I felt their fear, admired their courage and groaned at the inevitable betrayal(s).

Let me name some of the characters: Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian, Hans and Ruth Wesemann, Mathilde Wurm. Google searches ( I couldn’t resist) revealed the fates of those people but Funder’s re-imagining of their lives put me under their not always admirable skins …

… once I’d got to grips with the structure. What took me some time to work out was the timeline of the dual narratives which both focussed on the figure of Dora Fabian.  Ruth Wesemann is looking back from her death bed in Australia in 1991 while Ernst Toller, in the grip of a deep depression, does the same from the Mayflower Hotel in California in 1939. Once I’d got my bearings, I raced through the pages.

I’ve made a note to return to this one day to pay more attention to Ruth’s philosophising on her own mortality; a strand of the novel subsumed on first reading by the sensational events of the past.


I read this for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong.