This Saturday’s book review is something a little different. Today, I’ll be looking at a book which was originally published in German as ‘Jeder stirbt fur sich allein’ (Every Man Dies Alone) in 1947. It was translated into English only a few years ago, having been already translated into French in the 1960s under the title ‘Seul dans Berlin’; Penguin, the UK publisher, decided to follow the French lead in titling the book, and chose to call it ‘Alone in Berlin’ when their edition appeared in 2009.
This book was a mind-bending read. Its author wrote it in a white heat, finishing it in less than a month; shortly thereafter, he died. The style of the novel reflects, I think, the frenetic pace at which it was created – at times, I rather wished Fallada had had a chance to edit and refine the work, but then I found myself remembering the time at which he wrote it, and the circumstances in which it came to be, and I realised that pausing to edit a work like this would have killed its urgency and power, and diluted its message. This, you see, is a book which not only tells a compelling story, but which also carries a voice ripped from history, and one we’d do well to heed.
The novel takes us through the life of a simple couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in Berlin during the Second World War. Otto is a factory labourer, Anna a housewife; they live frugally, waiting each day for news of ‘Ottochen’, their son, who is fighting with the German army against the Allies. One day, inevitably, news comes that their son has fallen in battle; they are encouraged to think of him as a martyr, a man who gave his life for the regime, and to be proud of him.
They are not.
Otto – ill-educated, uncomplicated, unsociable, hard-working, and a man of good conscience – decides to mount a rebellion against the Reich after the death of his son. Privately sickened by what he knows of Hitler’s regime, but too cautious and afraid of retaliation to publicly renounce what is going on all around him, this decision is a huge and life-changing one. Up to this point, he has manifested his resistance in smaller ways, like refusing to pay a levy to the Winter Relief Fund, for instance. Moneys raised through this Fund were, ostensibly, used to help German families in need, but it was widely known that they were, in reality, put toward the German war effort. The Winter Relief Fund was, in effect, a tax levelled by the Nazi government; payment was voluntary, but if one did not pay, one could expect to suffer. However, Fallada does not depict the Quangels as being ‘perfect’ people, or ideal resistors; at the beginning of the novel, we see Otto recall how his livelihood had been saved by Hitler’s rise to power, and this must reflect the opinion of a lot of ordinary Germans at this time. The Quangels reach their tipping point, however, and their new lives as ‘traitors’ begins.
They – or, rather, Otto – begin to write postcards with seditious messages, words attacking the motivation and methods of the Nazi regime, and they carefully begin to distribute these cards all over Berlin, trying to keep their movements as random as possible. Anna is involved in the scheme from the beginning, but Otto maintains control of the creation and distribution of the cards, as he is afraid for Anna’s wellbeing if they are caught. They know what they’re doing is high treason, and punishable in the severest possible terms, but as time goes by and they remain unapprehended, their desire to continue grows stronger.
As the Quangels attempt to spread dissent, the book takes us through a series of other stories, ordinary lives which intersect with the Quangels’ and which, at various points, are investigated by the Gestapo – for, of course, the existence of the postcards is not long in being discovered, and the Quangels have no idea how much danger they are in. We meet Frau Rosenthal, an elderly Jewish widow living on the top floor of the Quangels’ building, and the risk to her life posed by the Persickes, a family of Nazi enthusiasts who live on the floor below her; we meet the good, kind Judge Fromm, who tries to help not only Frau Rosenthal but also the Quangels themselves. We also meet Emil Borkhausen, a small-time petty criminal who manages to involve himself in the investigation, along with Enno Kluge, a thoroughly reprehensible character who lives his life for himself alone and ends up also being sucked into the Gestapo’s enquiries, despite having no involvement with the postcard scheme. In this way we meet the ‘ordinary German’ of the war, the Nazi enthusiasts and those who hated the regime alike – but, most frighteningly, we also meet those who didn’t care one way or another, and who allowed terrible things to happen in their name out of nothing but apathy and selfishness. What was it Confucius said: All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing…
The book gathers huge momentum as it goes. The latter half is some of the most powerful writing I have ever read; scenes of interrogation, destruction, betrayal and cruelty that had me holding my breath, and scenes of courage and love that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, knowing that this book is based in fact makes it harder to take – there is an appendix in my edition telling the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, the real-life Quangels – but even if the core of the tale hadn’t been mostly true, it would be enough to know that the war actually happened, and the Holocaust actually happened, and that this book was written by a German during 1946. You can’t get more ‘on scene’ than that. As the story reached its conclusion, and I watched the fate of the Quangels unfolding, my heart hurt with every word. I felt sure I knew what was going to happen to them, and I was torn between a sense of fierce pride in Otto and Anna and such sorrow at what they were going through. The circumstances of Anna Quangel’s eventual fate, in particular, are almost unbearably moving, as is the sense of new beginnings and hopefulness in the closing lines.
Parts of this book are very hard to read. I found myself sickened by some of it, even though I thought there was nothing about the Nazi regime that I had yet to learn. Having said that, I think it’s a book everyone should read, with the caveat that some of it is upsetting; the story of the Quangels, and their personal – if ultimately futile – struggle against darkness, corruption and evil is one that should be widely known.
When you’ve read the book, go and Google Hans Fallada, like I did. His life is almost as interesting and tragic as his work.
Happy weekend, y’all. Happy reading, too.