Hans Fallada. Alone in Berlin. Translated by Michael Hoffman. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. RRP £9.99 paperback.
I got Alone in Berlin as a Christmas present. My parents saw the 2016 film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, and thought I would like the book. I did, and not just because it is about resistance. First published in 1947 under the title Every Man Dies Alone, the novel tells the story of the Quangels and their doomed attempt to resist the Nazi regime.
Otto and Anna Quangel are a middle-aged, working-class couple in Berlin during World War 2 who are just trying to keep their heads down and survive Nazi rule. Until they receive news that their only son has been killed fighting, and they can no longer accept the injustice and hypocrisy of the Nazi regime. They begin to carefully transcribe postcards with anti-Nazi slogans and distribute them in buildings around Berlin. Unable to tolerate even this limited resistance, the SS give Gestapo Inspector Escherich the job of hunting down the Quangels. For several years, the Quangels managed to evade capture, but it is clear to all involved that they would be caught eventually. The other residents in the Quangel’s block of flats also feature in the story, including the elderly Jewish woman on the top floor, the ardent party members on the floor below the Quangels, the mysterious retired Judge on the ground floor, and the opportunistic criminal in the basement.
Hans Fallada was an interesting character in himself, who struggled with addiction and mental illness throughout his life. A popular author in Germany before the Nazis came to power, he was no fan of Hitler’s, but decided to remain in Germany during Nazi rule. During this period he toed the line, doing just enough to satisfy the Nazis without giving in to to full scale fascism and xenophobia. After the war he was recruited by the Soviets to write an anti-fascist novel, and he apparently wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. He died soon after.
The novel is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel; this edition of the book contains photocopies of some of their postcards and other historical documents related to their case. Fallada himself found their story quite uninspiring, but he managed to turn the source material into a touching and thought-provoking narrative. The reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for some characters, and disdain, if not repulsion, for others, but they are all well-rounded characters, most of whom are just trying to survive in a violent and volatile society. In Britain, we are used to viewing World War 2 from particular angles, such as the fighting on the Western Front, the horror of the Holocaust, or the hardship and determination of the Home Front. Alone in Berlin looks at Nazi Germany and the War from a less common perspective, the German civilian. I found this alternative angle refreshing.
If you like your novels to have a happy ending, then Alone in Berlin is not a book for you. There is a small sliver of hope at the end, but from the very beginning there is a sense that the story is not going to end well, and that atmosphere of inevitable tragedy hangs over the novel like a guillotine. It’s clear Fallada was a skilled writer, who did an excellent job of exploring the actions of people who have been pushed to the very edge of their humanity.