Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 608 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.
Hans Fallada, the pen name of Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (1893-1947), reportedly wrote Alone in Berlin in just 24 days. And it shows.
This is a big, rambling book, with a loose narrative structure, and a cast of what seems like a million characters. It’s set in Berlin during the Second World War and focuses on one man’s efforts to resist the Nazis in the best way he knows how: by dropping postcards with anti-Hitler messages scrawled upon them in public buildings across the city. If he is caught, there is no doubt that Otto Quangel, an ordinary German, will be executed by the regime.
This sounds like a terrific premise for a book — and it is. I can honestly say that the first 200 or so pages are genuinely gripping, as Fallada introduces us to the characters, provides accounts of their troubled and occasionally trivial lives under the Third Reich, and shows how Otto, once a supporter of the Nazi regime, changes his mind when his only son is killed in the war. When together with his wife, Anna, he begins dropping anti-fascist postcards as an act of quiet rebellion you can’t help but admire him for it.
But the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. There are countless characters, many of whom simply drop out of the storyline without explanation. Often the Quango’s tale of resistance becomes subsidiary to other tangential threads, some of which are interesting stories in themselves — for instance, Hetty Haberles decision to shelter the weasel Enno Kluge from the Gestapo on the basis that they prosecuted her husband — but end up turning what should be the main narrative into mere background noise.
However, the book does throw up some important issues about politics, morality, truth, justice and humanity, which seem particularly prescient given the book was written in 1947 without the benefit of looking at the Nazi regime through decades of moral reflection and historical analysis. If there is any message to be taken from the story it is this, best summed up by one of the characters, Dr Reichhardt, who reassures Otto that his efforts of resistance were not useless:
“Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. […] Of course, Quangel, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us, such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we ARE alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”
As much as I wanted to love this book, particularly it’s moral message (I read it very soon after A Woman in Berlin), I couldn’t overlook its woolly structure and its meandering narrative. Apparently the story is based on a real life case in which a poorly educated working-class couple conducted a three-year propaganda campaign during the Nazi regime. This is documented at the rear of the novel and, in many ways, was more interesting to read than Fallada’s fictionalised account.
Sadly, Fallada, who spent much of his adult life in an out of psychiatric care, did not live to see the publication of this book. It was translated into English for the first time in 2009, where it was published in the USA as Every Man Dies Alone.