‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada

AloneinBerlin

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.

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17 thoughts on “‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada

  1. Wow, 600+ pages in just 24 days? I have to agree, the premise sounds good, but if you say the characters aren’t fully developed, then I’m not sure this would be a book for me. Maybe I’ll see about borrowing it from the library in its German original, I don’t read enough German books.

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  2. Dont get me wrong: there are some brilliant and truly memorable characters in this book. My problem is with the structure, which weakens the power of the narrative. Some judicious editing and perhaps loosing 200-odd pages would have strengthened the story greatly and made it the masterpiece everyone seems to believe it is now!

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  3. Fallada’s ‘Little Man, what now?’ is a masterpiece – and the only novel by him I’ve read, so I was most interested to read your account of ‘Alone in Berlin’. This writer had such a dreadful life, so I can’t help wondering if his post-war resumption of former morphine dependency was at least partially responsible for this work’s incoherent structure.

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  4. I’m somehow glad to see a couple of 2-star reviews here … Not that I wish upon folks to have poor reading experiences, but there are so many less-than-average titles out there, but most published reviews are on average positive. This is not meant as criticism to this lovely blog specifically, but to book reviews in general.
    I guess there’s some kind of justice that I’m currently reading a rather poor book myself… It’s Siri Hustvedt’s “Sorrows of an American”, avoid it if you can, her earlier work is waaaay better.
    Will soon start reading Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music”, thanks to the blog entry here (about books with music themes). Interesting to see if our views on that match.

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  5. It seems really sad that a book like this won’t get the readership it deserves because it’s an off-putting length. I wonder why they didn’t do some judicious posthumous editing…

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  6. There’s an Afterword with this edition which explains Fallada’s various illnesses, addictions and suicide attempts etc. He seemed a very troubled person.
    Apparently he was desperate to write this book, if only to put food on the table, and his friend supplied the real life Gestapo documents/files on which it is based as a way of encouraging him to write something when all of his ideas had dried up.
    I have another of his books, The Drinker, in my TBR, so it will be interesting to see how that one compares with Alone in Berlin.

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  7. It’s not often that I read duds, bubba, but for some reason I’ve read a string of them lately (there’s another two-star review in the offing later this week). I think as long as you can justify why you don’t like something then it’s okay to be critical in this way. But I’m often conscious that perhaps the problem might lie with me. I made two attempts at reading Alone in Berlin, but it didn’t seem to get better with a two month gap in between sessions! I do think it is one of those books that benefits from reading in large chunks, rather than snatching 20 minutes here or there…
    Hope you like An Equal Music. I read it last week…

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  8. Penguin have given this book a massive marketing push here in the UK, Lisa. I bought it at Waterstones in February as part of a half-price deal, but I note that it’s now on all the 3-for-2 tables and have even seen it in my local supermarket! It’s advertised on the tube too. However, I do wonder if billing it as a “thriller” is the right way to bill it… I bought it thinking it would be a heart-hammering read, but it’s far from that. I suspect people will buy it for the price and the glowing comments from everyone under the sun on the blurb! And I bet many many copies will be spotted by every pool in Europe this summer!

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  9. Huh. (Probably) Due to all the tube ads you mentioned, I’d been considering reading this but hadn’t decided if it was worth making the effort to get it. I just don’t think I’m in the mood to get into a big book right now that doesn’t necessarily pay off.

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  10. I recently had a reading experience like this one. I really wanted to like Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer but it was just not happening for me. Sometimes the concept of a book, I find, is more successful than the actual execution.
    Great, thorough review.
    -Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop

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  11. A very interesing perspective on a book I enjoyed very much – you read it quickly, but as you point out, Fallada wrote it in 24 days!
    I am fascinated by the dilemmas faced by “ordinary” Germans at that time, and this book gives a very good picture of what life must have been like for those who were not swept up in the nationalistic feelings generated by the Nazi movement.
    While I’m here, could you possible change the link to my site from http://www.acommonreader.org.uk to http://www.acommonreader.org Thanks.

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  12. Oh dear. I’ve got that on my shelves (bought as part of a 3 for 2 deal at Waterstones in February) and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it. Well…was looking forward to it.

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  13. Actually, I neglected to mention that this book is, indeed, a very good picture of what life must have been like for ordinary Germans living under the Third Reich. I guess, having read A Woman in Berlin shortly before this one, I found it paled a little in comparison.
    Shall promptly change your URL on my blogroll!

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  14. I think if you can devote large chunks of time to it and get it read in a week or two then it will pay off. But I read it in dribs and drabs over two or so months, with a big gap in the middle, and I just felt it lost momentum.

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  15. If you can read it in big chunks, say while on holiday lying by a pool (we can all dream, no?), you’ll probably get more out of it rather than reading it in little instalments, as I did.

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  16. Yet to read Everything is Illuminated, although it’s in the TBR somewhere, but I did enjoy his Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close when I read it three or so years ago.
    I love your blog name, by the way!

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  17. Sorry if I’m commenting more than once. It seems like my first comment is lost.
    I can’t imagine writing a book of this magnitude in just a matter of days. Still looks like one I’d be willing to try.
    I hope it’s okay to link to your review on the Book Reviews: WWII page on War Through the Generations.

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