Book Review: Alone in Berlin (Hans Fallada)

Despite the desperate setting that is the German capital city at the height of Second World War fear, persecution and crippling paranoia, Hans Fallada’s novel is a work threaded through with resilience and righteous fortitude in the face of futile resistance to the Nazi regime. Editorial notes on the Penguin Classics edition shed historical light on the reality of the time in which the book was written (shortly after Hitler’s defeat), and so it is that we might see with even more clarity the shimmer of a future of Soviet hope in its intermittent agricultural analogies and in its final scene. Fallada, we’re informed, had to juggle his writerly needs with those of the dominant social conditions.

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Classics, 2009, translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann; originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein, trans. Everyone dies alone, 1947) was written in just twenty four days in late 1946. Given that the copy under review is almost 570 pages in length, this was an undertaking of some significance on Fallada’s part. Commissioned to be written and finished earlier that year, but the author not returning to his original notes until a few months before his death in early 1947, Alone in Berlin is the fictionalised story of the real life Otto and Elise Hampel: two working class, poorly educated people who took a stand, in their own small way, against the regime by writing anti-Nazi postcards (a treasonable offence at that time, punishable by death) following the loss of a family member in the war effort. The Hampels become the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel, who lose their son in the defeat of the French in 1940. Otto Quangel, a quiet, unobtrusive carpenter, working now as a foreman in a factory requisitioned for churning out bomb crates, and later coffins, for the war machine, reacts to his wife’s grief at news of the loss of their son by insisting on his small but drawn out stand, after much consideration. Anna Quangel had told her husband that ‘his Führer’ had killed their son, and so this sets into motion Otto’s actions of extreme jeopardy, from which there is no return and only one possible outcome.

Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen, having chosen his pseudonym from a combination of Brothers Grimm tales) slowly unfolds the futile scheme, bringing in a variety of characters along the way, most of whom exhibit extreme caution, paranoia, anxiety and fear, constantly trying to be careful about loose talk, mistrusting neighbours, trying to survive. Frau Rosenthal is an elderly Jewess who lives upstairs from the Quangels and who suffers from the persecution of the Persickes downstairs (Party members, the sons in the SS, all reaping for themselves what the war and their contacts will let them take); a retired judge also lives in the block and offers some salvation, though he too must take great care; Enno Kluge and Emil Borkhausen are low-life, petty criminals, equally as caught up in the whims and severities of the Gestapo machinations; Trudel Baumann is the girlfriend of the fallen son of the Quangels, naively engaged as she is in a low-level and inactive resistance cell. Eva Kluge, the estranged wife of the low-life Enno, resigns her position in the Party, at great potential cost, but she is released from the glare of any retribution, becoming the catalyst for redemptive hope. Others come and go: most characters fare poorly, as might be expected. Within this construct, Fallada details some machinations of the SA (Sturmabteilung, Storm Troopers, the paramilitary also known as Brownshirts), the SS (Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s guard), and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret Police). The hunt for the postcard writer is taken up, initially, by Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo.

Escherich is meticulous but his investigation is too long-winded for his superior, Obergruppenführer Prall of the SS. Caught by his own nefarious deed of framing Enno Kluge as the postcard writer, obtaining a false confession, and then letting him go again because he knows that Kluge is not his man, Escherich is forced by Prall to act, or to suffer consequences: Escherich had sought to assuage the attentions of his superior but the latter is a blunt instrument. Prall’s mistreatment of Escherich has the consequence of bringing in Inspector Zott to take on the case. Zott is, however, blinded by his own arrogance and fails to see that Quangel is his man, even when the facts are becoming relatively clear. Later, much later, one Inspector Laub, of the Gestapo, exacts his tortures and it is he who is the cruellest on his victims.

There is much more that can be written by way of a précis but this would rather spoil the read. That said, as has been stated previously, there is only one outcome for the Quangels, which they themselves know from the outset of their resistance, and despite a flurry of hope for them, we know too, deep down, that this is the case. Relatively early on in the work, Fallada writes:

Then he [Otto] picked up the pen, and said softly but clearly, ‘The first sentence of our first card will read: ‘Mother! The Führer has murdered my son.’’

Once again, she [Anna] shivered. There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken. At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!

Later, much later, Trudel Baumann, now Hergesell, is assertive with her new husband, Karl, also once of the small but now disbanded resistance cell:

‘But what can we do, Trudel? Nothing! Think of all the power Hitler has, and the two of us are nothing at all! There’s nothing we can do!’

‘If everyone thought like that, then Hitler would stay in power for ever. Someone somewhere has to make a start.’

The resistance is, on one level, futile of course. Escherich announces that the vast majority of the postcards that Quangel has set down in the city have, almost as soon as they’ve been ‘dropped’, been reported to the Gestapo out of fear. Quangel’s hope that the postcards be subversively passed along are forlorn. On another level though, and following Trudel’s and ultimately the Quangels’ logic (Otto’s wife also having agreed to the production of the ‘offences’), a stand must be taken if, and ultimately because, it is the right thing to do. The natural progression of such thinking leads Fallada back to Eva Kluge, the mother archetype, the city-dweller who seeks a quieter life in the country, the literal and figurative baptiser and sower of fields. Eva Kluge takes in an escapee of the city, a teenager, the hope of the future, redemption.

Despite the depth of desperation inherent in the fiction, in the real life basis of the story of the Hampels, and in the real life affairs of the author at the time of writing, Alone in Berlin does find itself beset with some faults. On discovering that the whole text was written in somewhat of a creative flurry, in twenty fours days, and the editing finished just one month later, some degree of context then is provided for occasional one-dimensional characterisations, some fairly shoddy use of dialogue (perhaps, generously, we might prefer to read this in terms of colloquial authenticity), and the occasional but distracting switches between past and present tenses. Obergruppenführer Prall, for example, is portrayed as cardboard thin in his physical and psychological attacks on Inspector Escherich and in his alcoholic debauchery. That said, given that the writing was completed so soon after the downfall of the Nazi regime, Fallada having lived through this at great peril to himself as an author, and perhaps wishing to ingratiate himself with the new powers in his locale, namely the Soviets, a one-dimensional, stereotypical and almost satirical swipe at the SS might very well have been the order of the day. With regards to colloquial dialogue (be it the fault of the original or the translation, as ever with the reading of such works) conversation including such as the word ‘Oodles’, spoken by the Gestapo, strikes the reader as somewhat less than authentic. Plenty of other dialogue is presented as rendering various low-life characters as if they were the German equivalents of 1940s Londoners in chirpy, war time stereotypical patter. An attempt at earthy, gritty realism, no doubt, descends into distraction: the comedic without the comedy. The modern reader remains, alas, ill-informed as to the truth of the matter.

Ultimately, however, Alone in Berlin is a read that must be committed to. That we might become ever more desensitised to the atrocities inflicted in Europe some eighty years ago now grows with each passing year: atrocities felt not only by the foreign enemies of Hitler but by Germany too. Fallada has succeeded in drawing the reader’s attention to a time which very few now can either remember or appreciate. We take for granted all our own resistances to power abuse, but we don’t take up our causes with such jeopardy as the real life Hampels did or their fictionalised versions, the Quangels.