Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada was first published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone) in 1947. The novel has since been translated by Michael Hofmann from the German into English.
The story revolves around Otto and Anna Quangel, who are introduced at the beginning as an ordinary couple in Berlin trying to survive in Nazi Germany by staying under the radar of the authorities. The nondescript pair is spurred into their act of defiance by the death of their only son in combat, their Ottochen who cried when he was called up for service. They carry out their plans and actions on their own, dropping anonymous postcards deriding Hitler and inciting revolt against the Nazi regiment.
Contrary to their subversive goal, the Quangels’ handwritten notes send fear into the hearts of the unwitting passers-by who chance upon them. Most of their postcards are turned in to the police. As for the rest, maybe someone kept a postcard, maybe some were burned in secrecy.
They are eventually found out, arrested and sentenced to death by beheading. Was what they did worth dying for?
This reminds me of the philosophical debate: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Fallada wrote Alone in Berlin in 24 days, using case files that were provided to him by a friend after his release from a Nazi insane asylum.
His book is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple living in Berlin. They had no history of political activity prior to them leaving hundreds of postcards calling out for civil disobedience and workplace sabotage all over the city. Spanning almost three years, their anti-Nazi propaganda campaign started after Elise’s brother was killed in combat in France. It is believed that their postcards had little impact on the Nazi government aside from causing worry for its police which had believed a rebel syndicate to be behind them.
The main characters in Alone in Berlin either live in the same building as the Quangels or are connected in some way to the inhabitants of the shabby apartment block. Each individual is vividly portrayed and motivated to do good or bad, or nothing, for different reasons. 55 Jablonski Strasse is a microcosm of wartime Berlin – plenty of paranoid, fear and greed set against the compassion and bravery shown by a minority.
One exchange amongst two secondary characters stood out:
Grigoleit: … you ought to know that it doesn’t matter if there’s a handful of you against many of them. Once you’ve seen that a cause is right, you’re obliged to fight for it. Whether you ever live to see success, or the person who steps into your shoes does, it doesn’t matter. I can’t very well sit on my hands and say, Well, they may be a bad lot, but what business is it of mine?
Hergesell: Yes, but you’re not married; you don’t have to look after your wife and child…
Grigoleit interrupts him, ending with “what right do I have to any personal happiness while there’s room for such unhappiness on this earth!”
To which Hergesell replies, “My happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing.”
Grigoleit’s furious response: But it does! You’re stealing it! You’re robbing mothers of their sons, wives of their husbands, girlfriends of their boyfriends, as long as you tolerate thousands being shot every day and don’t lift a finger to stop the killing. You know all that perfectly well and it strikes me that you’re almost worse than real dyed-in-the-wool Nazis. They’re too stupid to know what crimes they’re committing. But you do, and you don’t do anything against it! Aren’t you worse than the Nazis? Of course you are!
I received my copy of Alone in Berlin about three years ago and had procrastinated reading it. I didn’t feel up to dealing with the dark, heavy subject and the sadness that I was sure would come with it. When I eventually started to read it, I could not take my eyes off its pages.
Fallada is a great storyteller. There are many suspenseful moments in Alone in Berlin, as well as others that are hilarious or incredulous. Alone in Berlin is intense and exhausting, a sad tale that is morally powerful. I would read it again.