Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada is a fictional book, based on a true story, describing the life in Germany under the Third Reich. The book’s title in the U.S. is Every Man Dies Alone.
Otto and Anna Quangel receive the worst news parents can get – their only son died in the war. Feeling frustrated against the Nazi machine they decide that they must act in defiance. However, acting in defiance is a sure death sentence.
Yet thinking they are making a difference, together they write and distribute postcards which call for action against the Reich, managing to allude the police for two years.
The author tells the simple truth in minimal, yet descriptive prose. The book, it seems, is written from the edge of sanity by a man who knows what suffering is.
Fallada, whose real name is Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (his nom de plume is a combination of Grimm Fairy Tale characters), is a drug addict and brilliant novelist, who spent much of World War II in a Nazi insane asylum. He used the pretext of writing an anti-Semitic novel for the Nazi’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to get preferential treatment.
The novel was never written.
Alone in Berlin is chronicles the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel, two middle aged workers who actively engaged in undermining the Third Reich. Their crusade included writing hundreds of post cards against Hitler and his cronies leaving them all over Berlin. The campaign wasn’t very successful as most of the postcards, when found, were immediately turned over to the Gestapo but it did embarrass authorities for two years.
The novel tells of the postcard campaign but also about the bigger picture in Berlin, or more specifically the occupants of 55 Jablonski Strasse. The building’s occupants include the elderly Mrs. Rosenthal (the last Jew), a judge; a government snitch and his prostitute wife; a post office worker and her no-good ex-husband, who has a breakdown after realizing that her heroic son is the SS; and a family of official Nazis.
Fallada introduces the reader to a world where fear and terror rule and the dread of being snitched upon is on everyone’s mind. The characters are complex, well written and three dimensional. The heroes and villains in this novel are shown with all shades of gray. Fallada just tells a story as honestly as possible without coloring it in false shades.
Quangel, as the protagonist, is not a very nice man, he doesn’t like his neighbors or to talk to people, he doesn’t interact with his underlings at work and doesn’t like to visit relatives. Otto only loves his wife Anna, and when it comes to feelings for his son he only loves him through her, but sometimes he cannot display his affection — not because he doesn’t want, but because he can’t. That’s just the person Otto Quangel is.
What I loved about the story is that there aren’t absolutes in it. The good guys have their faults, the Nazis have their merits. If anything, this is a story about circumstances.
Even today, with tons of research the world still struggles to decide whether or not the Germans under the Nazi régime were acting as human beings or an evil mob. This is, of course, a catch-22. if they were human beings then the responsibility doesn’t fall only on the people, but also on circumstances. Call them an evil mob and you exonerate the humans.
Alone in Berlin is a novel for anyone who ever asked “what would I do if I were there?” The novel doesn’t give answers (no great novel does that) but it does gives you a lot to think about.