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Book Review: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

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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.

Books in sim­i­lar vein:
Field Gray by Philip Kerr
The Silent Oli­garch by Chris Mor­gan Jones
Shad­ows Walk­ing by Dou­glas R. Skopp

Buy the book in paper or Kindle for­mat


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