This review contains spoilers.
I just finished Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (translated from the German by Michael Hofman) while sitting on the balcony in the fading afternoon light. The last hundred pages of this almost six-hundred page epic had me engrossed; Fallada’s novel (in the last few chapters, at least) hurtles towards a conclusion that is obvious from the beginning, and yet still manages to be very powerful.
Alone in Berlin is yet another novel from my apartment bookshelf; the shelf that just keeps on giving. I’ve avoided this offering for a while, perhaps because of its imposing thickness (Alone in Berlin is a heavy volume, and its thin pages are dense with text) and subject matter (you really have to be ready to commit yourself to an intimate, no-escape account of life inside Nazi Germany). Unsurprisingly, Alone in Berlin is not easy reading. It’s the kind of novel that makes you feel as if you are locked – along with many of the characters – in solitary confinement; gasping at tiny windows, ready to risk being shot in the face just for a breath of fresh air.
Alone in Berlin was first published in Germany in 1947, but – incredibly – wasn’t translated into English until 2009. After its English release Alone in Berlin quickly became a bestseller in the US and the UK. The novel has been published under two different English titles – Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone. However, the original German title translates more accurately as “Everyone dies for himself alone”, which critics have argued (and I think I agree) is much more in keeping with the novel’s themes. Alone in Berlin has had mixed reactions from readers, with some critics noting that there are many superior books written about Nazi Germany. Primo Levi, on the other hand, (author of If This Is a Man, an account of his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz) called Alone in Berlin “The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”. Other readers have pointed out that the novel’s structure is somewhat sloppy, and that the writing lacks grace or poetry. There is certainly some truth to these accusations, but considering Hans Fallada wrote the entire novel in just 24 days and died (probably from substance abuse) before it was published perhaps they are flaws to be forgiven.
Hans Fallada’s astounding life story is detailed in Alone in Berlin’s (the Penguin edition) Afterword by Geoff Wilkes. The author was born Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen in 1893, and adopted the pseudonym Hans Fallada from the Brothers Grimm fairytales. When Ditzen/Fallada was eighteen he attempted suicide with another man after struggling to deal with his sexuality. In an attempt to simulate a duel the two men fired on each other. Ditzen killed his friend, and then shot himself in the chest but survived. He was declared mentally unfit for trial and was instead sent to a sanatorium. The rest of his life would be punctuated by bouts of mental illness and drug addiction.
Alone in Berlin is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a German couple who left anti-Nazi notes around Berlin after Elise’s brother was killed in the war. The Hampels were arrested in 1942, and executed barely six months later. In Fallada’s novel the Hampels become Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged couple who lose faith in Hitler and the war effort when their son is killed at the front. Otto – a quiet, unassuming man who has never wanted anything other than to do his work well and avoid talking to too many people – decides he wants to protest in some way, and starts writing postcards with anti-Nazi sentiments on them. He drops the postcards in random locations around Berlin, hoping that people will find them and be inspired to stand up to the regime. His actions are punishable by death should he be discovered, which of course he eventually is, along with his wife who has been helping him write and distribute the postcards. Sadly for the Quangels (and the Hampels) most of the postcards were immediately turned in to the Gestapo. Otto and Anna discover that people have a much greater capacity for fear than they do for resistance.
Alone in Berlin does not just focus on the Quangels but follows an enormous cast of characters that are in some way connected to the couple. There is Trudel, the fiancé of Otto and Anna’s dead son; the various Gestapo inspectors assigned to hunt down the Quangels; the post woman and her ne’er-do-well husband; a retired judge who lives in the same apartment building, and many more. Fallada takes a very omniscient approach with this novel, jumping often from character to character, and holding most of them at a distance.
Alone in Berlin is so long it took me a good month to get through, and over that time my relationship with the book had its ups and downs. At first I was completely captured by the story, the characters, and the no-frills narration. At about the halfway point I started to find the length and the descriptions tiresome. I felt like there were too many characters and not enough connection with any of them. For a while I seemed to be reading a number of different books at once; one about a couple sending postcards, another about a woman escaping her useless ex-husband for the country, yet another about a pet shop. Reaching the end, however, I found myself caught up again, as the novel narrowed in on the Quangels and followed them to their deaths.
As previously mentioned, one of the criticisms aimed at Alone in Berlin is that it is not beautifully written, that the narration is detached and clunky. At times I did feel as though I was wading through a lot of tedious sentences. However, there were some lines where the austerity of the language served the novel very well. The following passage, for example, comes towards the end of the book as the fate of the Quangels is being decided in court:
The court withdrew to consider its verdict.
As at the theatre, most people went out to smoke a cigarette.
There is so much power in these three sparse sentences. Here is a moment that needs no dressing up, that would lose its weight if it were surrounded by adjectives or philosophy. Fallada’s language may not be beautiful, but in giving up beauty it gains a raw authenticity that serves its difficult subject very well.
Perhaps Fallada was not aiming for a spectacular novel. Looking more closely at his chosen protagonists – a couple who were from the beginning destined to fail in their attempt at revolution – it seems evident that what Fallada was interested in was not drama but a quiet, ordinary sort of goodness. As Geoff Wilkes notes in his Afterword, many of Fallada’s works depict characters that do not resolve their problems but deal with them, and stick to their morals. Otto and Anna may not defeat the Nazis or even inspire anyone else to try, but they do triumph over their own fears, and find peace within themselves. It may not be particularly impressive or dramatic, but it is certainly real.
Hans Fallada is one of the best-known German writers of the 20th century. His most popular novels include Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker. Fallada died in Berlin in 1947.