Hans Fallada. Every Man Dies Alone. 1947. Translated Michael Hofmann. New York: Melville, 2009.
It’s been a while since I posted any book reviews here, not because I’ve stopped reading, but because I lost the habit of reviewing. Some of my blogging friends, such as Curt from Analogue Hobbies, post some excellent book reviews from time to time, and I hate to ignore a good example. Every Man Dies Alone doesn’t sound like the cheeriest title to take on holiday, as I did recently, and it wasn’t really light reading, but it did keep my attention.
The unique thing about this book it is one of the few German novels translated into English which is set in Nazi Germany and written by someone who lived through it. Hans Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen was a German novelist who attained some fame in the 1930s. One of his novels, Little Man, What Now?, was translated into English and became a Hollywood film. He came to the attention of the Nazis, who wanted him to write propaganda for them, but Fallada was an unenthusiastic Nazi and did the minimum possible to stay out of trouble. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and barely managed to survive the war in a psychiatric institution.
In 1946 a friend of his with cultural connections in the Soviet sector tried to get Fallada on his feet by giving him a true life story to use as the idea for a novel. The story came in the form of a Gestapo file on a working class Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hempel, who had turned against the Nazis. Over several years they tried to turn opinion against the regime by leaving postcards with anti-Nazi statements in public places. While they are now largely forgotten compared to student movements such as the White Rose circle or various army conspiracies, at the time they were a huge headache for the Gestapo, who feared that the Hampels were part of a much larger cell. They were arrested and executed in 1943.
In Fallada’s version they become the Quangels, a simple, middle aged couple who lose their son in France. The novel follows their growing bitterness and their decision to turn against the Nazis. Besides being a psychological novel, it is also a police procedural, as Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo tries to track down the source of the postcards while trying to placate his brutal and impatient superiors. Fallada creates a number of secondary characters who illustrate the range of moral behavior in Nazi Germany. Some are idealistic, like the retired Judge Fromm who tries to shelter a Jewish neighbour and later tries to help the Quangels cheat the guillotine. Others are thugs and schemers who take advantage of the Party to rob and brutalize the weak. In fact, one of Fallada’s themes is that the crooks run the justice system and the guiltless are their victims.
If you want a happy ending, this book really isn’t for you. Fallada’s vision of human beings is pretty grim. His villains are loathsome and depraved, and even the heroes, such as they are, are often feckless and ineffectual. All are caught in a tragedy that destroys the good and the bad. As an aside, he tells us Judge Fromm, who lived his life for the ideal of Justice, dies in agony when a British bomb destroys his house. The atmosphere of wartime Berlin is suffocating, a vast prison where neighbour spies on neighbour and no one can dare speak their mind. In such a world, Fallada seems to say that the only way to stay human is to refuse, as much as possible, to go along with evil. As Herr Quangel tells his judges, “At least I stayed decent. I didn’t participate”.
So not a happy or even an uplifting book if you need larger than life heroes to be inspired. But if you want an authentic look at a terrible period in history by someone who lived through it, and if you want to be challenged by some heavy thinking on the cost of ordinary, basic decency, then I recommend this novel to you.
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