Foreign Novel Review: Jeder Stirbt für sich Allein – Alone in Berlin

Alone in Berlin is to quote the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, “the literary rediscovery of the century”.  Originally written in the autumn of 1946 and in under 4 weeks by the writer Hans Fallada, the novel gives a chilling insight into life under the Nazi regime whilst providing a testament to the endurance of the human spirit.  It is also an entrancing read, as page-turning inducing as any well-written spy or crime novel.  Recently rediscovered, it has sold millions of copies around the world and deservedly so.

The book is based on the real life story of the Hampels.  After the death of a close relative, this working class couple from Berlin decided to resist the Nazi regime by leaving anti-Nazi postcards around the city.  In the book the name of the couple has simply been changed to the Quangels.  At the start of the novel, the Quangels, presumably like their real-life counterparts, are like many other working-class couples.  They may have voted for the Führer but don’t necessarily agree with everything that is being done in his name.  They reassure themselves however by believing that the Führer can’t know everything that is going on and is therefore not to blame.  And in the book, as in real life, the Quangels’ eventual resistance to the regime proves futile and they are eventually caught, imprisoned, tortured and face execution for their “crimes” against the State.

The writer Hans Fallada had garnered international fame as an author in the 1930s with his novel, “Little Man, What Now?” an endearing tale of a young couple trying to survive the hardships of Berlin during the Great Depression and likewise well worth a read.

When the Nazis came to power, Fallada, unlike many other artistic colleagues at the time, chose to remain in Germany and had a rather conflicted relationship with the Nazi authorities.  Work that Fallada assumed to be apolitical was denounced by the regime and over the next decade or so Fallada sought to find a genre which would leave him safe from such attacks whilst still maintaining his integrity.  This was not always possible.  Fearing he might be sent to a concentration camp, he changed the ending of one of his novels Iron Gustav to be more acceptable to Goebbels and his cronies. While under the Nazi regime, Fallada lived under constant threat and even ended up in a psychiatric unit: under the Nazis and their policy on eugenics this usually meant a death sentence.

Unlike those literary colleagues who had fled Germany in the early 30s though, Fallada knew at first hand the cauterizing effects which fear of the Nazi police state had engendered among the populace.  And Alone in Berlin is enthralling not only because it tells a great story, the hunt for the “criminals” i.e. the Quangels by the Gestapo but also in Fallada’s depiction of what life must have been like for the average German under the Nazis.

Post-war German literature deals at length with the Mitmacher – those Germans who weren’t Nazis per se but who went along with the regime and therefore were complicit in enabling the Nazi state to function.  This is the great accusation levelled at Germans from this period; that even if they weren’t actual Nazis, they were at the very least Mitmachers.  Reading Fallada’s novel and his depiction of life under the Nazis, not only do you have more understanding for those who just went along with the regime, you are amazed that there were any who were brave enough to actually try and resist.  To say that the odds were stacked against any form of resistance is to put the case rather mildly.  It’s clear from the book that the Quangel’s act of resistance is futile.  The Quangels may dream that their postcards are inciting others to think and act against the State.  However, the fear that is paralyzing German society means that most of the postcards are either handed in immediately to the police or quickly discarded.

The resistance offered by the characters Grigoleit and the “Säugling” doesn’t seem any more effective than that of the Quangels.  Though Grigolet is convinced that where they lead, others – the decent Germans of which Grigolet believes number in their millions – will join them.  “Firstly we’re not just a few blokes. Every decent German, and there’s two, three million of them, will join us. They just need to get past their fear. Nowadays their fear of the future, which the brown bigwigs have bestowed on us, is still less than their fear of the threats of the present. But that will soon change. “

Fear is everywhere.  As one of the characters says: “You become so shattered from always being on your guard, from this never ending fear.”  When the young Persicke dumps Enno Kluge at Frau Gesch’s, she is too scared of the known Hitlerite to say no.  She can see that Enno has been badly beaten but is too frightened to ask what happened.  She follows the adage if she doesn’t know, she can’t then say anything she shouldn’t and thereby put herself in danger.  The power of the party is such that Barkhausen doesn’t dare openly argue with a young boy of 14/15 years because he’s in the brown uniform of the Hitler Youth.  This is despite the fact the young boy is trying to wheedle money out of him.

And the fear that is depicted in the novel has solid foundation.  This is a country where neighbour spies against neighbour, worker against worker, family member against family member.  The Nazis even created the role of Blockwalter to facilitate matters.  His function was to supervise the local neighbourhood and report back any suspicions to the authorities.  Otto Quangel is almost caught when he leaves a postcard opposite a flat whose inhabitant has been looking through his peephole for 3 hours in an attempt to catch his neighbour up to no good.  Her “suspicious behaviour” comprises lying in of a morning, wearing trousers and listening to the radio long after midnight.  Such behaviour, he concludes, can mean only one thing.  She’s a prostitute.  In Nazi Germany simply being found to be “anti-social” could lead to imprisonment in a camp and possible death.  Fortunately for Quangel the police regard the denouncer as a well-known troublemaker and don’t lend much credence to his accusations.  Even luckier, when the matter is reported further up the chain to Police Captain Zott, the latter dismisses Quangel out of hand as Quangel doesn’t adhere to Zott’s erroneous profile of the suspected disseminator of the postcards.

A community spying on each other is evident throughout the novel.  As former Judge Fromm notes with bitter irony: “One half of the people are locking up the other half.”  When Inspector Escherich is searching for Enno Kluge who has gone to ground, he checks with the porter as to who he thinks would most likely have taken him in.  The porter’s information proves to be spot on.  Escherich notes to himself that he’ll see he gets some well-paid post as a thank you.  “Reward and punish, that was the best way to govern.”  This epitomises the way the regime worked under the Nazis.

And no one is safe and secure despite their position in the party apparatus.  Everyone is suspect and everyone is assumed to be guilty.  Even those in favour hang on to their precarious position by sacrificing others.  Gestapo Inspector Escherich is clearly a competent policeman who feels secure in his position within the new regime.  He knows he has to wait for the mysterious writer of these postcards to slip up in order to catch him.  Unfortunately his superior, Obergruppenführer Prall just wants results.  He has no time for the mechanics of thorough police work.  Escherich makes the mistake in thinking that police logic will win out even though his superior may shout and lose his temper that he hasn’t yet found the culprit, he’ll see sense in the end.  Instead Escherich is accused of being a shirker, likened to being a deserter, stripped of his command, beaten up and tortured.

He is first punched in the face by an SS man and has some of his teeth knocked out.  At first, he can’t believe that an experienced policeman and the recipient of the military cross is being treated like this.  Not surprisingly, he’s now willing to follow all of his superior’s suggestions even though he knows full well from a police procedural point of view the suggestions are inane.  He notes with some irony that he is thrown down the exact same staircase he had previously kicked Enno Kluge down and which at the time he had thought was an amusing thing to do.  Now it’s his turn to be dragged down to the Gestapo cellars.  Escherich realises too late that the problem of not living in a Rechtsstaat as it would be called in German (a state based on justice and the rule of law) is that there is always the strong possibility that you can be its next victim.

And fear of being next in line causes some people to act in inhumane ways to others just to save their own skin. When Prall and his cronies go down to the cell to humiliate and torture Quangel, Escherich clearly does not want to join in.  However, threatened by Prall as to what will happen to him too if he doesn’t, Escherich likewise breaks his glass over Quangel’s now bloodied head.  However being forced in this case to be a Mitmacher, clearly eats away at Escherich.  Quangel remains silently scornful throughout his degrading treatment.  “and with every blow that Inspector Escherich struck in desperation and fear, it felt to him as if he was striking a blow against his very own existence, as if an axe were pulling out the roots of the tree of his own life.”

And it’s not just in the big cities where mistrust reigns.  Trudel, the former fiancée of Otto’s fallen son, and her new husband, Karl Hergesell have moved to the small town of Erkner in the mistaken belief that in a small town they can live in peace, far away from the party and its demands.  However, as many big city folk found out who suffered under the same misapprehension, they realise that it’s precisely in the smaller towns where spying, denunciations and eavesdropping are ten times worse than in the major cities.

When Otto Quangel gets a chance to see how someone reacts to seeing one of his postcards for the first time, he notes with disappointment that their only reaction is fear and that his colleague is too frightened to even read the message in its entirety.  In fact, he’d hardly read the first line before he was overcome with fear.  And fear spreads through the whole shift now that the postcards have been found in their department.  “Everyone feels the danger that threatens every one of them.  For there wasn’t any among the eighty who hadn’t somehow or at some time acted against the State, even if it was just something he said! Everyone felt threatened.  The life of everyone is in danger.  Everyone of them was scared..”

The fear among the populace is such that it divides families and old friends as no one can be sure of the other.  When the actor Max Harteisen and his lawyer Toll chance upon one of Otto’s cards, they realise that fear has divided them despite a friendship dating back to their schooldays.  In its place there is only mistrust.  Mistrust that if they destroy the card, the other may then report the other to the authorities.  However in the end they realise that their 20-year friendship does count for something and they can indeed trust each other.  They are both comforted by the fact that this means they are not quite alone after all and that they still have someone they can call a friend.

And not reporting someone can also lead you into trouble.   A meeting is held for all supervisors and managers at the factory where Otto Quangel works.  They are told in no uncertain terms to report on anything suspicious. If they don’t, they themselves will end up in a concentration camp.  The eyes of the State are everywhere and no one can be sure of anyone else.  People can simply be denounced for personal gain as the author was himself.  Retribution by the State is swift and violent.  Actions which we would not even consider to be misdemeanours let alone crimes were punishable by death under the Nazis.  The sister of the respected novelist Erich Marie Remarque, for example, was beheaded for “undermining the war effort”.  Her crime? She had allegedly told her landlady in a private conversation that Germany had lost the war.

Death permeates the novel.  Otto’s Quangel’s factory goes from producing furniture to turning out cheap, flimsy coffins.  In the factory’s corridor, a poster announcing the execution of three supposed traitors is the backdrop to Otto’s conversation with Trudel Baumann, when he tells her about his son’s death at the front.  Looking at the poster, Otto foresees a similar one announcing his execution and that of Anna’s and Trudel’s.  He pushes the idea aside.  At the time he’s convinced that as he has no interest in politics and is just a simple worker who just wants a quiet life that he is being foolish.   However his son’s death ultimately ignites the need for the Quangels to resist the regime and relieves them from the crippling fear which up to them has made them conform.

His son’s death and his wife’s initial reaction to the news by inadvertently blaming him with the phrase “You and your Hitler” has made Quangel do the one thing that is anathema to such regimes – his son’s death has made him think.  Quangel muses that although at first everything under Hitler seemed to get off to a good start, all that he sees now is oppression, hate, coercion and grief.  Quangel begins to ask himself one of the most important questions a human being can ask himself: “Even if only one person suffers unjustly, and I can do something about it, and I don’t do it, simply because I’m cowardly and like my peace and quiet too much, then..”  Fear stops him from finishing that thought.  He knows that the logical conclusion to that question is that he must change how he’s been living his life up to now and do something.

This seems to be the crux of the novel.  Otto decides to disseminate postcards calling for people to resist Hitler and the party and rail against the war.  He hopes that by writing and disseminating the postcards, he wants “that it will be better, that people get to learn the truth, that the war comes to an end quicker, that this murdering finally stops.”  He decides to leave the postcards in the stairwells of houses for anyone to find.  When Anna first hears of the plan, she admonishes him for thinking on such a small scale.  Otto reminds Anna that whether small or large, they would still be risking their lives if caught.  Anna then agrees: “whether a little or a lot, no one could risk more than their life.  Each according to their strengths and talents, the main thing: you resist.”

The Quangels act of resistance proves futile; the apparent communist cell in the factory hardly seem more effective but what Fallada seems to be saying is that the main thing is that you resist and in doing so show you are different from the others.  Trudel encapsulates this in her conversation with Otto Quangel at the beginning of the novel.  “But the main thing is that we are different from them, that we never allow ourselves to be, to think like them.  We will simply not be Nazis, even if they take over the whole world.”  As Trudel goes on to describe it, they are the good seed in a field full of weeds.  The communist Grigoleit also expresses this belief: “it doesn’t matter in the slightest that there are too few fighting against too many.  “But, once you have recognised something to be true, you just have to fight for it.  Whether you are successful or those who take your place, that’s completely irrelevant.  I can’t twiddle my thumbs and say: They were indeed bastards, but what has it got to do with me?”  As does Otto Quangel once he has been caught by Escherich.  Escherich chastises him with the foolishness of his enterprise: “It’s like a fly trying to fight an elephant.  I don’t understand it, you, a sensible man.”  Otto replies: “No, you wouldn’t understand.  It doesn’t matter, if only one or ten thousand fight, if one man sees he has to fight, he will fight, whether he has others fighting with him or not.  I had to fight and I would do it again.”

And that any act of resistance will prove futile is not surprising given the odds.  As soon as Anna realises that they have declared war on Hitler and the party, she realistically summaries what the odds are against them.  Her and her husband, two poor, small, insignificant workers in their flat in the Jablonskistraße against the might of the Führer, the party apparatus and possibly four fifths of the German population.

And when caught, your treatment by the authorities wouldn’t be pleasant. Inspector Escherich describes to Enno Kluge what would happen to him when in custody.  He assures him that his screaming will just be a source of fun for his torturers.  He explains how they’ll sit him on a stool, shine spotlights in his eyes, question him relentlessly for hours on end, kick and beat him, force him to drink saltwater and if that doesn’t work break every bone in his fingers and pour acid over his feet.  Ironically Escherich doesn’t realise at the time that a not too dissimilar fate is awaiting him.

And not only were you as an individual liable to be imprisoned, tortured and executed but also family members and anyone else who the regime in their paranoia felt had anything to do with you would suffer the same fate.  Just having a photo of someone in your wallet could lead to that person being hauled in and questioned.  It’s one thing to risk your own life but few are that cavalier when it comes to the lives of their nearest and dearest.

And the control of the Nazi state over every aspect of German life is such that you don’t have to actually do anything to become politically suspect and therefore liable to be shipped off to a concentration camp.  Just by not doing something can make you suspect to the authorities – not becoming a member of the party, not giving the Nazi salute, simply not saying Sieg Heil.

The Hergesells fall under suspicion and are watched and reported on simply because they are not party members and participate as little as possible at meetings, preferring their own company rather than be involved with the community as a whole.  Matters are not helped when in an unguarded moment, Trudel foolishly admits she feels sorry for the Jews.

Despite the hatred that surrounds them the Hergesells reassure themselves that they can’t come to any harm as they are not actively doing anything against the state and that thoughts are free.  They little realise that “in this State not even thoughts are free.”  The phrase “thoughts are free” (Die Gedanken sind frei) is the title of a well-known song in German about the freedom of thought.  The sentiments expressed in this song were, not surprisingly, of significance with various Germans who resisted the regime.  For example, the Jewish lawyer, Hans Litten.  Before the war, Hans Litten had subpoenaed Hitler and cross-examined him for hours in the witness box much to Hitler’s chagrin.  Not surprisingly, when Hitler came to power, Litten was arrested, imprisoned, tortured on numerous occasions and eventually committed suicide after one particular interrogation.  However, during his imprisonment when he had been ordered to take part in a show to celebrate Hitler’s birthday at Lichtenberg Concentration Camp, Litten chose to sing Die Gedanken sind Frei.  Fortunately for Litten, the irony was lost on the prison guards.

The Hergesells make the fatal mistake of not understanding that there is no private life in this war-torn Germany, just as bombs fall on innocent and guilty alike, so you can’t remove yourself from the fate that has befallen Germany by withdrawing from what’s going on around you.

Even the lowly postwoman Eva Kluge has to be a party member for the sake of her job.  Otto Quangel is obliged to be a member of the Arbeitsfront (the Nazi trade union organisation) and his wife, Anna is likewise a member of the Frauenschaft (the women’s wing of the Nazi Party).  It’s just part and parcel of everyday life.  In fact, Otto Quangel would have no doubt been promoted had it not been for his refusal to join the Nazi party.  As his refusal to join is put down to his well-known penchant for meanness and thus not wanting to pay party dues rather than for any explicit political reasons, he’s still allowed to keep his position as shift supervisor.  However, as a non-party member he not only has no hope of being promoted, he is not entitled to any bonuses that party members would automatically accrue.  The party is everywhere. This is reflected in the sea of uniforms worn all around, whether on the street or at social gatherings.  “The party was everything and the people nothing.”

Right from the start of the novel we are made aware that to survive Nazi Germany you have to be on your guard all of the time.  As she passes the Persicke’s flat, who are known to be rabid Nazis, Eva Kluge recalls that they’re the type of people you need to ensure you say Sieg Heil to and watch what you’re saying to.  She then muses that you now have to watch what you say to everyone nowadays and that’s there’s rarely anyone she can speak openly to.

Fear and paranoia seem to be what underpins the State.  No one is safe, from the old Jewish woman Frau Rosenthal to the Gestapo Inspector. At any moment the State can turn on you and you can find yourself beaten, tortured, stripped of all rights and swallowing your own blood in Gestapo headquarters.  This is a State not governed by rule or law but by the caprices of individuals who in turn are subject to the caprices of those above them.  And because the State is run according to the whims of a chosen few, this exacerbates the fear and paranoia among the populace.  You never can be too sure that you too won’t fall from grace despite your position.  The actor Max Harteisen can’t believe that his former best friend, Goebbels, has now become his entrenched enemy because he foolishly once contradicted him.  Harteisen has gone from favoured actor to persona non gratis unable to find work.  Unlike many of his compatriots Harteisen has failed to realise that “every Nazi was prepared at any time to take not only any enjoyment from life but even the life itself of any German who had a different opinion from him.”

However the paranoia is evident too among the powers to be.  As Police Captain Zott says to himself: “No, these men – well, you just needed to wait.  These men weren’t so secure in the saddle, behind all their yelling they were badly hiding their fear of being overthrown one day.  As assured and dashing as they seemed to be, inside they knew only too well that they couldn’t do anything and weren’t anything.”  Ironically Zott’s position proves to be precarious too.  Once it’s realised he’s messed up the investigation, they get Escherich back on the case.  Zott is only too aware of the fate that now awaits him.  His superior, Prall makes it clear he will send him to a concentration camp but is made uneasy by Zott’s calm and dignified composure.  Prall has seen the look in Zott’s eyes of calm, almost mocking superiority with previous torture victims before.  And the memory of this look seems to disempower Prall and for once he’s unable to scream and strike out.  It would seem that a lack of fear in its victims is the one thing the regime fears the most.

Meanwhile Prall revels in the fact that Escherich is now a shadow of his former self having now been freed from Gestapo cells and back on the case.  Filled with fear, Escherich is a trembling wreck in the presence of his superior.  “Escherich had always felt very secure. He had always believed that nothing could happen to him.  He had assumed that he was different from the others.  “And Escherich had to give up all these self-delusions, really in the few seconds when the SS man Dobat punched him in the mouth and he learnt fear.  In a few days Escherich had learnt fear so thoroughly, that he would never ever forget it for the rest of his life.  He knows he can look how he likes, he can achieve the impossible, he can be honoured and celebrated – he knows he is nothing at all.  One punch can turn him into a howling, shivering, fearful nobody.”

That the system is corrupt, hypocritical, based on fear and paranoia and as such is unsustainable in the long run is clear.  Able officers of the law such as Escherich are imprisoned by party men with little understanding of the mechanics of policing, a system they are supposed to be in charge of.  Supposedly ardent Nazis, such as the village schoolteacher Schwoch, are happy to denounce their compatriots and swear blind that they deeply regret not being able to go to war and fight but in reality are happy to bribe their way into keeping a pen-pushing job as far away from the front line as possible.  Even the most ardent Nazis only seem to believe in the system in so far as how much they can profit by it.

And despite the party’s supposed talk of the “people” and one nation, even Anna Quangel is aware that certain ladies are not doing their bit thanks to their good connections within the party apparatus.  She uses this knowledge of double standards to her advantage when extricating herself from the party.  Anna marches round to the wife of an Oberstummbahnführer and demands that she do her bit for the war effort.  Her refusal to apparently see that as a wife of an Oberstummbahnführer the normal rules don’t apply to her enables her to get thrown out of the party for her pig-headedness without risking any more serious opprobrium coming her way.

And word of atrocities is clearly making the rounds among the general populace.  Eva Kluge is not happy that her beloved son Karlemann is in the SS, particularly now rumours are spreading about how they are treating the Jews in the East.  Eva’s husband confirms her worst fears of Karlemann’s involvement in the slaughter, when he tells her of a photo his son showed of himself smashing a Jewish child’s head against a car bumper.  There and then Eva decides to renounce Karlemann as her son.  Her aim is to now live a decent life and to find out how she can leave the Party without ending up in a concentration camp.  Eva is so determined to live a decent life – i.e. Nazi-free that even it means ending up in a camp, she is willing to do that.

She sees it as some kind of atonement for her son’s actions.  When she resigns from the party, she is interrogated and threatened by the authorities and told in no uncertain terms that she will lose her job as a result.  And moreover, if she doesn’t explain why she wants to leave the party, she will be considered politically unreliable and be sent to a camp.  In the end she is arrested and beaten but manages to avoid being sent to a camp by the skin of her teeth.  Now at peace with herself by distancing herself from the party, she is one of the few characters in the novel who is able to make some kind of life for herself.

Despite the subject matter, Fallada points out he doesn’t want the novel to end with death.  The book is “dedicated to life, unconquerable life always triumphing again and again over ignominy and tears, over misery and death .”  The book is also a fitting testimony to two ordinary Germans who, like many others, forfeited their own lives in the fight against a regime that was the cause of so much death and destruction but which, thankfully, ultimately failed.

© Maureen Younger and, [2013-2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Maureen Younger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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