Why this novel has rattled the literary elite

The explosive power of Hans Fallada’s 60-year-old novel Alone in Berlin lies in its revelation that some uneducated Germans passionately hated the Nazi regime.

Neil Davenport

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‘Is it really necessary to write yet another history of Nazi Germany?’ asked Cambridge history professor Richard J Evans in the opening to his Third Reich trilogy. ‘Surely so much has already been written that there is little more to add? Surely we’ve had enough?’ Apparently we haven’t: in Britain, books covering anything on Hitler and the Third Reich – including the Third Reich and UFOs – almost always become bestsellers. A recent BBC Radio 4 documentary reported that publishers refer to this lucrative market as ‘Nazi Gold’.

And so it has proved for English publishers Penguin. Two years ago they published, for the first time in Britain, Hans Fallada’s anti-Nazi resistance novel, Alone in Berlin. Sixty years previously, the German author’s book was rejected for publication in Britain and Fallada was dismissed as a communist. In the 13 months since it was published by Penguin, it has sold more than 300,000 paperback copies – a remarkable figure for a piece of foreign literature. In the US, where it appears under its original title, sales have topped 200,000. It has been translated into 20 languages. A major German film is now in the pipeline.

Fallada wrote Alone In Berlin between September and November 1946, in postwar East Germany; he considered it to be ‘a great novel’. Wrecked and weakened by years of addiction to morphine and alcohol, he would die just a few months later, before the novel was first published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone).

At the age of 18, Fallada had narrowly escaped a murder prosecution following the death of a friend in a failed suicide pact, and this led to the first of many incarcerations in psychiatric institutions. Alongside his fragile mental state, he had the dire misfortune of being born at a time when writers who wanted to avoid the attentions of the Gestapo could choose between compromise, silence or exile. Fallada’s choices led at one point to his arrest by the Nazi militia, and at another to close contact with Goebbels. Goebbels wanted Fallada to write a bestselling anti-Semitic novel, but, by ending up in another mental institution, Fallada managed to dodge that fate.

Fallada based Alone in Berlin on the true case of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple from Berlin, who began their own campaign against the Nazi regime following Elise’s brother’s death in action in France. For more than two years, the Hampels wrote and secretly distributed postcards within Berlin, urging the German people to realise that Hitler’s war was their death and that there would never be peace under the Nazis. In September 1942 they were arrested, tried by a ‘People’s Court’, and executed. After the war, Fallada was given access to Gestapo files on the case, which included both interrogation records and many of the postcards, and also photographs of the couple, which appear to have influenced Fallada’s physical descriptions of his fictional characters Otto and Anna Quangel – particularly the ‘bird-like’ Otto.

The power of Alone in Berlin comes from its street-level view of the Third Reich. We witness how corruption, cruelty and humiliation were systematically engineered by the Nazi state. We experience the wracked mental state of solitary individuals, living in absolute fear. Yes, totalitarian societies are rigid social orders designed to straitjacket individual sovereignty as much as possible. But Fallada is a subtle enough writer to recognise that it was the collapse of basic moral codes between individuals that really made the Third Reich a chaotic and terrifying place to live.

For crooks and never-do-wells of all social classes, the absence of moral checks presented an opportunity for self-advancement that hadn’t existed previously – which was often pursued at the humiliating expense of others. There is a particularly squalid scene in the novel whereby two petty criminals, Enno Kludge and Borkhausen Emil, attempt to burgle the flat of an elderly Jewish woman. Emil’s justification was that the burglary was ‘SS-approved and practically a legal confiscation’. However, the burglary is halted by a family of rabid Nazi Party members who see possibilities for self-advancement through having Kludge and Emil arrested, as well as keeping the burgled bounty for themselves.

Throughout Alone in Berlin, the hardship experienced by the majority of Germans is keenly expressed – a hardship that existed despite the fact that Berlin shops were stocked with quality goods plundered from France, Holland and Belgium. Wage rates were slashed and the working day intensified as soon as the Nazis seized state power. Also, constant demands from the Nazi Party that ordinary Germans contribute to their Winter Fund – a bogus charity designed to help pay for the war effort – added a further squeeze on living standards.

The Nazis and their state backers instinctively appreciated that manufacturing austerity laid the basis for authority and order (of the worst, most diminished kind), while also facilitating snooping, corruption and betrayal, too. At the postcard-writer Otto Quangel’s trial, the sadistic judge notes rather disapprovingly that Quangel managed to save a not inconsiderable sum of money from his factory work. ‘Most of it was earned before you lot came to power’, is Quangel’s snarled reply. Fallada highlights the class character of Nazism in both subtle and broad strokes.

Anna and Otto don’t always make for sympathetic characters. Lacking much in the way of education, they are initially dour, insular and seem incapable of communicating with each other. Their time is taken up with dull routine and ritual, merely as a way of passing away the days. Otto in particular appears suspicious of anything spontaneous, colourful or enjoyable, and he is not much liked at his workplace. Anna is also scared of him, but it is the words she speaks following the death of her son – ‘you and your Hitler’ – that act as a slow-burning catalyst for action. Otto devises the idea of leaving postcards denouncing the Nazi regime across Berlin. ‘Perhaps there are already many thinking as we do. Maybe there are already writers like us. But that doesn’t matter, Anna! What do we care? It’s we who must do it.’

They both know that their postcard-dropping campaign will be ineffective, that most of the postcards will be handed in to the Gestapo, and that they will be executed if they are caught. But they also feel invigorated by the relative daringness of their postcard campaign and, touchingly, their love for each other is reawakened and renewed as a result. They both grasp that, as morally autonomous individuals, they do have a choice to act positively, even when everything else is persuading them to do the opposite. What makes their moral certitude seem all the more remarkable is how negligible their chosen actions will be (although, as we later discover, this was not always the case). Fallada forces us to ask whether we would make a similar decision to act in this way. Would we risk so much for so little? Otto and Anna’s justification to each other is that they couldn’t live with themselves if they ignored their will to act.

Such decisions are the heart and soul of Alone in Berlin. On one side we have the self-advancing criminals, opportunists, party hacks and the ‘just doing my job’ state apparatchiks, who prefer to remain mute and blind to the moral abyss around them. And on the other side, we have the Quangels, alongside their neighbour, a retired judge called Fromm who attempts to save his Jewish neighbour from arrest and persecution. He also manages one last kindly act to Otto and Anna at their trial in the bleakly ironic ‘People’s Court’.

Another character, the postwoman Eva Kluge, gives up her party membership and disowns her son when she discovers that he took part in anti-Jewish atrocities in Poland. Even when they are arrested and continually beaten, the characters frequently make and act upon moral choices: there’s the chaplain who comforts Otto; the arrested doctor who shares his soap and tobacco in the cells; the guards who shield Anna from grief after Otto is executed. The Quangels also choose not to use cyanide pills to kill themselves, their decision to stay alive being an act of defiance, especially in the courtroom. There, their defiance causes the judge and the form-fillers to shudder with guilt, shame and fear on more than one occasion. ‘I don’t think it’s going on much longer, your Thousand-Year Reich’, says Otto memorably.

In their final days, Anna and Otto think about the life they would want to lead if, miraculously, they could get out of prison and survive. Otto contemplates a new life learning how to play a musical instrument and getting into classical music and art – a desire to wave goodbye to his old dour, utilitarian self. Anna thinks of how their marriage would be full of new possibilities. Even in the looming shadow of death, the Quangels feel more alive than ever – a testament to how personally transformative the decision to act morally can be. Although Alone in Berlin is unbearably harrowing and relentlessly grim, Fallada refuses to snuff out the human spirit entirely.

It is partly for this reason that Primo Levi described Alone in Berlin as ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. It is a truly remarkable novel and sits alongside the works of Alan Furst, Patrick Hamilton and Joseph Roth for offering an author’s insights into why individuals either gravitated towards or challenged fascism. And yet, Alone in Berlin has become a source of controversy among academics and the cultural elite. Barely a month goes by without another news story about Fallada and his novel.

Some academics feel that Fallada was a stooge either for the Nazis or German communists after the war, and thus he was a rank opportunist. Professor David Cesarani wrote: ‘Alone in Berlin was commissioned by Johannes Becher, the cultural supremo of the German Communist party, a ghastly apparatchik who strangled genuine independence of thought and creativity. He gave Fallada the files on the Hampel case and suggested the plot. His miserable influence, and Fallada’s moral bankruptcy, explains the tinny-sounding encomium to a socialist future that ends the novel.’ Cesarani believes the novel has served as an ‘apology for ambivalence’ and that the majority of Germans supported Hitler right to the bitter end (despite there having been 40 assassination attempts against the Fuhrer).

Cesarani’s seeming hostility to working-class German leftists is a reminder of how politically tortured the discussion of the Holocaust remains. For many European conservatives in the Cold War era, the Holocaust was a subject that was not really up for discussion. Not only did they feel compromised by the Nazi experience, but they also believed that a public discussion of the Holocaust might lend moral legitimacy to the left. This is why details of Soviet atrocities – including the gulags and Stalin’s system of terror – were breathlessly bought to the fore whenever there was a public discussion on the Holocaust. It is only since the ideological and organisational collapse of the left internationally that the Holocaust has become a political and moral touchstone in European society; it can be safely discussed now, safely turned into a vehicle for new forms of acceptable moralism.

The rise of fascism in Europe is now often blamed on the unpredictability and atavistic mentality of the masses. In 2005, on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, then British prime minister Tony Blair said: ‘We remember above all that the Holocaust did not start with a concentration camp. It started with a brick through the shop window of a Jewish business, the desecration of a synagogue, the shout of racist abuse on the street.’ Blair’s real meaning was: it all started with the lower orders. Britain’s brand of official, government-sanctioned anti-fascism serves to upgrade the idea of state authority and to downgrade ordinary people and their capacity to make the right moral choices. It is ordinary people who are now viewed as the unpredictable and menacing force in society, who need to be carefully observed and controlled in order to avoid havoc.

It is in this wider cultural climate that Alone in Berlin can appear controversial. Although Otto and Anna did originally vote for the National Socialists, believing that they would guarantee economic prosperity, they later took the decision to risk their lives in challenging the Nazi regime – as did thousands of ordinary Germans at the time. The news that a missing chapter of Fallada’s novel has been unearthed in Germany, and that it reveals that Otto and Anna had been involved with the Third Reich, has been met with palpable relief in some quarters: confirmation that ordinary Germans were all morally culpable. Yet the published version of the novel doesn’t hide the couple’s former support for the regime, or that they were motivated by avenging the death of their son. It also has Otto and Anna as uneducated factory workers, with their ‘crude’ postcards full of grammatical errors. For many in the middle-class literati, this is all too much to stomach: how can Fallada imply that uneducated Germans were against the Nazis? Yet the truth is that the Nazis’ core support bases were amongst the lower middle class and middle-class professionals (1).

On its own terms, Michael Hofmann’s vibrantly translated version of Alone in Berlin provides a vivid and often traumatic picture of day-to-day life under the boot heel of Nazism. At times it is so painfully convincing that you have to pause and reflect before reading on. The sales success of Alone in Berlin may be a depressing signifier that Britain can’t let go of the Second World War, yet its publication has also occurred at a time when the rise of fascism has never been more cynically manipulated to frame the working masses as the arch villains of history. For this reason, a fictionalised account of an ordinary real-life couple’s anti-Nazi postcard campaign 65 years ago remains both important and moving. Long may Fallada’s harrowing novel continue to rile Europe’s cultural elite.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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