Alone in Berlin
Penguin Books, 2009
The twelve years spanning 1933 till 1945 are the dark years of Nazi domination in Germany and vast stretches of conquered Europe. For the purposes of this book review, this period can be divided into the six years before the war, until 1939, and the six years of the Second World War from 1939 to 1945. The book under review presents us with a powerful canvas of the war years in Germany and specifically in Berlin. The biographical information regarding the author, his connection with the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels, and the circumstances surrounding the actual writing of the novel are fascinating in themselves, even before the reader opens the book.
Hans Fallada’s book, Alone in Berlin, is a novel, written in the style of a page-turning thriller, but clearly based on a real-life story from those years. It depicts with an incisive scrutiny how difficult it was for Germans who were opposed to the Nazi regime to actively engage in any activity that opposed that regime. The book is not about the Holocaust and the fate of Jews in Germany. In fact only one old lady, Frau Rosenthal, who lives, and dies in her apartment building in Berlin represents the Jewish component of this period in Germany. And again, at a further juncture in the story, the reader is drawn into an argument between a young German couple over whether or not to hide a Jew in their apartment.
The heart of the book is the relentless pursuit by the Gestapo, the various law authorities, and the strong arm of the SS of any and every sign of civilian insubordination against the regime. A string of varied characters criss-cross the pages of the narrative, some disappearing prematurely into the Nazi net of terror and others peopling the pages of the book until the end. The reader becomes very familiar with all the occupants of one residential apartment block in Berlin. This one building presents a fascinating mosaic of the human landscape of the city and Frau Rosenthal mentioned above is alternately helped or hounded by her neighbors. We become well acquainted with the work halls and corridors of a large industrial carpentry shop with its attendant atmosphere of Nazi controls because the main protagonist of the novel, Otto Quangel lives in the apartment block described above and walks everyday to his job as shift manager and foreman in the factory.
The characters Otto and Anna Quangel, his wife, are based on the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a couple living in Berlin who embarked on their private journey of active opposition to the regime by creating postcards with short messages of condemnation of the Nazis and dropping them off in visible places usually in the lobbies of Berlin buildings. The Hampels were caught, tried, and executed. Their mission showed both incredible bravery and total impracticality and besides some ruffled feathers in the Gestapo and the suicide of a failed SS investigator, their actions amounted to nought at the time.
However, Rudolf Ditzen, another Berliner active at the time, was unaware during the war that he was destined in fact to make the Hampels’ story known to the literary world in this book after the war. Ditzen took the name Hans Fallada as his publishing name and in a phenomenally short few weeks in 1947, he wrote Alone in Berlin, his novel version of the Hampel tragedy through his creation of the Quangels and all the other characters that people both sides of the human, moral, and political divide of Nazi Germany.
Fallada never lived to see the book published, dying prematurely of an overdose in the same year. His life with drugs, surviving pressures from the Nazi regime to create pro-Nazi propaganda and various difficult episodes in his private life all lend an additional tragic dimension to this book, produced by him as a paean to the bravery of the small people who attempted to resist the immorality and barbarity of the Nazi regime.
It is fitting that more than sixty years after the initial publication of his book in German, the name of Hans Fallada and the story of the Hampels have become available to English readers. Through Michael Hofmann’s translation in 2009, we have been granted access into the difficult lives of good people in Germany who weren’t cowered into submission by Joseph Goebbels and his like.