Alone in Berlin
by Hans Fallada
translated from German by Michael Hofmann
Our next holiday will be in Berlin so a colleague recommended I read this novel to get to know the city a little. It’s fiction, but it’s also pretty close to being a first-hand account of life for ordinary Berliners in the city under Nazi rule. Hans Fallada was a successful author before the Nazis came to power and during their rule he tried to tread the fine line between avoiding trouble and collusion with politics and people he didn’t agree with. Those experiences, plus a real-life case of anti-Nazi propaganda, form the basis of this book.
The story opens in 1940. Postwoman Eva Kluge is bringing a telegram to older couple Otto and Anna Quangel with news of the death of their son, fighting at the front. Their upstairs neighbour, Frau Rosenthal, lives in fear of the Nazi thugs on the 1st floor, the Persicke family, since her husband was arrested. But perhaps she should be more afraid of Emil Borkhausen in the basement, who figures he can get away with robbing an old Jewish woman, and might even be rewarded for it by the Party.
“But even though her eyes are now very close to his, she keeps them shut tight, she won’t look at him. Her face is a sickly yellow, her usual healthy colour is gone. The flesh over the bones seems to have melted away – it’s like looking at a skull. Only her cheeks and mouth continue to tremble, as her whole body trembles, caught up in some mysterious inner quake.”
The first part of the book moves smoothly between these characters, describing life from their points of view. The effect is both brilliant and disconcerting. There is a distinct claustrophobia, between the lack of food and the lack of trust even between friends and family.
None of the characters we follow in this early section are avidly pro or anti Nazi, or at least not at first. They are just ordinary citizens trying to find a way to survive. But then loyalties surface and characters begin to question themselves about just what it means to keep your head down and carry on. If you’ve been awakened to your hatred of the Nazi Party, is it enough to just not be a member and not collaborate, or should you try to oppose the regime in some way, however small?
“But the vision won’t go away. Our names on the walls, he thinks, completely confused now. And why not? Hanging on the gallows is no worse than being ripped apart by a shell, or dying from a bullet in the guts. All that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is this: I must find out what it is with Hitler. Suddenly all I see is oppression and hate and suffering, so much suffering.”
It’s not a cheerful book. Awful things happen, to characters who are nice and not-so-nice. There is an air of hopelessness hanging over much of the narrative, making it a little surprising that this was written in 1946, after Nazi rule had ended. But I guess that was still close enough that the memory of despair was potent.
This is a big book and the main thrust of the story takes a while to get going. How it goes from scene setting to the main story would be a bit of a spoiler to reveal, but I do think that scene setting was important. It’s also not a quick read, despite becoming for a while a combination of police procedural and thriller, because the oppressive atmosphere prevents it from being a book you can gulp down. That said, I always looked forward to my next chance to read this, despite the depressing subject matter.
This was Fallada’s final work and in Germany is considered a masterpiece but it wasn’t translated into English until 2009. I am curious about the rest of Fallada’s work. The copy I read includes quite a lengthy afterword about the author and the real-life events that were borrowed from to create this fiction. I have to say I’m not sure how much exactly it’s prepared me for visiting Berlin, but I’m glad I’ve read it.
Jeder stirbt fur sich allein published 1947.
This translation first published 2009 by Melville House as Every Man Dies Alone.
Source: Borrowed from a colleague.