Alone in Berlin

Almost all European fiction finds it difficult to make inroads into English, but German literature seems to struggle more than most. French novels are far more frequently translated – and often feted on the basis of the prizes they have won in France. In the post-war period, only Gunter Grass and, more recently, Bernhard Schlink, have become widely known outside Germany. Both made their name with novels examining their country’s Nazi past; but here is a novel by a writer who lived through that period, as a writer, and wrote in response to it almost immediately, in 1946. Hans Fallada was acutely aware of the dilemmas faced by his characters, having been pressured into altering his own work when the Nazis were in power. Although presented as a novel about resistance to the Nazis, Fallada gives us a much wider picture of life in Nazi Germany: for every character who protests, there is one who supports, compromises, or simply looks out for themselves. That Fallada is interested in all these characters is shown by the way that, from chapter to chapter, he moves among his cast to create a panoramic view of Berlin at that time.

Fallada presents his main theme to us quite starkly towards the end of the novel:

“Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one?”

This is the question that Fallada’s unlikely hero, Otto Quangel, answers no to. He is initially far from a hero, both in appearance and character. Our attention is frequently drawn to his “sharp, angular bird face”, and his most pronounced characteristics are his taciturnity and meanness:

“Quangel really seemed to feel every ten pfenning piece he was forced to contribute at collection time.”

His main reason for not joining the Party seems to be that he resents the extra dues he would have to pay. He is not, however, without more positive qualities. He has an innate sense of fairness and dislikes the Party for promoting those who don’t deserve it simply for being Party members. He also clearly loves his wife, something we are told at the beginning (“In his quiet, demonstrative way, he loves this woman very much”) and is equally evident at the end.

Otto and his wife, Anna’s, resistance takes the form of writing anti-Nazi messages on postcards and then leaving them for others to find. Not only is this a rather passive way to resist, but Fallada makes it quite clear that it is ineffectual – almost every postcard is immediately handed in. Their rebellion only begins when their son dies in the war. They are not the only characters who resist in the novel and, in a number of cases, this is linked to the loss of a child. Eva Klug’s resistance begins when she ‘loses’ her son to the Nazis, not through death, but because she discovers the atrocities he has been involved in. Trudel, once Otto’s son’s fiancée, talks of hiding a Jewish woman after she has a miscarriage. The motives of other characters who resist the regime, such as Judge Fromm, are less clear.

However, Fallada is not only interested in those who resist; the narrative spends an equal amount of time with those who either worked for the regime or sought to profit from it. In fact, Fallada quite cleverly weaves together this group of petty criminals and Nazis to emphasise their similarity. One particular example of this is the Quangels’ Jewish neighbour, Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been imprisoned. Borkhausen, the basement-dwelling thief and blackmailer, is soon scheming how he can get his hands on her belongings, as are the local Nazis, the Persickes. Later, a member of the Gestapo also attempts to steal from the house. Although these characters are often ridiculed, Fallada is also capable of moments of sympathy, particularly in the case of Inspector Escherich, a detective who never quite belongs in the world of the Party.

Escherich provides one of the best examples of the atmosphere of fear that inhabits the entire novel. When, having failed to catch the Quangels, he suggests the case be given to another detective this is regarded as “desertion in the face of the enemy”, and he is taken to the cells to be punished. The fear that permeates every level of society is evident from the beginning when Borkhausen attempts to blackmail Otto:

“You know I can get you put in a concentration camp for defeatist muttering like that?”

We see it again when the first postcard is found by actor Max Harteisen:

“Sweat beaded on his brow, suddenly he understood that it wasn’t just the writer of the postcard, but also himself, who was in danger of his life, and perhaps he even more than the other!”

It is in the portrayal of this aspect of life under the Nazis that the novel is most successful.

It is not, however, simply a document, but a cleverly crafted novel, with a diverse cast of characters, flitting between farce and pathos, not unlike Dickens. It is also page turner, shifting perspective to increase tension. It certainly worth discovering, even sixty years later.

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6 Responses to “Alone in Berlin”

  1. Jazzy Says:

    Good review. Thanks. I just got this book yesterday and am loving it.

  2. Jason Says:

    Just finished reading this amazing novel and found this blog very interesting. I think the book will live with me for a long time. This blog describes the novel and it’s themes with clarity.

    I found the book appropriately dark and was very upset by some of the scenes of torture, interrogation and violence. At the same time the story is also inspiring and hopeful. Despite the failure of the Quangel’s scheme they are ultimately victorious by remaining decent and true to themselves.

    As a father I found the theme of losing children deeply moving. The opening chapter where the Quangel’s hear of their son’s death is very well written and terribly sad. It sets up the whole book. The story of Eva Kluge and her son who commits attrocities is likewise very moving. She remembers caring for him as a child and wonders how he can now do these things. This raises all kinds of important questions about humanity.

    Every moment of despair is balanced by a moment of hope.

    Thanks for this thought provoking blog.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. I agree with your comments about parent / child relationships in the novel. As you can see, it is among the best novels I have read this year, and certainly deserved to be rediscovered.

  3. Tales from the Underworld | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] dates of composition). Disappointingly, for those who know Fallada through his most famous work, Alone in Berlin, there is a gap between 1935 and 1945, and therefore nothing which touches on the subject of that […]

  4. Subtly Worded | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] even in the world of translated literature – consider Sandor Marai’s Embers or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. One publisher in particular seems to be able to do this regular basis: step forward Pushkin Press. […]

  5. Nightmare in Berlin | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] in Berlin (translated by Allan Blunden) is Fallada’s penultimate novel, written shortly before Alone in Berlin, which was also published that […]

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