Nightmare in Berlin


If I could have read any book published in 1947 for Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club I would probably have started with Jean Giono’s Un roi sans divertissement or Jose Saramago’s Terra do Pecado. Unfortunately neither seems to have been translated into English (if you know differently, let me know), but fortuitously another previously untranslated work from that year has recently appeared: Hans Fallada’s Der Alpdruck. Nightmare in Berlin (translated by Allan Blunden) is Fallada’s penultimate novel, written shortly before Alone in Berlin, which was also published that year.


Jenny Williams (author of Fallada biography More Lives Than One) has described it as “The book that cleared the way for Alone in Berlin,” and we see something of that in the novel itself which is largely autobiographical and makes reference to the central character, Doll’s, crisis of faith regarding his writing. We can find an accurate summary of the novel in the notes on Fallada’s life provided at the back:

“Marriage in Berlin to the 22-year-old Ursula ‘Ulla’ Losch, who also has a history of morphine addition; because of the ceaseless air-raids they…move out to [Ulla’s] wooden chalet in Klinkecken, on the outskirts of Feldberg; when the war ends Fallada is made mayor of Feldberg by the occupying Red Army; in August the couple suffer a breakdown and are hospitalised; they return to their apartment in Berlin-Schoneberg which is partly destroyed, partly occupied by others…”

Much of what Fallada writes in Nightmare in Berlin is therefore almost contemporaneous with events around him. The novel begins with Doll and his wife Alma awaiting the arrival of Russian troops after the SS pull out of the town. As other villagers consider hiding in the woods, Alma announces:

“We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not hiding anything away; my husband and I are going to welcome the long-awaited liberators at the door of our house!”

Doll, however, is not feeling so optimistic: yes, he is pleased at the defeat of the Nazis, but at the same time he despairs for his country:

“…he knew, at least in theory, that ever since the Nazi seizure of power and the persecution of the Jews, the name ‘German’, already badly damaged by the First World War, had become progressively more reviled and despised, from week to week and month to month. How often had he said to himself, ‘We will never be forgiven for this!’”

He has a recurring dream (or nightmare) in which he is trapped at the bottom of a bomb crater:

“He was lying at the bottom of a huge bomb crater, on his back, his arms pressed tightly against his sides, lying in the wet, yellow mud. Without moving his head, he was able to see the trunks of trees that had toppled into the crater, as well as the facades of houses with their empty window openings, and nothing behind them.”

This sense of helplessness pervades the novel, a helplessness which is exacerbated by the Dolls’ use of morphine. Despite the threat of an occupying army Alma ventures out to “replenish her supply of gallbladder medicine,” going as far as to ask one of the Russian soldiers to open the chemist’s shop for her.

Morphine addiction also haunts their return to Berlin, as we see when Doll finally finds a doctor to see his wife (who has injured her leg). She refuses to go into hospital but is happy instead to be treated with morphine at home:

“The effect was immediate: no sooner had the needle gone in than Doll saw the relaxed, almost happy, expression spread across his wife’s face.”

Soon they have numerous doctors coming at different times in order to receive more and more of the drug.

After each of these periods of addiction Doll regrets the time wasted in what he calls their “bed-graves.” This fear of addiction may explain the inclusion of a lengthy detour which recounts Doll’s confrontation with Dr Wilhem, a vet reduced to alcoholism.

While addiction may not characterise every survivor, Fallada paints a vivid picture of life in the aftermath of the war. Doll has to come to terms with the fact they are little more than beggars:

“Now the Dolls, too, were down and out, with only a small suitcase to their name, homeless, dependent on the help of friends, strangers, maybe even public assistance.”

Every time they meet an old friend they discover that each of them is so eager to tell the story of their misfortunes they have no patience to listen to the other. Fallada is particularly good, as he is in all of his novels which I have read, at detailing the minutia of hope and despair, the small victories and defeats which characterise a life of struggle. This, more than anything, gives the novel its dramatic force.

Nightmare in Berlin may not be as great a novel as Alone in Berlin, but it is a powerful testament of the time in which it was written. That strength is also perhaps its weakness, mined from life in reaction to the fear Doll expresses that “Maybe I’ll never write another book. Everything looks so bleak.” Even its last few pages, however, contains many wonderful moments, from Doll’s nurse, Truller, who asks everyone leaving the hospital, “And if you should hear anything – you know what I mean – you’ll let me know at once?” in reference to her missing son, to the young girl Doll spots in the street:

“Her dress appeared to have been made from a couple of flour sacks. When the wearer made it she still retained a little bit of hope, despite her wretched circumstances; she had added some crudely embroidered decorative trims and a little white collar, as if to say, ‘I’m young, you can still look at me, even if I’m only wearing a dress made from old sacking!’”

And, of course, we can enjoy Doll’s friend and fellow writer, Granzow’s, remark that “one day you’ll write the book that everyone is waiting for!”


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9 Responses to “Nightmare in Berlin”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    An interesting choice, Grant. I’ve failed (twice!) in my attempts to read “Alone in Berlin” so maybe I should give another one of his books a chance!

    • 1streading Says:

      I loved Alone in Berlin – and have gone on to read a number of his other novels. Little Man, What Now is probably my next favourite, perhaps you could try that?

  2. MarinaSofia Says:

    I’m rather tempted by this one – just recently finished (rereading) Alone in Berlin.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    I am a serial Fellada admirer, and will be most unhappy when I have no more of his books on the TBR. Nightmare in Berlin was my 5th ( and I thought it was more hopeful than you did.
    And I loved the character of Alma!

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks – I’d missed your review but have put that right now. As I’ve said in a comment there, the ending of Nightmare certainly feels optimistic but as Doll’s view of the future changes so much during the novel I wasn’t sure how permanent his feelings at the end are meant to be. His view of human nature seems to change with each kind or selfish act he sees.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Just trying to catch up with one or two posts in a bit of spare time this morning…

    Fascinating background on this novel and its connection to Alone in Berlin. A little like Kaggsy, I tried to read ‘Alone’ a couple of years ago, but the time wasn’t right so it ended up back on the unread shelves. It’s good to know that you rate it so highly as I’m sure it’s the type of book I would love once the story gets underway. I really should give it another try at some point.

    • 1streading Says:

      I do rate Alone in Berlin highly – a rediscovered classic which deserves the name. I think Fallada is great on precarious day-to-day survival, which I suppose is how he lived.

      • JacquiWine Says:

        That’s what struck me about your commentary on this one – Fallada’s skill in depicting the ‘minutia of hope and despair, the small victories and defeats which characterise a life of struggle’. I will definitely give Alone another go. Thanks for the nudge!

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