Thursday, 28 December 2017

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada Review

Berlin, 1940. While Hitler celebrates conquering France, a working class German couple – Otto and Anna Quangel – mourn the passing of their son, Ottochen, who fell in the fighting. Bitterly upset at the Fuhrer, they begin a quiet campaign of civil disobedience against his Third Reich, dropping hand-made postcards with anti-Nazi slogans printed on them across Berlin. The treasonous postcards are soon noticed and the Gestapo quickly take up the hunt for the culprits – but how long can the Quangels evade capture? 

German writer Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin (published in America under the title Every Man Dies Alone) was written in just 24 days in 1946. Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen) passed away from heart failure, after decades of drug and alcohol abuse, mere months after completing it, and never saw its publication in 1947. Despite doing well in both East and West Germany in the ensuing years, the book wasn’t published in English until 2009 when it became a surprise bestseller. And it’s easy to see why – Alone in Berlin is an excellent novel! 

After the war, Fallada was given the Gestapo file on Otto and Elise Hampel and used their brave, but doomed, campaign of low-key opposition as the basis for his novel. Names are changed here and there, as are the way the characters meet their fates, and Fallada uses the novelist’s prerogative to dramatize his narrative, but the main characters are based on real people from the defiant Quangels to the tenacious and formidable Gestapo Inspector Escherich right down to the utterly despicable Nazi Judge Feisler towards the end. 

It is a very long read at nearly 600 pages and it takes a while to get going, so, if you’re going to give it a shot, be patient with it. I can also understand people’s criticisms about the narrative containing too many tangents. Fallada gives a lot of chapters to a couple of inessential side characters, deadbeats Enno Kluge and Emil Borkhausen, whose stories are only very tenuously connected to the Quangels’. It would definitely be a more streamlined novel had they been eschewed entirely. The same could be said of the story of the disgusting Nazi family, the Persickes, and their black-hearted SS son Baldur. 

Then again, if you just want the bare facts, go read the Wikipedia entry on the Hampels instead. Like any writer worth his salt, Fallada is more concerned with the art of fiction writing like creating atmosphere, characters, as well as a real feeling and understanding of this insane time to better understand the people involved and their actions. How else to grasp the overblown reaction to the Quangels’ small, almost quaint, postcards, upon which were written simplistic things along the lines of “Hitler is a liar!”, than to experience the fearful and oppressive atmosphere of life than through a sampling of its society? Also, the myriad stories were largely entertaining and I was rarely bored with anything I was reading, regardless of relevance to the primary plotline. 

More importantly the wider cast serves as a reminder that there were many German people who secretly hated and resisted Hitler and his war and that the Nazis were not representative of the country as a whole – as a Brit, I get the impression that all Germans from this time get unfairly tarred with the same brush. Those not in concentration camps could still easily become victims and prisoners themselves thanks to horribly corrupt and brutal institutions like the Gestapo making their everyday lives hell. 

All of which sounds like a thoroughly depressing read, no? It is and it isn’t. Because, though Fallada treats the subject matter with the utmost respect - not to mention the incidence of characters committing suicide, getting murdered, suffering miscarriages, and being executed! - it’s never overwhelmingly grim, melodramatic or sentimental so it doesn’t wear you down emotionally too much. Quite often it weirdly reads like a thriller and, after the initial slow start, it really picks up steam the deeper into it you go; as odd as it sounds given all that, I found it a very enjoyable read. 

Fallada was undeniably a talented writer and, though his character portraits of certain characters – particularly the Nazis – were one-dimensional, he importantly gives the main ones necessary nuance to stand out. Gestapo Inspector Escherich is an especially memorable and imposing figure whose own fate came as a shock - he strongly reminded me of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds. 

It has some fat to it that might do with some selective editing as some passages (the interrogation scenes) are a bit dull and slow but on the whole Alone in Berlin is a compelling and exciting novel that paints a vivid and startling image of life in wartime Germany at the very heart of the Third Reich. As well as cementing his own literary legacy with this book, Fallada ensured the courageous sacrifices of Otto and Elise Hampel live on through the years to be discovered by new generations of readers - a powerful story that deserves to be remembered. Alone in Berlin is a remarkable novel I’m glad to have read.

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