Thoughts on: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

January 22, 2012

Article first published as Book Review: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada on Blogcritics.

About:
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada is a fictional 1947 book describing the life in Germany under the Third Reich. The book’s title in the US is Every Man Dies Alone.

  • 544 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House; Reprint edition
  • ISBN: 1935554271

My rating for Alone in Berlin – 5

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Thoughts:
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada tells the simple truth in minimal, yet descriptive prose. The book, it seems, is written from the edge of sanity by a man who knows what suffering is.

The author whose real name is Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (his nom de plume is a combination of Grimm Fairy Tale characters), a drug addict and brilliant novelist, who spent much of World War II in a Nazi insane asylum. He used the pretext of writing an anti-Semitic novel for the Nazi’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to get preferential treatment.
The novel was never written.

The book is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, two middle aged workers who actively engaged in undermining the Third Reich. Their crusade included writing hundreds of post cards against Hitler and his cronies leaving them all over Berlin. The campaign wasn’t very successful as most of the postcards, when found, were immediately turned over to the Gestapo but it did embarrass authorities for two years.

The novel that tells of the postcard campaign but also about the larger picture in Berlin, or more specifically the occupants of 55 Jablonski Strasse. The building’s occupants include the elderly Mrs. Rosenthal (the last Jew), a judge, a post office worker and her no-good ex-husband who has a breakdown after realizing what her heroic son really does in the SS, a government snitch and his prostitute wife and a family of official Nazis.

Fallada introduces the reader to a world where fear and terror rule and the dread of being snitched upon is on everyone’s mind. The characters are complex, well written and three dimensional. The heroes and villains in this novel are shown with all shades of gray. Fallada just tells a story as honestly as possible without coloring it in false shades.

Otto Quangel, the protagonist, is not a very nice man, he doesn’t like his neighbors or to talk to people, he doesn’t interact with his underlings at work and doesn’t like to visit relatives. Otto only loves his wife Anna, even his son he only loves through her, but sometimes he cannot display his affection.
Not because he doesn’t want, but because he can’t. That’s just the person Otto Quangel is.

What I loved about the story is that there aren’t absolutes in it. The good guys have their faults, the Nazis have their merits.
If anything, this is a story about circumstances.

Even today, with tons of research the world still struggles to decide whether or not the Germans under the Nazi regime were acting as human beings or an evil mob. This is, of course, a catch-22. if they were human beings then the responsibility doesn’t fall only on the people, but also on circumstances. Call them an evil mob and you exonerate the humans.

Alone in Berlin is a novel for anyone who ever asked “what would I do if I were there?” The novel doesn’t give answers (no great novel does that) but gives you a lot to think about.

Books in sim­i­lar vein:
Field Gray by Philip Kerr
The Silent Oli­garch by Chris Mor­gan Jones
Shad­ows Walk­ing by Dou­glas R. Skopp
So tell me, what would you do (no judgments, I often ask myself that questions and my family’s safety always wins)?

Synopsis:
Otto and Anna Quangel receive the worst news parents can get – their only son died in the war. Feeling frustrated against the Nazi machine they decide that they must act in defiance. However, acting in defiance is a sure death sentence.

Together they write and distribute postcards which call for action against the Reich. They manage to allude the police for two years thinking they are making a difference.

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Zohar – Man of la Book
Disclaimer: I borrowed this book.

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9 Comments

  • Alex Baugh January 22, 2012 at 9:09 am

    I read this book years ago in German and have it to read in English. I thought it was a wonderful book. What would I do? I have often wondered about that. I honestly don’t know, but I would like to think I would act honorably.
    Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Zohar - Man of la Book January 22, 2012 at 11:58 am

      If you read it in English please let me know if something was lost in translation – even though the story was very powerful.

  • Jonathan January 22, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Great review, Zohar. This book looks very intriguing, though I have to say, the story of the author’s life sounds just as intriguing as his novel, if not more so. Thank you for bringing both of them to my attention.

    As to your question, I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think I would act courageously in the face of such evil, but I have learned that most people in this world are largely cowards, and I simply can’t predict how I’d react in such an extreme situation.

    • Zohar - Man of la Book January 22, 2012 at 11:59 am

      LOL, I’d like to think so also but I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that it might not be the case. As you said, I can’t predict.

  • C.E. Hart January 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

    As Alex and Jonathan have stated, I HOPE I ‘d do the right thing, but until we walk in those shoes we’ll never know for sure.

    This book is undoubtedly a page-turner. Books that make you stop and examine yourself are so important.

    Thank you for this review, Zohar. Once again, I am placing a book you’ve recommended on my to be read list.

  • Doug Skopp January 23, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Another quite fine review, Zohar, thoughtful and sensitive–and you raise, I believe, exactly the right question: what would any of us do if we lived under such conditions? My own novel, Shadows Walking, addresses the very same question in describing how a well-meaning, thoughtful, ordinary German physician decided to become a Nazi doctor and commit crimes against humanity. Thank you for referring your readers to your recent interview of me at the end of your review of Fallada’s last masterpiece. When I taught German history, I used his earlier novel–Litle Man What Now? It traces the shifting sands and suspicions that undermine an ordinary family as Hitler comes to power. Your readers and you, no doubt will find this work a remarkably poignant book, too. Reading it, we can see why the Nazis thought Fallada so dangerous to put him away in an insane asylum.

  • Anna January 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    I bought this one awhile back but haven’t read it yet. It sounds so good that I’m going to have to read it soon. Sounds like it gives you a lot to think about, and I know the author’s story is just tragic. Will link to your review on War Through the Generations.

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