I first read Alone in Berlin in 2011 just after I’d left university. I’d read a lot of books about the Second World War for a course at university, and my further reading (and time on Twitter) led me to this novel. It was only translated into English in 2009, so in 2011 it was still making quite an impact as a ‘new’ book in the UK, and everyone was talking about it. I read it without knowing much at all about the life of ordinary Germans during the war, or life in Berlin at the time. I had read mostly non-fiction about the war, survivor accounts like If This is a Man, and studies like Ordinary Men and Eichmann in Jerusalem, so this was a new side of the war for me.
I was impressed and somewhat overwhelmed by Alone in Berlin the first time I read it, though I’m not sure I fully appreciated it for what it was. Reading it in 2017 was a different experience. Since 2011 I have read a lot more about the war and have read about life in Berlin for ordinary people in non-fiction. I have also read a biography of Hans Fallada that was very illuminating about both him and the context in which Alone in Berlin was written; if you are interested in his fiction I would really recommend it. Fallada was deeply patriotic and refused to leave Germany during the war, even though his British publisher had made arrangements for him and his family to leave – he just couldn’t do it. He never joined the Nazi party and was therefore suspicious to his neighbours and Party officials – so much so that Goebbels himself tried to dictate his output (he was already a successful author and therefore well-known). He did the bare minimum to appease the tenacious Minister, and remained a private critic of the Party.
Alone in Berlin is based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who performed their own kind of civil disobedience to resist the Party. Their story was brought to Fallada by his friend Johannes Becher, who urged him to write about them – and Alone in Berlin was the result, written in only 24 days. Apparently Fallada was reluctant to take on the material, but once you read the book it’s clear he had a lot to pour into it – it is a rich and vivid novel filled with his resentments, anger, and sadness about the war years. The cast of characters features archetypes of Berlin at the time, covering Gestapo staff, petty criminals, terrified Jews, party members, beleaguered women, and those that just want to stay under that radar and get on with their lives – like Otto and Anna Quangel, the fictional versions of the Hampels.
Otto Quangel is a hard-working man, a foreman at a factory, hardened by years of work and with no belief in art or literature. He is described as having a birdlike face and a hard expression, and prefers silence to mindless chatter, even with his wife. He is uneducated, cautious, and set in his ways – and yet, he is the one to instigate his and Anna’s resistance. He decides to write anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and deposit them around the city for others to find. At first Anna is terrified of being caught, but her fear for Otto and her desire for a better life lead her to help him with the cards. Like the real life Hampels, the Quangels are depicted as simple working people with little education. They do not have the power or resources to form any kind of large-scale resistance, but their passion compels them to do what little they can. Their defiance is driven by the death of their only son on the Eastern Front. They realise that they must do something, however small.
The book features several supporting characters, mostly the Quangels’ neighbours in their apartment building. These include the Persicke family, increasingly led by their teenage son who becomes a zealous member of the Hitler Youth; the Jewish Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been ‘taken away’; an old judge who seems well-intentioned; Eva Kluge, the postwoman, and her layabout husband Enno; and Emil Borkhausen, the petty criminal who tries to play everyone at their own game. There is also Inspector Escherich, assigned to track down the writer of the cards once they become known to the Gestapo. He is a multi-layered character with his own arc within the novel, and is a brilliant example of those who were instruments of the Reich but grew to have their doubts.
As with other books about this time and place, there is a strong sense of desperation running throughout the book, and we go through extreme highs and lows with almost all of the characters. Safety, reputation, and life itself are often on a knife edge, millimetres away from either saviour or destruction. More than once Fallada perfectly demonstrates apparent randomness of whether one is caught or one escapes, whether life will continue as always, or whether everything will change. Nothing in Alone in Berlin is certain, and the effect is terrifying. It is an intense and vivid novel, and though the writing is sometimes a little clunky, perhaps due to the speed at which it was written, you are still completely sucked in and engaged with the story and the characters.
The fact that it’s based on a real story, and even the embellished parts are probably close to things that really happened, means that the saddest and most devastating parts of the novel are even more so, and the effect can be overwhelming. You are shown real suffering, real determination and defiance, real chance and luck, and how easy it can be to win or lose. As per the title, and as is said by Otto more than once, we are all alone in the end; but in a strange way, this can bring us together. Knowing that we are each alone means that we should show compassion for one another, we should know that no one’s life is easy, no matter their position.
I think this time around I had a greater understanding of what Fallada was trying to do with this novel – to show how easy it was to collude, or do nothing, or give in to authority and power. This can be seen in several characters, and particularly Inspector Escherich. Fallada also demonstrates that, like Otto the misanthrope, you don’t even have to like other people to see that everyone deserves to live and be free, and that everyone is equal. The afterword mentions the ‘banality of goodness’ on display in the novel, in contrast to the ‘banality of evil’ later explored by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (as well as others). Society in Berlin is so destroyed that basic goodness and decency have become rare. Knowing this also made me appreciate Fallada’s writing a bit more, though it is flawed. His tone is often very deadpan, nonchalant, understated, or even sarcastic when serious or sad things are being discussed; violence, death, cruelty, grief have all become so commonplace for the characters and the city that they do not require any special language.
When I reached the end of Alone in Berlin a second time, I wondered whether it can be considered a hopeful book. The answer is yes and no – even if evil wins sometimes, there are many more victories for goodness and compassion.
Originally published in Germany in 1947 as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone); translated into English in 2009 and published by Melville House in the US, and Penguin in the UK. I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition (pictured above).
A new film adaptation of Alone in Berlin, starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, was made in 2016.