Fiction, Reviews

Re-reading: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947)

6801335

2009 Penguin paperback (image: goodreads.com)

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.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

Advertisements
Standard
Fiction, Non-Fiction

The Second World War: Selected Reading

Note on photos: where possible I have photographed my own books. I own the others mentioned in this post but don’t have the books with me, so have used photos from GoodReads.

 

It would be impossible to narrow down the absolute best books about the Second World War, not least because there are scores I haven’t read. So, I’m going to detail the best of what I personally have read, subjective though that may be.

So why books about the Second World War? I’m currently reading The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, and it got me thinking about the different types of books I have read about this earth-shattering period in our history. The Kindly Ones is a fictional autobiography of Max Aue, a successful businessman who was a Nazi officer in a former life. He tells his story to ‘set the record straight’ and does not spare his reader from gruesome or disturbing details. Littell spent five years researching the book, and its detail is both astounding and endlessly fascinating (however unpleasant it might sometimes be). Really it’s quite an odd sort of book, and quite unlike most of what I have read about the war. When I finish it I will tackle writing about it properly!

The other books that have stayed with me the most are listed below.

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi – I think this is essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about what it was like to live in (and survive) a Nazi concentration camp. I read this as part of a course of Literatures of Genocide at university and it remains, to me, the pinnacle of survivor testimony from this period (whether or not that’s actually the case).

6181

1987 Abacus books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – this was read for the same course and really opened my eyes. It is the story of a Polish police battalion, made up of civilians, who became part of an Einsatzgruppe. It’s a similar principal to the Stanford prison experiment, except this is real life and it is both harrowing and entirely believable.

186979

2001 Penguin Books edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt – the subtitle of this book is The Banality of Evil, and that just says it all. Eichmann was essentially a pencil pusher who wanted to further his own career, and in doing so helped put The Final Solution in motion. This is a hard-going read at times, as you’d expect, but it is most definitely worth it.

435764

1994 Penguin Classics edition (which I own). Image via goodreads.com

Magda by Meike Zeirvogel – this is a fictional account of the life and psyche of Magda Goebbels, and is one of the most elegant and disturbing books I have read. While not sympathetic to Magda Geobbels, this novel does try to understand her and why she became the woman she was. The beautiful writing certainly helps deal with the tragedy, and the fact that the author is German adds another layer of interest.

IMG_7761

2013 Salt Publishing edition

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – I just had to include this. I read it when it was reissed by Penguin a few years ago, and it just blew me away. Though fictional it is based on a true story, and exposes some of the horror of living through the war as a German civilian who did not support the Nazis. The vivid and yet subtle writing is unbeatable.

IMG_7759

2009 Penguin Classics edition

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall – this is also about the struggle to survive as a German civilian, and is told almost like one long bad dream. It is lyrical and strange at times, but this does not reduce the emotional depth of the sparse writing. I just read this and would recommend it anyone looking for a literary and less stark depiction of life during the war.

IMG_7664

2015 Peirene Press edition

Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe – this just blew me away. It is framed as a letter from a French citizen to the Nazi Commandant in his hometown in Occupied France. He tells his life story and explores his views about France’s relationship with Germany, as well as his own personal struggles. It is a fascinating and terrifying book that I highly recommend. My review is here.

IMG_7764

2014 Gallic Books edition

 

There are an awful lot more books on the War that I would like to read, some of which I already own, and some which I don’t. It is a rather long list so I’m not going to include it here, but might save it for a future post. I’m sure some of the books on the list will be reviewed/written about at some point soon! Here are the books I currently own that are next on the reading list:

IMG_7763

 

I’d love to hear some more recommendations for literature of this period – what would you suggest?

 

Standard