Sunday, 12 December 2010

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

DATE PUBLISHED: 1947 (first published in English 2009)

DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: This is a bleak, terrifying and haunting novel. Set in wartime Berlin it seeks to tell the story of Otto and Anna Quangel – a pair of very unlikely dissidents. After the death of their soldier son in France they decide that they must do something to challenge the Nazis. Otto decides he will write postcards with anti-regime slogans and leave them in random spots to be found and read by others. The book makes clear from the start that their actions are doomed to failure but despite that the story is compelling.

The title is intriguing. Throughout the book there is a sense of “aloneness” of the characters. Otto and Anna seem to be living quite separate lives (but do come together emotionally later in the book). The wastrel Enno moves from woman to woman thinking only of himself. Frau Rosenthal is a Jewess living alone and appearing to have no friends or relatives. Judge Fromm is also quite alone in his apartment with his books and his thoughts (or is he?) Even the Gestapo Inspector Esherisch is alone in his work with no respect for those around him.

What this book makes clear is the answer to the question: When the German people realised how bad the Nazis were why didn’t they challenge them? Fallada describes in graphic detail the ruthlessness of the police, the justice system and the terror and insecurity of the ordinary people. For the overwhelming majority it became easier and safer to be quiet, keep your head down and avert your eyes.

But (according to Fallada) in the final analysis the question to ask oneself is whether you remained a decent human being or sunk to the level of those around. When asked if their resistance has been in vain the prisoner Doctor Reichhardt says:

“Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end………As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone or that our death will be in vain.”

A profoundly moving book.

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