Alone in Berlin
Hans Fallada, 1947
Hans Fallada is one of those accomplished, poignant and engaging authors that hardly anyone has heard of. A lack of translations cannot be given as an excuse: even mainstream bookshops occasionally have at least one of his novels on the shelves. Libraries likewise. But as a book that so chillingly and with such accomplishment examines the attempts of an ordinary German couple to undermine the crushing effects of Nazi rule in Berlin, it deserves to be read at least once.
The story is based on fact. Elise and Otto Hampel, poorly educated, living in Berlin, and as unlikely a couple to work on the subversion of the Nazi machine as it is possible to conceive, nonetheless turned from being inoffensive, scarcely noticeable citizens to the engineers of a three-year campaign to change the minds of other ordinary – decent – people. What they did was not earth-shattering: they secretly dropped handwritten notes in public places. In doing so, their hope was that the ordinary German, not aligned to the Party, would see the senselessness of what Chancellor Hitler was doing and help to begin a mass movement that would dislodge him from power.
Elise Hempel seems not to have been engaged in any kind of political activity before her brother was killed early in the war. Following his death, she and her husband left hundreds of postcards all over Berlin, urging workers to sabotage their work-places, engage in civil disobedience and refrain from giving to the Winter Fund, a so-called charity that in effect contributed to the Nazi war effort. Their cards generally found their way to the police, but the Hempels were so successful that they were believed to be part of a sophisticated resistance movement.
The beauty of Fallada’s story lies partly in the detailed psychology of the main characters, Anna and Otto Quangel, and subsidiary ones such as Inspector Escherich, who is charged with the task of apprehending the Quangels. The atmosphere of bullying and menace in which they are all forced to operate – even Escherich is beaten up and thrown into a cell for failing to find the Quangels quickly enough – pervades the whole book. As minor characters are implicated in various ways in the Quangels’ activities, the plot also becomes an example of the finest kind of thriller writing. The device of the dropping of the postcards, combined with the fear or fury with which those who read such messages as ‘Hitler’s war is the worker’s death’ respond, help pull the reader inexorably through the narrative. We sympathise with everyone who encounters the cruelty and sadism of the Nazi officials, even as we realize that, sooner or later, the Quangels will be caught.
Why is this book worth reading? Because it manages to terrify and uplift at the same time. Because it reminds us that, faced by the kind of mechanical violence which seems endemic where Fascism and totalitarianism reign, there are people like the Quangels, and Jewish ex-magistrate Judge Fromm, who not only hides a suspect in his flat but helps the Quangels when their need is most acute. Primo Levi called it ‘The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’.
Hans Fallada spent much of his life in prison, or in psychiatric care, but he never left Germany. Somehow combining the writing of ‘inoffensive’ texts with more overtly political and humanistic ones, he managed to escape the concentration camps even as he was condemned by Nazi commentators. The life he led finds its way into Alone in Berlin. We can only hope that, in the face of the toxic forces that threaten to overwhelm our contemporary world, there are enough Quangels and Judge Fromms and Hans Falladas working to keep morality alive, to engage in those small acts of quiet resistance that barely shake the world, but allow it to maintain some degree of principle and integrity.