Monday, July 27, 2009

Review of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann, Penguin Classics, (2009, in German in 1947)

If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to live in a fascist regime then you need to read Hans Fallada’s recently translated classic, Alone in Berlin, first published in 1947 (U.S. title is Every Man Dies Alone).

In 1940, the occupants of 55 Jablonski Strasse are all fairing differently in the Nazi regime. On the top floor is the elderly Jewess, Frau Rosenthal, whose lives in fear since her husband was arrested a few weeks beforehand. Under her lives Otto Quangel, a foreman at a carpentry factory, who is looked on with suspicion by his bosses because he refuses to pay party dues, and his devoted wife, Anna. Beneath them are the Persickes, a family of bullies, wedded to the Nazi party, and who like to throw their weight around. On the ground floor is the retired Judge Fromm, who quietly keeps order, and at the basement at the back of the house lives the snitch Emil Borkhausen, his wife, Otti - who supplements their meagre rations with gifts from obliging men – and their five children all of whom have different father. When Otto and Anna Quangel learn that their only son has been killed in the battle for France, they decide to start to undermine the murderous Nazi regime by leaving anonymous postcards around the city, criticising Hitler and the fascist system and urging people to resist in whatever way they can. Then with Judge Fromm they rescue Frau Rosenthal from the thieving hands of Borkhausen and the more malicious Persickes. They have started on a path of resistance that soon captures the attention of the tenacious Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo and his superiors, and so the cat-and-mouse game begins.

'Don't worry, Trudel,' says Otto Quangel, and his calm is such as to immediately help to settle her agitation. 'You know, with Otto Quangel a thing goes in one ear and out the other. I can't remember what you told me a moment ago.' With grim resolve he gazes at the poster. 'I don't care if the whole Gestapo turns up, I don't know anything. And,' he adds, 'if you want, and if it makes you feel more secure, then from this moment forth, we simply won't know each other any more. You don't need to come tonight to see Anna, I'll cook up story for her.'

Primo Levi, for whom I have the greatest respect, said that Alone in Berlin is ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. I think it does a lot more than that – it doesn’t simply reveal the mundane and everyday resistances and small transgressions of ordinary people, but also how the fascist system worked in practice on a day-to-day basis for everyone in society including children, parents, relatives, friends, employees and employers, state agencies and the servers of law and order; how fear and terror permeated every facet of life regardless of whether one was ideologically opposed to Nazism or its most fervent advocate. Indeed, Fallada’s story of friendship, love, deceit, betrayal, and redemption, reveals in stark detail the micro-circuits of power (in all its guises – domination, intimidation, coercion, seduction, manipulation, etc) that swirled and eddied around people regardless of their class or rank to maintain the hegemonic social relations that kept people in line; made them self-discipline their behaviour and to discipline the behaviour of others; to comply with a system that bore down on them, exploited them, coerced them into implicitly participating in atrocities against their fellow Germans and other nations; and enabled those that craved power through violence and intimidation to enact their brutal punishments. In this sense, Fallada’s brilliant book is the fictional equivalent to the more academically orientated prison notes of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist imprisoned by Mussolini who sought to understand why both the masses and elites tolerated a fascist regime that did not represent their best interests and did not rise up in revolution to depose them.

This is not to say that people simply accepted the system that oppressed them - domination and abuses of power are always accompanied by resistance – but rather such resistance is individualised or small scale, failing to reach a critical mass, and often is enacted in such a way that the perpetrator cannot be identified and punished. And this is what Fallada’s story concentrates on – the small acts of defiance (the writing and distribution of anti-Nazi postcards, the sheltering of Jews and political prisoners, working at a slow pace, sabotaging machines, writing doctor’s notes so that a person didn’t have to serve at the front) and how the state seeks to crush them by turning people against people in the name of some higher ideal (in this case a Nationalist Socialist Germany) and rewarding those who inform, denounce and enforce, whilst at the same time reminding them that they are equally vulnerable if they step out of line. Alone in Berlin, by tracing the interlocking stories of a two dozen people – active resistors, those simply trying to survive, those unwittingly drawn into situations not of their choosing, and the Gestapo and their stooges – reveals the messy, complex and contingent set of social relations existing in the Nazi fascist state. There were Germans who were fanatical, homicidal nationalists that craved a superpower Third Reich free of inferior peoples, but there were also millions of ordinary Germans opposed to such ideology and the madness of war and were also victims of its regime.

Contemporary novels of the Nazi period tend to be Thrillers with a capital T – for example, they focus on a large conspiracy plot or key political figures. Alone in Berlin is a thriller with a small t. It undoubtedly sits within the crime genre, but its core is an exploration of humanity and humanism - how people think and act in extraordinary circumstances. Fallada’s narrative is well paced and expertly plotted – none of the story feels contrived – and his characterization is first rate. While it is often not an easy read, and I felt emotionally exhausted at the end, its story is compelling - it is a book that will haunt the reader long after they have finished reading it in all the right ways.

Thanks to Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps for the recommendation.

1 comment:

Uriah Robinson said...

What a superb review of a superb book. I am so pleased that you gave it five stars.