Classic read: Alone in Berlin

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(381)

Hans Fallada

First published in 1947

Hans Fallada's 1947 novel Alone in Berlin is set in the German capital during the Second World War. It tells the intertwined stories of families living in an apartment block and trying to cope with the Nazis' terror regime. Fallada shows ordinary people both resisting the Nazis and working for them, in a myriad of different ways.

The couple at the centre of the novel, Otto and Anna Quangel, are grief-stricken by their son's death while fighting in France, and their grief quickly turns to determined resistance to the regime. Every week they produce postcards displaying anti-Nazi slogans and over a two-year period distribute them around the city in office stairwells. Their resistance is strengthened by the mistreatment of a Jewish neighbour and by dislike of the Nazi family who live on the floor above.

Alongside the Quangels' story Fallada tells that of the Gestapo police inspector trying to hunt them down. The terror is all consuming. Not just the hunted, but some of the hunters, and those who seek to profit from the Nazi persecution of working people, are destroyed. Yet however terrifying the state terror apparatus is, Fallada extracts dark humour from its frequent, blundering and myopic failures.

Throughout the novel, despite the huge network of police spies and Nazi agents, there are examples of individuals looking for ways to fight back. We see, among others, members of an opposition factory cell, a widowed shopkeeper, a retired judge and a Christian technician make brave stands against tyranny.

Otto is a foreman in a furniture factory which "ironically" has been converted to coffin manufacturing. At one point the omniscient narrator tells us that "there is not one among the 80 men [present on Otto's shift] who has not in some way opposed the present government". Yet the impact of the terror is such that most individuals feel isolated and act alone.

Worse still, the widespread fear limits the effect of any rebellion. Most of the Quangels' postcards are handed in to the authorities by people terrified of being implicated themselves. The narrator shows us a doctor in just such a state, yet significantly his fear stems from hoping that his own act of defiance will remain concealed.

Fallada is unsparing in his portrait of Nazi brutality and how they break resistance with violence and interrogation. There is an inevitability to the failure of resistance.

But the novel celebrates that resistance. As one character says: "We all acted alone, we were caught alone, and...will...die alone. But that doesn't mean we are alone or...our deaths will be in vain." There is hope in that, and in the fact that "at least you opposed evil".

There is further hope in the portrayal of the central characters, both in their determination to hit back against Nazi tyranny, and the way that resistance strengthens and changes them. A supreme moment demonstrating this is when Otto laughs in the face of a brutal Nazi judge, defying the worst the system can throw at him.

Fallada uses the narrator to tell us that the novel is dedicated to "invincible life...triumphing over humiliation and tears, over misery and death". The book is both a chilling portrayal of the triumph of barbarism and a tribute to the anti-Nazi resistance of many ordinary Germans.