“Alone in Berlin” by Hans Fallada

AloneInBerlinWikipedia’s entry refers to this 1947 novel under its translated title Every Man Dies Alone as well as Alone in Berlin .

We read this in February 2015. The book was introduced to us by Alan, who had read some of Fallada’s other works but thought this was the best example. The book is a work of fiction but based upon the true story of a couple who lived in Berlin during the second world war and who campaigned inneffectually against the Third Reich by writing messages of protest onto postcards that were then dropped in public places around the city. At the end of the Penguin Modern Classic edition, there are useful notes both about the real story and also about the life of the author, real name Rudolf Ditzen.

In the novel, the protesting couple are called the Quangels and the story revolves around their campaign and a cast of surrounding characters. Inspector Escherich is the police inspector who obsessively tracks them down only to end up questioning his own integrity. The Persickes are a family taking full advantage of their links to the Nazi party to improve their own lot, who will happily persecute their Jew neighbour and who will not stop short of incarcerating each other if it helps themselves. Enno Kluge and Emil Borkhausen would both like to take advantage of anyone and everyone and are only prevented doing so by their own ineptness. Their attempt at robbery backfires when they get hopelessly drunk, Enno becomes a prime suspect for the postcard campaign and Borkhausen’s attempt to profit from his friend’s predicament is undermined by his own son’s understandable lack of trust.

At the same time, there are a number of other minor characters who are simply trying to “get by” and who are making their own small efforts to do the right thing without being caught out by the all-powerful Nazi bureaucracy and the ever-watchful Gestapo. One of the main discussion points at our meeting, was whether Fallada’s novel suggests that protest such as that of the Quangels can be in any way successful. Several of us thought that the evidence of the book suggests not: far from inciting revolt, the postcards are rapidly destroyed or handed in to the authorities. The Quangels are captured and their personal endings are both predictable and rather horribly drawn out, despite their heroic decisions to plead guilty and to uphold the truth as they see it.

On the other hand, other readers referred back to the smaller stories, which perhaps offer hope in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Retired Judge Fromm appears at several critical times despite his great care to lead a quiet and unobtrusive life. He is prepared to shelter a persecuted Jew, he intervenes at the point when her flat is in danger of being ransacked, and he attempts to ease the final moments in the lives of Otto and Anna Quangel. Hette Haberle is prepared to sacrifice a large part of her savings in an attempt to save Enno Kluge from the Gestapo, even though she has realised that he is not the man he claims to be. And Borkhausen’s son, Kuno-Dieter, is able to make a new and better life for himself, once he has run away from home and thanks also to the steady goodness of Eva Kluge, who herself had renounced the Party and exiled herself to the countryside.

10 people attended our meeting on Feb 17th, with most readers praising the book. Scores given ranged from 7 to 9, resulting in an overall score of 8.2 (from 11 readers, including one email vote).

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