No less than Primo Levi, Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann have sung the praises of Hans Fallada, the novelist who powerfully portrayed life in inflation ruined Weimar Germany and of stubborn resistance in Berlin to Hitler and the Nazis.  Yet he is little known in the United States.  His first widely read novel, Little Man, Now What?“, about the struggle of a German couple during the Great Depression, became a Book of the Month Club selection, in an English translation, and was made into a 1934 Hollywood movie directed by Frank Borzage with Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery.  Yet if asked to name powerful novels of the Holocaust or World War II  his name would occur to few.  That’s too bad.

Primo Levi called his “Every Man Dies Alone,”  “The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.”  Alan Furst, a contemporary novelist of such compelling wartime thrillers as The Spies of Warsaw has said “Every Man Dies Alone is one of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II.  Ever… Please do not miss this.”

I join Furst in saying: Please Do Not Miss This book!


The novel follows a older working class couple –Anna and Otto Quangel– in Berlin who, in May of 1940, begin to do the unthinkable:  they leave postcards with short written criticisms of Hitler in public places around the city.  We understand the enormity of what they are doing very quickly.  Everyone who finds one is terrified.  Those who are shown a card by another won’t touch it.  Snooping and reporting are a form of exchange — informing on someone to get a favor returned or alleviate possible suspicion on oneself, for anything at all.   Soon a Gestapo police inspector –Escherich– is tacking red pins on a map of Berlin, and under intense pressure from his SS superiors, spends almost every waking hour trying to track down the perpetrators — for over 2 years.

Fallada has not just given us a police procedural, though there is that.  If the universe of the story is Germany in war time, the inhabited solar system are the streets of Berlin;  Earth is the apartment building where the Quangels and 8 or so other characters live, their lives intersecting in ways terrible and kind.  Fallada’s mastery at filling in their lives, personalities, venalities, cruelties and courage over the course of the novel is meticulous, wide ranging and compelling.  The opening scene arrests our attention and we don’t want to let go for 500 pages.

 

The postwoman Eva Kluge slowly climbs the stairs of 55 Jablonski Strasse.  She’s tired from her rounds, but she also has one of those letters in her bag that she hates to deliver, and is about to have to deliver, to the Quangels on the second floor.

Before that, she has a Party circular for the Persickes on the floor below.  Persicke is some political functionary or other — Eva Gluge always get the titles mixed up.  At any rate, she has to remember to call out “Heil Hitler!” at the Persickes’ and watch her lip.

…she’s just an ordinary woman, but as a woman she’s of the view that you don’t bring children into the world to have them shot.

These few sentences signal what we will be seeing, not a novel of daring shoot-outs with the Gestapo, or the insides of concentration camps, but the lives of  very ordinary un-uniformed Germans,  as they make their way through the days of the war, mostly among their neighbors, where neighborliness has all but disappeared.  There are no great heroes, no thrilling raids.  The one resistance group, other than the Quangels,  is composed of 4 workers in a factory and disbands almost as soon as we know of it.  Everyone must be alert to what everyone else thinks or is likely to do.  The postal worker, Eva, would not give the Nazi salute of her own conviction but she knows that at the Persickes’ she must.  Over at Gestapo headquarters, “Heil Hitler” is as common between those crossing paths as “How you doing?” is among Americans today.  The failure to respond in kind would, of course,  bring far more than a quizzical glance.

When Eva answer’s old man Persickes’ query of  ‘What’s new?’ with “‘France has capitulated,”‘ that’s not enough for the man.

[that sounds] like you were selling stale rolls.  Say it like it means something!  It’s your job to tell everyone who doesn’t have a radio, and convince the last of the moaners.  …it’s England next!  In another three months the Tommies will be finished… then it will be the turn of others to bleed and we’ll be the masters… Today we’ll toast the news, and in the afternoon we’ll go pay a call on the Jewish lady on the fourth floor.. I can tell you, there’ll be no mercy for that bitch anymore!

 

As Fallada paints in the shapes and colors of his great mural the overwhelming sense we get is of almost complete, participatory totalitarianism.   No one ever knows who is a spy, or who can be turned into one.  Even the smallest act can lead to suspicion, or get a file started at the local police headquarters. Except for Frau Rosenthal, “the Jewish lady on the fourth floor”, and repeated slurs, Jews are not a major part of the novel.  Any one who was aberrant in any way was not, in the Nazi ideology,  a true Aryan.    Those who cross the pages to be hauled into prison, or beaten, or tortured are non-Jewish Germans; they are  drinkers, or declared insane, or communists, or enemies of the state or party…

Otto Quangel is a foreman in a furniture factory, now making bomb crates, and later coffins.  Frau Rosenthal two  floors above the Quangels is an elderly Jewish woman whose husband has been sent off to a work brigade.  The Persickes have two sons in the army;  the youngest son, Baldur, is a devoted Nazi youth, exercising his power over the other residents.  His father is a drunk.  Another resident, Borkhausen is a low-life drinker and a thief, married  to a prostitute with 4 children he may or may not be a father to.  A decent Judge Fromm shelters Frau Rosenthal for a time and provides an elixer to the Quangels, at great risk to himself, during their final days in prison.  The relations and non-relations, the daily crossing of paths never seem contrived.  We get a sense of a crowded city tenement, each with his or her own preoccupations, hopes and manias, forced together by their proximity and the events beyond the apartment and their control.

The beginning of the postcard campaign is developed through the chapters of Part I, begining when Anna opens the letter delivered by the postwoman.  She utters a soft cry and topples forward onto her sewing table.  Otto comes over.  Fallada quickly brushes in their love, the length of their marriage, their age, their contrasting personalities.  Then,

‘What happened with Ottochen?’ he asks

‘With Ottochen?’ She says in a near whisper.  ‘What do you think has happened?  Nothing has happened, there is no Ottochen anymore, that’s all!’

And then she attacks him:

‘Lies, all a pack of lies!  But that’s what you get from your wretched war, you and that Fuhrer of yours!’

Now she’s standing in front of him, the woman, so much shorter than he is, her eyes sparkling with fury.

‘Me and my Fuhrer?’ he mumbles, stunned by this attack.  ‘Since when is he my Fuhrer?  I’m not even in the Party….

 

In a police state everyone has multiple reasons for suspicion, worry.  When Enno Kluge, the postwoman’s estranged husband,  is brought before the police he thinks it might be for his part in a break-in at Frau Rosenthal’s.  It is actually on suspicion of distributing the post cards — about which he knows nothing…

Fallada’s use of the third person omniscent is used to great advantage.  There are sly commentaries throughout. After Inspector Eserich is corrected by his Gestapo minder, and encouraged down a seeming dead-end, he agrees.  After all,

” a wise inferior should never try to second guess his superior”

We are let in on the thoughts of all of the characters in multiple situations, and privy to comments that directly and indirectly describe the social situation.  The Obergruppenfuhrer SS is pressing Ererich:

“Are there no suspicions?”

“Suspicions?  Oodles of suspicions!  There’s suspicion everywhere nowadays.  But there’s nothing informing it beyond pettishness against a neighbor, a bit of snooping, eagerness to come forward with an accusation.”

“And the people bringing them in?  All above suspicion themselves?”

“Beyond suspicion?  Escherich twisted his mouth.  Good God, Obergruppenfuhrer, no one is above suspicion these days.”

The character drawn with the greatest richness besides Otto and Anna Quangel is  the Inspector.  He could be a Police inspector anywhere in the world.  He is not driven by the Nazi ideology, but is a methodical –not unkind– man, obsessed with the pieces of a puzzle, who likens himself to a hunter, someone who tracks humans instead of animals, proud of  his patience and method.   We don’t quite like him — after all he’s after our man–  but we recognize him.  Unlike the Nazi monsters of the movies, he is a man we are likely to recognize.  He is both persistent, and mistaken — coming to the wrong conclusions but fixated by why he believes them to be true.  Through him we see even more starkly the constant deadly threat of the Party and the SS – to which, eventually, he falls victim — before his quarry does…

The Quangle’s fallen son had a fiancée who figures in the story, first as a dear member of the family, then as someone Otto refuses to talk to, after a chance meeting on one of his post-card runs.  She re-appears later, pulled in by the indiscriminate net of the German police, and provides another lens for Fallada to show us what it is like to live in an all-seeing, all-powerful state.

The middle pages of the book take us on side excursions with others from the apartment.  Enno Kluge finds a respectable store keeper, and professing his great love for her, sparks her love and protection, until his gambling hands find their way to the till, and thereby give the police another lead to track down the traitors to the Fuhrer and the fatherland.  Inspector Eserich, worried that a previous mis-step with Kluge will come back to haunt him, persuades him with a quiet, menacing description of the torture he faces, to kill himself.  Baldur  Persicke finds his alcoholic father in a rehabilitation center and intimidates the presiding physician into administering a lethal dose of “medicine.”

The third section of the book builds inexorably towards the arrest of the Quangels, despite the fall of Inspector Escherich, his own dark days in the Gestapo basement, and eventual “rehabilitation,” and despite one, two and three warnings ignored by the Quangels.  The tension builds has the Quangels, in  prison, each try to protect the other by claiming responsibility for the post-cards, Anna letting out too much information in her attempts and giving the police more “leads,” which bring others in for questioning.  The two Quangels also each meet others who give them new perspectives on their own lives, and life in general, even as it closes down on them.  Otto becomes a very good chess player, and regrets he never gave the music of Mozart and Beethoven a thought.  He also moves Inspector Escherich to the realization that he, Otto Quangel, was a better man than Escherich; he becomes Otto Quangel’s “only convert.”

Fallada himself lived in Germany throughout these years.  He made compromises with the authorities.  He spent time in and out of asylums.  The material for Every Man Dies Alone came to him from a friend, at the end of the war.  He had found Gestapo records of an actual couple, Elise and Otto Hampel [and here].  They, like their fictional counterparts, lost their lives to the Gestapo.  Beheaded.

The translation is very fine throughout.  Michael Hoffman is one of our finest translators from the German, with titles from Franz Kafka to Wim Wenders to  Herta Muller (Nobel Prize) and Fallada to his credit.  My ears did prick up occasionally at what I heard as too markedly American, though he is German by birth and British by upbringing and education.  It’s a bit jarring to hear, in a book about war-time Berlin, phrases rendered as  “between a rock and a hard place,” “commie,” “his nerves were shot.”  When “tipping the wink,” which I take to be a Britishism, appears very near to “vamoose” which is about as American in time and location-specific as one can get, I feel like I’ve stumbled on the dance floor.

Tiny quibbles though, for a very, very important book, and an English version that will let you take  in what an ordinary man and woman  choose to do, the incredible courage it takes  to live through the worst of what humanity has to offer, and resist, “To never,” as their near daughter-in-law exclaimed to them one day,  “allow ourselves to be made into them, or start thinking as they do. Even if they conquer the whole world we must never become Nazis.

Though Fallada probably didn’t write it to be a mirror in which we might reflect on our own courage, it can’t help but be read that way by most of us.  When police stopping us on the street, or a thug threatening us, or those in a political rally yelling at us cause fear, how do we imagine we would behave in circumstances the Quangels/Hampels faced?  Fortunately, there are such as they to light candles in the darkness.

More Reviews: Liesl Schllinger, NY Times. several at The Complete Review

Hans Fallada dot com

Other Fallada books.

Every Man Dies Alone is also available in a very good Audible edition, read by George Guidall, who doesn’t get an inflection wrong, over or under emphasize a phrase or mispronounce a word.  If you spend time in the car, or in a wakeful bed, this is for you.