Of course, Quangel, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone, Quangel, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann
More than 70 years on, there are still great gaps in our collective understanding of the Second World War, at least in the United States: we can easily conjure up D-Day, the Battle of Britain, and the liberation of the Nazi death camps; we can imagine the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and the mushroom clouds over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But there are huge gaps: the Eastern Front is a mystery to most in the West, not just Americans, as are Manchuria, the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, even the war in the Balkans.
Even more so than the military events of the war, our knowledge of life and death on the home front is spotty at best. Through The Diary of a Young Girl and The Moon Is Down, we’ve learned a little about life in occupied Europe, but we generally know almost nothing about life in Nazi Germany itself. Every Man Dies Alone is, if nothing else, a valuable contribution to our understanding of history, with its densely drawn scenes of a working class neighborhood in Berlin during the Second World War and its sharp but humane view of daily life under the Nazis.
While reading Every Man Dies Alone, I was frequently reminded of George Orwell’s 1984. The Nazis maintain their power not only through brutality (and there is shocking brutality in this novel), but through paranoia: people are systematically divided from each other, made to fear that anyone–not only strangers and neighbors, but lovers and family members–could be a secret informer. Organized resistance to the regime seems almost impossible, and individual resistance both ineffectual and foolhardy. An atomized society, where people don’t dare reach out to each other or speak their minds, is both the ends and the means of the Nazi Party. There are also echoes of Kafka’s The Trial, where Nazi “justice” is presented as capricious and cruel, and the Gestapo as psychological manipulators who can twist the most innocent person into confessing impossible crimes.
What makes Every Man Dies Alone more terrible than Orwell and Kafka, though, is that it isn’t wholly a work of fiction. The novel is based on the case of a German couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who dropped anti-Nazi postcards around Berlin for two years and were executed in 1943. Hans Fallada survived internment in a Nazi asylum, and the novel demonstrates his intimate knowledge of Nazi police and prisons, as well as the network of petty informants and tattlers who helped keep the regime in power. It’s a surprisingly non-ideological novel: the Quangels, who lost their son in the war and are driven to their desperate act of resistance by grief, are not motivated by political or social goals loftier than common decency. And few of the Nazis they encounter and evade are true believers, either: they tend to be thugs or petty potentates driven by power, or decent men who have made painful compromises from which they cannot now escape. Fallada brings the broad sweep of history down to an intimate scale, and offers complex characters who are making their way in brutal circumstances.
As a novel, Every Man Dies Alone suffers a few flaws. It relies on some Dickensian coincidences that stretch the suspension of disbelief, and drops a few story threads just as they’re getting interesting. But these flaws are more than balanced by the richness of the characters. Fallada manages to make even the would-be informant Enno Kluge, and the Gestapo Inspector Escherich (who, in a different time and place, would have made a fine police-procedural hero), into sympathetic characters. The heroes themselves are not perfect–Otto Quangel is emotionally cold and domineering, retired judge Fromm is in retreat from the world–which makes their ability to stand up to the Nazis, however fruitlessly, that much more admirable. It’s also a fast-moving novel, paced like a thriller even when the end is a foregone conclusion (hinted at from the start), told mostly in the present tense with the focus moving nimbly from character to character.
Fallada died in 1947, before Every Man Dies Alone was published. It would be interesting to have had Fallada’s views on the next chapter of Berlin’s history: the Quangels’ apartment block on Jablonskistrasse ended up on the east side of Wall, and the neighborhood had a respite of only a few years before paranoia, fear, and suspicion flooded back, with the Stasi replacing the Gestapo. Knowing how the next forty years would go makes reading Fallada’s novel especially poignant.