Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

I have recently read two novels set during the Third Reich: The Death of the Adversary, by Hans Keilson (1959) and Alone in Berlin (1947). I have already posted a review of The Death of the Adversary (under Book Reviews) and am following it now with a review of Alone in Berlin which, in my opinion, is very much better.

Hans Fallada is not the author’s real name. He came up with a nom de plume on the advice of his father, who knew only too well that his son had been jailed for killing a friend in a duel and, on two occasions after that, for embezzlement. What a deplorable person, I hear you say – especially compared to Hans Keilson, a notable psychoanalyst who lived to the ripe old age of 101 after a lifetime of good works.

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1...

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1893—1947) Deutsch: 100. Geburtstag von Hans Fallada (1893—1947) :*Graphics by Nitzsche :*Ausgabepreis: 100 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 15. Juli 1993 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 1683 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of Fallada we can safely say that there was little concerning human weakness with which he was not well acquainted, including reliance on what we would now call substance abuse for most of his adult life. Now people with human weaknesses are all around us, and no doubt inside us as well, but life under a repressive regime like the Third Reich will expose weaknesses rather more than would be the case in the relatively comfortable societies we now inhabit in the west.  Alone in Berlin has many weak characters and a wide range of weaknesses on display.  Fallada’s life experiences equipped him singularly well to give us these people, but Fallada could also write.  He brings them to life. And there are strengths too.

The story is based on a real case, and if you buy the Penguin edition you will find considerable documentation about it as an appendix. A couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, fought a campaign against the Reich by writing postcards and leaving them to be found. The postcards called for civil disobedience and sabotage in the workplace, and the Hampels managed to keep it going for nearly three years before they were caught.

In the novel, the Hampels become Otto and Anna Quangel, and it is amazing how the apparently simple act of leaving critical postcards on stairways and window ledges can cause dilemmas for all concerned, including the police and the Gestapo. Neither  the Hampels in real life nor the Quangels in the book are highly educated, but they have considerable moral force and the determination to fight for what they believe to be right. Their philosophy, which seems to have been shared by the author, is found in several places.

‘Anna Quangel felt herself trembling. Then she looked over at Otto again. He might be right: whether their act was big or small. No one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.’ (Page 140)

On one level they are kidding themselves in thinking that their postcards were having an effect: most of them when found were handed straight over to the police. Fallada explains their state of mind.

‘Neither Quangel doubted for one moment that their cards were being passed from hand to hand in factories and offices, that Berlin was beginning to hum with talk about these oppositional spirits. They conceded that some of their cards probably wound up in the hands of the police, but they reckoned no more than one out of every five or six. They had so often thought and spoken about the great effectiveness of their work that the circulation of their cards and the attention that greeted them was, as far as they were concerned, no longer theoretical but factual.

And yet the Quangels didn’t have the least actual evidence for this. Whether it was Anna Quangel standing in a food-queue, or the foreman with his sharp eyes taking up position among a group of chatterers – bringing their prattle to an end merely by standing there – not once did they hear a word about the new struggler against the Führer and the missives this unknown sent out into the world. But the silence that greeted their work could not shake them in their faith that it was being discussed and having an effect. Berlin was a very large city, and the scattering of the postcards took place over a very wide area, so it was clear that it would take time for knowledge of their activities to permeate everywhere. In other words, the Quangels were like most people: they believed what they hoped.’ (Page167)

On the other hand, the Gestapo officer charged with tracking down the culprits, Inspector Escherich, is under so much pressure to get a result that he puts someone in the frame whom he knows well is not involved. The man in question is Enno Kluge, and this part of the narrative comes to a head in Chapter 32. The following quotation does not reveal the upshot of this scene between the two men, but it does paint a graphic picture of the treatment suspects could expect. Violence is the stock in trade of the Gestapo and the SS. He goes into detail concerning the interrogation techniques of the latter.

‘It’s you they want now, Kluge, the gentlemen of the SS, and they’re keen to question you in their own inimitable fashion. They believe the statement, and they believe you’re the author, or at the very least, the distributor of the cards. And they’ll wring that from you, they’ll wring everything they want from you with their techniques, they’ll squeeze you like an orange, and then they’ll beat your brains out, or they’ll put you on trial before the People’s Court, which comes to pretty much the same thing, only your agonies will be more drawn out.’

The inspector paused, and the wholly terrified Kluge pressed himself trembling against him – the man he had just called a murderer – as though seeking help from him.

`But you know it wasn’t me!’ he stammered. ‘God’s own truth! You can’t deliver me to them, I can’t stand it, I’ll scream . . .’

`Of course you’ll scream,’ affirmed the inspector equably. ‘Of course you will. But that won’t bother them, they’ll enjoy it. You know what, Kluge, they’ll sit you down on a stool and they’ll hang a strong light in your face, and you’ll keep staring into the light, and the heat and the brightness will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. And at the same time they will ask you questions, one man will take over from another, but no one will take over from you, however exhausted you get. Then when you fall over from exhaustion, they’ll rouse you with kicks and blows, and they’ll give you salt water to drink, and when none of that does any good, they will dislocate every bone in your hand one by one. They will pour acid on the soles of your feet . . .’

`Please stop, sir, oh, please stop, I can’t hear any more . . .’

`Not only will you hear it, you will have to suffer it, Kluge, for a day, for two, three, five days – and all the time, day and night they will give you nothing to eat, your belly will shrivel up to the size of a string bean, and you will think you can die from sheer pain. But you won’t die; once they have someone in their hands, they don’t let them go that easily. No, they will . . .’

`No, no, no,’ screamed little Enno, holding his hands over his ears. ‘I don’t want to hear any more. Not one more word. I’d rather be dead!’

`Yes, I think you’re right there,’ confirmed the inspector, ‘you’d be better off.’  (Pages 296/297)

Partly because they are that way inclined, but also because they do not want to put anyone else in danger, the Quangels become increasingly self-reliant, without realising the nature of the state they are opposing, one in which everyone is expected to toe the party line.

‘So, increasingly, they took refuge in their happiness as husband and wife. They were like a pair of lovers clasped together in a flood, with waves and currents, collapsing houses and the bloated corpses of cattle all around them, still believing they would escape the general devastation if they only stuck together. They had failed to understand that there was no such thing as private life in wartime Germany. No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.’ (Page 306)

In due course the ‘law’ catches up with them, and Fallada takes us through the process of interrogation, imprisonment and trial in great detail.

There are quite a few characters in this book, and they are all brought out very well: the venal Emil Borkhausen, the excellent retired judge, Herr Fromm, the strutting party member Baldur Persicke, the post-woman Eva Kluge, and young Trudel Baumann, to name just a few. Fallada brings out their states of mind remarkably well as their situations change – usually, but not always for the worse. And the narrative notwithstanding, this is really what the book is about. In my opinion, it is a major achievement and one of the best novels I have read.

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12 thoughts on “Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

  1. Interesting to read about what you’ve been reading about!

    Are these in translation? If so, how much do you think that affects your experience of them?

    From all I’ve heard from translators and those who can read different language versions, quality of translation can make a lot of difference to how well a book reads.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they are in translation. They were recommended by someone you know, Elke, who is a native speaker and also a translator. You are so right about the quality of the translation, but usually I never check against even extracts from the original, except in the case of poems in German.

      People in the know used to praise the translator of Italo Calvino to the skies, so I just took their word for it. My Italian is non-existent. And Russians are fond of saying that Pushkin cannot be adequately translated, so I take their word for that too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Some of the most creative people suffer these frailties. It’s like they have to push the boundaries of what their bodies can tolerate, or maybe they just find reality boring. Who knows. I am not that brave, dare-devil person. Good review, Rod!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There may be various reasons. For some it may be the quest for temporary oblivion, to escape from themselves. For others, it may to soften the edge of reality which they find too sharp. Sliding down the razor blade of life can’t be much fun.

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  4. The background of Nazi Germany has inspired many a novel. This seems to be yet another one. I try and not be too shaken by all the detail of torture. I still think the BlechTrommel ‘The Tin Drum’ by Gunther Grass is a good read.
    I just happen to pick up a second hand copy of Grass’ The Box but have as yet to start reading it.

    “Sliding down the razor blade of life can’t be much fun”. That is true. Life does sometimes leaves one wondering.
    We lost two of our three adult children in the last 3 years and we thought children bury the parents.

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  5. Fallada was rather older than Grass was during WW2 and lived through the lunatic pressures which came a writer’s way at that time. His inside knowledge of how the system worked was considerable. I don’t know The Box at all.

    Your final sentence came as shock and I can’t really image how that would be, though the psychotic behaviour of our daughter may open a small window into it. I’m really sorry to hear this.

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  6. This sounds frankly terrifying. I have just read another book – very different in style – but set the first half of the 20th century, including time spent in Germany in the 1930s (Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life). It is a very sinister period, but we should be on our guard and never imagine that it could not happen to us.

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  7. I have a copy of Life after Life looking up at me from the small table I keep books yet to be read on. I sometimes feel with this author that while she is plainly very intelligent she accounts for us all from a greater height. I don’t know if you feel that?

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  8. I am glad you liked reading ‘Alone in Berlin’, but cannot remember that I recommended ‘Death of the Adversary’ as I haven’t read it. It thought I mentioned ‘ Comedy in a Minor Key’ by Hans Keilson which I did read and thought it was interesting.

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  9. I thought Alone in Berlin was exceptionally good. I hadn’t heard of Hans Keilson till you told me about him, so I cannot explain my recollection re Death of the Adversary. Maybe I’m losing it?

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  10. I agree with you, but I am beginning to find light-hearted distractions failing to satisfy.
    At the risk of offending a vegetarian, not enough meat on the bone.

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