Hans Fallada, the author of Every Man Dies Alone, refused to join the Party during the Nazi rise to power, and was denounced by his neighbors for anti-Nazi sympathies. But he opted not to leave Germany during the war. Instead, he continued to write his novel The Drinker — and to drink so much himself that he had an alcohol-fueled nervous breakdown that landed him in an insane asylum. After the war, he wrote this novel, but died of a morphine overdose in 1947, just before it was published.
This book is about Germany under the Germans. It centers around an older couple in Berlin, Otto and Anna Quangel, who, after the death of their son, decide to engage in a quiet kind of resistance: they go around the city dropping postcards on which they’ve written anti-Nazi sentiments. Each postcard puts them in danger, and each one is a triumph: someone will read it, they think, and pass it on, and soon the city will be humming with the good news that others want change, too.
In reality, the resistance goes nowhere. The couple is so intentionally isolated that they don’t realize it, but when someone picks a postcard up, they go straight to the Gestapo to report it, terrified they’ll be accused of writing it themselves. The couple is surrounded by frightened people who are trying to blend into the woodwork, people who are trying to take full advantage of the new regime, and cynical snitches trying to take advantage even of those who are in power.
Fallada’s portrait of Nazi Berlin is rich and detailed. The policeman, Escherich, who’s put in charge of the mysterious postcard-dropper has a map on his wall, with little flag-pins stuck in where each postcard was found. The book is like this: tiny vivid anecdotes arising all over the city — but clustered around the Quangels. There’s a couple who fall in love when they’re in a disastrously ill-suited Communist cell, and they try to escape to a smaller suburb for a peaceful life, with equally disastrous results. There’s Enno, who just wants to shirk working life and live in peace, preferably off the backs of vulnerable women, but his penchant for the good life gets him in more trouble than he would have believed possible. There’s a family whose membership in the Party should set them up for great things, but only the sharp-eyed son, a blowhard in the Hitler Youth, really seems to be making a go of it. There’s a Jewish woman whose husband is in jail, and who is terrified to go out of her apartment. And on and on and on, their lives brushing elbows as lives do in the city, and eventually intertwining.
The portrait is morally rich as well. Fallada shows a city in which everyone lives in such deep fear and self-righteousness that denunciation to the Gestapo is a daily occurrence. There’s a scene in which Escherich comes to announce a corrupt, falsified “lead” in the case to his superior — something his superior had demanded lest he be kicked off the case — and we watch as Escherich is tormented for it, forced to bow to his superior’s monstrous whims. Even those in power are often powerless.
When it comes to the Quangels’ act of resistance, I had a similar reaction at first to Anna Quangel’s.
My God, what had this man come up with! She had had great deeds in mind (and been afraid of them at the same time): an attempt to assassinate the Führer, or at the very least some active struggle against the Party and its officials. And what was he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something so absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet.
But Otto Quangel won’t back down:
He stopped his rummaging, and still standing there stooped, he turned his head to his wife. “Whether it’s big or small, Anna,” he said, “if they get wind of it, it’ll cost us our lives…” […] 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.
The structure of the book makes clear that this is indeed the main thing. It’s not a surprise, sprung on us at the end, that the Quangels’ resistance didn’t cause an overthrow of the Nazi regime; we know that from history. Their resistance wasn’t even as articulate or as widely-spread as the White Rose group, who were only college students. But the effectiveness of the resistance — how many people reached, how many trains sabotaged, how many Jews saved — isn’t the point. The point is about the person resisting. Every man (or woman) dies alone. Do you still have your soul, or not? This is a book about the price people are willing to pay to remain decent. Under a dictatorship, sometimes the price is everything — and sometimes, as Fallada wryly points out, you’ll pay that price anyway, but you’ll pay it for your indecency. Make your choices.
I found this book extraordinary. I moved through it as rapidly as if it were light entertainment rather than a novel of serious moral weight. The translation, by Michael Hofmann, is terrific. I wanted to stay up late and find out if the widow Hetty Haberle would take Enno back into her pet shop out of loneliness or fear; if anyone would dare to help the Jewish housewife; what Escherich would do next to find the Quangels on his little, flag-bitten map. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, inspired by a real-life Gestapo file and written by someone who lived it. Go fascinate yourself.