In April 1943, Elise and Otto Hempel, a working-class couple from Berlin, were executed by the Nazis for leaving handwritten postcards denouncing the government all over Berlin. They operated on their own and eluded the police for years. Their story forms the basis of the 1949 novel by Hans Fallada, translated into English by Michael Hofman.
Otto and Anna Quangel, the couple at the center of Fallada’s book, were initially vague supporters of Hitler, believing he pulled the country out of its economic collapse. But they were never interested enough to join the party, even if it meant lost opportunities for Otto at work. The Quangels didn’t approve of the unfair treatment of people not of the party. To Otto, “a human being was a human being, whether he was in the Party or not.”
Their growing discontent with the Nazi regime hits a breaking point when their son is killed in the war. They begin to feel that their quiet lack of support is inadequate. Something must be done to stop the war and save Germany from its leaders. So Otto begins carefully writing out his postcards, starting with one each week. They leave the cards on office windowsills and the like, hoping they’ll get picked up by someone whose mind is ready to be changed. They draw themselves away from society, hoping to avoid endangering those they love. This work is theirs alone, and they have no way of knowing what effect they have or how close they are to being caught.
Although the Quangels are at the heart of the story, there’s a large cast of characters who are impacted by their actions. It’s through those characters that we see many different ways to live in an evil time. We meet the police inspector assigned their case, various con men and thieves, a mail carrier who decides to retreat entirely. The Quangels own building offers a range of characters—full on Nazis, an Jewish woman whose husband was just taken away, and a judge with anti-Nazi sentiments.
The book takes a long time to get moving, with all these characters to get introduced and a complex situation to explore. I got a wee bit impatient at the start as these overlapping stories unfolded because I wanted to know more about the Quangels. But I liked that the book wasn’t just about the Quangels. Their story has an inevitability to it, and the others provided some emotional and moral range. There are many ways to be good and many ways to be evil, and Fallada allows us to see quite a lot of them.
However, with that said, the book truly feels its own power toward the end, when the Quangels are arrested and tried. Their fate is inevitable, but that doesn’t stop it from being painful. Nor does it bring an end to questions. The Quangels learn that most of their cards were turned in to the police, meaning that their work was useless. Does doing good still matter if it doesn’t do any good? And what is the best and noblest way to face death? Does nobility even matter at that point? Otto and Anna, now torn apart, come to different conclusions about how they want to live with death, and who can say which is better?
The title, Every Man Dies Alone, gets at this idea that each person must contend with death in their own way. But it’s a question that everyone faces. When Fallada references the title, putting it in the mouth of one of Otto’s fellow prisoners, he adds a different sort of spin, a hopeful one:
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.
Otto and Anna did act alone, and they each faced death in their own way. But their actions may have had an impact they didn’t see, that the police didn’t see. Perhaps the postcards reached people who felt alone in their doubt or their resistance. Maybe cards were turned in out of fear, but the message still got through. It might have given someone just enough hope to carry on. The point is, they put truth out in the world, and that is a good thing to do, no matter the result.