Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
**This review contains mild spoilers**
Alone in Berlin is billed as a novel of the German resistance during World War II. But that, in my opinion, isn't quite right. It is an account of moments of German resistance. It is heartbreaking and frustrating, and the characters are terribly, wonderfully flawed. A seed of Hannah Arendt's banal evil lurks in them all, and there are no real monsters here - just people.
Reading this against the backdrop of a Trump presidency, it is supremely easy to dismiss comparisons as a case of Godwin's Law gone crazy. But the humanity of Fallada's characters, their lack of heroism, their worry, selfishness, and sorrow, makes the comparison gentler than one might guess - and more important.
The story revolves around a middle-aged married couple, Anna & Otto Quangel, whose only son has killed in action fighting for Nazi Germany. They are a bland pair, buttoned up emotionally, never demonstrably affectionate. The Quangels have been stolid if passive supporters of the Fuhrer and the policies of the Reich. The are the types of people things happen to. Even the news of their son's death is consumed in an unnervingly blank way.
And then Anna changes everything.
She flies into a rage at her husband, and among her shouts, she says, "you and that Fuhrer of yours!"
Otto's whole universe implodes on that single phrase. For the first time, the idea of his complicity in murder abruptly enters Otto's mind, the enormity of it as a concept and how it has led to his own family's horror, and he sets himself the task of righting it through tiny acts of resistance. He both forces Anna's participation and refuses to allow her to risk herself when she is as desperate as he is to do something, anything. They work together and at odds with each other. Their campaign has unitended consquences. They fumble, they succeed, they unwittingly terrorize a population already in fear of their lives for a single misstep.
Hitler's power is already well-entrenched when the story begins, the war is already on, the Jews are already in camps by the time the Quangels have their little epiphany. Their fellow Berliners have already sacrificed their chances at freedom of thought or speech. So when they are confronted by the Quangels' guerrilla pamphletting, they don't read them with interest. They don't share them amongst likeminded conspirators. They immediately hand them in to the authorities because they are positively terrified of the messages and what it means to have one in their possession. The act of resistance is completely futile except as a catharsis for the Quangels themselves. They know they are alone, but they don't realize just how alone.
They want to weave a protective cocoon, but end up with a web that ensnares everyone around them, including their son's fiancee, their neighbors, Anna's brother, their post deliverer, Otto's coworkers, the police inspector investigating them. Frustratingly their act does have far-reaching consequences. Just not the ones they intended. When Otto finally comes face to face with this fear reaction, he is shocked. His years of work, he realizes, have been for this.
Fear is the engine oil keeping the Nazi regime running in Fallada's Berlin. He makes no attempt to pursue the lie that ordinary Germans had no idea what was happening. Instead he provides example after example of how easy it was for ordinary Germans to become complicit. The father is afraid of his son, the inspector is afraid of prison, everyone is afraid of the Jews, even when they harbor no specific animosity for them. It's not a simple case of racial hatred, though that of course is present, too. It's that Jews have been declared enemies of the German people, and punishment of the severest kind awaits those who associate with the enemy. How easy it is to simply turn away out of self and family preservation rather than intervene for another's sake. How easy when the acts one can make result in failure because of their very isolation. It's terrifyingly easy. One man tries to hide his Jewish neighbor and ends up driving her to a frenzied, delusional suicide instead, the result of trying to both help her and keep himself completely safe. You can't do both in Fallada's Berlin.
At one point, the disgraced Inspector Escherich is sent to the cells for failing to catch Otto and Anna. When he returns to his post, "it doesn't matter how he looks, what he does, what honours and praise he receives - he knows he is nothing. A single punch can turn him into a wailing, gibbering, trembling wretch..." His spirit has been completely broken. Once he worked hard out of a sense of duty, and even a love of his work, distasteful as it is. Now he works feverishly, obsessively, out of fear.
There are many moments of individual acts against the authorities. And like the Quangels', each act is singular, brave, cowardly, isolated, alone. Futile.
We are living in a time again where fear is wielded as a weapon of political control. Maybe it was ever thus, but it seems particularly front and center in the climate of the moment. Fear of foreigners, fear of police, fear even of having differing opinions from friends and family.
If Fallada's story has a moral (and it's by no means clear whether it does), it is only that waiting to resist until the crimes affect you personally is an exercise in heartbreak. Though we musn't judge too harshly those who come to the side of freedom later than ourselves, we should remember that there is such a thing as coming to the side of freedom too late. Then we, each of us, is alone.
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