Alone in Berlin
Hans Fallada was the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen (1893-1947), the son of a German judge. Young Rudolf suffered a series of accidents and illnesses that left him psychologically unstable, prone to drink and drugs. Somehow, between various jobs and scrapes with the law, he managed in 1932 to turn out a novel, Little Man, What Now?, that became a bestseller.
The novel told the story of a humble family coping with economic adversity in depression-blighted Germany. Success opened doors, but Fallada chose to remain in Germany after the Nazis came to power. He flirted with the regime until it lost patience with him and it was perhaps fortunate for him that in 1944 he was sentenced to a period in a psychiatric hospital after attempting to kill his wife.
He wrote Alone in Berlin after the war ended. The novel was inspired by the true story of a family who had resisted the Nazis and it was suggested to him by Johannes Becher, a Communist Party luminary. Fallada died soon after it was published and the book faded into obscurity with him. It is an open question whether it deserves to be revived and whether it merits the plaudits its reappearance has earned.
The novel opens in mid-1940, following the fall of France, when Germans are already waxing fat on the plunder from occupied countries. However, Otto and Anna Quangel lost their son in the French campaign and their grief pitches them into opposition to the regime. Otto Quangel had earlier declined to join the Nazi Party because Nazis were ‘unscrupulous’ and feels a vague sympathy for persecuted Jews, like Frau Rosenthal who lives in his building. Yet his gesture is visceral and individual.
Otto and his wife are simple folk and their activity is not informed by ideology. This is one weakness of the novel. Another is the unattractive character of almost every person it depicts. Frau Rosenthal is a pathetic figure who commits suicide even though she is being hidden by a kindly retired judge who urges her to survive. Her flat is looted by two low lives whose drunken escapade is interrupted by an avaricious family of bombastic SA and thuggish SS men.
The SS and the Gestapo are depicted as ridiculous institutions full of petty-minded, hate-filled idiots. Contrary to its fearsome reputation for repression, it takes the Gestapo years to track down the Quangels. The regular police inspector who eventually catches them commits suicide out of remorse for handing decent people over to the SS. Otto Quangel cannot even manage to commit suicide properly.
Almost everyone in this novel is incompetent and stupid. Fallada portrays German society during the war as squalid, materialistic and morally corrupt. This may have been of comfort to Communist apparatchiks in the late 1940s, but it bore little relationship to the reality of the Third Reich. The gap between Fallada’s demented imagination and the historical record makes the value of the novel no less dubious today.
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