I'm grateful for this book. For many years I've wondered: "How on earth did the Nazis get away with it - and why didn't ordinary Germans stand up against them?" This book helps me to understand how a regime such as the Third Reich effectively removes the possibility of resistance by creating an atmosphere of terror and mistrust at every level of society. The two main things which stand out from this book for me - which I have to warn you is a truly harrowing read - are how fear corrodes our ability to resist; and the absolute brutality which existed then and presumably still exists across the world. The scenes of abuse and torture are really awful - I found myself thinking "Can this really be true? Surely he's overexaggerating here!" - but instinctively knowing too that he was simpy telling the truth. I have to admit that my own courage and willingness to resist would vanish pretty quickly in the face of such depraved brutality. It is perhaps revealing that Death becomes the one bright point in the book: the ability to kill oneself, to remove oneself from such brutality becomes a freedom to cherish. That's how dark it all is/was.
A sobering read but one that I think is necessary to remind ourselves of just how awful conditions were in Germany during this regime. There was no glamour, no sense of superiority - at least not for the mass of people. Just grinding fear, mistrust, and despair.
This book grew on me more and more as I read it. At first I had to adjust to some of the phraseology - whether this is because it was written by a German in the 1940s or is the result of the translation I don't know. But what was remarkable about it was the way in which the characters came alive. There is a satirical edge to a couple of the characters but this works incredibly well as a counterpoint to the incidents of violence which provide a sinister insight into the minds of the Gestapo. There is no gratuitous violence as such; rather the story focuses on psychological anguish. In the last part of the book the humanity and sense of paranoia felt by the central characters (and replicated by those who find the 'postcards' in the story) is juxtapositioned with the inhumanity of the Gestapo. By the time I had finished the novel I felt as if I had been on a remarkable journey into Nazi Germany told through the lives of a small group of characters. Do read this novel.
on 1 March 2009
This novel is nearly impossible to put down. It's an incredibly moving, gripping story based around an ordinary couple who, after the death of their only son at the front, decide to resist the Nazi regime - if only in a small, mainly symbolic way. For me its power comes from the rough, raw style - it was written in just a few short weeks shortly after the War - and the unfamiliar yet utterly believable events that eventually overtake each character. Subtly translated by the award-winning Michael Hofmann, it's a novel not to be missed if you've any interest at all in what it must have been like to live through the War in the heart of Germany.
I had never heard of this novel until a few weeks ago, but it is taking book lovers by storm across the world. It is not a new book, it was published in 1947, tragically just after the author's death. But it was translated again into English last year, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
The events, based on a true story, take place in Berlin under the grip of Nazi rule. One elderly couple, Otto and Anna Quangle, learn of the death of their only son fighting in the German army, and the futility of this ending changes something inside Otto. He starts to resist the Nazi regime in a very low level but profound way. He writes postcards with subversive messages on them, asking people to question what the Nazi's are doing and what they are telling the people. He leaves them in apartment blocks and offices on stairwells for random strangers to find. He performs this task alone at first, but later his wife Anna finds out and joins him in his mission.
The Gestapo are infuriated by this postcard campaign, which goes on for over two years, and leaves them floundering in the dark looking for the culprit. The novel is a great thriller as the police try to track down who is daring to oppose the Nazi regime in such an infuriating way, and their inept attempts at investigating the crime make both gripping and amusing reading. What is remarkable for me about this book is that is shows just what a chilling effect the terrifying Nazi dictatorship had on ordinary people, who had a range of reactions to it, from enthusiastic embrace, to indifference, to resistance and defiance. And the patchwork quilt of characters that Fallada weaves into the story is rich and extensive. The tentacles of fear reach into the hearts of families and communities, making people react in gross and frightening ways. This book exposes what ordinary people suffer under brutal dictatorships, and how their behaviour is warped by their experiences, far more than any historical account could do. It is a page turner of a thriller. It is a history lesson. It is a tragedy.
And Fallada himself was a tragic figure. His real name was Rudolph Ditzen, and he died of a morphine overdose before this book was published, which was something of an accurate reflection of a life plagued as it was by mental illness and addiction. But his gem of a novel captures the terror of what it was for ordinary people to life under the shadow of the Nazis like nothing else has for me. Superb.
Alone in Berlin is frighteningly engaging portrait of how evil can spread through every facet of people's lives. Fallada's characters, the ordinary populace of wartime Berlin, suffer under the yoke of a Nazi regime who's footsoldiers barge and bully around the city reveling in a state sanctioned thuggery that allows them to control and terrorise their own countrymen.
Perhaps the book's most effective device is the recognisable domestic normality of its characters, it becomes chilling to realise Nazi Germany was no cartoon villain, but a very real evil that invaded every single inhabitant's freedom and privacy with its idea of what constituted a 'pure' state.
When a couple's son is killed in action, they undertake a humble rebellion, leaving handwritten postcards critical of the regime in public places. At first it seems a pathetic gesture, but when even such small defiances guarantee a death sentence, their bravery becomes both affirming and admirable. The book is compelling in its demonstration that to think and act decent in a climate of fear and hatred is the greatest rebellion of all.
It is however slightly overlong, which may be due in part to the translation being slightly wooden and American at times.
Still, a good book and a definite recommend to anyone interested in the period. The description of the domestic, as opposed to military, impact of National Socialism is a refreshing and thought provoking take on what should never be assumed is an overfamiliar subject.
Others will write reviews giving a synopsis, so I will concentrate on impressions.
This is hardcore reading at its very best. I initially threw this book into a corner as it took me to a world where I did not want to spend time. The sinister, drab and brutal Nazi society in which this novel is set is reminiscent of the very worst Communist dictatorships where the Party is all and anyone could be an informer. The translator has to be congratulated as this is a book where not a single word is wasted. Characters are built up with supreme skill and economy, putting the reader exactly where they should be with believable but not stereotypical individuals.
The translation of this novel conveys the story with the perfect balance of the bleak and the gripping. That is why I came back to it, because it genuinely did draw me into that uncomfortable world of 1940s Berlin where sacrifice was considered a virtue and to rebel could mean death. One of those books that is essential in a personal collection as it will imprint on your memory long after you have read it, but do not expect an easy read or one you can leave incomplete once you make a start.
on 23 April 2009
I can't, for the life of me, understand why this book had to wait over 60 years for an English translation, but now that it's arrived, it's well worth the wait.
This is a magnificent piece of atmospheric writing, in a surprisingly clear and modern idiom, which captures the chillingly alienated world that must have been civilian life in Germany during the Second World War. I have read extensively about Germany in the 20th century,which never fails to fascinate me - whether it be politics, economics, society or whatever. This novel, by an author I only discovered thanks to an advert on Amazon, was almost a revelation when it comes to describing what it must have been like at ground level to live the nazi nightmare on a daily basis. The sheer indifference to mindless brutality, and the all pervasive fear and suspicion among everyday people, where nobody trusted anyone, is magically conveyed in this small scale story of a brave non-conformist worker doing his own tiny bit to repudiate his country's universal resignation to state thuggery.
Although riveting in its own nightmarish way, this is the opposite of an epic novel. It is drawn on a small canvas, and perhaps for that reason alone does not quite qualify for 5 stars. If 5 stars are to have any real value, then they must be reserved for the few universal masterpieces of literature - whether it be Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert etc.
Alone in Berlin is an exceptional work, however, and should not be missed by anyone interested in the period.
Alone in Belin illustrates the moral choices that ordinary people were faced with while living under the Nazi regime and it is fascinating to read this "ground-level" description of life among factory workers, post office officials, minor criminals and others. Fallada focuses on those who were on the cutting edge of these choices, some taking the route of complicity, while others resisted, but at great cost to themselves.
The novel opens in a house in Berlin, 55 Jablonski Strasse, a multi-occupancy building where an elderly Jewish woman lives on the top floor, a Nazi loyalist family below her, and on the ground floor Judge Fromm, a retired and resisting judge who seeks to honour the rule of law. Above the judge live the main characters in the book, Otto and Anna Quangel a quiet and self-contained couple. Otto Quangel is noted for his stern, taciturn manner and in the factory where he works as supervisor he has no friends but is respected for his ability to get things done. His wife is obedient and respectful of her husband, a classic Haus Frau. However, when the Quangel's learn that their only son has been killed in the war they are are unable to sustain their grudging acceptance of the political situation.
The death of their son slowly enrages the Quangels and although they have lived a mildly reclusive life until now, refusing to join the Nazi Party and keeping themselves to themselves, they begin a campaign of resistance by writing postcards which Otto drops in various locations around the city, hoping that these will foment a wider revolt against the Party.
The book is populated by a wide range of other characters. The low-life criminal Emil Borkhausen and his pathetic accomplice Enno Kluge, the Nazi Persicke family, the brave Trudel Baumann, fiancée of the Quangel's dead son, and many others. For this is a book which attempts to give a picture of the wide-ranging responses to the regime, from total loyalty through to heroic resistance passing through the usual criminals and corrupt police officers who would survive whatever the circumstances.
Although the book is mainly concerned with the Quangels and their rebellious postcard enterprise, the cast of characters enables the author to provide many dramatic narratives which inter-weave throughout the book providing a fascinating picture of life in this sector of Berlin. The police hunt to find the writer of the postcards provides a comic back-drop to the unfolding human crises and tragedies. Fallada was a great story teller, and at times this book is a glorious soap-opera of domestic dramas while the bigger picture of Nazi brutality continues in the background.
However, the story keeps returning to the ill-fated Quangels, where their shared enterprise in some ways renews their marriage and enables them to act in concert in their acts of minor defiance. Their story reaches its inevitable conclusion, and Fallada gives us a terrible picture of what happens to those who try to undermine the regime in however petty a way. By the end of the book this reader realised that the humour and amusement in many of the pages is actually a vehicle for a very serious set of messages which may have been too much to take on their own.
We read that Hans Fallada led "a very tortured life: an alcoholic and morphine addict, who spent roughly a seventh of his life in prison". The Wikipedia entry on the author reveals that Fallada wrote this novel in 24 days and died just weeks before its publication. Certainly the urgency of the writing comes across strongly in the novel, and occasionally its lack of polish can be seen, but in a way which implies passion rather than carelessness. I am convinced that this book is rightly categorised as a classic. This excellent translation by Michael Hofman will surely bring it a wider audience who can only affirm its significance as a classic of 20th century world fiction.
on 5 April 2009
This is a wonderful read, it evokes the claustrophobic and repressive atmosphere of an evil totaliterian state, where nevertheless,decency blooms but is inevitably overwhelmed. The characters are superbly drawn and believable, the plot is tight and the writing is of a high calibre.I would really recommend this book.
Hans Fallada was all but forgotten outside Germany when this 1947 novel, Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), was reissued in English in 2009, whereupon it became a best seller and reintroduced Hans Fallada's work to a new generation of readers.
I came to this book having read More Lives Than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada by Jenny Williams, which was the perfect introduction into the literary world of Hans Fallada.
Alone In Berlin really brings alive the day-to-day hell of life under the Nazis - and the ways in which people either compromised their integrity by accepting the regime, or, in some cases, resisted. The insights into life inside Nazi Germany are both fascinating and appalling. The venom of Nazism seeping into every aspect of society leaving no part of daily existence untouched or uncorrupted.
Alone In Berlin is also a thriller, and the tension starts from the first page and mounts with each passing chapter. I can only echo the praise that has been heaped on this astonishingly good, rediscovered World War Two masterpiece. It's a truly great book: gripping, profound and essential.