Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada

Some fates you hope to be spared …

There are certain questions that people – by which I mean me – don’t like to ask themselves, questions of the ‘How would I have behaved if …’ variety. If, for example, I was just an ordinary German who happened to be living in Berlin during the second world war, would I have closed my eyes to the atrocities, would I have kept my mouth shut and my head down in the sure and certain knowledge that anything else meant death? Would I have convinced myself that resistance was impossible, that my first duty was to stay alive, so that in the Germany to come at least a few good people would be left? Would I, in fact, have supported Hitler?

Of course not, I exclaim drawing my sword of righteousness, Death before Dishonour, any day of the week. But to read Alone in Berlin is to realise that it isn’t the grand exclamation that makes a life of humanity possible, but those small futile gestures of resistance that achieve nothing at all.

Otto Quangel, a manual worker living in Berlin during the war, and his wife Anna, drop hand-written postcards in public places decrying the Nazis and urging the people to rise up against them. The cards aren’t read: those who pick them up hand them immediately to the police, terrified in case they are accused of being responsible for them.

Alone in Berlin, written in 1946 a year after the war ended, is based on a true story detailed in a Gestapo file. The resistance of the ‘Quangels’ was futile. So were all the other internal acts of resistance, great and small, against the Nazi regime. What brought Hitler down was not acts like these but defeat by the Allied powers.

The futility of the Quangel’s gesture is not the point. What is are the small details of their resistance: he sitting at his table laboriously writing out a card, she worrying when he goes out to deliver it, the shadow of discovery that looms over them both. The smallness of it all is what is redemptive. The reader says to himself, ‘this really happened, there were some good people in Berlin, not everyone was a Nazi, not everyone was too afraid to do anything. And I might have been one of these, one of the decent.’

That, in the end, is what counts: not effectiveness but decency, ordinary common decency. It doesn’t matter that the regime was left completely unscathed. It doesn’t matter that that the couple were executed. What matters is that the Quangels found a way to live in their own skins.

The novel is sparsely but tellingly written. The Quangels receive a letter saying their son, Otto, has died at the front. “But however much they now look at each other they can find no words for this thing that has happened, and so he nods and goes out.” … and, by so doing, says it all.

Later Quangel goes to find his son’s girlfriend to tell her what’s happened. When he sees her coming towards him, he realises what a beauty she is. “Strange thing, it crosses Quangel’s mind, that a lard-ass like our Otto, a little mama’s boy, could land such a girl as that. But then he corrects himself, what do I really know about Otto? I never saw him straight. He must have been completely different to how I thought. And he really understood a thing or two about radios; employers lined up for him.” … How easily Quangel passes from the beauty of the girl to thoughts of his son, first disparaging of both the boy and himself, and then to his natural pride: And he really understood a thing or two about radios; employers lined up for him. It’s just what Quangel, the works’ foreman, would think. It’s beautifully done.

Fallada’s story was a true one and we trust Fallada to tell it as it was. Yet, he doesn’t seem to want us to trust him. “He falls to his knees. He really does, he drops to his knees in front of her.” Okay Hans, we believe you. If you say he really does, that’s good enough for us. But Fallada doesn’t believe that we will believe so he climbs out of his writers chair, looks us straight in the eyes and says, ‘it’s true I’m telling you.’ “The Hegersells were on the train from Erkner to Berlin. Yes, that’s right, there was no Trudel Baumann any more.” Really Hans, if you say so.

The effect of this is to make the reader question everything. If Fallada has to beg us to believe that there is no Trudel Baumann any more, then what about all the rest of the book. Are we supposed to take that on trust? If that, why not this? It’s as if the author wants to remind us that this is fiction: yet it’s less fiction than most novels – it’s based on real events and there are Gestapo files to prove it.

Fact is, in fact, fiction: and the idea of the omniscient author is to be mocked. What can the author claim to know when uncertainty is as much the guiding principle within the pages of a novel as outside them? On whatever scale you look, Fallada seems to imply, certainty is a delusion; as much of a delusion within the novel as within the Third Reich, or indeed within the cosmos itself. “How did the world arise?” asked the Rig Veda a few thousand years before, “Perhaps it formed itself or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.” And what a blessing this uncertainty is.

Hans Fallada is not the author’s real name. He was born Rudolf Ditzen. When he was 18, he entered a suicide pact with his friend, Hans Dietrich von Necker, and disguised it as a duel. They fired on each other. Von Necker was killed. Ditzen picked up his friend’s gun and shot himself in the chest. He survived and would have been tried for murder if he hadn’t been regarded as psychologically unfit for trial. This was 1912. For the rest of his life, he was addicted to drugs; alcohol, sleeping pills, cocaine, morphine, whatever he could get his hands on. He died in 1947, before Alone in Berlin was published.

So it goes.

© Michael Tobert