“Alone In Berlin” is one of the most terrifying, brutal books I’ve ever read, but it’s not hard to read. As you might expect in a book about German resistance to the Nazis during WWII, there are terrible things depicted: interrogations, torture, imprisonment, Gestapo surveillance, suicide and murder. And yet, nobody in the novel is entirely a monster, and nobody is entirely good.
Hans Fallada, whose own story is as interesting as one of his books, had the opportunity to leave Germany at the beginning of the Nazi reign, but chose not to. He wanted to stay and bear witness, and I’m glad he did. He was a troubled person—a lifelong drug addict who was in and out of jails and mental hospitals—who felt his own complicity and guilt when his work was first censored, then allowed to be published during the Nazi period.
But “Alone in Berlin,” written just months after the end of the war, is his unambiguous statement of contempt for fascism, and his damning indictment of a society that was corrupted by it. Fallada portrays a world where morals are inverted, and where those who can snitch, lie, cheat, steal, kill, crush their own instincts for compassion, and live with themselves rise to the top, while ordinary people hide, terrorized into submission.
“Alone In Berlin” is the story of the Quangels, a quiet couple who are moved to a small but dangerous act of resistance when their son is killed in the war. They fill out postcards with slogans, and leave them in places around the city. This much is based on actual events. But the novel is actually as much the story of the Quangels’ neighbors, and others who come into contact with their case.
The book makes many suggestions but two seem most important politically: one, that feeling against the Nazis was widespread, and two, that since repression was so total only small and disorganized acts of resistance were possible before they were discovered and crushed. From this, it follows that the transcendent meaning the novelist gets from the story of the Quangels is not the size of their act of resistance, but the simple fact of it, and the danger of it.
There’s a pivotal moment when Otto presents his idea of resistance through writing postcards to his wife, Anna, after the death of their son. She is disappointed. She expected something bigger—say, an attempt at assassinating the Fuhrer. But Otto says ‘whether it’s a big thing or a small one, Anna, it’s enough that it will get us killed should anyone find out about it.’
Risking death, after all, is about as much as a person can be expected to do. And Fallada’s success in the novel is to give all the deaths of Germans who did make a futile act of resistance a shape we can recognize, as ordinary people to whom doing nothing became unbearable.