Friday, 17 June 2011

Alone in Berlin

The problem of reviewing books is, when you stumble upon a gem, your immediate instinct  is to lend it to all and sundry with the result that you find myself having to write the review without the book to hand.*

Such is the case of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, also titled Every Man Dies Alone, or, Jeder stirbt für sich allein in the original German.

It was written in 1947, so I have been slow to come to it; nonetheless, it is an outstanding piece of writing. According to Wikipedia, Primo Levi claimed it to be 'the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis', and he should know better than I.

It is story based on true facts; on a couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who were once enthusiastic National Socialist party followers until Elise loses her brother in France. (In the book, the lose is transcribed to their only child.) Thereafter, they devise a unique and sadly pathetic method of resistance to the regime, which is to leave messages on postcards in the stairwells of office buildings denouncing the Nazis. Their end is never in doubt and though their campaign survived a surprising length of time, two years or so, they were eventually caught and executed.

Fallada, a successful author pre-war, was caught up in the harsh politics of the time despite his attempts to remove himself, which gives him the authority and insight to write the book.

Alone in Berlin gives one a real sense of the fear and suspicion one has to endure in a totalitarian regime. You know at the outset the two protagonists will be caught, but it is the courage with which they face the day to day tribulations that is humbling. The most innocent encounter with a neighbour could prove their downfall at any moment. (Also, what is of interest for one who has studied the Holocaust, is the awareness the general public has of what is happening to the Jews; the debate swings back and forward as to whether all Germans at the time knew, and so were culpable, or not. This book indicates they did.)

Alone in Berlin has a particular significance now given what is happening in the Middle East as Arab nations rise, or attempt to rise, against brutal dictators. Without belittling the courage of Otto and Elise Hampel, one can regard their campaign of messages written on postcards as a forerunner of Twitter. (To expand on the thought, Fallada details how the couple hoped their messages would be passed from hand to hand to be spread across the city much like tweets.)

Read Alone in Berlin not just for the story of two amazingly brave but very ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control, but also for the writing. Fallada writes with a busted flush so to speak, you know how the book will end the moment you open it, so he concentrates on the environment of repression that he knows from personal experience, and while the ending is inevitably sad the book manages to remain optimistic, perhaps because it was written in the knowledge of the outcome of the war.

Fallada wrote the book in just 24 days not long before he died.

* Although 'you find myself' is grammatically incorrect within the context of the rest of the sentence, there is a curious accuracy to the thought. I leave it as is.


Kingsdowner said...

You find myself..... hmmmm.

Great book, but horribly tense throughout. As you say, it's a testament to the inner strength of the ordinary man and woman, but also a warning of the craven weakness of the rest of us.

DOT said...

I am not too sure of the definition of ordinary. My Dad was a Japanese POW and told me those he expected the most of would fail and, equivalently, those he expected the least of arose. Who am I to judge his expectations or anyone else's under extreme duress?

This is why I am endlessly fascinated by books like Alone in Berlin. I pit my father's proven courage against my untested quality. (I always lose.)