September Issue 2019
Book Review: Every Man Dies Alone
The year is 1940; the location, Berlin. World War II is raging and Nazi Germany is scoring victory after victory. Poland and Czechoslovakia have fallen, and the news has just arrived that France, too, has succumbed to the juggernaut of the Third Reich. Champagne is flowing to celebrate the latest victory. England is next in gunsight.
But on the very day that news arrives of victory in France, Eva Kluge, a postal worker, delivers an official letter from the battlefield to Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged working class couple in Berlin. The letter informs the couple that their son, Otto, was killed in action in the battle for France. On hearing the news of the death of their only child, the parents go into a state of shock, which turns to anger at the Fuhrer and the coercive state apparatus that had led Germany into war under false pretences. Their boy had never wanted to join the army and had cried when he was forcibly recruited. But voicing any criticism of the government was a punishable offence. As a result, a sense of fear and suspicion pervaded the lives of ordinary people in Nazi Germany.
Their son’s death changes everything for Otto and Anna Quangel. It leads them to embark on a humble, but highly risky, act of subversion: composing and distributing handwritten postcards with messages critical of the war and of the Nazi Party. The cards are secretly placed by them in public places like staircases in office buildings and apartments. Here is how the writing of the first card is described in the book: “Then [Otto] picked up the pen and said softly, but clearly, “The first sentence of our first card will read: ‘Mother! The Führer has murdered my son’”. Thus begins this story of heroic resistance to fascism and war.
The cast of characters in the book covers the gamut from brave resisters to killers, and many others in the middle caught in a time and place where they have little control over their destiny. There is Escherich, a ruthless Gestapo inspector, assigned to find out who is behind this postcard campaign. He is not averse to persecuting the innocent in his quest to please his superiors. There is Enno Kluge, a hapless character trying to avoid being sent to fight the war; Baldur Prescike, a young Hitler Youth member with no sense of morality; Borkhausen, a good for nothing fellow who is both comic and criminal; Frau Rosenthal, a Jewish lady who jumps out of her window rather than face torture at the hands of the Nazis; and Judge Fromm who tries to save her but becomes her captor at the same time. Then there is Trudel Baumann, the fiancee of the dead son, who becomes active in the resistance movement.
The German writer Hans Fallada (1893-1947) was a highly acclaimed author of his time. Every Man Dies Alone was his final book. In 1946, he was given a copy of the Gestapo files of executed resisters.
Fallada was inspired by the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who had carried out their resistance against Hitler by distributing postcards with protest messages for two years before they were caught and sentenced to death. He wrote the 500+ pages of the novel over a period of just 24 days and died a few months later, weeks before the novel was published. When 60 years later, the English translation of the novel was published, it became a best-seller in the U.S. and U.K. Recently, the novel was adapted into a feature film, Alone in Berlin.
If anyone is looking to the book for inspiration to fight against an oppressive system with some degree of success, they will not find much encouragement, as almost all the dissidents fail and are either killed or sent off to concentration camps. Most of the cards distributed by Otto and Anna Quangel get into the hands of the Gestapo very quickly and they unleash a manhunt and eventually catch the perpetrators and sentence them to death. Trudel Baumann is arrested and commits suicide in prison. Other dissidents like the communist Walter Haberle dies in a concentration camp, and Anna Schonlein, a friend of Anna Quangel, is also arrested. None are able to make any dent in the Nazi apparatus. The downfall of Hitler was finally brought about by the Allied Forces and not by the internal resistance. However, in Fallada’s view, the resistance had an impact. As he writes in his notes about the real-life couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, on which his book was based, “the couple sacrificed their lives in a purposeless battle, apparently in vain. But perhaps not entirely purposeless, after all? I, the author of an as yet unwritten novel, hope that their battle, their suffering, their deaths were not entirely in vain.”
It may seem unusual to review a book that was first published in 1947 and that was translated into English only in 2009. But this book rings true in today’s world. It particularly rings true for the subcontinent. Are the actions taking place here all that different from those recounted in the book? Enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, subversion of the justice system, curbs on the freedom of the press, all point toward an impending fascism. But how effective has been the dissent against such atrocities? Many dissenters have been tortured or have lost their lives with little positive result. Can one say that their sacrifice has been in vain? As the book reminds us, it is history that will eventually validate the value of their sacrifice.
The book is a page-turner and draws the reader into its world from the very first line, making us care deeply about the lives of the characters. Hans Fallada’s sketching of the characters is so well done that all come across as three-dimensional, often quirky, and thus real people rather than stereotypes. And as in real life, there is often irony and humour even amid the bleak circumstances. Despite its very sad premise, the book avoids becoming maudlin or melodramatic.
Every Man Dies Alone is an important book because there are so few novels by German writers (and in English translation) that describe the state of the society and the lives of ordinary people in wartime Germany. As such, the book offers a valuable account of a turbulent period in history. But it is also an engrossing novel that pays tribute to human courage and defiance to fascism in the face of overwhelming odds and at great personal cost.
“…[W]e all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone.” This sentiment captures the essence of the book and gives hope.
The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.