Hans Fallada Alone in Berlin (1947)
'If only I could be sure they wouldn't torture me, that it would be swift and painless, then I would give myself up to them. I can't stand this waiting any more, and in all probability it is futile. Sooner or later, they'll catch me. Why does every individual survivor matter so much, myself most of all?'
Fallada was the nom-de-plume of Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (1893-1947). Set in Berlin in 1940, Fallada's novel about the attempt of one man and his wife to resist Adolf Hitler is a masterpiece. It is a chilling story of the futility of resistance in a society where all trust has been lost and paranoia has free reign: son betrays father; neighbours turn on one another; no one can trust their closest friends or family members; and any small act of resistance - or defeatist murmur - is punishable by death. I found Alone in Berlin deeply shocking; even more so when I read about Fallada's life during the Nazi years and about the police evidence on which the substance of the plot of Alone in Berlin is based (see more here).
In brief, Alone in Berlin is the story of a penny-pinching and not particularly heroic works' foreman, Otto Quangel, who reacts to the death of his only son in France by deciding to leave postcards throughout the city denouncing Hitler's regime. Pitted against Quangel's ineffectual rebellion (276 postcards over two years) is Gestapo Inspector Escherich and gradually every contact that Quangel and his wife Anna have ever had becomes drawn into the Gestapo's net. No one, it soon becomes apparent, is entirely innocent:
Inspector Laub followed the watchword of the times: Everyone is guilty. You just need to probe for long enough, and you'll find something.
Woven through the story of Quangel's small and futile act of resistance - but resistance nevertheless - are multiple other interconnected narratives which fan slowly outwards from the apartment block in which the Quangels live and draw in his workplace (where, aptly, they make coffins), his son's fiancée, his wife's relatives, various petty crooks, shop-keepers, doctors, other resistants, and even inspector Escherich himself.
'Show me one that isn't afraid!' said the brownshirt contemptuously. 'And it's so unnecessary. They just need to do what we tell them.'
'It's because people have got in the habit of thinking. They have the idea that thinking will help them.'
'They need to do as they're told. The Führer can do their thinking for them.'
Those who find the cards left in stairwells are already so paranoid that they suspect the cards have been left specifically to see what they do when they find them:
Perhaps such cards were a fiendish device, to be distributed among suspicious individuals, to see how they reacted? Perhaps he had been under surveillance for a long time already, and this was just a further means to monitor his response?
Quangel's small act of resistance backfires, and the majority of cards are handed straight in to the Gestapo, enabling the astute Inspector Escherich to construct a map which will slowly but surely lead him to Otto Quangel's doorstep.
'What did you expect anyway, Quangel? You, an ordinary worker, taking on the Führer, who is backed by the Party, the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SA? ... It's ludicrous! ... It's a gnat against an elephant. I don't understand it, a sensible man like you!'
'No, and you never will understand it, either. You see, it doesn't matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not. I had to fight...'
Is resistance ever futile? What makes ordinary men and women turn on each other? How did this ever happen? This novel will make you think, a lot.
Typo! undiminshed for undiminished.
If you liked this... Traudl Junge's account of how a fairly ordinary German girl became Hitler's secretary offers some insights into how the woman on the street became able to overlook what was happening around her: Until the Final Hour - Hitler's Last Secretary.
Incidentally, in the US Alone in Berlin is published as Every Man Dies Alone: