I picked up 'Alone in Berlin' by Hans Fallada at the library, catching sight of it on the shelf and recognising the title as one I had read about. Written immediately after the war and reflecting the author's experience of wartime Berlin the book was not translated until 2009 but has since been considered a classic novel about wartime Berlin.
Set in the early years of the war it opens with Eva the postwoman arriving at 55 Jablonski Strasse (which enamoured it to me immediately). Unfortunately she is bringing bad news to Otto and Anna Quangel. On learning of the death of their only son, they start a campaign of writing and disseminating anonymous postcards protesting against the Nazi regime and the war. The story is based on the lives of a German couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who did just this; so prolific were they that the police were convinced for some time that it was a large and organised resistance. The Quangels and their neighbours form the basis for the story: Emil Borkhausen with his prostitute wife and hoard of children in the basement, retired Judge Fromm on the ground floor, the Persickes, fervent Nazis, on the first floor, and Frau Rosenthal above on the third floor who's husband has been recently taken by the Gestapo. After Otto and Anna launch their postcard campaign it is Eva's good-for-nothing husband Enno who becomes the focus of the story; he and Borkhausen try to burgle Frau Rosenthal's flat but are thwarted by Baldur Persickle, and then he is coincidentally in the vicinity of a postcard at the doctor surgery that brings him to the attention of Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo. The story goes off on these tangents, following Enno, following Escherich's investigation, then telling us about what became of Trudel, their son's fiancée, then bringing us back to the Quangels. And all the while the war is going on, but you would hardly know it.
This is the war that is going on:
"Once again she shivered. There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken. At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto's absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!" (p.141)
It is not really a spoiler to say they are eventually caught and sentenced to death. The book is not a tale of daring, valiant resistance against an evil regime, it is a story about tyranny and how it seeps into the pores of a nation and cannot to purged. It is about the inevitability of their deaths. It makes you want and need to understand how the Nazis went from being a democratically elected government to a dictatorship that inflicted such terrible repression on its own people that they were unable to protest or resist. The level of fear is quite graphically portrayed, but also is the level of apathy; people who just want to keep their heads down and get on with life as if none of the terrible things are happening. It is as if the fear becomes normal and there is no longer any sense of community or friendliness or trust between people. I found myself, at the beginning, idealistically thinking, like the Quangels, that people will read the postcards and be encouraged the find that other people want to resist the Nazis. Anna thinks that others will join them and blanket the city in postcards. They are so sure that other people feel as they do. Maybe they did, but the fear is so entrenched that there is no way for them to reach out to each other. When Otto is arrested he is taken to Escherich's office and sees on the wall the map of all the reported postcards, and it is then that he discovers how pointless his efforts have been, how he did not reach out and share his resistance, but how he engendered terror in the very people he wanted to speak to.
"'And consider this well, Herr Quangel,' the inspector continued, taking full advantage of the other's shock, 'all these letters and cards were freely handed in to us. We didn't find a single one of them. People came running to us as though they were on fire. They couldn't hand them in quickly enough, and most of then hadn't even read them all the way through ...'
Quangel still did not speak, but his face was working. The man was in turmoil; his sharp beady glance wavered: the eyelids flickered, the eyes wandered off, looked at the ground, then were drawn back to the little flags.
'And one other thing, Quangel. Did you ever stop to think how much misery and fear you brought upon people with those cards of yours? People were in terror, some were arrested, and I know of someone killing himself over one ...' " (p.416)
It is testament to the power of Fallada's writing that I came to feel sympathy for Escherich, even liking him. It is partly because his story shows most starkly the insecurity everyone suffered under. No matter where you were in the pecking order you could still end up in the 'basement' if those above you decided you had not done your job properly or enthusiastically enough or if your expressions of fervour were lacking or if you expressed any kind of sympathy for anyone under suspicion. Simply knowing someone, being related to someone or even just speaking to them on the street was enough to get you arrested. Anything other than unquestioning loyalty was suspect. When Escherich has not found the Quangels after two years he is replaced, and takes a trip to the basement with the SS. When he is eventually brought back several weeks later he is a broken man:
"'You see Escherich,' drawled Obergruppenführer Prall, all the while gorging himself on his subordinate's obvious fear, 'you see what good a little spell in the basement does! That's how devoted I am to my men! You no longer feel terribly superior to me, Esherich?'
'No, Obergruppenführer, certainly not. At your orders, Obergruppenführer, sir!'
'You're no longer of the view that you're the cleverest little bastard in the entire Gestapo, and that nothing anyone else does is worth shit - you don't think that any more, do you Esherich?'
'At you command, sir, Obergruppenführer, no, I don't think that any more.'
'Now, Escherich,' the Obergruppenführer went on, giving the flinching Escherich a playful but painful punch on the nose, 'whenever you next feel incredibly clever, or you undertake private initiatives, or you just think that Obergruppenführer Prall is as thick as pigshit, well, just let me know in time. Then, before things get too bad, I'll put you down for another little rest cure. All right?'
Inspector Escherich stared helplessly at his superior. He was shaking so hard a blind man would have heard it." (p.388-9)
The normal rules of society had been abandoned, replaced with utterly arbitrary ones, rules that could change at a moment's notice, rules you often didn't even know exist until you had broken them. The vicious circle of fear and self protection, trying to do what was expected of you and suspicion of others meant that there was no way out for anyone. The Quangel's chose to act to preserve their own moral integrity, even though it had little impact on the course or outcome of events, and died for their actions. Much has been written about the banality of evil but the afterword at the end of Alone in Berlin, that gives the reader the background of Fallada's life, ends with the comment that his book "comprehends and honours the banality of good." 'Alone in Berlin' is about such ordinary people, there are no heroes, and they all fall into the trap that the tyranny sets for them. They cannot oppose the system because it is fighting by different rules. The quote on the front describes it as 'redemptive'. I did not experience this. Despite the attempt at a hopeful ending it was overshadowed by the grinding despair of the rest of the story. Escherich looks into the abyss that he has helped to create and sees the only way out is death.
I recall discussion when I was in the 6th form about 'just war' and how the Second World War was a just war because it was to defeat Hitler. I felt at the time the argument was used disingenuously because stopping the Holocaust was never a war aim, but I finished this book with such a vivid image of the way the world could have become if the Nazis had won I feel more certain that it was important to fight whatever the cost. Hitler could not have been defeated from within. I commented at the end of the short review of Roman Frister's 'The Cap' on my More Reviews page that such stories force us to consider the moral ambiguities that we all occasionally have to face, and 'Alone in Berlin' challenges you to consider what you might do in such a situation. This was a very challenging book causing me to rethink a lot of stuff I though I understood about the war. This final quote comes from the afterword, describing how Fallada chose to handle the situation:
"In his life as a citizen, Fallada complied with most of the Nazi system's demands, for example by enrolling his oldest son in the Hitler Youth, but he also gave financial and legal support to some of the system's outcasts, particularly authors and publisher's employees who suffered discrimination on political or racial grounds. And there were contradiction in the way the Nazis treated Fallada, sometimes promoting his work and sometimes censoring it, sometimes sending him on propaganda tours and sometimes imprisoning him. It is not overly generous to point out, however, that what resistance he made put him in actual, deadly jeopardy, and what compromises he made were in the same context.
Within the debate about the justifications for emigrating from or remaining in Nazi Germany which has not ceased since 1933 is too complex to recapitulate here, it is worth noting that the conflicting currents in Fallada's story are not untypical of the stories of those who remained: collaboration was not necessarily prompt, uncoerced or unconditional, and resistance was not always immediate, impassioned or uncompromising. The only certainty for Fallada, as for all those who remained, was that even moderate acts of resistance carried the threat of imprisonment or death." (p.577)