Getting History Right the First Time

German novelist Hans Fallada’s last book, Every Man Dies Alone, was written shortly after World War II ended and he was released from a hospital for the criminally insane to which the Nazis had relegated him for refusing to write an anti-Semitic novel. It was published in German in 1947 but, for a reason that I have yet to discover, it wasn’t until 2009 when it made its way into the English-speaking world, where it exploded on the literary scene.

Typical of the reactions to Fallada’s narrative of war-time Berlin was that of a reviewer who exclaimed that the response the book elicited was “the journalistic equivalent of a collective dropped jaw.” Having recently finished reading Every Man Dies Alone, I can confirm that’s a normal response for any reader.

A first impression while reading it is how closely Fallada’s portrayal of Nazis, especially the Gestapo, jibes with those we’ve seen in the years since. Apparently, the author required no hindsight to see them with 20/20 vision. Though one imagines that the broad strokes with which the Gestapo operated didn’t leave much room for mystery or misinterpretation.

Not a book primarly detailing the treatement of the Jews, it’s written from the viewpoint of gentile Germans, especially the middle-aged Quangel couple. The rigid, but righteous, Otto, a factory foreman, and Anna, his idealistic wife, decide to discreetly protest the Nazis and the war by writing polemical postcards and dropping them in public places. Far from political, though, their motives are personal.

Otto Quangel is inspired to act not only by the death of his son in combat, but by the cronyism with which the Nazis run his workplace. Others also resent the Nazis on a quotidian level. They don’t understand why Nazis feel the need to persecute Jews, often local store owners with whom they’ve done business for years. One woman harbors a fugitive from the Gestapo because it has seized her husband. Another, in a state job, narrowly escapes consignment to a concentration camp when she refuses to join the Nazi party, in part because it has turned her son into a war criminal. Another sticking point for Germans is the dues required to be a member of the Nazi party, as is the “Winter Relief Fund” to which citizens are pressued to donate.

Don’t expect much in the way of redemption — though some can be derived from the fate of the Gestapo detective who tracks and finally captures the Quangels. While it weighs in at well over 500 pages, the book provides you with the best of both worlds: its pace that of a thriller, its emotional depth that of great literature. In fact, Every Man Dies Alone is the next best (or worst) thing to living through the war years in Berlin, replete with the capricious effects of Allied bombing, as you’ll find.