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Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

Joshua Billings

alone in berlinHans Fallada, trans. Michael Hofmann
Alone in Berlin
Penguin Classics, 2009
576 pages
ISBN 978-1846140822

Alone in Berlin, the title of Michael Hofmann’s new English translation of Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel, is far less piquant than the German original. “Everyone dies for himself alone” (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) conveys that it is dying, much more than being alone, that is at the heart of this book. Fallada, who never escaped official suspicion after his most popular novel, Little Man, What Now (1932), was banned, had ample grounds for fearing death himself. In and out of insane asylums for the last years of his life (he died in 1947, shortly after completing Alone in Berlin), he knew the fragility of existence under fascism intimately.

Alone in Berlin depicts the ordinary Germans of a working-class apartment block struggling to survive in a chaos that divides society into heroes and criminals. The real villain, though, is the terror imposed by the Nazis on all citizens, an indiscriminate process of physical and emotional violence. The first victim is the son of Otto and Anna Quangel, a soldier at the front, whose combat death is announced in the novel’s opening pages. From the Quangels’ helpless grief emerges a plot: they will write and secretly distribute postcards denouncing the party and the war effort. Fallada stirringly portrays the mild-mannered couple (inspired by a real Gestapo case file) enlivened by their subversive purpose, willing to risk certain death if caught writing what others are frightened even to think.

But the Quangels have failed to reckon with the fear that pervades their society. Not only do their cards have no discernable effect, but anyone found near such treasonous objects falls under suspicion. Fallada’s narrative is divided between the pursuers and the pursued, portraying a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in which Gestapo agents operate under the assumption that everyone is guilty of something; their job is simply to figure out what and punish it. Over the course of the novel, every sympathetic character becomes trapped in the Nazi spider web, and most go to unfortunate deaths. Fallada is not a subtle novelist, but he is a powerful one, painting in visceral strokes of good and evil. Hofmann’s translation, the first time this major novel has appeared in English, conveys all the strength of Fallada’s indictment of a regime that declared war on its own citizens, as well as on the rest of the world. For good reason, this story is told less frequently than that of Nazi atrocities against those defined as outsiders. But it deserves to be heard again.

Joshua Billings is a DPhil student at Merton College studying Classics. He is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.