“All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”.
The sentiment expressed in this oft-used phrase forms the basis for Hans Fallada’s extraordinarily moving novel, Alone in Berlin. Published in Germany in 1947 under the title, Every Man Dies Alone (Jeder stirbt für sich allein), it is based on true events.
The novel tells the story of an unassuming, working-class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel who, distraught by the death of the son in the Second World War, begin a campaign of resistance against Hitler and the Nazi party. Their acts of rebellion are small, some would even say insignificant – they write one postcard a week, inciting civil disobedience by denouncing Hitler, the Nazis and the war that killed their son. The postcards, dropped randomly all over Berlin, were intended to be a rallying call, imploring recipients not to blindly succumb to the tyranny of the Nazis. Despite the small-scale nature of Otto and Anna’s revolt, a Gestapo inspector becomes obsessed with tracking them down. He eventually succeeds, and the Quangels pay the ultimate price for their deeds – they are imprisoned, tortured, subjected to a show-trial and eventually executed.
It quickly becomes apparent to the reader, however, that the actual subject of the novel is not Otto and Anna Quangel – the real focus of the book is in fact the Nazi regime, and more precisely, its brutality and effectiveness at suppressing all opposition, however small. The author paints a vivid picture of what life was like for everyday Germans living under Nazi control … and therein lies the novel’s greatest achievement. Fallada masterfully evokes an ominous atmosphere of pervasive anxiety, apprehension and distrust, where ordinary citizens live in abject fear of the Gestapo, and as such are prepared to turn a blind eye to their atrocities. One tends to forget that, quite aside from his crimes against Jews and other elements of society he deemed undesirable, Hitler’s despotism and cruelty was directed at all German citizens – the Führer proved himself to be equally adept at killing his own people as he was at killing Jews.
Alone in Berlin is a story of man’s inhumanity to man. There is no uplifting or redemptive ending, just as there was no uplifting or redemptive ending to the Second World War. The novel is bleak and utterly depressing, and for this very reason it is an absolute must-read … because if we are to learn lessons from history, we must never forget it.
|Otto and Elise Hampel, the couple who inspired Alone in Berlin|