Saskia Walker reads Hans Fallada’s classic tale of spirited but futile resistance, on the road in Germany.
Hans Fallada scribbled Alone in Berlin in just 24 days: an astonishing feat for almost any novelist.
Not only did he pen a fairly hefty volume in a very short time, but Fallada also crafted one of the 20th century’s most memorable portrayals of one Berlin couple’s resistance to the Nazis.
There are no intricate underground political networks to be found here, no highly trained spies nor well-equipped resistance fighters. Rather, Fallada has laid bare the lives of the most ordinary of couples: Otto and Anna Quangel. Reeling from the death of their soldier son, Ottochen, the Quangels are politicised: fuelled into taking action, however small.
They make their stand through the writing of anonymous postcards with incendiary, anti-propagandist messages, which they carefully place around the city on Sundays and Mondays — Otto’s days off. They have utter faith in their idea: certain that it will reach a willing public who will rise up against the prevailing Nazi injustice.
So ordinary are they (she a housewife, he a labourer in a factory which now makes coffins), so futile is their resistance (most of the postcards are handed in to the authorities just minutes after they have been dropped off), that they are at risk of paling, on paper, in comparison to the larger-than-life resistance heroes about whom so much has been written.
This proves to be far from the case. Fallada has succeeded in weaving a thrilling, fast-paced narrative, in which the unsuspecting Quangels are tracked and chased by fanatical SS officials and petty criminals of the Berlin underworld, whose absurd blunders border on the comical. All are described in vivid, lively detail, affording the reader a precious insight into the shady underworld of proletarian war-ravaged Berlin: a glimpse of life in some of the 20th century’s darkest hours.
Some parts, of course, are heavy. Readers follow a series of incomplete subplots, tracing the lives of other ordinary Berliners, some more moral or immoral than others.
Whilst Fallada’s story lines may occasionally be muddled, or superfluous to the central focus, though, they never fail to evoke a poignant picture of a confused and addled society; a society in which logic and linear thought had long since given way to a haze of wanton violence, brutality and madness.
Fallada — born Rudolf Ditzen — wrote Alone in Berlin shortly before his death in 1947: it was one of the first anti-Nazi novels published by a German following the end of the Second World War, echoing its author’s bitterness towards what Germany had allowed itself to become.
His own experiences of drink and drug-taking, of brawling and blackmail, are evident in the turbulent, troubled world which he has chosen to depict. Fallada had led a deeply disturbed and difficult life, with spells in clinics and asylums; he wrote his final novels by hand, first left to right on sheaves of paper, then upside down in the gaps and, finally, as minuscule scribbles in the margins, to be deciphered and published posthumously.
Michael Hofmann’s English translation, then – particularly given the convoluted Berlin dialect in which Fallada penned the piece – must have been no small challenge. The outcome is nothing short of spectacular.
The Quangels – whose story is based on the very real case of Otto and Elise Hampel, who themselves distributed some 200 anonymous postcards and leaflets across Germany’s war-torn capital, and whose Gestapo file was given to Fallada to read by a friend – are bewildered and shocked by the society of which they are a part, by what their very small, ordinary world has become.
They have no idea that the SS have plotted each and every drop-off point on a map of Berlin, nor that they are being followed by a series of unsavoury neighbourhood characters, willing and eager to turn them in for a few ill-gained marks. Their helplessness is touching, tragic – as is that of Trudel, their son’s once-fiancée, whose embroilment in the entire affair stems from one mere misunderstanding.
Otto and Anna are aware of what they are doing, and willing to face the consequences: tiny characters alone in an enormous, twisted city. For that, they are, in one sense, heroic.
Does resistance have to be successful, in order to be resistance at all? Or is it enough merely to know that one took whatever action one was capable of in the face of injustice?
The Quangels wrought no miracles. In fact, their sole true convert was perhaps the very same unhinged SS official whose job it was to catch them. Yet they gave everything they had, in order to stand by their beliefs in a system which, as Fallada’s novel shows, was all-consuming and (almost) all-powerful. Their doomed actions serve as an example – of bravery, of redemption – to us all.
Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin was originally published in 1947. Michael Hofmann’s English translation is published by Penguin Modern Classics (2010). To buy it, click here.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER