Monday, 8 February 2010
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Otto and Anna Quangel live a quiet life in Berlin, saving their money, keeping their heads down and living a fairly uneventful life. They do the bare minimum to keep the authorities happy, joining and contributing to the relevant organisations, but nothing above what is required of them. Also in their building live the Persickes, a fiercely Nazi family who see it their duty to fulfil Hitler's mission, a old Jewish lady (things don't go well for her), Borkhausen, who is a workshy gadabout and Judge Fromm, who is another person who keeps his head down, but does try to help people, in very small ways.
It is the small things in this novel that are the most important. When the Quangels receive the dreaded letter informing them their son has fallen in battle, an angry comment from Anna sets in motion a series of events that end in disaster in an entirely predictable, but still shocking way. Almost immediately after the news is received, Anna says to Otto
"And now he's supposed to be an exemplary soldier, and dies a hero's death? Lies, all a pack of lies! but that's what you get from your wretched war, you and that Fuhrer of yours!"
After mulling this over, seemingly for weeks, Otto decides upon a plan to deliver postcards with anti-Nazi slogans printed on them, in which he involves his wife, although not against her will. For the first half of the book, this is what the story focuses on, as well as various interlinked stories involving the other members of the building and how they decide to either support or (surreptitiously) defy the ruling party, and at various occasions, the characters stories intersect.
We also get a detailed look at the attitude of the Gestapo officers and the methods and measures they use to trap their victims. And trap is a good word, because in one specific case, not related to the Quangels, the person meets a very sticky end and has absolutely nothing to do with what he is being accused of.
I could go on for pages about the plot of this book because there is so much involved, and it is quite a long book. But I think the most important thing about this is the insight into the attitude of the German people towards the situation they find themselves in. This book does give the impression that resistance to the Nazi's was futile, but not only because they would always get you in the end, as well as most of your family, and possibly anyone who might be associated with you. Otto Quangel's expectations of what his postcards will achieve are grossly over-estimated in his head, and we see his pride at what he thinks he is achieving juxtaposed with the relatively easy way in which the Gestapo manage to trace him, through the cards that the general public are too scared to read. The fear of retribution from the general population, the apathy in which they accept the restrictions placed on them, and the individual pride and dignity of those that do try to do something, even when it becomes clear it is futile are what make this novel so moving and thought provoking.
I just wanted to finish with a couple of quotes that I thought summed up the points this book was trying to make about Nazi Germany, although in reality, I could have quoted the whole book for this.
"While the Hergesells were being tormented for a crime they hadn't committed, party member Persicke was forgiven for one he had."
"But there were many days ahead of them, and this particular SS man was never on duty in their corridor again. He had probably been dismissed as too unsuitable-he was too human to do duty here."