Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Review: Every Man Dies Alone

Hans Fallada. Every Man Dies Alone. 1947. Translated Michael Hofmann. New York: Melville, 2009.

It's been a while since I posted any book reviews here, not because I've stopped reading, but because I lost the habit of reviewing. Some of my blogging friends, such as Curt from Analogue Hobbies, post some excellent book reviews from time to time, and I hate to ignore a good example. Every Man Dies Alone doesn't sound like the cheeriest title to take on holiday, as I did recently, and it wasn't really light reading, but it did keep my attention.

The unique thing about this book it is one of the few German novels translated into English which is set in Nazi Germany and written by someone who lived through it. Hans Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen was a German novelist who attained some fame in the 1930s. One of his novels, Little Man, What Now?, was translated into English and became a Hollywood film. He came to the attention of the Nazis, who wanted him to write propaganda for them, but Fallada was an unenthusiastic Nazi and did the minimum possible to stay out of trouble. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and barely managed to survive the war in a psychiatric institution.

In 1946 a friend of his with cultural connections in the Soviet sector tried to get Fallada on his feet by giving him a true life story to use as the idea for a novel. The story came in the form of a Gestapo file on a working class Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hempel, who had turned against the Nazis. Over several years they tried to turn opinion against the regime by leaving postcards with anti-Nazi statements in public places. While they are now largely forgotten compared to student movements such as the White Rose circle or various army conspiracies, at the time they were a huge headache for the Gestapo, who feared that the Hampels were part of a much larger cell. They were arrested and executed in 1943.

In Fallada's version they become the Quangels, a simple, middle aged couple who lose their son in France. The novel follows their growing bitterness and their decision to turn against the Nazis. Besides being a psychological novel, it is also a police procedural, as Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo tries to track down the source of the postcards while trying to placate his brutal and impatient superiors. Fallada creates a number of secondary characters who illustrate the range of moral behavior in Nazi Germany. Some are idealistic, like the retired Judge Fromm who tries to shelter a Jewish neighbour and later tries to help the Quangels cheat the guillotine. Others are thugs and schemers who take advantage of the Party to rob and brutalize the weak. In fact, one of Fallada's themes is that the crooks run the justice system and the guiltless are their victims.

If you want a happy ending, this book really isn't for you. Fallada's vision of human beings is pretty grim. His villains are loathsome and depraved, and even the heroes, such as they are, are often feckless and ineffectual. All are caught in a tragedy that destroys the good and the bad. As an aside, he tells us Judge Fromm, who lived his life for the ideal of Justice, dies in agony when a British bomb destroys his house. The atmosphere of wartime Berlin is suffocating, a vast prison where neighbour spies on neighbour and no one can dare speak their mind. In such a world, Fallada seems to say that the only way to stay human is to refuse, as much as possible, to go along with evil. As Herr Quangel tells his judges, "At least I stayed decent. I didn't participate".

So not a happy or even an uplifting book if you need larger than life heroes to be inspired. But if you want an authentic look at a terrible period in history by someone who lived through it, and if you want to be challenged by some heavy thinking on the cost of ordinary, basic decency, then I recommend this novel to you.

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8 comments:

Bernard von Schulmann said...

I read this years ago after I first learned about Hans Fallada while at UVic. For me it was always of interest because I quizzed every family member about what the war was like for them. I bought it when I was in Germany for Christmas one year and it resonated with me because my aunt had not long previously been sent a bunch of letters her mother wrote to some Quaker friends in Germany during the war.

My grandmother was not capital P political but clearly realized early on the Nazis were not the people she was happy with. She wrote this to the Lachmonds regularly over a number of years.

I have always thought it was a shame so few of his books were translated into English. I am glad to see another one is available.

I would love to Bauern, Bonzen und Bombem translated because it is many ways a nice prelude to Little man what now? They both are great works to read not only because the writing is good, but because of the chance to see where Germany was at before the rise of the Nazis. we know what is coming but Fallada does not.

I am going to see about getting the English version for my sons and Sheila to read to better understand the sense of where the family lived

Bernard von Schulmann said...

I should have added, my family only moved to Germany in the fall of 1939 several months after the war started. They lived in Estonia before that which had a free press and free elections up to the end.

They moved into full flight totalitarian society at war.

Conrad Kinch said...

Nice work Padre - I have read Klemperer on life in Germany under the Nazis. I haven't heard of this chap. I'm not sure I could read something like that again as it's very grim stuff, but it's another shot in the locker should I ever go back to it.

Anibal Invictus said...

Many thanks for brigning this into Public attention. Coming from a country that lived 40 years Under a fascist dictator, coming out from a civil war, I read as much as I can possibly do about how societies can fall into such a nightmare political regime. The three books by Richard Evans on the Third Reich are a very good scholar work for example. I did not know about Fallada and I have checked in Amazon that his works are sold for Kindle.

mad padre said...

@ Bernard: Good to hear from you. If you want my copy, email me at madpadre@gmail.com. Reading this book will, I am sure, give you a better sense of what your family members would have lived through. It's hard to imagine that level of repression, self0censorship, and spying by one's peers. It made me realize that when the East Germans created the Stasi, they just copied the Nazi model of street-level authoritarianism.

CK: I have Klemperer on my reading list.

Benito: You're welcome! I think one of the things we in North America miss when we think about Europe is how fresh democracy is, not just in the former Warsaw Pact but in Spain and Greece. I need to look at Richard Evans, thanks for the reminder.

Bernard von Schulmann said...

I read both of Victor Klemperers books on life in Germany 1933-1945. I found the first one more chilling because his decline is consistent and steady and we know where it is headed but he does not until it is till late. As as Christian university professor you get s sense he thought it would not be his problem. Even though his father was a rabbi he had converted as had his cousin Otto the conductor.

Over and over again the sense in his diary that it is a bad as it could get would get better, but we know better. It is the lack of that suspense that makes it so dark but also compelling reading.

Otto managed to get out of Germany, Victor left it too late and could not escape.

Otto's son was Werner who joined the US military and eventually played Colonel Klink in Hogan's Heros

mad padre said...

Otto Klemperer was of course a leading exponent of Wagner after the war. I have a set of LPs of him conducting Tristan und Isolde. And yes, Werner was of course Col. Klink. One wonders what his dad thought watching HH, if he ever did.

styler said...

When I was trying to complete the set I found some of Evans's books were out of print. But, they are worth the effort to have them in one's collection.

I've bookmarked your referenced page, The Tattered Remnant. One of those places that pulls the Internet out of the mud.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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