Hans Fallada (2009 [1947]) Alone in Berlin

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Alone in Berlin is full of cartoon characters! And exclamation marks! And the third-person omniscient narrator who sees all and feels all, on behalf of his audience, suddenly comes clean about his omnipotent powers and directly addresses the reader and insists on a happy ending! Fuck that! But as we fall back into history and look at Boris Johnson and George Osborne vying with each other to think of new ways to beat the poor down and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the richest nation on earth, and Donald Trump’s vision of what is right, then there seems to be some consensus cartoon characters create their own reality and momentum and are more real than fiction allows.

Rudolf Dietzen (Hans Fallada) main narrative thread is based on a Gestapo file. The case against Elise and Otto Hampel presented in the People’s Court is that they distributed postcards around Berlin calling for civil disobedience. Some of the postcards are reproduced in the back of the book and the messages today sounds trite: ‘Hitler’s regime will bring us no peace!’ ‘Free Press! Why suffer war and death for the Hitler’s plutocracy?’ ‘Hitler’s war is the worker’s death.’ ‘German people wake up!’  Certainly not worth dying for.   Elise’s confession is reproduced. Her motivation is, ‘My soul was devastated by the losses of the war, particularly of my brother…My husband wrote the cards because I cannot write in print well’.  Both Otto and Elise Hampel were convicted by the People’s Court and executed by guillotine. A forgotten footnote in history. But if you look at reproductions of their mug shots Otto has a beaky nose and Otto Quangel is continually described as ‘birdlike’.

I can sympathise with Otto Quangel. He wants to change the world.  The method he chooses lacks subtly. In today’s society he would simply post something on the internet that nobody would read. Otto Quangel tries to change the world by writing messages on postcards, leaves them in common stairwells and public places, which he hopes people will read and pass on to others and create a current of discontent with Hitler and his totalitarian regime. But he is mistaken in this belief. Almost all the postcards that he laboriously writes out and distributes across Berlin create such terror in those that pick them up that they are immediately reported and handed in and end up in the hands of the SS offices who investigate the case. In the internet age a readership of one hardly amounts to a mass movement, or any kind of movement, or any mark of success. But it’s worth considering as we (I) tap away on my keyboard that if the price of each post was your possible death, for high treason, then what would you (or I) do? In a total-Aryan  state only one group are allowed to issue propaganda. This is neatly summed up by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s alleged remark to Hans Fallada (author Rudolf Dietzen) and mirrored in the book, but the reference point changed to a jobbing actor, ‘if Fallada didn’t know what he thought of the Nazi Party, then the Nazi Party would know what it thought of Fallada’.

In Part 1, The Quangels, postwoman Eva Kluge is delivering mail. She passes the Persicke’s flat. They are drunkly celebrating the German victory in France and the annexation of another territory. Next up England. ‘Briefly she thinks of the man with the bird face who she gave the letter from the front to, and she thinks of old Frau Rosenthal up on the fourth floor, whose husband the Gestapo took away two weeks ago…even if we defeat France ten times over, it doesn’t mean there’s any justice here at home…’.

For cartoon characters to succeed the narrative needs pantomime villains and heroes. The narrative is short on the latter. Judge Fromm is the face of justice, who resigned his positon when he saw the direction the nation was moving and conveniently lives on the first floor (why would a wealthy Jewish couple and an ex-judge life in the same building as Berlin’s riffraff?) and later, The Good Chaplain’ Friedrich Lorenz who tends to his prison charges on ‘the death house on Plotzenzee’ before their death, and the composer Dr Reichhart who shared a cell with Otto, are examples of the good and the true seed following on fallow ground. Dietzen as in inmate of prison and insane asylums is strongest here with the kind of thought that may bubble up and seek expression, and how even in jail, the snitch is rewarded and the just punished.

My guess is this saintly pastor is loosely based on Pastor Martin Niemoller. In his poem ‘First They Came For The Jews’, sums up the climate of fear which pervaded society.

‘First they came for the Jew

and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Jew

Then they came for the communists

and I did not speak out-

because I was not a communist

Then they came for the Trade Unionist

Then they came for me –

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.


Everyone is Alone in Berlin and seems to have something to hide. To paraphrase another great leader, Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as society.  Doctors, for example, are portrayed as morphine addicts.  Paranoia and fear is palpable at home, in the streets and in workplaces, where one wrong word –even in jest- can lead to re-education in concentration camps. The threat of being found with one of the cards that Otto has written and not reporting it is an admission of guilt and being interrogated by the SS, and all your family and friends being rolled up like a carpet and being taken in for interrogation too. There are no heroes in the basement of SS headquarters, only casualties. Everyone is poisoned by hate, but it is in their self-interest to look the other way.

Eva Kluge the postwoman is neither saint nor sinner.  Her husband Enno likes his booze and likes his gambling and is a taker rather than a giver. He bounces from one woman to another in the hope they will give him an easy time and is prepared to steal and cheat and do whatever is necessary to make his life easier. In an attempt to emotionally blackmail Eva into taking him back he lets slip that her favourite son Karlemann, who was in the SS, but stationed in Poland, isn’t the good boy she supposes him to be. On his last leave he’d showed his dad a photograph in which ‘he’s holding a little Jewish boy of about three, holding him by the leg, and he’s about to smash his head against the bumper of a car’.

‘You’re lying,’ says Eva. But she knows he isn’t.

We the readers also know the truth. But the narrative written a year and a half after the end of the war asks a larger question that has two generations later been largely overlooked by the German economic miracle. What did you do during the war?

Hanna Arendt speaks of ‘the banality of evil’. We didn’t know was another excuse trotted out. You can see clips of townsfolk escorted through ‘re-education camps’ by the liberators of German, with hankies covering their noses. The smell of bullshit does tend to stink. Fallada here implicitly states what was being done was common knowledge. The Treaty of Versailles after the First World War left Germany bankrupt. But the rise of the Nazi Party and The Second World War left a nation morally bankrupt. Fallada is worth reading as it gives an insider account of how it happened. Hitler promised and Hitler delivered. There’s a grim irony that the refugee problem in Europe tends to focus on what the Chancellor of Germany,  Angela Merkel does. Large parts of the electorate seeking to punish the Chancellor and her party for their humanitarian response to refugees.  Nations such as Poland play a game of I-told-you-so when some refugees behave like criminals and terrorists.   What they need is in the subtext, re-education, or to die quietly on someone else’s soil as we, the richer nations, look the other way.