A Recently Rediscovered Page Turner Of Nazi Berlin

'Every Man Dies Alone' cover
Every Man Dies Alone
By Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann
Hardcover, 450 pages
Melville House
List Price: $27.95

Read An Excerpt.

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hide captionHans Fallada first published Every Man Dies Alone in 1947.

Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada first published Every Man Dies Alone in 1947.

There are some things that history books, even good ones, can't teach you. I was recently reading The Third Reich at War, the final volume of Richard J. Evans' magnificent trilogy about the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Late in the book, Evans notes that there was some civilian opposition to Hitler, then adds the crushing truth: It was hopeless. The only people who could've changed things belonged to the military — figures like Count von Stauffenberg, the officer played by Tom Cruise in the movie Valkyrie. The others, however heroic, were just small fry.

Now, if you want to know what it was like to be small fry in that demented Reich, you're better off going to Every Man Dies Alone, the recently rediscovered 1947 novel by the German writer Hans Fallada. Vibrantly translated by Michael Hofmann, this story of ordinary resistance to Nazism is at once a riveting page turner and a memorable portrait of wartime Berlin.

The story centers on a married couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who hear that their son has been killed in the war. While Anna falls into rage and despair, the normally passionless Otto — a stolid, laconic foreman whose men think of him as a machine — decides they should act. The two begin entering public buildings and leaving a single postcard with an anti-fascist message for someone to find. It's a small act, but they know that one mistake will mean their own doom — as well as ruin their family and friends.

Fallada uses the Quangels' rebellion as the launching pad for a panorama of life under the Nazis. There's the retired judge who quietly deplores Hitler, and the apartment super who robs his frail Jewish tenant knowing she won't dare report the crime. There's the Hitler Youth who bullies his parents, and the postal worker who flees to the countryside in despair when she learns that her beloved son has been seen smashing Jewish babies' heads against car fenders.

The most complicated figure is Inspector Escherich, the Gestapo man who's chasing the Postcard Phantom, as he calls the people dropping the subversive messages. As he tracks down the Quangels, he goes from being a thoughtless, sometimes violent servant of the Reich to a man who comes to grasp that he himself is merely a replaceable cog in a society run by gangsters.

If anything binds these diverse characters, it's that they share the paradoxical condition created by police states. Even as they feel desperately isolated and alone, they also feel that they're not alone — somebody out there is watching, or could be watching, every single thing they do. It's a feeling Fallada knew firsthand. He lived a life of drug abuse, alcoholism, asylums and prison. As both a writer and an addict, he spent much of life trapped inside his own head — yet aware that he was under surveillance.

Perhaps because he was himself an outsider, Fallada has a knack for capturing the small, unglamorous, seemingly futile heroism of the Quangels. Virtually all the people who find their postcards are either such loyal Nazi citizens or such cowed ones that they instantly turn these hot potatoes into the authorities. And still the Quangels fight their fear and go on.

With its vivid cast of characters and pervasive sense of menace, Every Man Dies Alone is an exciting book. Yet like so many stories about Hitler's Germany, it's also a challenge. It compels you to wonder how you would behave if you were in the same dreadful situation. I mean, it's easy enough to think that, with his position and resources, we would've been as brave as Oskar Schindler, who even had the satisfaction of knowing he was saving lives. But what if you were Otto and Anna — with no real power — and no way of knowing if your actions achieved anything at all?

Without being sentimental about it, Fallada suggests that the Quangels may not have changed the regime, but they did change themselves. The workaholic Otto finds himself opening up to many wonderful things he'd never bothered to notice — he becomes more fully human. As for Anna, she has the transcendent satisfaction of knowing she fought back against evil. She may not have been able to save the world, but at least she tried to save her own soul.

Now that may not seem like very much in the grand sweep of history, but Fallada makes us understand that in frail, mortal, human terms, such courage is more than enough.

Excerpt: 'Every Man Dies Alone'

Every Man Dies Alone
By Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann
Hardcover, 450 pages
Melville House
List Price: $27.95

Chapter 1: Some Bad News

The postwoman Eva Kluge slowly climbs the steps of 55 Jablonski Strasse. She's tired from her round, but she also has one of those letters in her bag that she hates to deliver, and is about to have to deliver, to the Quangels, on the second floor.

Before that, on the floor below, she has a Party circular for the Persickes. Persicke is some political functionary or other — Eva Kluge always gets the titles mixed up. At any rate, she has to remember to call out "Heil Hitler!" at the Persickes' and watch her lip. Which she needs to do anyway, there's not many people to whom Eva Kluge can say what she thinks. Not that she's a political animal, she's just an ordinary woman, but as a woman she's of the view that you don't put children in the world to have them shot. Also, that a home without a man is no good, and for the time being she's got nothing: not her two boys, not a man, not a proper home. So, she has to keep her lip buttoned, and deliver horrible field letters that aren't written but typed, and are signed 'Regimental Adjutant'.

She rings the bell at the Persickes', says "Heil Hitler!" and hands the old drunk his circular. He has his party badge on his lapel, and he asks: 'Well, so what's new?'

She replies: "Haven't you heard the special report? France has capitulated."

Persicke's not content with that. "Come on, Miss, of course I knew that; but to hear you say it, it's like you were selling stale rolls. Say it like it meant something! It's your job to tell everyone who doesn't have a radio, and convince the last of the moaners. The second Blitzkrieg is in the bag now, it's England now! In another three months, the Tommies will be finished, and then we'll see what the Fuhrer has in store for us. Then it'll be the turn of the others to bleed, and we'll be the masters. Come on in, and have a schnapps with us. Amalie, Erna, August, Adolf, Baldur — let's be having you. Today we're celebrating, we're not working today. Today we'll wet the news, and in the afternoon we'll go and pay a call on the Jewish lady on the fourth floor, and see if she won't treat us to coffee and cake! I tell you, there'll be no mercy for that bitch any more!"

While Mr. Persicke, ringed by his family launches into increasingly wild vituperative and starts hitting the schnapps, the postie has climbed another flight of stairs and rung the Quangels' bell. She's already holding the letter out in her hand, ready to run off the second she's handed it over. And she's in luck: it's not the woman who answers the door — she usually likes to exchange a few pleasantries — but the man with the etched, birdlike face, the thin lips, and the cold eyes. He takes the letter out of her hand without a word and pushes the door shut in her face, as if she was a thief, someone you had to be on your guard against.

Eva Kluge shrugs her shoulders and turns to go back downstairs. Some people are like that; in all the time she's delivered mail in the Jablonski Strasse, that man has yet to say a single word to her. Well, let him be, she can't change him, she couldn't even change the man she's married to, who wastes his money sitting in bars and betting on horses, and only ever shows his face at home when he's skint.

At the Persickes' they've left the apartment door open, she can hear the glasses and the rowdy celebrations. The postwoman gently pulls the door shut and carries on downstairs. She thinks the speedy victory over France might actually be good news, because it will have brought the end of the war nearer. And then she'll have her two boys back.

The only fly in the ointment is the uncomfortable realization that people like the Persickes will come out on top. To have the likes of them as masters and always have to mind your p's and q's, that doesn't strike her as right either.

Briefly she thinks of the man with the bird face who she gave the field post letter to, and she thinks of old Mrs. Rosenthal up on the fourth floor, whose husband the Gestapo took away two weeks ago. You had to feel sorry for someone like that. The Rosenthals used to have a little haberdashery shop on Prenzlauer Allee. That was Aryanized, and now the man's disappeared, and he can't be far short of seventy. Those two old people can't have done any harm to anyone, they always allowed credit — they did it for Eva Kluge too when she couldn't afford new clothes for the kids — and the goods were certainly no dearer or worse in quality than elsewhere. No, Eva Kluge can't get it into her head that a man like Rosenthal is any worse than the Persickes, just by virtue of him being a Jew. And now the old woman is sitting in her flat all alone, and doesn't dare go outside. It's only after dark that she goes and does her shopping with her yellow star, probably she's hungry. No, thinks Eva Kluge, even if we defeat France ten times over, it doesn't mean there's any justice here at home ...

And by now she's reached the next house, and she makes her deliveries there.

In the meantime shop foreman Otto Quangel has taken the field post letter into the parlor and propped it against the sewing machine. "There!" he says, nothing more. He always leaves the letters for his wife to open, knowing how devoted she is to their only son Otto. Now he stands facing her, biting his thin under lip, waiting for her smile to light up. In his quiet, undemonstrative way, he loves this woman very much.

She has torn open the envelope, for a brief moment there really was a smile lighting up her face, and then it vanished when she saw the typed letter. Her face grew apprehensive, she read more and more slowly, as though afraid of what each next word might be. The man has leaned forward and taken his hands out of his pockets. He is biting his underlip quite hard now, he senses something terrible has happened. It's perfectly silent in their parlor. Only now does the woman's breathing come with a gasp.

Suddenly she emits a soft scream, a sound her husband has never heard from her. Her head rolls forward, bangs against the spools of thread on her sewing machine, and comes to rest among the folds of sewing, covering the fateful letter.

In a couple of bounds Quangel is at her side. With uncharacteristic haste he places his big, work-toughened hand on her back. He can feel his wife trembling all over. "Anna!" he says, "Anna, please!" He waits for a moment, and then he says it: "Has something happened to Otto? Is he wounded, is it bad?"

His wife's body continues to tremble, her mouth doesn't make a sound. She makes no effort to raise her head to look at him.

He looks down at her hair, it's gotten thin in the many years of their marriage. They are getting old; if something serious has happened to Otto, she will have no one to love, only him, and there's not much to love about him. He doesn't have words to tell her ever how much he feels for her. Even now he's not able to stroke her, be tender to her, comfort her a little. It's all he can do to rest his heavy hand on her hair, pull her head up as gently as he can, and softly say: "Anna, will you tell me what's in the letter?"

But even though her eyes are now very near to his, she keeps them shut tight, she won't look at him. Her face is a sickly yellow, her usual healthy color is gone. The flesh over her bones seems to have melted away, it's like looking at a skull. Only her cheeks and mouth continue to tremble, as her whole body trembles, caught up in some mysterious inner quake.

As Quangel gazes into this so familiar, and now so strange face, as he feels his heart pounding harder and harder, as he feels his complete inability to afford her the least comfort, he is gripped by a deep fear. A ridiculous fear really, compared to the deep pain of his wife, but he is afraid that she might start to scream, scream louder and wilder than she did a moment ago. He was always one for peace and quiet, he didn't want anyone to know anything about the Quangels at home. And as for giving vent to feelings: no, thank you! But even in the grip of his fear, the man isn't able to say any more than he did a moment ago: "What is it in the letter? Tell me, Anna!"

The letter is lying there plain to see, but he doesn't dare to reach for it. He would have to let go his wife's head, and he knows that this head — there are two bloody welts on it from the sewing machine — would only slump once more. He masters himself, asks again: "What's happened with Ottochen?"

It's as though the pet name, one that the man hardly ever used, recalled the woman from the world of her pain back into life. She gulps a couple of times, she even opens her eyes, which are very blue, and now look bled white. "With Ottochen?" she says in a near whisper. "What do you think's happened? Nothing has happened, there is no Ottochen any more, that's all!"

"Oh!" the man says, just a deep "Oh!" from the core of his heart. Without knowing what he's doing, he's let go his wife's head, and has reached for the letter. His eyes stare at the lines, without being able to decipher them.

Thereupon the woman grabs the letter from him. Her mood has swung round, furiously she rips the piece of paper into scraps and shreds and fragments, and she shouts into his face: "What do you even want to read that filth for, those common lies they always write? That he died a hero's death for Fuhrer and Fatherland? That he was an exemplary soldier and comrade? Do you want to hear that from them, when you know yourself that Ottochen liked nothing better than fiddling about with his radio kits, and that he cried when he was called away to be a soldier? How often he used to say to me when he was recruited that he would give his right hand to be able to get away from them? And now he's supposed to be an exemplary soldier, and died 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!"

Now she's standing in front of him, the woman, so much shorter than he is, but with eyes sparkling with fury.

"Me and my Fuhrer?" he mumbles, stunned by this attack. "Since when is he my Fuhrer? I'm not even in the Party, just in the Arbeitsfront, and everyone has to join that. As for voting for him, I only did that once, and so did you."

He says it in his slow and cumbersome manner, not so much to defend himself as to clarify the facts. He still can't understand what induced her to mount this sudden attack on him. They were always of one mind ...

But she says heatedly: "What gives you the right to be the man in the house and determine everything? If I want so much as a space for my potatoes in the cellar, it has to be the way you want it. And in something as important as this, it's you who made the wrong decision. But then you creep around everywhere in carpet slippers, you want your peace and quiet and that's all, and not come to anyone's attention. So you did the same as they all did, and when they yelled: 'Fuhrer, give us your orders, we will obey!' you went with them like a sheep. And the rest of us had to follow you! But now Ottochen's dead, and no Fuhrer in the world can bring him back, and nor can you!"

He listened to her without saying a word back. He had never been a man for quarrel and argy-bargy, and he could also tell that it was her pain speaking in her. He was almost glad to have her scolding him, because it meant she wasn't giving in to her grief. The only thing he said by way of reply was: "One of us will have to tell Trudel."

Trudel was Ottochen's girlfriend, almost his fiancée; she called them Mother and Father. She often dropped in on them for a chat in the evening, even now, with Ottochen away. By day she worked in a uniform factory.

The mention of Trudel straightaway set Anna Quangel off on a different track. She glanced at the gleaming clock on the mantel, and asked: "Will you have time before your shift?"

"I'm on from one till eleven today," he replied. "I've got time."

"Good," she said. "Then go, but just ask her to come. Don't say anything about Ottochen. I'll tell her myself. Your dinner'll be ready by midday."

"Then I'll go and ask her to come round tonight," he said, but he didn't leave yet, but looked in her jaundiced, ill-looking face. She looked back at him, and for a moment they looked at each other, two people who had been married for almost thirty years, always harmoniously, he quiet and silent, she bringing a bit of life to the place.

But however much they now looked at each other, they still had no words to say about this thing that had happened, and so he nodded and went out.

She heard the apartment door close. And no sooner was she certain he was gone than she turned back towards the sewing machine, and swept up the scraps of the fateful field post letter. She tried to put them back together, but quickly saw that it would take too long now, and above all she had to get the dinner ready. So she scooped the pieces into the envelope, and slid it inside her hymnbook. In the afternoon, when Otto was at work, she would have time to fit the pieces together and glue them down. It might all be lies, mean, stupid lies, but it remained the last news she would have had of Ottochen. She would keep it safe, and show it to Trudel. Maybe she would be able to cry then; at the moment it still felt like a flame in her heart. It would do her good to be able to cry!

She shook her head crossly and went to the stove.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada Copyright © 2009 by Melville House Publishing. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Every Man Dies Alone
Every Man Dies Alone

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