Book review: Alone in Berlin

With more than sixty years between being written and being published in English, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin certainly has a story to it.

This novel, set in Berlin towards the end of the Nazi era, follows the family, friends and acquaintances of a working-class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, whose son is killed fighting in France and who start to write anonymous postcards denouncing Hitler and leave them around the city. Based on the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel, whose story was very similar to that of the Quangels, the novel takes in the atmosphere of fear which characterised 1940s Berlin, not only because of the war but because of the danger from the omniscient and omnipotent Nazi party.

But the story of Alone in Berlin isn’t its only charm. The novel itself has something of a tale behind it. Written by Fallada, an alcoholic morphine addict who enjoyed modest fame prior to the rise of the NSDAP, and spent much of his life in psychiatric institutions, the novel was originally published in 1947 with the slightly darker title Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone), but was not translated into English until 2009, when it was discovered by an American publishing house and became an almost instant surprise best-seller.

Interestingly, the main idea of the plot is not a happy one – Fallada often focuses on the futility of the Quangels’ postcard campaign, since the vast majority of the postcards and letters which were distributed were handed into the Gestapo immediately, and the remainder were almost certainly burnt or otherwise destroyed. Also, the unequivocal conclusion of the story is that the authorities have won: every single conspirator or remotely sympathetic character meets their end at some point in the novel. The only remotely happy part of the plot is the end, where a long-lost sub-plot is revisited to lighten the story.

And yet this is an incredibly effective novel: a story such as this, with an almost foregone conclusion, could easily become leaden and downright depressing, but the many minor characters and the sub-plots following their lives gives the book speed, and Fallada possesses enough skill as a writer to make this an interesting and entertaining read.