‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada

Berlin was the first stop in my 3 week adventure around Europe, and was undoubtedly one of my favourite places we visited. For starters, it is ridiculously cool, but not in a way that excludes and intimidates those that aren’t (like me). It is a welcoming city that appears to celebrate difference and displays of individualism, often purposefully eschewing the monotony of the mainstream in favour of innovative and thought-provoking street graffiti and spontaneous busking. It is certainly a city that seems intent on lauding creativity and vibrancy which is, perhaps, all the more wonderful when considering the not too distant past. Indications of Nazism, Hitler and World War oppression are evident everywhere you look in Berlin. Buildings that seem fairly innocuous become sharply altered when you learn they used to house the SS and a carpark becomes a place of extreme significance when told that the remains of Hitler’s bunker are concealed beneath. Berlin is so remarkable to me because of its interactions with its own past. The past cannot be ignored, and should not be forgotten but the city has certainly succeeded in becoming the antithesis of its former self. The enormity of the past does not dictate the present, or if it does, it functions as a desperate reminder of what can go wrong when tolerance, equality and individual worth are removed from society.

‘Alone in Berlin’ to me is an extraordinarily redemptive and compelling novel that illustrates the importance of the individual and the refusal of a city to become entirely controlled and distorted by fear. My first thought upon reading it was a disturbing one; it is terrifying to me how the events of the war years have too often become fictionalised, stripped slightly of their reality by the passing of only a short amount of time. It is inevitable that people should become distanced from the past, but I disliked my detachment. However, ‘Alone in Berlin’ did not allow distance between reader and character, between the present and the past.  I felt unable to comfort myself by dwelling upon its historical setting and I think that, in part, this was due to Fallada’s insistence upon the individual story. As readers, and as people, we respond more to individuals than we do a multitudinous mass of people. And thus when faced with the lives of Frau Rosenthal, Otto Quangel and various others in the text they became real people, rather than saddening statistics found in history books.

The book represents the systematic and efficient destruction of people, but also the destruction of human feeling. Many characters, including Borkhausen, Baldur Persicke and, initially, Inspector Escherich, are driven by selfish ambition. They completely lack empathy, determined to progress by destroying others. However, their determining characteristics of selfishness, greed and self-preservation do not, unfortunately, designate them as inhuman. This is, for me, one of the most disturbing elements of the novel. Even from our privileged stand-point they cannot be outwardly rejected as unlike us. The ‘baddies’ of real life are not stage villains who we can ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’ at and they are not distinguishable by their stoop and flowing cape.  The novel does not allow its reader to sit in grim satisfaction that people today would not commit such atrocities, that today people are civilised and tolerant. We know this to be absolutely untrue, and ‘Alone in Berlin’ emphasises this over and again. The figure that immediately springs to mind is not one of the more obviously degenerate characters, but the prison guard that escorts Anna Quangel and Trudel to the morgue. He is in awkward contrast to other characters because he is friendly and vaguely attentive to their pain. Indeed, we find he is later dismissed for being ‘too human to do duty’.  Yet, he is still actively participating in the cruelty and horror of the Nazi regime. The reader may squirm uncomfortably: Why is he there? We are presented with the answer continuously throughout the novel. Fear.

Fear is shown to affect all of the characters in the novel, including those who may deem themselves immune, Inspector Escherich being the prime example. To be able to utilise and command fear, a fear so intense that it controls and effectively stills a nation is the Nazi weapon. Fear is the force that truly crushes individualism, preventing thought and action…And then there are the Quangels, an unassuming , seemingly obedient working class couple, who completely defy our constructed stereotype of a revolutionary or rebel. Indeed, Otto is a self-confessed lover of solitude who avoids interaction with others. He seems selfish and lacking in empathy and yet he risks his life in his attempt to provoke the German people into revolutionary action by repeatedly dropping postcards across the city. Otto refuses to become a cog in a machine, or to sacrifice his freedom of thought. He is not, however, like the cold-hearted and rational Grigoleit and Babyface, the two men with whom Trudel and Karli set up a political cell at their factory. Never do him and Anna become caricatures of political activists whose actions are fuelled by an undefined sense of injustice. Their fight is bred of personal grief and affliction, making them more realistic and thus, susceptible to reader sympathy and support.

Despite the horrific events of the novel, Fallada seems to maintain that the exertion of individuality and resistance is an essential component of humanity. The novel seems to ask what the point of existence is, if not to strive for meaning and purpose. Inspector Escherich, upon catching Quangel (spoiler) seems to reach an epiphany concerning his role in the regime, stating that,

‘Quangel is right to call Hitler a murderer and me his henchman. I never cared who manned the tiller, or why this war was being fought, so long as I was able to go about my usual business, the catching of human beings. Then, once I’d caught them, I didn’t care what became of them… But now I do care… If it were still possible I would start something like Otto Quangel did… But it’s impossible, they wouldn’t let me’. Escherich’s moment of realisation is solidified when he states that when beating up Quangel, ‘each blow was like a sprinkling of earth on my coffin’. At this point, the reader has genuine sympathy for a member of the Gestapo, a murderer, and a man complicit in the horror of the Nazi regime. Escherich has finally embraced his humanity, allowing himself to feel empathy, eschewing his selfishness to realise that by pursuing others he is only ensuring the continuation of his own repression. He has understood the necessity of resistance but is too fearful to engage with it personally. His death is, for me, one of the most poignant moments in the text. His suicide is the only means of resistance he is capable of, and although seemingly an act of cowardice I perceived it as an overt defence of morality and social justice.

Throughout the text these acts of resistance are branded futile by characters and readers alike. It is easy to feel disappointment when the Quangels’ work is proven to be ineffective in initiating real change, yet the novel asserts that the act of resistance alone is important. When Quangel is caught he states that, ‘You see, it doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not. I had to fight, and given the chance I would do it again’. Resistance maintains humanity, any small act of defiance is a re-assertion of power, a defence of morality, and an affirmation of thought and freedom. When Quangel begins to doubt this, asking of his cellmate Dr Reichhardt, ‘what good did our resistance do?’, Reichardt responds with expressing a belief in unity, stating that, ‘it will have helped people everywhere… we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean we are alone‘. At this point, I nearly cried. In fact, the entire latter part of the novel struck me as incredibly powerful. Fallada did not romaticise the story, good did not triumph over evil and nobody rode off into the sunset. However, he maintained hope even with the deaths of the main protagonists. Life was shown to go on, with the last chapter returning us to Kuno, a boy who may be perceived as a symbol of a humane post-Nazi Germany. He is ‘starting afresh’, dismissing Borkhausen who is undeniably indicative of Berlin’s corruption and inhumanity, and committing himself to the act of planting new seeds, and thus creating a new future for himself and his country.

It is to my trip to Berlin that I would finally like to return. Walking along the East Side Gallery I was struck in particular by the art displayed here. It certainly seems to embody ‘Alone in Berlin’s insistence that change is possible and that there is hope, even if it seems very small.117

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