Alone in Berlin

Hans Fallada’s ground-breaking 1947 novel, Jeder stirbt für sich allein (‘Each dies only for himself’) has been translated into English for the first time as Alone in Berlin and it’s the second novel I’ve read in a row (following Ishiguro’s An Artist of a Floating World) whose setting is related to the Second World War.

Penguin is to be congratulated on publishing this new edition, which features a brief biography of Fallada and a brief academic review of the novel, as well as some contemporary material of the true life story on which it is based. Translating the novel at all is some achievement – its 570 pages were written in just 24 days, and Fallada’s use of the Berlin dialect throughout appears to presents tough challenges to any translator. Furthermore, Fallada (himself a complex character stalked throughout his life by addiction demons, and who chose to remain in Nazi Germany, despite having the opportunity to leave) died shortly after completing the work, never seeing its publication (although he was able to spend a further month following the initial writing in reviewing and editing). Michael Hoffman has responded to this with an extremely colloquial translation which deploys modern day usage and argot and which may not, as a result, stand the test of time, while the frequent use of exclamation marks is off-putting both in terms of the flow of the novel and the development of its characterisation. It  is, quite literally, a tough read – and that’s before we even get into the theme.

The novel itself is a masterly achievement, documenting the lives of Berliners during the war struggling to survive and everywhere dominated by fear of the Nazi apparatus whose reach was terrifyingly all-embracing and where citizens had been divided and isolated, spying and informing on each other, and who, as a result, lived not in solidarity with, but in sheer distrust of, their neighbours. Fallada pulls no punches with his characters: frequently ugly, venal and selfish, few – including the central characters, Otto and Anna Quangel, whose only son has died in the war and who then embark on a campaign of dropping anti-Hitler postcards around the city – exhibit many redeeming features, while casual dog-eat-dog violence drawn from the way the Nazis victimised whole sections of society is an everyday part of their lives. The novel is graphically written and is doubtlessly, as a result of Fallada’s decision to remain in his country, an accurate portrayal of life under Nazism, with citizens turned into puppets absolutely under the control of a regime whose modus operandi and whose goal was terror. (Indeed, I wonder whether – inevitably in an abridged edition – this would make a suitable companion on school syllabuses to history courses teaching the rise of Nazism.)

As the novel develops and the Quangels go on to meet their inevitable fate, it is plain that the postcard campaign and the small-scale, private opposition it represents, has had little apparent impact. This would be a depressing enough conclusion (and the literal translation of the original German title is perhaps better suited to the tone of the novel) – but this is Fallada’s essential point. The sheer scale of terror and the totalitarian nature of the regime, which had successfully split people against each other, meant that there was little coherent, still less meaningful, underground activity or opposition. In such a situation, what matters is not the level of success of such individual initiatives, but that people do retain the self-respect and dignity not to participate (or to reject their earlier participation) and to make a stand towards fighting back, however small, and however much the futility of that stand is apparent even to those engaged in it; above all, to act decently and with integrity. It is those things that not only defeat tyranny but make a society worth breathing new life into – even one whose acquiescence in fascism had undeniably contributed to its own destruction.


One comment on “Alone in Berlin

  1. “Alone in Berlin” is a thrilling read even if you are not interested in German history at all. But if you are, this book will keep you sleepless at night:

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