Alone In Berlin, by Hans Fallada

I’ve recommended Alone In Berlin to at least a dozen people in the last few weeks, so I felt it was only right to post a review on one of my favourite books, which was only translated into English in the last few years (2009 I think). It’s a powerhouse of a book, written in 1947, only a few years after the end of the Second World War, that brings to life the shocking, gritty, harrowing and unbearable reality that millions of German’s endured during the Nazi’s rule.

Hans Fallada crafted this masterpiece in prison in 1947, scrawling the text on  any paper he could find, writing in the margins and the turning the book upside down, ramming as many of his blistering opinions on the Nazi’s as he could. And it was all written in a month. The consequence of this writing frenzy is a novel full of anger, written in a breathless style that loads every paragraph with emotion and energy.

It is impossible to read it and not feel a knot in your stomach, or indeed a lump in your throat as you chart the story of  Otto Quangel and his wife Anna, who, on hearing that their son has been killed on the frontline fighting the Allies, decide to write postcards opposing Hitler’s rule, dropping them randomly across Berlin.

This small act of defiance has huge repercussions for the Quangel’s and those around them, as the Gestapo begin to investigate who has been creating such inflammatory slogans, such as “why suffer war and death for the Hitler plutocracy?” Among many others. This story of a middle aged factory worker’s defiance is noble and heart wrenching – all the more so for being rooted in fact, based on the real life Otto and Elise Hampel, who lived in Berlin during the war.

The true success of Fallada’s novel is not the riveting story of a defiant German opposing an appalling regime (though it is fascinating), but the detail, grounded in his experiences as a German living through the paranoia and fear that so many of his countrymen experienced. Every expression, every movement, every twitch interpreted in the wrong way can mean imprisonment, death, or at the very least, suspicion and social exclusion.

A wide assortment of character’s, from factory workers, alcoholics and pet shop owners to Gestapo Inspectors and Nazi Generals are all crafted to show them as more than caricatures, more than faceless workers or vague symbols of evil. The personalities Fallada gives them make their actions all the more tragic or wicked.

It’s no surprise that this book reads like a raw text, which would have been corrected for grammar and use of tense had it been seen by an editor. But these flaws make it feel more urgent and real, and I would never want to see a text with those changes corrected(kudos Penguin). The language has no trouble jumping off the page and grabbing your attention totally.

The story of the Quangel’s is the perfect way for Fallada to vent his disgust and rage at the meaningless loss of life in Germany. You finish it breathless and morally outraged.  This book, more than any other I have read, gave me a real insight in to how people lived under Nazi rule. I cannot recommend it enough.

Some pictures of the actual postcards, dropped throughout Berlin by the Hampel’s:

“Hitler’s war is the worker’s death”

“German People Wake Up!”

“Hitler’s regime will bring us no peace.”

2 thoughts on “Alone In Berlin, by Hans Fallada

  1. Hi Benny. Our book club has just finished reading this and we discussed it last night.

    I love it and it was generally well received. Interestingly our Head of English member couldn’t let go of the tense changes within sentences that you refer to! Several also thought the translation a bit too literal at times. But all appreciated the intensity and the effective way the fear and paranoia was conveyed throughout.

    I’ll definitely be recommending it to others.

    John

    • Thanks for the comment. for me, the mixing up of tenses only added to the realism somehow. It made me think if him writing it in prison, and made it more raw- but in a good way!

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