#GermanLitMonth -‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada
I had planned to read Alone in Berlin (1947, translated by Michael Hofmann) for the #1947 club hosted, not so long ago, by Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (Stuck in a Book). Alas, my current fractured attention span has slowed up my reading, and I missed the deadline with only half the book read. Thankfully, I realised that my reading was not in vain, as I could submit my bumbling thoughts on Fallada’s classic as part of German Literature Month.
#GermanLitMonth is hosted by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) is now in its sixth year and celebrates fiction, poetry, non-fiction, graphic novels, novellas, both contemporary and classic gems – basically anything goes, as long as it was originally written in German. Earlier in the month I wrote about Cornelia Funke’s exciting children’s adventure Inkheart, so this is my second offering for the reading challenge.
Based on a true story, Alone in Berlin follows the fate of Anna and Otto Quangel, after the otherwise law-abiding, working class couple embark upon a series of covert acts of resistance, following the death of their son. Without knowing whether it will do much good, the Quangels leave hand-written postcards criticising the Fuhrer, in public places around the city. This puts them in serious danger, as discovery would mean imprisonment and very possibly death. The atmosphere of Fallada’s Berlin is a toxic mix of claustrophobia, viscous mob rule and mean-spiritedness that seems to have drip-fed from the top down, infecting neighbourhoods with the same culture of bullying, self-seeking and distrust as found within the hierarchy of Nazi regime. One of the questions frequently asked in school history lessons is why did the German people let the atrocities happen, and Alone in Berlin goes a long way to answering that question. It was fear, and if the doomed fate of the Quangels is anything to go by, that fear was not unfounded.
The Quangels are ordinary folk who until their plan of resistance, did as their neighbours did, which is to do all in their power to avoid the unwelcome, random and usually unjustly harsh attentions of the authorities. A kindly, but sadly, failed attempt by a retired judge to help an elderly Jewish neighbour to stay safe, has to be carried out with extreme caution, as he risks being reported by any one of his neighbours at any time. However, it is not only his fear, that of the Quangels, and the other characters who in their own way resist the system that is so palpably drawn in the novel. No-one is beyond suspicion and no-one can be trusted.
While the Quangels’ resistance had arguably little effect in challenging the regime, it’s worth asking whether it was worth it, considering their subsequent punishment. My recent reading of the graphic novel Irmina by Barbara Yelin would suggest that the decision to look away when faced with injustice only brings temporary peace, and the life-long guilt of silent complicity in atrocities left unchallenged is a heavy burden to bear, something we could all do with thinking about in the current political climate.