Review: Alone in Berlin-Hans Fallada. Translated by Michael Hoffman. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. RRP £9.99 paperback.

“As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that does not mean that we are alone. It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not,” ” 

Otto Quangel

“He who thinks of renouncing “physical” struggle must renounce all struggle, for the spirit does not live without the flesh.”

― Leon Trotsky, Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It

Hans Fallada’s excellent novel is set in Berlin of the 1940s. Despite being a fictional account of a German family, the book is based on the life of Otto and Elise Hampel.  Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, was born in 1893 in Greifswald, Germany.

To say he had a strange life would be an understatement. At the tender age of  18,he killed a friend in a duel and, according to James Buchan, spent “much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers. Then, in 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.”[1]

After this shocking episode in 1947, Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein (“Each dies only for himself”) was published in Berlin. In many ways, this was a groundbreaking working work in that it was one of the first accounts of resistance to Nazi rule. Unfortunately, tragically Fallada died of a heart attack that same year.

The new English translation of Fallada’s novel joins a growing number of recent books that have shown that there was a small but significant opposition to the Nazi regime. Fallada’s book counters the lie that there was no opposition to Hitler and that all Germans supported the regime. As Bernd Reinhardt correctly points out, “Fallada’s nuanced picture of daily life in the Third Reich shows the falsity of the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen and his supporters, holding that all Germans uniformly supported Hitler and the extermination of the Jews. The latest remake of Alone in Berlin (directed by Swiss actor Vincent Pérez) also rejects a collective guilt thesis. “I wanted to present this omnipresent fear. It was so thick you could cut it with a knife”, the director said”.[2]

Fallada’s book has sold extremely well for a book written over half a century ago. The book’s basic premise is that it follows the life of the Quangel family, who placed tiny handwritten postcards on stairs and hallways. Mr and Mrs Quangel distributed more than 200 such protest postcards in Berlin in 1940 following the death of their son at the front. This was done at a huge risk to them and their family. Anyone caught with the postcards would be executed. It is doubtful whether the English writer George Orwell knew of this book, but there are similarities between it and 1984.

According to Wikipedia, “Three months after its 2009 English release, it became a “surprise bestseller” in both the US and UK. It was listed on the official UK Top 50 for all UK publishers, a rare occurrence for such an old book. Hans Fallada’s 80-year-old son, Ulrich Ditzen, a retired lawyer, told The Observer he was overwhelmed by the latest sales, “It is a phenomenon.” Primo Levi said it is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.”[3]

It has now been translated into 30 languages. One reason for the book’s success is the fact that the issues it addresses are contemporary ones. The struggle for social equality is very much a modern-day concern. With social inequality at its highest since the 1920s, many people are looking for answers to combat capitalism.

This English translation of the book appeared at the height of the new movement of far-right groups such as the National Front in France and Pegida and Alternative for Germany. State violence increasingly dominates everyday life. People need to know the history of the Quangels and other struggles against the Nazi’s.

To conclude, while this an important book Fallada had no real perspective to counter fascism in Germany. He was no Marxist, and it is unclear whether he ever read Leon Trotsky on Germany because if he had, he would have probably produced a different book. As Trotsky said, “Fascism is nothing but capitalist reaction; from the point of view of the proletariat, the difference between the types of reaction is meaningless”.[4]


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/07/alone-in-berlin-hans-fallada

[2] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/03/07/ber3-m07.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Fallada

[4] What Next? (1932)

I dedicate this article to Chen Xueli

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