Book Review – Every Man Dies Alone

Hans Fallada might not be a name many people know. Even less likely know the name Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen. Fallada (the nom de plume of Ditzen) died in Berlin in 1947, shortly after he finished writing his final novel, Every Man Dies Alone. The book was published after his death. It was not translated into English until 2009, which is about when I became aware of it, while working in a bookstore. I heard only a little about it and had no great urge to read it but when I was able to pick up a cheap copy at a library book sale I thought I’d give it a try.

It can be hard to critique a book like Every Man Dies Alone. Fallada wrote it in 24 days after spending time in a Nazi insane asylum. If even a small part of the book is based on his own experiences with the Nazi regime, then he suffered. However, I don’t want to avoid pointing out the books flaws; Fallada was more than a victim, he was a writer and he wrote a book intended to be read. In many ways, it’s clear that the novel is an early draft. The novel edges on sentimentality at times. There is some repetitive language (though it’s hard to say how much of that has to do with translation) and the story frequently shifts from past to present tense and back again. Tense shifts are a fault I suffer from in my own writing so I’m extra attuned to them. I think one more good edit would do this novel wonders.

Yet, while I believe all of those things are important, the story here is much bigger than any editing issue. This is a story about individual resistance, about people standing up against injustice, even in the tiniest of ways.

It isn’t an inspiring story, it’s an honest one. Nothing anyone does in this novel causes the Third Reich to falter. As Geoff Wilkes points out in the excellent Afterword, Hitler and his Nazis were ultimately defeated by outside forces, not internal rebellion. But, and this really is the point of the novel, that internal rebellion is still important. Here’s what Wilkes says:

The fact that they achieve very little material success against the Nazi regime is portrayed as secondary to the idea that they defeat the regime in ideal and even metaphysical terms, by preserving their moral integrity both as individuals, and as representatives of a better Germany who justify the nation’s survival.

The action of the novel follows several characters, all revolving around Otto and Anna Quangel. They are an elderly, working class couple in Berlin in 1940 (the timeline of the novel spans about 1940-1942). The novel opens on a Germany that has just charged into France. The people are celebrating, either because they are genuinely pleased or because they know they will be punished if they appear unhappy with the regime and its victories. The Quangels live a quiet, isolated life, keeping their heads down and worrying about themselves. They receive word that their only son has been killed in service for the Nazi army. They are told that they should be happy that he died a glorious death for the Fuhrer. But they remember their quiet son and his reluctance to join the army and they know that his death is not glorious, that it serves no higher purpose. They begin to launch a two-man campaign against Hitler and the Nazis. Much of this campaign that they follow is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel.

Fallada clearly paints the world of Berlin in the early 1940s and it isn’t a pretty sight. It is an environment where everyone must be on their guard, knowing that anyone, at any time could betray you. It’s an environment where innocence means little once you get on the wrong side of someone powerful, a fact that many of the characters don’t realize until too late. There is an excellent scene between two long-term friends. One man discovers anti-Nazi propaganda and shows it to his friend. As they discuss what to do with it, they begin to distrust each other, to wonder if their friend is attempting to trick them, to turn them over to the Gestapo. “Pale-faced, they stared at each other. They were old friends, going back to school days, but now fear had come between them, and fear had brought mistrust with it.” This, the novel tells us, is the power of the Third Reich, to instill such fear into the common people that they will do anything, betray anyone, let anything slide, only to protect themselves.

It’s easy to look back on Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s and blame the German people. From our present-day perspective we like to think we could never let that happen, that we are people who would stand up to evil and injustice. Fallada shows us that Germany was full of people much like us, people concerned with taking care of themselves and their loved ones. People who hope that if they keep their mouths shut and don’t draw attention to themselves, they might escape unscathed. In a chapter near the end a young, married couple argue over whether or not they should do something to stand up to the Nazis, some small act of rebellion. They discuss the lives that their future children might live and the wife says, “What have we done to secure a better future? Nothing at all!”

This, I believe, is the argument at the centre of the book. What have we done to change the future? What can we do to ensure that ourselves and our souls are not overcome by the evil of the world? Fallada doesn’t offer excuses for the people in Berlin in the early ’40s. Instead he spreads life out before us, tells us, “This is what it was like. Some of us tried to do something. Some of it was too late. Some of it was very small. But we tried.”

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