learning from Hans Fallada
This chest infection of mine is lasting a long time – longer even than the book I’m currently reading, The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, which comes in at a whopping 975 pages. It may be hot outside by the time I blog that one. But beforehand I read Alone in Berlin, at a more modest 568 pages that really felt more like 300. It is currently being packaged as a modern thriller: “Berlin, 1940. The city is paralysed by fear. But one man refuses to be scared.” But it isn’t. Yes, Berlin was paralysed by fear, but Alone in Berlin isn’t a modern thriller, nor should it be sold as such.
Author Hans Fallada is as fascinating as his book which, with writers, is not always the case. Born Rudolf Ditzen, he engaged in a suicide pact staged as a ritual dual in his teens; he killed his friend (and perhaps sexual partner) and turned his friend’s gun on himself. He survived and was charged with his friend’s murder, and was committed to a psychiatric hospital when he was deemed unfit for trial in 1912. In the hospital he began a reliance on prescription drugs that would blossom into full-blown addiction. His debut novel in 1920, Young Goedeschal, was published under a pseudonym, a name from Grimm’s fairy tales, to avoid reminding the public of the earlier scandal. But scandal did not leave Fallada alone. He was twice convicted for embezzlement and recommitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1944 for threatening his ex-wife with a handgun. While in hospital again, Fallada began work on a book about his own substance abuse, The Drinker, deliberately written unintelligibly, so that it could not be deciphered and published until after his death.
Alone in Berlin was also not published until after his death in 1947. It was written in a manic 24-days while undergoing hospital treatment for substance abuse. It is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a middle-aged couple who left handwritten anti-Nazi letters in buildings throughout Berlin; they were arrested in 1942 and beheaded in 1943. In the book’s afterword, you can see copies of some of their postcards and read police reports.
It is a cracking read, but it isn’t a modern thriller. There are none of the devices we have come to expect: no hooks, no cliffhangers. The writing, in translation, is written in the present tense. It is fluid, straight-forward, and filled with details of life under the Nazis and the day-to-day rationales of people who did not see themselves as colluders or collaborators but who, by their actions and justifications, allowed the regime to flourish. It is neither a tale of evil, nor the banality of evil; it is about getting through life a day at a time, in extraordinary times, which Fallada did. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he chose not to leave, even though Putnam in London arranged for his emigration in 1938. Fallada’s war-time history is as gray and conflicted as any of his characters. He was neither a collaborator nor a resistance fighter. He cooperated with the regime with some of his lighter works while challenging it in such pre-war books as Wolf Among Wolves. His eldest son was a Hitler Youth, but Fallada also found ways to suport authors and publishers who were discriminated on political and racial grounds.
Primo Levi declared that Alone in Berlin was “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” I am not qualified to dispute this, but Fallada’s book is less a celebration of heroic resistance than an exploration of self-justification among ordinary Germans. The campaign of resistance was unsuccessful, even futile. Only those who found ways to collaborate with clean consciences, or to disappear, were successful. Fallada’s strength is in articulating this ambiguity, in reminding us that war is never black and white.