Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (Translated by Michael Hofmann) Penguin Modern Classics.
The author of this absorbing novel has created a story about a decent character, Otto Quangel, who with his wife lives in Berlin during the second-world war. Working in a factory and living amongst a people whose private misgivings and criticisms of their political leaders are silenced by fear, Otto, also has a daily horror of the possibility of being reported to the authorities for having a wrong political attitude or for having committed some minor misdeed against the state. Such accusations could well result in arrest and torture or even a death camp. Yet he is prepared to communicate his criticism of the government’s oppression and unjust social policies as well as their military conquests abroad. For the regime in seizing absolute power, have destroyed any vestiges of democracy.
I wonder how we would react in similar circumstances? Thank goodness I do not have to face such a test. But many people in the world today who live under dictatorship have to find some way of accommodating themselves to corruption in their society while maintaining their self-respect. For they say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In Alone in Berlin, Otto reacts by voicing his subversive comments regarding Hitler’s conduct. However, like us all, he has an instinct for self-preservation, and so he does so anonymously, by writing his criticisms on postcards that he secretly leaves in public places. The hope is that these will be read and awaken the conscience of his fellow citizens. This campaign is investigated by policeman Escherich, who himself is under huge pressure from his boss in the Gestapo, to identify the culprit and a game of cat-and-mouse begins. The loser will pay with his life.
Almost with understatement Alone in Berlin shows us some brave people who take risks to secretly do good. At the same time the book portrays a callous selfishness, sadism and degeneration of some of the figures surrounding Otto and whose evil ways are able to thrive in the tyrannical and corrupt setting of Nazi Germany. Their hypocritical veneer soon disappears as they openly display their malice and bestial nature. This raises in the reader the question of to what extent our own conduct is ruled by conformity to the social norms of our own society or our own inner conscience for what is right and good.
Alone in Berlin does something to preserve in me a belief that conducting war against Nazi Germany was necessary. How else was that wicked power to be destroyed other than by foreign armies? The German people were too terrified of the monster they had previously liked for any shared consciousness of truth about him to publicly emerge. In this work of fiction, albeit based on a true story, no internal resistance such as that of Otto was ever able to mobilise an effective opposition to Hitler despite the substantial and heroic actions of a minority at all levels of German society from aristocratic officers in the army to inmates of concentration camps.
Alone in Berlin is a page turner but there are no cheap thrills. In my view it lays bare the reality of evil. It also shows a moral integrity in its protagonist as a representative of a better Germany.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems