#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews ALONE IN BERLIN and NIGHTMARE IN BERLIN by Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada was the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen, born in 1893 in Greifswald. In his day, he was rated as highly as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. He spent much of his life in psychiatric care (for drug addiction) and in prison (for embezzlement), yet produced acclaimed novels such as Little Man, What Now? and Wolf Among Wolves. He chose to stay in Germany after 1933, in spite of attacks on his writing by the Nazis. His experiences of life in Nazi Germany, of prison and of drug addiction are woven into his two final novels, Alone in Berlin – set in wartime – and Nightmare in Berlin, set in 1945-46. He died in 1947. Both novels were published posthumously and were received somewhat coolly at the time, but have since become his best-known works.

Hans Fallada wrote Nightmare in Berlin in the first half of 1946 while he was hospitalised after another bout of substance abuse – a habit that afflicted much of his life. Perhaps, as with Coleridge, morphine heightened his sense of perception, for he produced a powerful and disturbing novel, which inexorably draws you deep into the apathy and guilt-ridden hopelessness of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war, a period which has too often been glossed over by historians. With extraordinary prescience, his protagonist, Dr Doll, a thinly disguised version of Fallada himself, views the total collapse of his country with utter despair:

‘[He] belonged to the most hated and despised nation on earth … he would probably not live long enough to see the day when the German name would be washed clean … perhaps his own children and grandchildren would still be bearing the burden of their fathers’ guilt.’

But what most affects him is the ambivalence of his situation: he has nothing but contempt for the Nazis and what they did to him, but realises he no longer hates them. Equally, he has nothing but contempt for the people around him – ‘Germans against Germans, every man for himself and every woman too’ – but realises that, as a German, he has as much contempt for himself as for everyone else. And so Doll sinks into a weeks-long morphine-induced coma: ‘deeper and deeper into selfish isolation, running away like a coward from the job they were all called upon to do’. He sees Germans divided into two groups: ‘the ones who cannot hope and the ones who dare not hope’.

Fallada’s description of Doll’s ‘semi-waking dream’ in the psychiatric ward is intensely moving, not just for itself but because it’s a sharp and frightening allegory for the condition of the whole German nation in that penurious time: a nation that had lost any sense of ethical or personal direction along with the physical world it lived in. But what finally rouses him from his stupor and his own loss of hope, as he walks the bombed-out streets of Berlin, is the realisation that his fellow Germans are beginning to find some direction again, rebuilding their homes, factories, hospitals, doing what he has failed to do. He is fortuitously introduced to an exiled writer who has returned from Moscow and sets about using his literary skills to help create an antifascist Germany. Nightmare in Berlin ends, then, on a note of optimism: Doll has a new watchword. ‘Just get on with life and do your job’ – yet another prescient thought, a watchword that surely lay behind Germany’s successful rebirth and Wirtschaftswunder.

Alone in Berlin was written between September and December of 1946, in a final burst of the creative energy that is depicted in Nightmare (Fallada died two months later). In all respects, though, this tale of wartime Berlin is even darker and more pessimistic, as if, in looking back, he realises just how lucky he was to survive. It’s based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who literally flooded the city for two years with hundreds of anti-Nazi postcards, left lying on windowsills, in hallways, wherever they might be picked up and read. That they were almost all handed in to the Gestapo by the no doubt terrified citizens who found them is just one of many depressing elements in the story. Otto and Anna Quangel, the couple in the book, lose their only son in what they regard as a futile and criminal war. Otto just wants ‘peace and quiet’, but comes to understand he must fight back. He defies the party hacks at a factory meeting; then comes up with the idea of the postcards.

‘“Mother! The Führer has murdered my son.” [Anna] grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war … between the two of them, poor insignificant workers … and the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus.’

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that it’s not just the Quangels who are ‘alone’, but everyone in Berlin, from the retired judge in the ground-floor flat to the Jewess three floors up; the German title of the book translates as ‘Every Man Dies Alone’. Even the Gestapo inspector, Escherich, tasked with tracking down the Quangels (and initially failing completely), finds himself cast into the cellars, to be worked over, alone and forgotten, by drunken SS men. And when, reinstated, he finally succeeds, he is challenged by Quangel: ‘I know what I’ve done. And I hope you know what you’re doing … You’re working in the employ of a murderer … You do it for money.’ Escherich lowers his eyes, ‘vanquished’. Later that night, realising he alone has been converted by Quangel’s postcard campaign, he shoots himself.

As with the psychiatric ward in Nightmare, Fallada’s experience of prison is meticulously and despairingly detailed in his description of Otto and Anna Quangels’ incarceration and interrogation. In the end, none of the dissidents in this story succeeds, every one that has kicked against the system is dead or in prison by the final page. But one passage in particular – a conversation between Otto and his cellmate, a dissident musician – might serve as Fallada’s personal manifesto, when Quangel is told:

‘“We all acted alone, we were caught alone and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean … our deaths will be in vain … we are bound to prevail in the end.”

“And what good will that do us … in our graves?”

“Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one? There is no choice … not for you, nor for me.”’

Reviewed by Max Easterman


Written by Hans Fallada

Translated by Michael Hoffman

Published by Penguin (201O)


Written by Hans Fallada

Translated by Allan Blunden

Published by Scribe (2016)

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Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university  lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: The German RiveterReviewsThe RiveterNovember 2019 - The German Riveter


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