Good Books: Every Man Dies Alone, Hans Fallada

In 1940, Berlin housewife Elise Hampel received word that her younger brother had been killed in France. She and her husband, Otto, decided to do something in opposition to Hitler. Neither had much education: Otto was a veteran of the First World War who was employed as a fitter in a metal-works; Elise had worked as a servant before her marriage. Outwardly,they were humble servants of the regime but now they were determined to fight against it. They composed anti-government messages that Otto transcribed onto postcards — “German people wake up!”, “Hitler’s war is the worker’s death!”, “Why suffer war and death for the Hitler plutocracy?”. These cards, often with misspelled words and ungrammatical sentences were surreptitiously dropped around Berlin. From 1940 to the end of 1942, the Hampels created more than a hundred of these cards. Eventually they were spotted, turned into the Gestapo, and, in 1943, executed.

Otto and Elise Hampel

Hans Fallada had been incarcerated in a mental hospital during the final months of the War. A friend in the police showed him the Hampels’ Gestapo file and Fallada determined to write a novel about their action. Fallada was alcoholic and a user of morphine. During the first half of 1946 he was once again hospitalized for addiction and to treat the physical damage he had done to himself. Upon his discharge he sat down and wrote Every Man Dies Alone (also translated as Alone In Berlin) in less than a month. His body gave out completely in 1947 and he died before his novel was published.

Hans Fallada (via That's How The Light Gets In

Fallada’s real name was Rudolf Ditzen. At the age of 18, Ditzen killed another young man in a suicide pact disguised as a duel. Ditzen was terribly wounded but survived. He adopted the pen name, “Hans Fallada” to escape his notoriety. “Fallada” is a horse in the fairy tale, “The Goose Girl”. A princess, about to marry the king, is abducted by a rival and must serve as a goose girl on a farm. Her horse is killed and his head nailed to the town gate, but when the goose girl walks underneath, Fallada speaks to her. Fallada’s words are overheard and the goose girl restored to her rightful place.

 Fallada had written successful books before the war, including a best-seller, Little Man, What Now? that was a Book-of-the-Month selection in the US and made into a popular American movie. In 1933, as the Nazis came to power, Fallada moved to the country town of Carwitz to stay clear of city politics, but spying, gossip, and backbiting was as bad, or worse, in the country as it was in Berlin. He wrote several more novels, trying to steer clear of political debate. An account of life in 1920s Germany caught Goebbels’ eye and Fallada was forced to extend his next novel into the Nazi era with an uplift at the end after Hitler comes to power. The idea was that the book would be turned into a movie with Emil Jannings, but this did not come to pass. Fallada hated the book and writing to fit Nazi notions of art; he turned to writing pot-boilers and took more and more morphine — easy to get as Germany cranked out tons of the stuff for wounded soldiers and high-ranking addicts like Göring. By 1944, Fallada was far gone and threatened to shoot his wife. He didn’t but he did fire a weapon and was jailed, then sent to a mental hospital. There he wrote three more books all at once. The first was safe and non-political and could be seen by those looking at Fallada’s notebook, the second was written upside down in the spaces between the lines, and the third was inserted in whatever spaces remained. Not only his guards, but his editors have found it difficult to recover these books — one, The Drinker, has been published to some acclaim. Fallada was fortunate that this novel escaped notice, for any work that showed sympathy with drug-takers or alcoholics meant serious penalties for its author. And he was lucky to survive the asylum at a time when the insane were classed as “useless eaters” and murdered.

illustration by Fritz Kredel for the Illustrated Junior Library edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales (Grosset & Dunlap)

Every Man Dies Alone tells the story of the Quangels, a couple modelled on the Hampels. When the Quangels receive word that their son has been killed in France, they resolve to do something, though it takes a while to decide what. Fallada does not present the case so simply however. The Quangels have confused feelings and motives for their action. The husband, Otto, is a harsh and taciturn man who finds it difficult to show his feelings. Anna, his wife, has all of her feelings invested in the son who has died and his young fiancée, Trudel. She is a silently suffering woman who, in her pain, accuses her husband. “You voted for Hitler!” Otto is shocked. “Only once!” he answers, and “You voted for him, too!” Still, the notions that he did not care enough for his son and that his wife has lost her respect for him, eat away at Otto.

The Quangels live in an apartment block. An old Jewish woman lives on the top floor, one above the Quangels, retired Judge Fromm on the bottom. Between the judge and the Quangels live a Nazi family, the Persickes. The father is a drunk, his son a schemer determined to rise from the Hitler Youth into a position of power. The Persickes are presented as organisms in a food chain: at the top are official functionaries from the Gestapo or the SS, at the bottom are common criminals — blackmailers, con men, and other lowlifes — but Fallada makes it clear that these are all part of a criminal gang and that the only difference between the small-time crooks and the upper echelon is the size of the crime that they can commit. The old Jewish woman kills herself during an interrogation and the various criminals squabble over her belongings.

The Quangels continue their project. Otto laboriously writes up their messages and the two go out together to leave them where they can be found. At the beginning, Anna says that this seems such a small thing but Otto replies that they are risking their lives, how can they do more than that? And therein lies one of the questions raised in this book. The historian Detlev Peukert has written about the “everyday resistance” of many ordinary people in Germany during the Hitler years, ranging from simple non-cooperation to outright opposition. Some people managed to do something concrete such as hide a Jew from arrest and death in the camps. These hidden Jews were called “submarines” and there were several thousand in Berlin alone. Young people formed groups such as White Rose and the Edelweissenpiraten that engaged in leafletting and subversion. But White Rose leaflets were not widely distributed — most were thrown from windows onto a university square — and the Edelweiss Pirates accomplished little until the very end of the war when they mounted a savage assault on local Nazis in Cologne. Like the Hampels, they, and the members of White Rose, were executed.

Every Man dies Alone

So, is it worthwhile for people to risk death without accomplishing great goals? At one point in the novel, Otto has been arrested and sees a map in police headquarters that show where his postcards have been recovered. He realizes that only a few were not turned in immediately. Still, Otto tries to maintain his dignity and not to allow the Nazis any sense of victory. At his trial, he pleads guilty. The judge (based on the loathesome Roland Friesler who tried the Hampels) is disappointed, but makes do with trying to use the sentencing hearing to mock and discredit him. The prosecutor tries to make out that the Quangels acted for profit and asks Otto about a savings account that he has built up. Otto has never told his wife how much he has accumulated and is suddenly afraid to answer the question for fear that Anna will think him mean for denying them both pleasures they could have purchased, but he recovers. Realizing that he must tell only the truth, Otto gives them the exact amount, to the penny. The prosecutor tries to paint Anna as an immoral woman and asks how many lovers she had before marriage. “Eighty-seven,” she replies. No one in the cortroom believes that this woman has had more than two or three lovers, and possibly only one, in her entire life; she demonstrates the foolishness of the proceedings. When the judge refers to the Thousand-year Reich, Anna says, “Oh, I don’t think it will last very much longer.” If nothing else, the couple achieve a certain nobility and perhaps that is something worth fighting for.

Trudel remains close to the Quangels. She marries and she and her husband attempt to be part of a resistance. Their organization is inept and fails to do anything. When the Quangels are finally arrested, she, and then her husband, are taken into custody. She and her husband both die as a result of their arrest. Anna says, at least it’s all over for them, and looks at her husband: “We could do the same.” No, he says, we won’t make it any easier for our captors, and Anna accepts that excuse, but Otto knows that they really do not have any way to commit suicide, he is chained whenever he is out of his cell. And, out of the kindness he has found it difficult to show before their arrest, he lies to his wife when she asks if they will die together. “Of course we will!” Though he doesn’t expect his executioners to care when or how they die. 

The prison chaplain visits Otto on the day of his execution. Otto is a non-believer and refuses to asks God’s forgiveness. He does make a request of the chaplain, that his wife not be told of his death so that she may go on hoping that they will die together. “But that would be lying!” replies the horrified man of God. Nevertheless, Anna does not find out. Months after Otto is beheaded, she is killed by allied bombs — prisoners were not taken into bomb shelters for fear they would revolt. Both Otto and Anna had been given poison capsules by Judge Fromm. Neither of them use them.

The one note of hope that Fallada raises at the end is for a new Germany: A sympathetic character who has given up her party membership now drudges at farm work. She takes up with an anti-Nazi schoolteacher and becomes foster-mother to the son of one of the criminals introduced early on. He responds to her kindness and may be developing into a good person. At the novel’s end he is confronted by his father and rejects him. This boy’s new family is Germany’s future.

Fallada’s novel had little success until after its publication abroad. The French translation, published in 2002, sold a hundred thousand copies, and the English translation did even better. German interest was awakened and a new edition was to be prepared in 2010. In going through Fallada’s manuscript, editors discovered that it had been changed under orders by the East German government. In the original, the Quangels had been party members before their son’s death and Trudel’s ineffective resistance group was identified as Communist — something that the East German authorities found embarassing. And, before his retirement, Judge Fromm had been a strict jurist, a hanging judge, something that adds irony to his trying to aid the Quangels after their death sentence by giving them suicide pills. Perhaps these bits add more historic truth to the novel but they don’t change the central question: How does the individual resist organized tyranny? Fallada’s answer was that, at least the individual must preserve his own integrity — also ironic because of the way that Fallada’s work was compromised by two different regimes.


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