translated by Michael Hofman
Given all the tragedy, destruction, and horrors of World War II I don’t often stop to consider what life was like for “normal people” under the Nazis. But of course Hitler was a dictator and a tyrant, the Nazis were made up of people who supported him and his rise to power. So of course Nazi Germany was a place full of distrust and horror and all the injustices, small and large, that keep fear burning and so monsters in charge.
And thinking about it now, if you were an ordinary person in Berlin in the 1930s how could you have resisted? Knowing the support the Nazis had and knowing that any revenge would be dealt not only to you but also to your family, friends, and possibly anyone you had contact with. How could you resist when you couldn’t trust anyone else to help you? What would you do?
Alone in Berlin was written in 1947, and tells a fictionalised version of a true story. Otto and Elise Hampel started writing a series of postcards decrying what was going on. Urging people to resist. They wrote over 200 postcards.
In this book Fallada takes their story and uses it to tell the story of Berlin under the Nazis. Not to excuse the German people, this book certainly points out that the majority went along with the Nazis without resisting, but to show the fear and terror that gripped the people of Berlin. How fear can enable people to switch off their moral code and turn a blind eye to horrific injustices and to betray their own family and friends.
It is a fascinating book, but also a bleak one. From the outset you worry about Otto and Anna Quangel1 and you get the impression that things will not end well for them. But all around them are people struggling to survive. Struggling to understand, in Eva Kluge’s case, how a beloved son, a “good boy” could turn out to be a Nazi soldier capable of committing atrocities. But also there are those who see the war and the fear as an opportunity. Spy on your neighbour, denounce them and maybe you’ll get a reward, or get to steal from them.
Many many characters do not portray humanity in a positive way. And even the “heroes” are only moved to act because of personal grief, up until then they were content to support the system even while not agreeing with it all.
But although it is a depressing subject, I don’t think that the book is without hope. After all, in the end the Nazis were defeated, small comfort to the millions they murdered I know. And people did stand up to them, maybe in small ways, maybe they could have been more effective, but as Otto says
the main thing was, you fought back
Fallada’s fictional couple based on the Hampels ↩