Discussion location: The Rope Walk

Chosen by: Lorna

Reason for choice: Wanted to choose something hadn’t   previously read.  Heard radio review, was intrigued by postcards and interested at portrayal of different side compared to other war books.

Review:

 

Written in Berlin and published in 1947, a mere two years after the end of World War II, Alone in Berlin is the story of an ordinary couple, The Quangels, who embark on a dangerous pursuit of leaving anti-Hitler messages on postcards around Berlin and the subsequent police hunt to find the culprit.

Though the first 130 pages are slow and in parts, overly detailed, they explain the couples’ transformation from quiet, accepting citizens into anti-Nazi activists when their son is killed at war and his girlfriend becomes part of an activist cell.  The lengthy opening also sets the scene for a large number of characters who span the moral spectrum, with alternating chapters flicking between their interlinking lives in a strongly character driven novel.

Although many of the characters are stereotypically good or bad, there is scope for moral redemption, as both Kuno Dieter and Inspector Escherich demonstrate.  Similarly, the novel itself demonstrates that straightforward good and evil stereotypes are not so distinct, as those who it might be easy to view as evil in supporting the Nazi party, sometimes did so out of fear or self-preservation, as life against the party resulted in exclusion, torture or even death.

The real power of Alone in Berlin is in its eye-opening depiction of a Nazi-occupied Germany where its own inhabitants lived in a climate of fear, suspicion and betrayal; where their own moral code had to be abandoned in favour of survival; or where they wished to resist but did not know how to.  In essence, it is the other side of a very familiar story – a side that is uncomfortable for readers who are forced not only to abandon the comforting notion that all Nazis were evil, but to question what they would have done? Would they have fought back, like the Quangels, putting their own lives in danger? Would they have revelled in the opportunity to prosper, like the Persickes? Would they have taken advantage of other’s ruin, like Borkhausen, or run away like Eva Kluge, or quietly go along with it, like many, including  Fallada himself during the war? Perhaps this goes some way to explain why the novel remained un-translated into English until a staggering 52 years after it was first published.

Although the novel is unarguably harrowing and at times, grey and bleak (in the words of Theresa “not a summer read!), there are moments of hope, not least that the novel’s protagonists might escape punishment.  The gripping chase that ensures to catch ‘the hobgoblin’, the Gestapo’s name for the card dropper, is fast paced and exciting, and despite small hints (the postcard hidden in the book), the Quangels appear to be clever enough, and the Gestapo stupid enough for them to remain undiscovered.   Moreover, there is hope in the moral victory of Inspector Escherich realising that ‘the hobgoblin’ is correct, thwarted only by his subsequent suicide.

Despite the novel revealing too easily what would occur later, such as Judge Fromm dying in a bomb blast and the title of each chapter explaining what was going to occur during the chapter, the actual finale was well veiled.  Moreover, the novel ending with Eva’s moral salvation of her cheating ex-husband’s partner in crime’s son, Kuno; if not a little twee and coincidental, ends the novel with promise and positivity.

It certainly disputes the novel’s true title, roughly as “Every man dies for himself alone”; although Fallada did shortly before the novel being published, this is not the message delivered from the novel’s ending.  Even the Quangels’ deaths are largely dignified and fearless, and their court appearance, which is so comedic that it is difficult to imagine such things truly occurring, is commendable and honourable.

Moreover, despite their unaffectionate and initially distant relationship, by the novel’s end Otto and Anna are distinctly not alone; despite being in separate prison wards, they never fail to stop thinking of each other and attempting to contact each other.  Despite beginning the novel as an ordinary couple, as the ‘everyman’; by the end they are quiet heroes, ‘the better man’, fighting for what is right.

Perhaps the most impact is grained from the appendix of the Penguin edition which details the novel’s basis, the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel who were an ordinary couple who posted anti-Nazi postcards around Berlin, and were subsequently captured, interrogated and executed.  Despite achieving nothing as almost all of their postcards were handed into the Gestapo, the Hampels provide hope that even in the worst of situations, somebody will stand up for ethics, for morality, and that every man does not die alone.

Despite being emotionally distressing and not particularly enjoyable, the novel is thought-provoking and enlightening; blurring the lines between good and evil, ordinary and hero; and proving that there is hope in the bleakest of places.

Overall rating: 8/10

Not a book you might want to read, but a book you should read.

Advertisements