Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 25, 2013

Alone in Berlin (1947), by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofman

Little Man, What Now?Alone in BerlinAlone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1893-1947)is a gripping story … I meant only to have a quick look at it before starting Little Man, What Now? by the same author.  I was just checking it out after I’d retrieved it from the TBR while the computer booted up … but then I could not put it down.

Which is all the more amazing when so soon it becomes obvious how it must end….

Wolf Among WolvesFallada’s career as an author of political novels brought scrutiny and brief imprisonment by the Nazis, who removed his first commercial success Little Man, What Now? from public libraries in part because this social-realist tale of Germany’s pre-war economic problems was made into a Hollywood movie by Jewish producers. His critique of the Weimar government in Wolf Among Wolves , however, brought their approval.  The DrinkerFallada then wrote children’s stories and fairy tales to deflect their attention, but eventually accepted Nazi commissions (of which he was later ashamed) and his work was subject to interference by Goebbels. The stress exacerbated his long-standing problems with substance abuse, and he ended up in an asylum, where he used the pretext of a commission to write an anti-Semitic novel to instead covertly write The Drinker, an autobiographical exposure of life under the Nazis.

Alone in Berlin was written under the post-war Soviet Occupation and published posthumously in 1947.   In the novel, Otto and Anna Quangel are the fictional counterparts of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple who mounted an ineffectual act of resistance against the Nazi regime and were caught by the Gestapo and executed.  While the catalyst for resistance is slightly different in the novel, the motivation was not:

…it doesn’t matter if there’s a handful of you against many of them.  Once you’ve seen that a cause is right, you’re obliged to fight for it.  Whether you ever live to see success, or the person who steps into your shoes does, it doesn’t matter.  (p. 313)

Alone in Berlin explores this deceptively simple moral certainty in all its complexity, in 568 pages that held my rapt attention over the three days it took to read.

Otto is a taciturn working man who has risen to the position of factory foreman through the force of his personality.  He does not bully anyone, but his conscientious attention to supervision and his own blunt integrity achieves results that satisfy his Nazi overlords. As the war progresses craftsmanship is no longer needed and they mass produce coffins, but Otto plods on in his dull way until shocked out of it when his son is killed in the war.  In her distress, his wife Anna accuses him and ‘his’ Führer of blame.  This is the catalyst for his covert campaign of civil disobedience, handwriting postcards critical of the regime and over a period of years distributing them all over Berlin.  It’s not much, but it could cost them their lives.

The novel is both a stunning portrayal of the venality of man, and a chastening depiction of the banality of goodness.  Such ordinary people take extraordinary risks and so many innocent victims of Nazi brutality demonstrate astonishing courage.  These are not high-profile activities which are acknowledged post-war as heroism, but there’s an elderly judge who takes enormous risks; there’s a ‘cell’ at the factory, composed of young people of tragic naiveté; there’s a postal-worker whose discovery that her son commits atrocities against the Jews propels her into a different way of life.  She is confronted by Frau Gesch upstairs who upbraids her for a lack of humanity because she won’t give her wastrel ex-husband house-room, but who finds it only too easy to avenge a minor insult with actions that imperil a life.  An acrimonious receptionist, a nosey neighbour, a failed thug of a burglar  – all get their chance to vent their spite with calls to the police, and Inspector Escherich is one of the most chilling portrayals of the banality of evil I’ve read.

Ineffectual resistance is often contrasted with the implacable efficiency of the Gestapo and SS but in Alone in Berlin Fallada (who had experienced imprisonment at their hands) also shows the authorities’ incompetence, suggesting that he felt that more could have been done to resist.     ‘Your apathy made it possible’ says Grigoleit to a former colleague in the cell.  Trudel wants to act, in retribution for what she believes has been her sinful acquiescence to a morally corrupt regime, but Karl will only support her if there is no risk.

Is there redemption?  Writing so soon after the war, Fallada must have yearned for a new Germany, and the Quangels are a metaphor for parents of the next generation.  The ‘baptism’ of the street-thug Kuno, his rejection of his unrepentant father and his adoption by the symbolically named Eva is a clear indication of Fellada’s hopes for a humane post-Nazi Germany.

Highly recommended.  I can’t wait to see what my father thinks of this brilliant novel!

I bought this book because I had read Tom’s review at A Common Reader.

Author: Hans Fallada
Title: Alone in Berlin (also translated as Every Man Dies Alone)
Translated from the German by Michael Hofman
Publisher: Penguin, 2009, first published 1947
ISBN: 9780141189383
Source: Personal library, purchased from Top Titles Brighton, $26.95


Fishpond: Alone in Berlin 


  1. Another book you’re tempting me with !!! Stop it! (only joking….)


  2. I ve this on my tbr and wolf among wolves I hope to read them for this years german lit month ,all the best stu


  3. […] The Drinker while in gaol (see my review) and redeemed his reputation with Alone in Berlin (see my review) Fallada was vulnerable to intimidation because of his mental illness and drug addiction.  He […]


  4. […] any optimism about the future of post-war Germany.  This is what I wrote at the conclusion of my review of Alone in Berlin, (1947) Fallada’s story about the futile resistance campaign of a working-class couple against […]


  5. […] of reading Bram Presser’s amazingly good Book of Dirt and my copy of the film made from Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin came in the mail and I watched it last night.  At bedtime I was just not ready to go back to […]


  6. […] his titles at a time when I’d never heard of him. I’ve now read five of his novels: Alone in Berlin, Little Man What Now? The Drinker, Wolf Among Wolves and Nightmare in Berlin and have two titles on […]


  7. […] realism oeuvre was a form of resistance,  and the Nazis didn’t hesitate to ban it, but his Alone in Berlin (1947) is specifically about the futile resistance campaign of a working-class couple against the […]


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