Every Man Dies Alone, Hans Fallada

I’ll start at the end: What I loved first about this book was the good stuff at the end – historical documents like letters and trial papers, little grits of non fiction that formed the backdrop of this story, and the inspiring notion that Hans Fallada was a pseudonym for a man called Rudolph Ditzen who wrote this book in 24 days in the last year of his life in Germany 1947.

Ditzen’s personal story is a novel in itself, he came to the attention of the Nazis in 1933 and was ultimately jailed for his ‘anti-Nazi denunciations’. Ditzen suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, became addicted to alcohol and morphine and spent time not only in jail but also in a mental institution.

It is against this personal context that Fallada wrote ‘Every Man Dies Alone’, a novel based on the true story of a German couple who conducted a 3 year subtle resistance campaign against the Nazis by dropping postcards renouncing the Nazis and their activities around the city of Berlin.

The novel unfolds slowly, each chapter providing a segment of the complex story of Berlin under the Nazis and the lives of those people trying to live within the confines of this warped reality. Fallada presents us with an uninvolved couple who lose a son at the Front, a Jewish woman whose husband has disappeared, a retired judge and a family of fervent Nazi supporters whose sons are involved in the Hitler Youth. Into the mix he throws a few desperate and destitute characters with a penchant for women, gambling and alcohol who are always looking for a quick way to make a buck without getting killed. The mix of these diverse individuals is profound, disturbing and incredibly interesting. Reading this novel is like looking through the peep hole into each of their lives, catching snippets and then losing them again as the narrative is passed between them.

I love the rhythm of this telling, the subtle flow and the ultimate insight into the inanities of life in Nazi Germany during this period, a time when everyone was a spy and everything that you said could be twisted and used against you.

Primo Levi says that this is “the greatest book every written about German resistance to the Nazis” which is true, but somewhat ironic given that the English publication of this book only appeared in 2009, some 60 years after it was first published in German.

Oversights like this aside, there is no doubt that Fallada’s book is one of the most important books that has been published since the Second World War and there is no coincidence to my review appearing today, on the 70th anniversary of the end of that dreadful, tragic and devastating period in human history.

Fallada’s message is clear: Have the courage to care and to act. Do not stand by idle while others perpetrate evil. Do not stray from knowing what is right, and doing what is right.

I can’t help but be reminded of the poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

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