Unlucky Hans

Books Hans Fallada spent his life nervously vacillating between rebellion against and co-operation with Nazi rule. But just before his death, Sam Munson finds, he wrote the great novel of German resistance.

1936, Nuremberg, Germany --- A huge crowd of soldiers in combat gear stands at attention beneath the reviewing stand at Nuremberg, Germany, listening to a speech by the German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler during the Nazi Party rally of 1936.  The Party held a similar rally here every year between 1933 and 1938. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
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Hans Fallada spent his life nervously vacillating between rebellion against and co-operation with Nazi rule. But just before his death, Sam Munson finds, he wrote the great novel of German resistance.
Every Man Dies Alone Hans Fallada Translated by Michael Hoffman Melville House Dh102
To the exquisitely cultured 21st-century reader, Primo Levi's endorsement of a first-rate thriller as "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis" might seem improbable. German literature has a well-deserved reputation for formal and philosophical difficulty. The names that English readers most quickly recognise - Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, Günter Grass - have come to be almost synonymous with a vision of the novel as an uncompromising, compositionally demanding object, one that makes little concession to its reader. The German canon is no place for thrillers.

But Levi is right. Every Man Dies Alone, the German novelist Hans Fallada's final book (now available for the first time in English, in a fluid translation by Michael Hofmann), deserves a place among the 20th century's best novels of political witness. The story of the novel's genesis is as dark as the book itself - and its author's trouble-heavy life. Fallada, a writer of closer stylistic kinship to Graham Greene than to Günter Grass, was born Rudolf Ditzen in 1893. He began his literary career as an outsider, a transplant to Berlin from the provinces with a passionate interest in European literature, a youthful suicide attempt in his past and a string of drug-related arrests on his record (Fallada suffered from morphine addiction for much of his adult life). In 1932, he produced his first best-seller, Little Man, What Now?, the story of a working-class marriage set in the last days of the Weimar Republic.

Two years later, his next novel, Once We Had A Child, brought him to the unfriendly attention of the Nazi authorities for its deviation from the party line on family life. The remaining 14 years of Fallada's life were spent vacillating unhappily between rebellion against and co-operation with Hitler's regime. He planned to leave Germany; he abandoned the plans. He wrote forewords to his own novels aimed at placating the authorities by suggesting that, when read correctly, they did not actually contravene government policies. For a time he avoided serious literature, writing humour books and children's stories. Then he agreed to produce an anti-Semitic novel for Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. But during his subsequent incarceration (for domestic violence) in a psychiatric hospital, he used Goebbel's (somewhat uncertain) backing to procure pen and paper and produce The Drinker - a piercing novel of alcoholism (one of Fallada's own vices) and social decay, and surely no piece of agitprop.

Fallada was released in December 1944, just months before the Nazi government fell. Shortly thereafter, one of his friends got him a copy of the Gestapo file on Otto and Elise Hampel, a middle-class couple who had embarked on a dangerous and ultimately pointless leafleting campaign against the government. Working from this material, Fallada - his mental and physical health failing, his family life irreparably damaged by his alcoholism and his political status - wrote Every Man Dies Alone.

The book's protagonists (they are certainly not heroes) are Otto and Anna Quangel, a factory foreman and his wife. Otto is congenitally silent, Anna pathologically generous of spirit. They have an uneventful marriage; a son, Ottochen, at the front; and a soon-to-be-daughter-in-law, Trudel, at home in Berlin. When Ottochen dies at the front (or "falls", as the argot of the Hitler years had it), Truden collapses at the news, and Otto breaks his long-running silence. Though he helped vote Hitler into power ("It was true, thus far he had been a believer in the Fuhrer's honest intentions. One just had to strip away the corrupt hangers-on and parasites"), Otto finds himself disenchanted with the government's war-making abroad and repression at home. He begins a propaganda campaign against the regime, writing out anti-Hitler postcards by hand and depositing them around Berlin. Anna, who had already taken her own small steps towards resistance by sheltering a Jewish refugee for a single night (much to Otto's anger), is impressed by her husband's new expressiveness and, like him, driven to act by Ottochen's death.

Together they scatter postcards and evade the Gestapo for months, causing hilarious internal strife at the security offices on the Alexanderplatz. Eventually Otto fumbles a card en route to a drop, and he and Anna end up in the hands of the security apparatus. Otto is sentenced to execution by the People's Court (Nazi Germany's central organ of extra-judicial public punishment), and he dies by guillotine in a dark, stifling basement. Anna, awaiting her own execution date in Berlin's Old Moabit Prison, dies in a bomb blast during one of the British bombing runs.

Partisans, whether they hide in a forest with guns or drop postcards in Berlin apartment houses, are supposed to win. Even when they do not, we expect them to possess any number of romantic attributes. The Quangels, however, are boring, morally dubious people. Otto, after all, had been an early supporter of Hitler, if not a party member; Anna's existence is more or less untouched by political conviction; and the two managed to live for years without the slightest inclination to obstruct their government (Anna's night of refugee shelter aside). But even as passive a character as Otto can be forced to wakefulness by history:

"No, he says to himself, almost aloud. No, Quangel, you'll never be the same again. I'm curious what Anna'll have to say to all this... Foreman Otto Quangel walks alertly from machine to machine, takes a hand here, glowers at a chatterbox there, and thinks to himself, That's the end of that, for good and all. And they haven't got a clue. As far as they're concerned, I'm just a doddery old fool... I wonder what I'm going to do next. Because I will do something, I know. I just don't yet know what it will be ..."

Fallada interweaves the tale of this failed resistance movement - which he paints as almost senseless, eccentric and foredoomed - with those of the lives affected, directly and indirectly, by the Quangels' decision: Trudel (their deceased son's fiancée); Emil Borkhausen, a neighbour of the Quangels' and a petty criminal who, with his partner Enno Kluge, robs an Aryanised apartment in the Quangels' building; the tenacious, soulless Inspector Escherisch, the policeman assigned to capture the Quangels, whose failure to do so lands him in prison and who only finds a measure of redemption after his release - through suicide. Almost every character Fallada introduces to us dies, most of them at the hands of the government. Fate is blind and cruel in this book, and fear is the definitive component of German life. The Nazi bureaucracy - in which suffocating, indecipherable organisational codes and casual brutalities merge and thrive - possesses the same frightening omnipresence of the city government in Kafka's The Trial. Readers of Every Man Dies Alone, however, cannot succour themselves with the thought that these officers, these prisons, this justice, are works of the author's imagination.

The book's treatment of the Gestapo is perhaps the ultimate source of its particular greatness. The archetypal German literary work of the war years, for good and ill, is Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus: the story of a musician seduced by the dionysian attractions of his art (and, obliquely, of a nation seduced by the power and dark glory of Manichean political evil). Layered with discussions of music theory and theological history, Doktor Faustus is, in short, a novel of metaphysics, not a novel of grim particularity. Thus it neglects the dismal everyday that Fallada chronicles so well and so relentlessly: the quantities of booze drunk by the miserable officers, the number of blows delivered in interrogations, the dimensions of prison cells, the colour and details of police and military uniforms, train schedules, back room low-level party meetings. Where Mann might use the police headquarters on the Prinz Albrecht Strasse as a chance to explain the dialectic between modern and medieval German architecture, Fallada sees only petty human evil in action:

"They caught hold of the still-staggering Borkhausen and slung him down the stairs like a sack of potatoes, tumbling over and over... The next sentry grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and screamed 'You think you can dirty our nice floor here, you pig!' dragged him to the exit, and heaved him out into the street... The passersby on the Prinz Albrecht Strasse studiously avoided looking at the man sprawled in the dirt..."

That Fallada discerned in all this, and in the brief rebellion and deaths of the Hampels, fit material for a novel demonstrates a piercing psychological acuity. So does his prose, which hurries mercilessly along, bald and frank as time itself: "'I'll throw you in the water, son of a bitch. And it'll be self-defence...' Two shots rang out, in quick succession. The Inspector felt the man crumple between his fists, and topple over. Reflexively, Escherisch made a move as he saw the dead man slip off the edge of the pier. His hands wanted to grab hold of him. Then with a shrug the Inspector watched as heavy body smacked into the water and straightaway disappeared.

"Better that way! He said to himself, as he moistened his dry lips. Less evidence. . . He walked slowly back down the pier, up the bank of the lake towards the station. "The station was locked, the last train was gone. Indifferently, the Inspector set off on the long walk back to Berlin. "The clock struck. "Midnight, thought the inspector. He made it to midnight. I'm curious how he'll like his peace, really curious. Wonder if he'll feel cheated again? The piece of s***, the whimpering piece of s***."

Mann's impulse to metaphysics - to view the catastrophes of one's own age and the eruption of subterranean human desires primarily as philosophical or aesthetic events - appears in a plurality, if not a majority, of 20th century German fiction, in writers as varied as Arno Schmidt and Alfred Andersch. In On the Natural History of Destruction, a brilliant collection of essays on postwar German literature, the novelist WG Sebald deems this tendency useless, insufficient ? even "dubious", as he puts it in his discussion of Schmidt.

In Sebald's opinion, witness to the horrors of the war, and in particular the horrors of the camps, demands something else entirely: books of brutal, surgical clarity, the better to express and confront the cataclysmic, a state of being that became quotidian for Germany's victims. Sebald cites the work of the novelist Hubert Fichte; better known entrants in this field are Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Imre Kertész's Fatelessness.

Sebald's diagnosis is more accurate than not; thus we don't typically think of effective books of witness being written by Germans who had ambiguous relationships with the Nazis. But Fallada did write such a book - in the seemingly-impossible span of 24 days, after which he died. It is telling that he took his pen surname from a figure in The Goose-Girl, one of the fairy tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm: Fallada, a hapless talking horse so bent on revealing the truth that decapitation failed to silence him.

Sam Munson has written about books for The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, Commentary and numerous other publications.