There’s no getting around it, Alone in Berlin is painful to read. Its characters suffer humiliation, betrayal, loss, torture and death. The writing, at least in Michael Hoffman’s translation, is clear and deceptively simple but it’s challenging none the less because it asks major questions of its reader. These are facts, but I would hate for you to think it’s too depressing to attempt because it is uplifting and contains the seeds of hope even as it reaches its bleak conclusion.
The author’s own story and the story of how the book came to be written is extraordinary enough, the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel on which its based; the addictions and mental illness of the man behind the pen name Hans Fallada – these only add to the moral power of this most moral of novels.
The story itself is simple: it tells of two ordinary Germans, Otto and Anna Quangel, who become disillusioned with Hitler after the death of their son and conduct their resistance, not by joining secret groups, but by writing postcards critical of the Nazi leadership which they leave in public places. A small act maybe, but one that is just as dangerous as the most physical resistance.
…whether their act was big or small, no one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.
The postcard-writing is as risky as any other more obviously dangerous act of opposition and does cost the Quangels their lives.
Whatever you do in the face of organised brutality, fighting back must be active, even if it’s an apparently small act. Not doing harm is not enough. One character, Girigoleit, who has remained active in the resistance comes back into the lives of the young couple, Trudel and Karl Hergesell, opponents of the Nazi regime who dabbled with the resistance, but who are now trying to live peacefully and anonymously.
Grigoleit tells them,
Once you’ve seen that a cause is right you’re obliged to fight for it.
When Hergesell later retorts that ‘my happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing,’ Grigoleit refuses to comfort him.
But it does! You’re stealing it! You’re robbing mothers of their sons, wives of their husbands, girlfriends of their boyfriends, as longas you tolerate thousands being shot every day and don’t lift a finger to stop the killing…
…it strikes me that you’re almost worse than the real dyed-in-the-woold Nazis. They’re too stupid to know what crimes they’re committing. But you do, and you don’t do anything against it! Aren’t you worse than the Nazis? Of course you are!
Otto Quangel himself says
You see, it doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not. I had to fight.
The end result is brutally indiscriminate. Trudel and Karl are caught up in the purge of those who knew the Quangels anyway, their attempts to ‘stay out’ of it all ultimately futile.
They had done nothing but they were doomed.
It always comes back to this question of personal responsibility. Your actions may not achieve anything obvious; you may not bring down an evil regime. But as Otto Quangel’s cellmate Dr Reichhardt tells him,
At least you opposed evil. You weren’t corrupted.
That question of personal responsibility works two ways: you have to choose, even if it’s a passive acceptance of help. After the Jewish widow, Frau Rosenthal, driven mad after hiding alone in Judge Fromm’s spare bedroom throws herself to her death, the judge reflects that,
You can’t just want to rescue someone: they have to agree to be rescued.
This book was emotionally shredding to read. Not just because of the agony and sadness of the deaths, the brutality and unfairness of what they’re up against but also because it forms itself into one big question in your mind: What would you do? And that’s far from easy to answer.
Alright, so it’s powerful, bleak and depressing. Why would you want to read it? Obviously it’s important to challenge yourself, but it does contain seeds of hope even when it’s at its darkest.
The doomed Trudel understands her failed attempt to be part of the resistance movement thus:
A man came to us and tried to explain it to me. He said we are like good seeds in a field of weeds. If it wasn’t for the good seeds, the whole field would be nothing but weeds. And the good seeds can spread their influence.
And this is where there’s hope of redemption. Eva Kluge, working on a farm removing weeds, hopes to redeem the previously feral teenager Kuno-Dieter. He provides the hope of renewal at the book’s end: adopted by Eva, he comes face to face with his no-good father and makes the right choice to turn away from him. In the novel’s final words,
because it is written that you reap what you sow, and the boy had sown good corn.