Alone in Berlin


This was a ‘found’ book from a second hand stall.  I knew nothing of the author and precious little of Nazi Germany that was not gleaned from war films.  The chance encounter, like a pebble tossed in a pond, has released infinite ripples.  It is beautifully, delicately translated  by Michael Hofmann.

Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada is the literary name, of Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen, chosen from  a Brothers Grimm fairly tale.  Fallada was born in East Germany in1893 and spent much of his life in prison or in psychiatric care. In 1911, a duel cum suicide pact with a friend, when they were both eighteen, that he survived but his friend did not, resulted in hIs first spell in psychiatric care, having been pronounced unfit for trial for murder on psychiatric grounds.  Addiction to various drugs, including morphine that was widely available after both world wars and alcohol, was a factor in his adult life.

He did not leave Germany as many authors did when the Nazis came to power in 1933.  As he told his parents in a letter, his next novel would be, ‘a quite unpolitical book which can’t give offence.’ It was viciously attacked by the regime.  He did move out of Berlin to  a small-holding and relative anonymity, but was denounced and imprisoned as an anti Nazi, and subsequently released, all on spurious grounds. Threats to personal and artistic liberty and integrity caused endless damage.

Some  subsequent manuscripts,  written in order to stay in favour, have not survived.   Iron Gustav,(1938) is his most notorious of the era. He was induced to  alter the end to suit the regime perhaps due to the veiled (reported) threat from Joseph Goebbles .. if Fallada still didn’t know what he thought of the Nazi Party, then the Nazi Party would know what it thought of Fallada…

Alone in Berlin was not published until after the war. It fictionalises the story of two ordinary people who, after  their son is killed in the invasion of France, decide to make a stand agains the might of the Third Reich. They leave postcards in public places reminding Berliners of common decency that has been almost totally wiped out by the regime. This of course is a crime against the state; high treason punishable by death.  They assume their words are sowing seeds of sedition all over the city.  Such is the pervading fear and  violence  that the postcards are immediately handed in.  The violence, meanness and fear, both casual and institutionalised, is deeply, worryingly, hauntingly portrayed.  A handful, who knows, unable to stand against the Nazis managed to preserve their integrity.  In small ways that often cost their lives, they kept a flame alive for when the war and the Nazi’s were defeated.

Hans Fallada  produced some of the most significant German novels of the twentieth century, including ‘Little Man, What Now?’ and was perhaps a genius in the writing world.


2 thoughts on “Alone in Berlin

  1. Perhaps that is when it was first translated. Strange to think how fragmentary and reliant on chance our knowledge of foreign literature.
    I was musing on the name Fallada. In Spanish it means failed.

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