“Mother! The Führer has murdered our son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too. He will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”
Otto Quangel writes these words on a postcard one Sunday afternoon in 1940, drops it in a crowded building the next day and waits for someone to find it. And in this way, a quiet married couple from Berlin begin their campaign of resistance to World War II.
I’ve been very lucky so far with my reading choices in 2011. Alone in Berlin (published in the US as Every Man Dies Alone) is yet another one that I thoroughly enjoyed. This book has been on my wish list since I noticed it had been translated for the first time and published as a Penguin Classic, and I’m so glad it lived up to my expectations. Not only is it a wonderful story but it’s also important historically as an anti-Nazi novel written by a German and published in 1947, just after the end of World War II.
The book is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, whom Hans Fallada renamed Otto and Anna Quangel. Fallada was given the Gestapo’s files on the Hampels and was able to draw on this information as part of his research for Alone in Berlin. Before I read this book I knew nothing about the Hampels and their postcard campaign, so I found the plot completely suspenseful, exciting and full of surprises – it was truly unputdownable, the kind of book where I knew as soon as I started reading that I was going to love it.
From the first page we are drawn straight into the action with postwoman Eva Kluge delivering a telegram to Otto and Anna Quangel, informing them that their son has been killed. Meanwhile in the apartment below, the Nazi Persicke family are celebrating the news of the capitulation of France, whilst Frau Rosenthal, the elderly Jewish woman who lives on the fourth floor, is forced to go into hiding after her husband is taken away by the Gestapo.
Devastated by his son’s death and appalled by the Nazi regime, Otto buys some blank postcards and devises a simple scheme which he hopes will raise awareness of Hitler’s atrocities and encourage other German citizens to join the resistance. On the surface, Otto is our hero, the man with the courage to stand up to Hitler, the man who refuses to join the Party although doing so is ruling him out of promotion at work. And yet Otto is not a conventional fictional hero. He comes across as cold and distant and not particularly likeable – but I could understand the reasons for him distancing himself. He was not frightened for himself, but afraid that his actions would endanger anyone associated with him, particularly his beloved Anna who insists on helping him with the postcards despite the risks involved.
The middle section of this book becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse game with Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo attempting to catch the mystery postcard writer. Escherich is a very shrewd and intelligent detective who is able to make clever deductions based on the tiniest clues – almost a brutal, sinister version of Sherlock Holmes – and I was kept in suspense wondering if Otto would give himself away.
But there are so many other things going on in this book. We also meet Enno Kluge, Eva’s husband, whose main ambition is to stay out of the army on health grounds and fill his days with gambling and drinking. Then there’s Trudel Baumann, who was once engaged to the Quangels’ son, and is opposing the war in her own way; Baldur Persicke the Hitler Youth Leader who puts Hitler and the Party before even his own father; and Kuno-Dieter, a teenage boy who flees Berlin for the countryside.
I wasn’t expecting this book to be so easy to read. The writing is clear and direct, getting straight to the point and allowing us to concentrate on the rapidly moving plot. I was concerned that my unfamiliarity with German war-time politics might be a problem, but I needn’t have worried. I had no problem understanding any part of the book. The focus is not on the politics but on the people and their lives. I went through a whole range of emotions while reading this book: fear (for Otto and Anna, for Trudel, for Frau Rosenthal, even at times for Enno); anger (at the Gestapo and the whole system of ‘justice’); and sadness, of course.
Alone in Berlin is a moving and inspirational story about two people standing up for what they know is right. I would highly recommend it if you enjoy reading World War II fiction and would like to view things from a different perspective and also if you enjoy novels that are both gripping and heartbreaking. Don’t let the 600+ pages put you off – I became so absorbed in the story I didn’t even notice the length!