Alone in Berlin

Submitted by Matthew on 22 March, 2011 - 10:02

By Matthew Thompson

The 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) by Hans Fallada is remarkable in several ways.

Firstly, with sales of a quarter of a million copies in Britain, it has become something of a publishing phenomenon, a previously obscure German novel that has entered the bestseller lists here and in the US since being translated in 2009 by the poet Michael Hofmann.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is a rare depiction of working-class resistance to Nazism (not itself rare: 80,000 German soldiers were executed in World War II for breaches of military disciplne, including those who formed a Trotskyist cell with the help of French comrades in Brest).

Based on a real case, Alone in Berlin deals not with well-known figures in Germany's anti-Nazi resistance - church pastors, the students in Munich who formed the White Rose group or the army officers involved in the von Stauffenberg plot in 1944 - but a working-class couple who in 1940, after their soldier son is killed fighting in France, begin writing postcards with slogans such as "Hitler's war is the worker's death" and dropping them in public places. Evading capture by the Gestapo until 1942, they were finally arrested and sentenced to death for treason.

The novel presents a range of characters including Nazi party members, factory workers, petty criminals and teenagers and their varying reactions to life under fascism, from collaboration and profiteering, through mute submission to active opposition. Fallada himself spurned opportunities to flee Germany and spent the war there, despite having been arrested by the Gestapo in 1934 and declared an "undesirable author" the following year. Nazi pressure to alter his writings, combined with drug and alcohol problems, led to him being confined in a psychiatric hospital in 1944. After his release and the subsequent collapse of the Third Reich in 1945, he began preparatory work on the novel which was published shortly after his death in 1947.

Set in the working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, the novel shows the extent to which the Gestapo rely on a network of informers - neighbours, workmates, building supervisors - to spy on its inhabitants (after 1945 when it became part of East Berlin, it would come under the even more intense surveillance of the Stasi who with one agent for every 166 people easily outstripped the Gestapo with one for every 2,000).

In a key passage, a character who has left Berlin with his pregnant wife for a country village and dropped out of resistance activity is challenged by an ex-comrade whose words still have resonance for socialists today.

"it doesn't matter if there's a handful of you against many of them. Once you've seen that a cause is right, you're obliged to fight for it. Whether you ever live to see success, or the person who steps into your shoes does, it doesn't matter."

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