Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann
In early 1940s wartime Berlin, an official letter arrives for Otto and Anna Quangel with the unbearable news that their only son is dead. Anna immediately rejects “‘those common lies … [t]hat he died a hero’s death for Führer and Fatherland'” – and in that instant, the Quangels’ lives are changed forever. Their overwhelming grief will eventually manifest into brave acts of civil disobedience that will both provide the couple a reason to live, but also lead to violent death.
Otto, a quiet factory foreman bewildered by the growing inhumanity all around him, realizes he can’t overthrow the Nazi regime alone, but he can – and will – protest in his own small way. “Mother! The Führer has murdered my son,” his first postcard screams. And, as a petrified Anna bears witness and waits, Otto drops the traitorous card in the stairwell of a public building and walks away. His fervent hope – that his message will resonate, protests might multiply and, sooner than later, topple the evil Führer forever.
Over the two years that Otto and Anna secretly continue their postcard-protests, life devolves into terror. While some neighbors become brutally abusive Nazis, others hope to save the persecuted. Still others are willing to bargain, bribe, betray their friends and colleagues without a second thought. For far too many, survival during one of the worst periods of history comes at too high a price.
As stunningly epic as this novel is, the story surrounding its publication is equally striking, and is included in a 30 page-appendix at book’s end. Otto and Anna are based on the real lives of Otto and Elise Hampel, whose official Gestapo file – complete with police reports, signed statements, photos, and even some of the notorious postcards – was given to Hans Fallada, post-war, by a well-connected friend.
Hans Fallada was a pseudonym (taken from two Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “Hans in Luck” and “The Goose Girl” which features a horse named Falada) for prolific German writer Rudolf Ditzen. His troubled personal history included unintended murder, insane asylums, drug and alcohol addiction, and imprisonment. He wrote Every Man in just 24 days, but did not live to see the book published in 1947. It was then one of the first anti-Nazi titles ever. Another six decades-plus passed before it was translated into English, in 2009, when it became an unexpected international bestselling phenomenon thanks to the renegade indie publisher Melville House.
Yes, the novel is an agonizing record of the failure of humanity … but it also proves to be a necessary reminder that among the masses are always, always, the heroes who somehow have the unwavering strength to just say ‘no.’
Published: 1947 (Germany); 2009 (United States; in the United Kingdom as Alone in Berlin)