“But they told themselves and each other that it didn’t concern them and that nothing could happen to them, as they were doing nothing against the State. “Thoughts are free,” they said–but they ought to have known that in this State not even thoughts were free.”
Reading this masterful novel was both painful and exhausting. Every Man Dies Alone is the story of what it was like to live in Berlin in the early 1940s. Written by someone who lived through it, the novel shows how everyone suffered under the political system of Nazi rule. The concentration camps hover as a warning for gentiles and Jews. The atrocities committed against the Jews of Poland is beginning to be whispered about in dark places at the beginning of this story. The unrelenting fear and threat of violence that people lived with under the Nazi regime is unimaginable and I think it’s perhaps impossible for someone who has grown up in a well-established democracy to truly comprehend such an existence and the toll it takes on one’s conscience.
After a few months of mowing through books like a wood chipper, this one slowed me down. Way down. In a way that’s appropriate to the novel’s content. Every Man Dies Alone is one of those novels that makes you think about the point of life, how to live a good life—a meaningful life—regardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself, and also about the purpose and potential of literature.
Every Man Dies Alone is based on a true story of a Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hampel (renamed Otto and Anna Quangel in the novel), who decide to fight the Nazis in their own way. A large cast of characters joins the Quangels and their stories all weave throughout the novel. Everyone in Berlin—from the gambling addicted alcoholic to inspectors in the Gestapo—lives in fear of the absolute power of the Nazi State.
When trying to make a decision, people think and rethink and then second guess themselves about the best course of action to take because absolutely anything can have unintended life or death consequences. You don’t want to do anything to cause suspicion because once the questions start coming so many other things that you have done could begin to look bad or easily be interpreted to look like you don’t support the cause. And if they start to question you they’ll also pull in your family and anyone you unthinkingly mention during the exhaustion of interrogations that may go on for twelve hours or more and include physical torture.
So, there are no small decisions, there is no safety, there is only fear. This is not an action-packed novel. It is about the day in and day out struggle to stay alive or at least to stay out of trouble for one more day. And trouble finds everyone in Nazi Berlin. No one is safe, not even Gestapo officers.
As I read I imagined everything in this novel as shades of gray and the book’s cover reinforces that. People seem to be either a pale, tired, gray with dingy clothing or they are blisteringly white with crisp black clothing and shiny black boots. And everyone seems exhausted and worn down except for the brutal, sixteen-year-old Hitler youth all-star named Baldur Persickes who doesn’t seem to understand that his star is already falling. Most of those who are not of the dingy gray sort dim their minds with mass amounts of alcohol in an attempt to drown out their conscience. Two doctors with easy access prefer morphine to numb out.
How did people survive without going insane? And maybe going insane meant joining the party and participating with gusto or maybe it meant resisting blatantly and ending up quickly imprisoned and eventually dead. Otto and Anna Quangel lived for a while in a non-existent, denial inspired middle, it seems, until their only son is killed in the war. It woke them up and reignited their consciences. They chose to protest in a climate where the smallest hint of protest was suicide. Insane? You’ll have to read the book for yourself to decide.
I was drawn to this book when it first came out in March of 2009. Since then I’ve picked it up and looked at it dozens of times in the bookstore where I work knowing that the day would eventually arrive when I would be ready to read it. I knew it would be an emotional commitment. I was finally ready last month after my journey of going to massage therapy school was over and I received my license to practice. Buying Every Man Dies Alone was a reward to myself.
I chose to read it in e-book format. Had I bought the hard copy version there would have been much underlining, dog-earing, and sticky note-ing going on. At least in the beginning. Since the e-reader I own doesn’t have a note function, I started out reading and jotting down some notes and ideas in my reading journal. Eventually, I stopped doing that, whether out of the depression of reading this war-torn story or knowing I’ll read the novel again in the future or maybe out of a need to just experience the novel and not trying to ‘intellectualize’ it. I probably would have stopped underlining had I chosen to read the hard copy. The first hardcover copy that I come across in a used bookstore is going home with me. E-books serve their purpose, but there are some books I want around as real ‘objects.’
It took me about three weeks to read Every Man Dies Alone. Each day of those three weeks I looked forward to my reading time, yet I also dreaded it. It is a book filled with great pain and destruction, with little scraps of tenderness and hope scattered here and there. It’s one of those novels where I fluctuated between both liking and disliking most of the characters. I don’t think this reaction is unique to me or an accident on Fallada’s part. He wanted to portray what it was like to live under the Nazi regime. Living under that sort of brutality and fear with such guilt and where everyone has something to hide . . . what else can you expect? People need people, but when you can trust no one or accidentally cause the death of someone you know or love by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, what does that do to how you see your neighbors and fellow citizens? Or yourself? Every man may die alone, but they don’t live alone. Fallada’s novel shows some of the best and much of the worst that people experienced in one of the most horrific chapters of the twentieth century.
Rudolf Ditzen is Fallada’s real name. Hans Fallada was a pen name combined from two German fairy tales. You can read more about the author’s life and other novels on The Hans Fallada Society website here.
Read the first chapter of Every Man Dies Alone here.
Every Man Dies Alone
Hans Fallada (1893-1947)
Melville House, March 2009
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Originally published in Germany as Jeder stirbt für sich allein, 1947