This book tired me out. Not that it’s overly long or a slog to get through, but Funder’s telling of the fear, paranoia, and betrayal that infected people during Hitler’s earliest years in power and the reach of that early power is exhausting. At one point I realized it was only 1933-35 that I was reading about and it was jarring to think that there was a decade to go before the end of the war.
Funder is an Australian writer and I’m participating in the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge. I’m interested in German history as my Mom is from Germany. I’m also interested in Australian history and writers these days because several years ago we connected with cousins who’d left Germany for Australia after the family was bombed out of Dresden in 1945. My cousins live in Sydney. They’ve visited the US several times and we’ve had a reunion in Germany. I hope to make it to Australia sooner rather than later. Of course I’ll hit every bookstore I can find, but I digress–back to the book.
All That I Am is the story of a group of left-wing German activists at the end of the Weimar Republic: Ruth Becker, a self-described observer, and her husband Hans Wesemann; Ruth’s cousin Dora Fabian; and Dora’s lover Ernst Toller.
Dora is the center of the novel. The action of the novel jumps around throughout time and the story is told through the alternating perspective of Ruth and Toller. Ruth’s focus is Dora and Hans and Toller primarily tells his own story as he’s revising his memoir to include Dora. The time frame of the novel stretches from 1923 when Ruth, as a young girl, convalesces with Dora’s family, to contemporary Australia where Ruth lives an old woman recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. There is also mention of World War I, in which Toller fought, and his earliest activist years in Munich, but most of the action takes place between 1933-1939.
The book opens on the night of January 30, 1933, the day Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Ruth and Hans live in an apartment in the center of Berlin. They can see the Reichstag from their windows and hear Hitler give his first speech as chancellor. Hitler denounces communism. Hans eventually pulls Ruth away from the window to have some drinks, but first she rummages through their closet and pulls out a red flag, the symbol of the left movement, and hangs it out their window. Within a month, such an action would be not only illegal, but potentially suicidal.
As Hitler continues to build and consolidate his power, Dora and Hans do what they can to combat the growing extremism. Their weapons are reason and words, which are no match for the propaganda and violence of the Nazis.
The Reichstag burns on the night of February 27 and The Reichstag Fire Decree is issued the very next day. It basically suspended civil liberties and gave Hitler the power of martial law:
It “permitted arrests without warrant, house searches, postal searches; it closed the newspapers and banned political meetings. In essence . . . it prevented campaigning by any other parties before the election. By the end of that day, thousands of anti-Hitler activists were being held in ‘protective custody’ in makeshift SA barracks. . . . Soon there was not enough room. That was when they set about building the concentration camps” (133).
Overnight Ruth & Hans, and those in their circle of friends who are fortunate enough to be given time to get out of Germany, find themselves living as refugees.
Ruth, Hans, and Dora end up in England. But once there they realize their fight against Hitler will face new challenges:
“Our English visas stipulated ‘no political activities of any kind’. But our lives would only have meaning if we could continue to help the underground in Germany, and try to alter the rest of the world to Hitler’s plans for war. We were being offered exile on condition that we were silent about the reason we needed it. The silence chafed; it made us feel we were betraying those we had left behind. The British government was insisting on dealing with Hitler as a reasonable fellow, as if hoping he’d turn into one” (160).
“The German government had silenced writers in Germany, and now it was trying to silence those of us who’d managed to get abroad. The Nazis were putting pressure on the British government to prevent us addressing public events. They threatened reprisals against publishers in Britain who were publishing our work. It wasn’t just about depriving us of a living, it was the first step to silence” (177).
One character works around the clock, in secret, of course, to carry on the fight against Hitler’s take-over and ramp-up for war. Other characters try to work, too, but have a harder time finding their footing in exile. It’s a story about friendship, love, bravery, cowardice, betrayal, and fear. Lots of fear and what it does to people.
I was more interested in the Ruth/Dora portion of the story than the Toller/Dora portion. I thought Toller was a rather flat character, a bit of a washed-up pompous ass, if you will, which can often make a character “interesting,” but he came off like a non-entity. There’s good reason for that, from the context of the story, but for me Dora stole the show. I also really enjoyed the older Ruth.
I won’t go into anymore of the plot in order to avoid spoilers. I will say that there is no feel-good ending to this novel. It left me feeling wrung-out and hollow. I found myself thinking about the characters when I didn’t realize my mind had drifted off to dwell on the story. It took a few weeks before I was ready to pick up another novel. However, don’t let that sway you from picking up All That I Am. It’s a powerful novel based on true events and real people. I highly recommend it.
It’s a good companion to Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a creative non-fiction account of 1933 through the eyes of America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. If you read All That I Am and want to read another novel about German resistance to the Nazis I HIGHLY recommend Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone.
Title: All That I Am
Author: Anna Funder
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2012
(First published in Australia by Penguin in 2011)
Recommend to people interested in: WWII, Nazi resistance, activism, political refugees, human rights.
Source: purchased copy