Tuesday, 8 March 2011

“Alone in Berlin” - a dying alcoholic drug-addict produces a masterpiece in 24 days

I’m probably the last one on the block to have heard of, let alone read,Alone in Berlin, a novel by the German writer Hans Fallada, who died in 1947, the year the book was originally published. As the first English translation came out in 2009, and it’s already been a Book at Bedtime onRadio 4, forgive me for being a bit behind the curve. I usually am.

In case, like me, you missed the hooplah that presumably surrounded the book’s publication, the plot revolves around an elderly working class Berlin couple who, on the day France capitulates to Germany, are informed that their only son, who is serving in the army, is dead. They decide to lodge a protest against the regime by writing anti-Government sentiments on postcards and leaving them around the city in the hope that like-minded citizens will pass them on – in effect, a viral marketing campaign. It’s a small gesture, certainly, but an extremely dangerous one - and it’s something these very humble people can actually do rather than just plot and dream about. The Gestapo does its best to catch them. It’s based on a true story, which Fallada’s publisher brought to his attention in the hope he’d do something with it. He certainly did.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, in case you want to read it. It is teeming with great characters – thieves, prostitutes, ordinary working folk, judges, Nazi thugs, orchestra conductors, priests, anti-Nazi conspirators, morphine, Cognac, bars, courtrooms, pet shops, prison cells… genuinely, all life is here. It thunders along – I’m not a fast reader, but I read 450 pages in one day, simply unable to stop. While it contains many thriller elements, it’s the opposite of a disposable pot-boiler: I’ve thought about it many times a day since finishing it a week ago. The central theme (there are many, and they’re all BIG) is how can one remain decent whilst living under a monstrously evil tyranny.

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t asked themselves how they would have behaved if they’d been an adult in Nazi Germany (or Communist Russia, for that matter – same thing)? God knows, it’s hard enough behaving decently in a lushly-appointed, generally benign Western democracy where, until relatively recently, bad behaviour was frowned upon and punished, and where the large mass of the people shared a culture encompassing an essentially Christian moral viewpoint. What if you lived under a totalitarian regime which used unimaginable violence to turn conventional morality on its head, where religion, compassion, family ties, honesty, kindness, loyalty, truthfulness, fairness, reasonableness – in fact, the slightest hint of basic human decency – became punishable by humiliation, torture and, almost inevitably, death?

One of the many fascinating aspects of Fallada’s tale is the crushing difficulty of resistance – suddenly the mystery of why the Germans (and the Russians) didn’t do more to undermine their vile regimes becomes less perplexing. Under a brutal despotism where informing was encouraged and rewarded and where ordinary society – your workplace, the bus queue, even, thanks to the Hitler Youth, your own home – could be riddled with spies, and where everybody – every single damned person who wasn’t a swivel-eyed believer – was terrified of putting a foot wrong, how did resisters recognise each other? (It’s pointless, but interesting, to speculate on the difference the internet and mobile phones might have made). Even escaping from the cities wouldn’t have brought greater security – Fallada, who spent the war in rural areas, makes the point that lack of anonymity placed everyone in even greater danger.

Having read the book, I feel I understand better why there was such little internal resistance to the Nazis after 1933. And I don’t think I would have been any braver than the large mass of Germans had I been there: I certainly wouldn’t have been as brave as Anna and Otto Quangel, the couple at the heart of Fallada’s story.

Fallada’s real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and his life story sounds like the plot for a very bad novel. He killed his best friend in a duel/suicide pact when he was 18, but survived, despite shooting himself in the chest with his friend’s revolver immediately afterwards. He was charged with murder, but committed to a private mental institution instead. He was released after two years and worked as an agricultural labourer for many years. He became a drug addict during this time – he would be variously addicted to morphine, cocaine and sleeping pills for the rest of his life. Added to that, he was spectacularly alcoholic. 

Ditzen’s first novel, was published in 1920. He went on being an agricultural labourer, and was twice convicted of embezzling his employers and served two prison sentences as a result. He worked for a local newspaper for a while, married a working-class girl from Hamburg and, in 1930, went to work for his publisher in Berlin. 1932 saw the release of Little Man, What Now?, a novel about The Great Depression, which was a critical and commercial hit. When the Nazis came to power, he bought a house in the country. Hoping to reclaim his property, the man who sold it to him denounced Ditzen to the Nazis, but a powerful lawyer pulled strings and got him off. Ditzen bought a small-holding elsewhere, and lived there for the rest of the war. In 1938, his American publisher, Puttnams arranged for him to get out of Germany, but Ditzen changed his mind at the last minute.

He kept writing, producing novels with apolitical themes (but still managed to annoy Goebbels – generally not a good idea). In 1944, in an alcoholic frenzy, he tried to shoot his now ex-wife (who was still living under the same roof). He was arrested and placed in a lunatic asylum. While incarcerated, he wrote a novel, The Drinker. In late 1946, he wroteAlone in Berlin – all 560 pages of it – in just 24 days. That anyone could write anything as complex, well-structured, subtle and brilliant as this towering classic in less than a month is beyond comprehension – in fact, it’s pretty damn near unbelievable. 

On 22nd December, 1946, Ditzen told his mother that he had produced “a truly great novel”. He died in hospital six weeks’ later, before the book was published. It’s as if this enormously troubled, complex mess of a man gave everything he had left to bequeath us this astonishing masterpiece.

You will love this book. That’s a promise.


  1. Thanks for this recommendation.
    Have you read "Berlin Alexanderplatz" by Alfred Döblin? There is also a 15-hour TV series directed by Fassbinder which is also good.

    There are also the wartime diaries of Victor Klemperer ["I shall bear witness" & "To the bitter end"] which I recommend. It is set in Dresden.

    I have been thinking for a long time about trying Stephan Zweig's "World of Yesterday" [Vienna], but the reviews range from "brilliant" to "turgid". I don't know anything about Zweig apart from the fact that he and his wife died in a mutual suicide pact.

    Please keep making your book recommendations. Most helpful. Mind you, I haven't started "Stoner" yet.

    The book I must warn you about is "Cheever. A Life" by Blake Bailey. Before Christmas it was heavily mentioned in all "the book of the year" reviews [inc Taki in the Spectator]. Do not buy this book because it is 670-pages about a monumental bore.

    Perhaps you should consider running a regular feature about books to avoid or do a survey of the 100 worst books that the literati rave on about and thereby save your faithful readers both time and money?
    Thursday, March 10, 2011 - 06:52 PM

  2. I'm delighted you find the recommendations/warnings about books useful, SDG. I'm reading another "living under the Nazis" novel at the moment - "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak, which is set outside Munich. It's a good read but written in a rather mannered style and too much given to sentimentality, especially compared to "Alone in Berlin". I've never tried “Berlin Alexanderplatz” - dauntingly huge, I seem to remember – first, I would have to read “Petersburg” by Andrei Bely, a 580-page novel published in 1916, which has been staring accusingly at me from my shelves for fifteen years now! I haven't read the Klemperer Diaries, but might very well give them a go, on your recommendation. I’ve never heard of the Zweig book. Tried Cheever’s short stories once and just didn’t get it. I generally enjoy biographies about writers, but not if they’re of “sat on his arse all day staring at a blank sheet of paper, drinking heavily, and developing raging haemhorroids” variety.

    To be honest, I don’t read enough novels to make more than the occasional recommendation – the main reason I joined a book group was to give me a reason to finish works of fiction, as I’d fallen into the terrible habit of stopping after a few chapters, whether I was enjoying them or not: I also wanted to be made to read books I normally wouldn’t read. I gave up reading book reviews years ago, as the novels being reviewed always seemed to be searing indictments of modern Britain/America or about living in angst in NW1 (or both together), or historical novels which were glorified PhD theses with a bit of a plot thrown in – whatever, they all seemed to be more about telling us how clever and sensitive the writer was and how clever and sensitive the reviewer was for being able to recognise this. The last time I looked at a Books of the Year recommendation list featuring cultural establishment types, I almost lost my lunch. So, thanks for the suggestion, but I’m far too ill-read!
    Saturday, March 12, 2011 - 11:49 AM