Every Man Dies Alone
By Hans Fallada
Melville House, 544 pages, $27
A violent dipsomaniac and morphine addict, institutionalized at 18 for shooting his close friend and later arrested for embezzlement, theft and the attempted murder of his first wife, Hans Fallada (né Rudolf Ditzen), author of one of Weimar Germany’s best-selling and best-loved novels, Little Man, What Now? (both Hermann Hesse and Carl Zuckmayer called it the book of the year in 1932), has a rap sheet that rivals William Burroughs. And yet this once famous novelist of the interwar petty bourgeoisie is barely known outside of his native Germany.
The publication this month of three new English editions of Fallada’s major novels, Little Man, What Now?, The Drinker and Every Man Dies Alone, may help end this undeserved obscurity. In particular, Michael Hoffman’s translation of Every Man Dies Alone (1947)—a fictional account of wartime opposition to the Nazis—should pique curiosity in this prolific, and profligate, writer: It was the first anti-fascist novel to appear in postwar Germany, and has been unavailable in English until now.
Based on an actual Gestapo file, Every Man Dies Alone chronicles the fate of Otto and Anna Quangel, a Berlin couple who launch a campaign of civil disobedience in 1940 after the death of their son at the front. They litter the city with handwritten postcards denouncing the Nazi war machine and calling on Germans to engage in acts of sabotage and resistance.
Fallada describes in sharp and terrifying detail the Gestapo witch hunt that ensues: Distant relations of the Quangels are arrested and tortured, and those accused of even having handled the cards are made to disappear. The state surveillance apparatus has destroyed civil society: Of the 276 postcards the Quangels write, all but 18 are delivered immediately to the Gestapo. The German populace, broken by intimidation, is too frightened to be associated with any form of dissent.
TO BE CLEAR, the Quangels’ opposition has little to do with the archipelago of death camps that surround them; instead, they act from a sense of outrage at the Führer’s destructive and pointless wars, and to avenge the death of their son. While there are rumors of atrocities against Jews in Poland—and the novel’s one Jewish character, Frau Rosenthal, is mercilessly persecuted by her neighbors—the fate of the Jews in Fallada’s Germany is not much different from that of everyone else; the specter of the concentration camp looms over Jew and gentile alike.
Though perhaps deficient in its treatment of the Jewish wartime experience, Fallada’s novel—the work of one of the few German literary greats who did not emigrate during the war—provides a rich phenomenology of life lived under state surveillance: “There was no such thing,” he writes, “as private life in wartime Germany.” By the early ’40s, Fallada’s belletristic compatriots—Mann, Döblin, Brecht—were all in the United States. But Fallada chose to remain in a devastated Germany—in and out of Nazi insane asylums, struggling with the ravages of opium addiction, ever under the watchful eye of Goebbels. The perspective afforded by his decision to do so makes Every Man Dies Alone one of the most immediate and authentic fictional accounts of life during the long nightmare of Nazi rule.
James Martin is a writer and Paul Mellon Fellow at Cambridge University. He can be reached at email@example.com.