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Alone in Berlin


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The version this review alludes to is a newly published edition by Penguin Classics of a new translation by Michael HOFFMAN. ISBN 978-0-141-18938-3

As I cannot entrust myself to use the 'spoiler' mechanism correctly I shall limit the precis to the information presented on the fly leaf of the book.

In essence it is about a German couple living in war-time Berlin engaging in low level rebellion against the machinations of the Nazi State following the death of their son in the war. Their particular form of rebellion takes the shape of placing postcards with hand written anti-Nazi messages placed in public areas in the hope that this stimulates unrest. The ensuing conflict with the state and its organisations such as the Police and Gestapo is the basis of an effective thriller leading to a nicely considered conclusion.

The conclusion that is reached is all the more amazing when the basis of the book is that of original Gestapo files that Fallada gained access to in 1947 when the book was written. Fallada himself has a very chequered history and there is a very interesting chronology/ biography at the rear of this edition that added immensely to my enjoyment of the text. As I cannot read German to a sufficient standard I will have to assume that the translation is accurate. The prose certainly reads very nicely with a real pace and flow of a thriller.

I felt that we got a sense of the secrecy and climate of fear during this era through the clipped, short dialogue that exists between the characters where a lot is 'unsaid' rather than said and we are introduced to many characters each of whom is dissenting is some way but none seeming to have a significant wider impact. I sense that the impact is all personal and redemptive to each character rather than earth shattering in changing the regime of which they were living under.

Although I had an idea of how the book finished I was reading the final chapters in a coffee shop and I had to remind myself to breathe as the conclusion is quite dramatic and powerfully written. There is no melodrama in the writing- it is just executed in a very stoic manner just as most of the characters had lived.

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  • 6 months later...

Great recommendation 24601.


In the last few weeks I've been reading some detective novels and kept putting off starting this book: at the back of my mind I was thinking oh not WWII again, how much more can I take or how much more is there left to tell. I know, superficial of me.


But this novel is indeed something else.


Written in 1947, the novel is a chilling portrayal of extreme fear under dictatorship. It is about an ordinary Berlin couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who in a small way stage a protest against the Nazis after their only son is killed in action in 1940 by denouncing Hitler in postcards which they leave across the city. It is also an exciting thriller about the Gestapo detective pursuing them.


The story is inspired by the real-life heroics of a working-class couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who were eventually caught and beheaded in 1943.


Fallada portrays a Berlin with ordinary people and their proclivities to gambling, whoring and work-shying if they can get away with it, and the few who are courageous in sheltering a Jew for example.


They are uncomfortable with Nazism, to varying degrees, and do the minimum in order to live their lives - pay minimal dues, sign up for the party at work but don't attend meetings. Some of them experience an event - a death, or hearing that a loved one committed atrocities in Hitler's name - that pushes them over the edge into small rebellion. None of these Germans are heroes; most of them simply wish to live their lives in peace. None of them takes so bald a risk as to stand up and publicly declaim the Nazis. But they each find their own way to resist against Nazism and although this resistance accomplishes nothing against the massive Nazi machine, it helps the characters learn more about how they can survive in such a place with dignity.


The novel is not a treatise. It moves along at a sparkling pace and it really involves you.

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  • 2 years later...

I loved it too:


Alone in Berlin is as bleak as the title. It follows the fortunes of a handful of Berliners who offer resistance to the Nazi government. The limited scale of the resistance is depressing and the outcome inevitable.


But for all that, Hans Fallada's narrative picks up pace and after a slow start it fairly gallops to the end. He wrote with an informal, chatty style with asides to the reader. On occasions, he picks up a metaphor and runs with it. He takes casual comments said by his characters and incorporates them into the narrative. It is really quite masterful.


And throughout the long text and complicated plot, the characters are explored in great detail. They are consistent and complex. The temptation would have been to portray the saboteurs as heroic and the Nazis as unremittingly hateful - and ultimately that is not far from the reader's conclusion - but it isn't laid out on a plate. There are shades of light and dark in everyone - none more so than Escherich, the Gestapo inspector who charms everyone with his culture and good manners which, it transpires, are simply tools of the trade that he uses cynically to entrap his victims.


This is a novel with hundreds of positive reviews. There's little to be added to the collective wisdom beyond a simple endorsement. It is every bit as good as all the other reviewers say.



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Just checked which of the Fallada books this is and I would have recognized it immediately with the US title "Every Man Dies Alone" which is the direct translation of the German original. Why do editors have to change titles? Anyway, I always wanted to read this and it's on my wishlist now.

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  • 4 months later...
  • 3 weeks later...

I too would recommend this. One of our daughters bought me this as part of my Christmas present and I have now passed it on to her, so can’t look up the details to remind myself. I was riveted; the impact reminded me of when I first read Zola’s ‘Germinal’, as a teenager. Fallada wrote this from the perspective of ordinary people, based on facts, but, as said by those who have already posted, it is also a thriller, cleverly peopled with complex characters. Like the original poster, I can’t comment on the German, but Hoffman’s English translation seems to fit the novel perfectly. Maybe you will be able to tell us about the original text when you read it, Momo.

           My grandparents fitted the scenario in some ways, although they were perhaps less naïve than the Quangels. They did not support Hitler for many reasons, one of which was that they were very loyal to the Jewish families that had been their employers. They refused to join the Party, but of course, that meant that neither could get any work. My grandfather did get some money by checking accounts for some of Hamburg’s many Communist groups, but it wasn’t enough to feed a family of four. He considered joining them, but through his contact with the Communists saw a great deal of corruption there too. This same contact meant that he knew about their activities beforehand and had to keep quiet.  One of my mother’s first memories was of going to the end of her street, with older children to watch a parade and of her mother running out, snatching her up and shouting at all the other children to get back indoors, as the shooting started from an attic above them. She was too young to know then, but it was a Communist attempt to assassinate Hitler. Her father had known but not been able to tell even his wife. He had been ordered to be away from the scene, but had told her to be alert.

           I picked up on the word ‘stoic’  that 24601 used in the last sentence, as it definitely applied to my mother, a direct result of the way she was brought up plus the culture of secrecy. There was an atmosphere of not being able to speak to one’s neighbour, because so many were being denounced. This novel captures the feeling of being alone, fighting the system alone, trusting no one. More recent reports from Serbians and Croatians always reminded me of that and I’m sure it’s been the same in many war areas since. Interestingly, we hear of the war-time feelings of camaraderie here in Britain.   

           Just how difficult it was to stage any sort of rebellion only came across to me when I read Christabel Bielenberg’s book ‘The Past is Myself’ (more recently published as ‘When I was a German’). Christabel and her friends were also in Hamburg and then moved to Berlin. They were in much more influential positions than my family or the Quangels, but were under exactly the same constrictions and she writes about how people could not form groups because of the lack of trust around. There was always someone to report one. “Third Reich neighbours, however friendly, had always to be regarded as potential nuisances, even potential dangers; certainly not social assets.”

           There is no point being brave if it accomplishes nothing and the divide and conquer style of rule that Hans Fallada wrote about made sure that nothing would work. It struck me forcefully that by making all those in power paranoid, there was a knock on effect down the ladder. Within the rulers, national and local, there was no recognisable logic, just twisted versions. Reading ‘Alone in Berlin’, at times, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the pathos. It could have been pure satire, but it wasn’t.


           Incidentally, if any of you have read Christabel Bielenberg’s book you may remember Professor Bauer the doctor who treated her son, (near the beginning of the book). Before her marriage my grandmother had been his children’s nanny and when a few years later her daughter, my mother, was seriously ill, he treated her without payment, sent her to a convalescence clinic and refused to discharge her until the family was rehoused from their mouldy cellar under a department store. She was one of many he helped.

Right up to her death, my mother would not have said this publicly. She wanted to: she wanted to shout out his good deeds, but she feared there would still be people alive in Germany who might receive some retribution (the unexpected ‘fall-out’ victims in Fallada’s novel). That conditioning remained with her and her brother. Now that the generation has gone I can publicly acknowledge his humanity and say thank you.

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  • 3 years later...

I tried to find this several years ago and found that it wasn't available.  Then I read the reviews of A Small Circus and decided I'd look for it, but just under the author's name.  It's there on amazon, but so is a book called Every Man Dies Alone.  "Hmmm," I thought, either Fallada really liked using the word "alone" in his book titles or this is the same book under another name.  So I did a search for Alone in Berlin and up popped a Wikipedia article entitled Every Man Dies Alone.  It probably was there all along.  I find this renaming of books to be very frustrating and inexplicable.  But now I will get to read it...at some point.  My Mt. TBR on my Kindle is getting impressive.  

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