How would I behave in hard times? How would you? And I mean really hard times: when doing the right thing could harm me or my family, could cast me out of society, could make me a pariah or even cost me my life. I suspect that almost everyone teases themselves with this question from time to time.
In 1911, Rudolf Ditzen and his friend Hanns Dietrich von Necker went into the woods near their homes to kill themselves. They were eighteen. They planned a sort of duel in reverse. They would count down and shoot one another. Rudolf Ditzen’s shot killed his friend, but Necker’s shot missed. Rudolf then shot himself in the chest. But instead of dying, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder.
Somewhat later in life Ditzen took on the pen name Hans Fallada, in part to leave his misfortunes behind. It didn’t work. He was addicted to alcohol and pain killers. Yes, he wrote a hit novel — Little Man, What Now?
— which, in better times, might have made life easier. But once the Nazis were in power, because of his success, he was on their radar and in and out of trouble, in and out of jail. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s nasty little propaganda minister, is supposed to have said, “If Fallada is uncertain about what he thinks of the Nazi Party, the Nazi Party certainly knows what we think of Fallada."
Fallada was eventually sent to a Nazi insane asylum, which was as good as a death sentence. Except he survived. Fallada continued writing and was tested again and again. Sometimes he proved courageous and other times his courage failed him and he caved in. But the test itself, the question of courage — Will I do the right thing? — became a theme in his writing. Eventually, it became the central theme of his last, and greatest, book, Every Man Dies Alone
, which he wrote in a few weeks in the autumn of 1947. He did not live to see it published.
Every Man Dies Alone
is based on the true case of Elise and Otto Hampel, a couple who spread anti-Hitler postcards all over Berlin. “German people wake up. We must free ourselves from Hitlerism.” “Hitler’s war is the worker’s death.” “Don’t give to the Winter Relief Fund.” “Why fight and die for the Hitler plutocrats!” The cards were awkward, ungrammatical, and don’t even seem that dramatic now. But they infuriated the Gestapo and the SS, and their writing and distribution constituted treason, a capital crime. It took nearly three years to catch the Hampels, and once caught they were tortured, tried, and guillotined. These simple facts form the backbone of Fallada’s novel.
I wanted to...watch the small, almost imperceptible steps of corruption taking hold.
In Every Man Dies Alone
, Otto and Anna Quangel write postcards and then distribute them around Berlin. They avoid discovery for years, driving the SS into a cold fury. The Quangels are not particularly sympathetic characters. Otto is cold and withdrawn, a difficult husband, an unfriendly neighbor, and a conscientious but not particularly pleasant foreman in a furniture factory. Anna is completely subservient to Otto and has no life of her own. They have no lofty objectives or principles or even politics. They resisted joining the Nazi Party, but not out principle. It’s just that it costs money to join, and Otto is too cheap.
They are not reprehensible people, either. They never get in on “opportunities” like some of their neighbors — to plunder Jews, to denounce their enemies, to gain influence, for instance. But they also don’t do anything to stop such behavior. The Quangels mind their own business, keep their noses to the grindstone, and do what they have always done. Until their son is killed in the war. And then they start their postcard campaign.
The Quangels are pursued by police Inspector Escherich. Despite joining the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, Escherich hasn’t changed since the the Nazis came to power. He pursues those who are designated criminals as he always has, relentlessly, with patience and cunning. It’s the patience that becomes his problem. As six months pass, and then a year, and the postcards continue to turn up, Escherich’s superior SS Obergruppenführer Prall loses all patience. He threatens Escherich with a concentration camp and has him thrown into a cell where a couple of SS men knock his teeth out. A little rest cure, says Prall. Escherich recognizes finally what should have been obvious all along: that criminality now means whatever the Nazis say it means, that guilt is whatever you do that they don’t like. In fact, you don’t have to do anything at all to fall out of favor and suffer the consequences.
This is the moment in my reading of Fallada’s book when my idea for The Good Cop
came into being. How could Escherich (and millions of others) have failed to recognize what had been obvious for the last 10 years? What allowed an intelligent man to be blinded to the malevolence and evil all around him, and in the service of which he earned his living?
I wanted to set my story in Germany during the time when it gradually descended into fascism, and to examine the mechanism of that descent at work: the invention of scapegoats, the disparagement of others, the demonization of the free press, of dissent, of the election process, the corruption of the criminal justice system, and the corruption of all societal standards — decency, charity, generosity. I wanted to follow along and watch the small, almost imperceptible steps of corruption taking hold and see how it works on some people, maybe most people, as it must have worked on Escherich and doesn’t work on others, like the Quangels.
Anna and Otto Quangel are simple people with a simple understanding of the world. But their acts of defiance transform them both profoundly. Of course, their resistance has no effect on Hitler or on anyone else, as Escherich tells Quangel when he finally catches them. Quangel is stunned to learn this, but he does not regret dropping the cards. He regrets only his hubris, his grandiose belief that dropping the cards could change the world. If he had not been blinded by his pride, he says, he could have done it even better.
The Quangels' stature grows, as does their humanity. It is as though dropping these cards was the path, the mechanism to their greatness. They become untouchable in a way. “I know what I have done,” says Quangel. “And I hope you know what you’re doing too, Inspector!”
The Quangels accept their fate, and they refuse to be intimidated. The night of Otto’s arrest Prall and a bunch of his drunken SS men invite Escherich to a little victory celebration. They all get drunk on Armagnac and then go down to Otto’s cell. They wake him up, make him stand there in his flimsy night shirt while they laugh and mock him. Finally, someone has the idea that they should break their glasses over Otto’s head, which they all do. All but Escherich. Prall orders Escherich to break his glass on Quangel's head, and, to the inspector’s horror, it takes him several tries before the glass breaks. Quangle stands bleeding, but unbowed.
Later, alone in his office, Escherich says to himself, “Here I am, probably the only man Otto Quangel converted with his postcard campaign. But I’m no good to you, Otto Quangel, I can’t carry on your work. I’m too much of a coward. Still, I’m your only disciple, Otto Quangel.”
My novel The Good Cop
takes place years earlier than Every Man Dies Alone
. The First World War is recently over, and the new but fragile Weimar Republic is tottering. Hitler is a little-known crackpot unknown outside the city limits of Munich. But norms are beginning to change, and these quite subtle changes breed tiny shifts in public sentiment. Uncertainty and anxiety express themselves as the desire for strong leaders and dislike of the wishy-washy inefficiency inherent in democratic institutions. Fury at the unjust Treaty of Versailles expresses itself as defiance, first among Germany’s military and business elite and subsequently among the German people. The new Soviet Union’s moves to expand communism and gain a foothold in Germany breed fear and uncertainty among the population, and a rightward shift among the police and the judicial system. All this movement is glacial and all but imperceptible.
Of course, looking back on German history, we can discern the pattern that repeats itself whenever liberal democracy gives way to autocratic rule. We can witness people changing and perhaps even divine how we might change (or not change) in those circumstances. Will we adapt to the new reality, seeking advantage, or look away from the abuse? Willi Geismeier is the policeman outside the law, the virtuous traitor, someone who goes against the law when the law goes wrong, when others are adapting to the new reality and making their peace with it. He has the courage of his convictions, and there is a price to pay.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the critically acclaimed Louis Morgon series of crime novels. He is also a cartoonist for The New Yorker
and is the creator of one of the most famous cartoons of the technological age, which prompted the adage, "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog." The Good Cop
is his most recent book.