Every Man Dies Alone
by Hans Fallada
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Twentieth-century German author Hans Fallada is not a name that rings many bells amongst the American literati. Heck, I was a German major, and he doesn't ring any bells. However, a short while ago, a review copy of a book landed on my desk. On the cover wasn't a title, but rather a single quote: "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis." The quote is from Primo Levi.
Needless to say, this caught my attention and introduced me to Hans Fallada and his body of work. Fallada, the pseudonym of Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen, was born in 1893 and led, by most accounts, a sorrowful existence. At the age of 16, he was run over by a horse-drawn cart. At 17, he contracted typhoid, the result of which was a lifelong addiction to pain killers. At 18, he killed his best friend in a suicide pact disguised as a duel.
Fallada's literary career began in 1920, with the publication of Der junge Goedeschal (Young Goedeschal). He continued to publish and struggle with his addiction through the Nazi rise to power, where he endured denunciations and personal strife. He died in 1947 of a morphine overdose mere days before the publication of his last novel, Jeder stirbt fur sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone).
Every Man Dies Alone is set in Berlin shortly after France's capitulation to the Nazis and follows the quiet personal resistance performed by Otto and Anna Quangel. After being informed their son was killed as part of the French invasion, they decide to leave postcards in various locations around the capital exhorting the German citizenry to resist the Nazis. Their defiance goes unabated, creating a desperate situation for the Gestapo inspector charged with stopping them.
Based on true-life events, Every Man Dies Alone is deeply compelling and endlessly heartbreaking in its depiction of the lives of everyday people living under an oppressive regime. Fallada adroitly floats from one character to the next, weaving a tapestry of interior dialogues and motivations. This novel recalls Dostoevsky's ability to feature a central protagonist, yet give life to the voices of other characters, never allowing a singularly dominating point of view.
Also impressive is Fallada's ability to glide from one character and situation to the next. A letter carrier who is worried about saying the wrong thing delivers the mail. A family reads a letter and the husband leaves the house, encountering an opportunistic informant on his way to the factory. The informant then goes to the husband's apartment building in an effort to antagonize an elderly Jewess who lives there. In his narrative, Fallada illustrates how interconnected people's lives are, how one minor action or accidental slip of the tongue could have significant ramifications.
Ultimately what comes through in Every Man Dies Alone is the profound sense of dread: the dread of being unable to trust anybody, of a society cowering in fear. Early in the novel, Borkhausen (the informant) ponders, "Most people today are afraid, basically everyone, because they're all up to something forbidden, one way or the other, and are worried that someone will get wind of it," pleasantly happy with the knowledge that in such an oppressive society, anything outside of absolute party unity is forbidden. Reading this novel is often an exercise in sheer depression, but there is so much humanity in Fallada's characters that it's impossible to look away. Hans Fallada's writing does for Nazi Germany what Walker Evans's photography did for Depression-era America, acting not only as a magnifying glass, but also as a mirror.