When Every Man Dies Alone was recommended to me, I was intrigued for two reasons. First, Hans Fallada had lived a life that was punctuated with one unbelievable moment after another. Every Man Dies Alone was the last punctuation mark; he died shortly after completing the 509 page novel in twenty-four days. Second, this novel was based on a Gestapo case file that was found and then given to Fallada in late 1945. The giver of the file was Johannes Becher, a poet, novelist and friend of Fallada. Becher had come across this particular Gestapo case file because he was, under Soviet administration, researching ways to develop an anti-fascist culture in a Germany that needed to be rebuilt. The contents of the file were about the investigation, arrest and separate confessions of Otto and Elsie Hampel, a working class Berlin couple that had written and distributed hundreds of anti-Nazi postcards from 1941 to 1942. They were tried by the Nazi “People’s Court” and executed in 1943.
Every Man Dies Alone tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel (Fallada’s fictionalization of the Hampels). Yet, contrary to what one might expect of a story about one couple’s resistance in Nazi Germany, the novel is filled with characters that only ever have indirect relationships with the Quangels. In fact, some of these other characters are given so much attention I was, in the early parts of the book, puzzled about how the different pieces would come together.
The Quangels are at the centre, but as the book goes on the reader is witness to a network of relationships. Against my initial hesitations, it is this method of storytelling that makes Every Man Dies Alone such an excellent novel. To explain, let me make the briefest of detours.
Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is a film about two sisters having different psychological reactions to the ending of the world. The behaviour of each sister pushes the viewer to honestly consider how they would behave in the same situation. I say “honestly” because the destruction of the earth is already a popular subject in film, television and books, but it is rarely, to my knowledge, a platform for self-reflection. Most of the time, the world’s end is a cause for adventure, comedy or romance. Life itself will be terminated and characters are never really scared enough, paralyzed enough or anxious enough.
In Melancholia the world’s end is a fact that can consume the human psyche to point to suffocation. Every Man Dies Alone makes me think of this film because both question the resolve of their audience. Von Trier’s film made me embarrassed for my sixteen-year-old self, a pimple-faced kid who would treat the question, “What would you do if the world was ending?” as an opportunity to phantasize, as if the earth’s imminent destruction gave everyone the freedom to do what they wanted. Fallada’s novel made me, an older, ostensibly more politically conscious self, reconsider political resistance.
By building a network of characters, Fallada paints a powerful picture of a society consumed by fear. Fallada jumps to different characters to tell how almost every single postcard dropped by the Quangels is immediately delivered over to the Gestapo. Furthermore, the people that happened to first come across the postcards tell Gestapo inspectors, without any prompting or interrogation, that not only did they not write the cards, they did not even completely read them! Even if each postcard was, at most, composed of three or four phrases, German citizens were averting their eyes as soon as they discovered that what they were holding was anti-Nazi in content.
Every Man Dies Alone deflates the phantasy of political resistance, it makes you honestly wonder what you would do if you were an average German citizen that was unhappy with Hitler’s regime. When Anna Quangel learns about the plan to drop postcards, she is disappointed in her husband:
And what we he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet. Postcards with slogans against the Fuhrer and the Party, against the war, for the information of his fellow men, that was all. And these cards he wasn’t going to send to particular individuals, or stick on walls like placards, no, he wanted to leave them lying in the stairwells of widely visited buildings, leave them to their fate, without any control over who picked them up, where they might be trampled underfoot, torn up… Everything in her rebelled against this obscure and ignoble form of warfare. She wanted to be active, to do something with results she could see.
But what is active resistance when everyone is made passive from fear? Would you publicly protest without a critical mass? Every Man Dies Alone is an incredible story about an aging couple that, under the circumstances, did what they could to resist a political regime that was agressive, destructive and consumed with hatred.