There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken. At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!
(from Every Man Dies Alone, page 133)
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, first published in 1947, is a novel loosely based on a true story about the German resistance to the Nazis during World War II. It was my book club’s March pick, my nomination. Fallada’s novel is epic in scope, covering an assortment of characters on different sides of the fence all connected in some way to one couple, Otto and Anna Quangel. The death of their son in the war and a remark made by Anna to her husband in the throes of grief prompt Otto, a simple carpenter and factory foreman, to fight back against the Nazis, under whom the German people live in fear and spy on one another.
The Quangels write their hatred for the Nazis on postcards and drop them in public places, believing that they will prompt others to see the truth and take a stand. But this seemingly simple act takes on deadly importance for everyone who comes in contact with the cards — from Inspector Escherich, the Gestapo agent tasked with hunting down the “hobgoblin” behind the postcards to Enno Kluge, a lowlife who deserted his wife, feigns illness to avoid having to work, and steals from the various women in his life. Fallada peppers the story with an assortment of intriguing characters, including an overzealous Hitler Youth leader, a postwoman intent on leaving the Party and living a simpler life after learning what her son has been up to in the SS, and a young couple pondering whether to resist or live a quiet, normal life.
Although I was hooked from the first page, Fallada takes his time in the first half of the novel to develop the characters and their connections and build the tension that propels readers through the remainder of the book. The second half was edge-of-your-seat exciting, despite the darkness and the exhaustion of following these characters on a journey that you know from the very beginning will not bring you to a happy place. Fallada shows how the Gestapo messed with people’s heads and wore them down, and he drives home the point that the psychological torture was just as bad, if not worse, than the physical abuse. With a mix of both respectable and truly loathsome characters, Fallada takes readers on an emotional roller coaster ride that made me feel tired, sad, angry, and helpless and had me contemplating whether anyone actually deserved what they got at the hands of the Gestapo and whether I could die an honorable, stoic death if I had been in their shoes.
Every Man Dies Alone is a powerful book, one I won’t easily forget. It was easy to see where the story was headed, but there were plenty of twists and turns to keep it from being too predictable. It’s one of only a few books that have affected me so deeply that, after turning the last page, I could do nothing but sit and stare and ponder what it all meant. Reading the bonus features about Fallada’s difficult life, especially how the Nazis stifled his creativity, and the true story behind the book made for a richer reading experience. Every Man Dies Alone is an important novel, and I fear I didn’t do it justice here. I urge you to give this one a try, so long as you don’t mind a story that plunges you into the depths of evil and despair but also leaves you with a better understanding of what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.
Disclosure: Every Man Dies Alone is from my personal library. A big thanks to Sandy for telling me I needed to read it, though I can’t believe it took me so long!
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.