Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote under the name Hans Fallada, lived a chaotic life. Born in 1893 in Greifswald in north-east Germany, he was the son of a lawyer who was later appointed a judge. At the age of 18 he killed a schoolfriend in a duel, and spent much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers.
Fallada married in 1929, and for a while straightened out. His 1932 novel, Kleiner Mann - was nun? ("Little Man - What Now?") brought him praise from Thomas Mann, international success, a Hollywood film and a small farm. Under the Nazis, Fallada wrote and published a series of gritty novels of the type that German critics call neue Sachlichkeit, or new objectivity. In 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.
At the end of the war, Fallada was embraced by the new East German literary authorities. In 1947, he published with Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein ("Each dies only for himself") which is here called Alone in Berlin. It was the first novel by a German author to take as its theme the small-scale domestic resistance to the National Socialists. The same year, weakened by years of alcoholism and drug-taking, Fallada died of a heart attack.
Traces of this unruly life are scattered through Alone in Berlin: brawling, delirium tremens, clinics and drying-out establishments, country idylls, theft, blackmail, morphine, and a vivid world of sub-proletarian swindling that exploits and is exploited by the Nazis. It is remarkable that Fallada, just months before his death, could compose a long novel that, after an overcrowded beginning, advances so confidently to its conclusion.
Otto and Anna Quangel are a Berlin working couple, laborious, unsociable, thrifty to the point of stinginess, and originally not hostile to the National Socialists. That changes in 1940 when their beloved son, Ottochen, is killed while fighting in France. Otto, a foreman in a furniture factory that soon will be turned over to making coffins, is provoked into resistance. He spends his Sundays writing anonymous postcards against the regime and dropping them in the stairwells of city buildings. "Mother Don't give to the Winter Relief Fund! - Work as slowly as you can! - Put sand in the machines! - Every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!"
According to the forward to the first German edition, the novel follows "in its broad lines" the Gestapo files on the illegal activities of an actual Berlin working-class couple, Otto and Elise Hampel. Originally Nazi supporters, on the death of their son in France in 1940 they began to deposit postcards and some 200 written leaflets in post-boxes and stairwells around their home district, Berlin-Wedding. They were betrayed, arrested on 20 October 1942, sentenced to death by the People's Court and executed in Plötzensee prison the following April.
To bring life to these facts, Fallada assembles a staff of vivid low-life characters, stoolies, thieves and whores, Nazi veterans in a haze of drink, as well as ordinary working-people trying to put food on the table. Here is the resistance of the small man, perilous, disorganised, irresponsible, perverse, brave and almost wholly futile. As the Gestapo Inspector Escherich muses: "There were more urgent and important cases. A madman ... did nothing but send Minister Goebbels daily letters that were crude, and often pornographic in nature. Well, Inspector Escherich was in luck, he had managed to solve the 'Filth' case within three months."
In the foreword, Fallada (or his editor) defends the brutality of the book on the grounds that it takes place "among opponents of the regime and their persecutors, where quite a few came to grief". This dialectic of persecutor and persecuted is Fallada's most profound contribution. Of the 276 postcards and eight letters deposited by the Quangels over two years, all but 18 are handed straight in to the Gestapo where they destroy one life and two careers and sow chaos in an arbitrary and unamanageable organisation.