It’s what every reader longs for but experiences all too rarely. Just a few pages into a book and you realize there’s something special in your hands. German author Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone is just such a book. And what makes it perhaps that much more remarkable is that it is now being published in the U.S. for the first time more than 50 years after it was written.
Every Man Dies Alone is far from the perfect novel. No one would expect it to be given the fact Fallada, the pseudonym for Rudolf Ditzen, wrote it in 24 days. From today’s perspective, his style tends to reflect the era in which the book was written. Additionally, he likes to wander a bit and uses coincidence as a plot mechanism perhaps a bit too much. Even with such flaws, the book deserves to be on plenty of this year’s “best of” lists.
Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of a married couple who dropped postcards containing anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages throughout Berlin during World War II. In fact, the book includes reproductions of the Gestapo file on that case, including photos of several of the cards. Here, the couple is Otto and Anna Quangel, whose campaign begins after their only son is killed in the Nazi victory over France in 1940. Otto is a taciturn, staid foreman in a factory that goes from producing furniture before the war to coffins as the war progresses. Anna is a homemaker who, despite her self-imposed subordination, is close to an equal partner in their crusade.
The book, translated by Michael Hofmann, essentially follows the investigation into their campaign and those — both noble and despicable — whose lives somehow intersect with their defiance. There’s plenty of people who are directly or indirectly swept up or affected by their actions. They include Eva Kluge, the postal worker who delivers their son’s death notice; other residents of their apartment building, from petty crook Emil Borkhausen to ardent and brutal Hitler Youth member Baldur Persickes to retired Judge Fromm. There’s also the fiancée of the Quangels’ son, the investigators, Anna’s brother and sister-in-law, and Enno Kluge, Eva’s ne’er-do-well, estranged husband who gets caught up in Emil Borkhausen’s mischief.
Although the fact Fallada approaches the story from the investigative standpoint might lead one to think it’s a thriller, it isn’t. Rather, this is a book about life in exceedingly difficult times and how people react both ethically and morally. Fallada, who died in 1947 just weeks before the book was published, gives us a story that examines and raises the question of the value and impact of resistance. Each ensuing chapter takes us through another step in the investigation or the events that unalterably impact the lives of each character, always crafted with an almost palpable sense of dread.
While I don’t usually put much stock in book blurbs, the statement on the front cover by Holocaust survivor and memoirist Primo Levi right on the mark: “”The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” That is particularly a huge statement given that Fallada is German. Yet that is perhaps what makes Every Man Dies Alone so powerful. It comes from someone who lived under the Nazi regime, who was familiar with the fear and surveillance, who was one of millions who, to at least some extent, went along to get along. But the book looks at the converse: what if you don’t go along.
It is not the story of a broad-based and wide-ranging resistance movement. It is not the story of a pattern or campaign of industrial or other sabotage. It is simply a story of individual conscience on the part of an older couple. “At least I stayed decent,” Otto Quangel says at one point. “I didn’t participate.” Theirs is a story of resistance undertaken without knowing whether it produces results. It is a story of the ramifications of even mild defiance in a society where the Hitler and the Nazis are “everything, and the people nothing.”
There is little doubt even such small acts of resistance are courageous. The more profound question is whether they ultimately have has any meaning after balancing the personal principles and redemption against the likely futility and body count. In exploring this dilemma, Every Man Dies Alone is a remarkable success.
As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone.
Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone