Alone in Belin – Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlinimg_8573

Hans Fallada

Penguin Group

2009

4/5*

*SPOILERS*

 

Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin or Every Man Dies Alone actually has a lot of background story to it. He fictionalised and more or less re-told the story of the Hampels. Otto and Elise Hampel were a working-class couple living in Berlin during World War 2. After learning a family member had fallen in the war, their anti-Nazi campaign began, very similar to the Quangels. The Hampels created a three-year propaganda plot that they knew would and did anger the Nazi government. They knew this would be a capital crime, but they chose to do it anyway. They urged people not to pay the Winter Fund and to not follow the Nazi government they were forced into.  In the war, people were forced to join into this government by paying to join numerous parties, if anyone was found not joining, it was difficult to get jobs, they were easily accused of crimes, they were threatened and abused etc. The Hampel’s wrote hundreds of postcards, most of them handed in, and continued to leave more until they were betrayed and arrested. Johannes Becher gave Fallada the Hampels’ Gestapo files to give him a good subject matter for a book, so Fallada included the true story of the Hampels along with his own experiences and incorporated it all into a novel which became one of the first anti-Nazi novels to be published by a German after World War 2.

Fallada has numerous biographical links to Alone in Berlin. He had been denounced as an anti-Nazi conspirer for his writing. He went to prison numerous times, turned to drink and drugs and had numerous attempted suicides. Throughout the novel, a lot of different characters characteristics form into one that is Hans Fallada. Fallada was actually born Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen and took his pen name from a Brothers Grimm Tale. While serving one of his prison sentences, Fallada was released and then put into an asylum. There he wrote a number of different texts, one named ‘The Drinker’ with strong autobiographical qualities. When Fallada was released, he re-married a widowed woman who, like him, had a weakness for alcohol and drugs. This really didn’t help Fallada’s state of mind. From there, Fallada’s health dramatically declined and they were both admitted to hospital. That is where Fallada’s friend Becher encouraged him to write his next novel, handing him the Hampel’s file.  He was transferred to another hospital whilst writing and died before it was published. Although it is stated Fallada found the Hampel’s story uninspiring, he must have found something interesting to want to fictionalise it.

 

The book is essentially about the Hitler/Nazi-resistance in World War 2.  It reflects on how communities were forced into supporting the Nazis. If they did not follow the Nazi’s they would have to suffer consequences of no job, no money, no support etc. They were threatened with lots of things so that they would support the parties and pay the funding. We are introduced to a number of characters who all live on the same block. These characters vary from German working-class couples, to high-class German soldiers, to retired Judges and even an old Jewish woman living alone. Some of these people support the government, some support the government because they have to and others are against it, hence the anti-Nazi propaganda. The Quangels (based on the Hampels) are our main characters throughout the whole book. We learn about the story from the beginning and empathy why Otto feels so strongly about rebelling.

 

Firstly, this isn’t a book I would normally pick out to read. At university, we did a class session where everyone discussed their favourite books and somebody mentioned this one. A lot of people agreed that it was one of their favourite books and the story grabbed my attention so I noted it on my reading list and three years later… I have finally read it!

At first, the book itself is difficult to get into. There is a lot of characters presented to you all at once. However once the characters become more emotive, I could understand them better and remember who they are and what their story is. The short chapters and simple narrative helped the book flow smoothly and enabled you to think about the characters incorporating them into the setting that is presented to you. When I first started the book, I didn’t know all the history behind it. I didn’t read too much into it as I didn’t want it to spoil the ending for me. After reading, I did look into the background history of the book and it was so interesting to how everything interlinked with the ‘fictional’ characters Fallada had created. I learnt a lot from this as, quite ignorantly, I didn’t know people were forced into supporting something they didn’t want to support and that it was down to the forceful nature of the government. I really enjoyed this book and after learning more about the background, I understood the characters, the setting and the meaning of the novel a lot more.

 

Strangely, I really liked the character Enno Kluge. I think it is the way Fallada has captured the characterisation more so than the character itself. The hopeless, gambling alcoholic just always seems to find himself in the worst situations even after attempting to redeem himself. Yes, granted he doesn’t help himself and he doesn’t need/deserve any love or good karma the way he treats people, especially women. He is all woe is me one minute and the next is jumping at the chance to be with a women, have money to gamble and drink it away at the pub. His character is irritatingly good and he is portrayed as the ‘bad’ character that has let his family down. It is interesting to learn that he was also based on an actual person. Kluge is based on someone who the police had suspicions of. Fallada knew this due to the Gestapo files he managed to have a look at. Like Kluge, the person was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was also a similar story to his arrest, the receptionist at the dentist called the police to say he was acting suspiciously, very much like in Fallada’s novel. The way Fallada incorporates the realism of the characters and setting is really interesting. The arguments between Eva, the flitting between women, stealing money from Hetty, the drunken break-in disaster with Emil Barkhausen and the clash of characters between him and Escherich. His death shocked me because I wasn’t ready for it, I presumed Kluge would take the blame or get in trouble but I didn’t think that would be the end game for him.

I thought all the characterisation was exceptional. Fallada gets down to every nitty gritty about each character to the point where you begin to presume what they think of the turn of events and imagine where they would be in the situation. When the disaster break-in happens with Kluge and Barkhausen and not only is Frau Rosenthal involved (who’s secretly hiding in the Quangels) but the Persickes hear them, followed by Quangel himself. Then the judge is involved and seems as if from one, rather funny, chapter each character on the housing block has managed to be involved. It is clear Fallada has elaborated on a true tale with the description. He knows everything he needs to know to recreate the setting and emotions relevant to the time. It really personifies how different the German community felt about Hitler the Nazi government.

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My favourite part of the book was the ending. I thought it was just so gripping considering we knew the inevitable was going to happen. Before the novel draws to a close we have the Quangels trials and it is all pretty intense waiting to find their verdict. We are not sure whether the Quangels will ever see each other again, as much as Anna longs for it. We do hope that they will meet again, knowing that there can’t be a possible way. The couple the novel is based on both were beheaded in prison following their trial. In the novel, although Otto was beheaded and Anna never found out, shortly after a bomb destroys the prison killing her, so in theory they do meet again post death. I think climax to her making herself crazy and we read about Otto’s death and know she doesn’t know what has happened creates an intense mood as we are unsure whether she is going to go stir crazy, also get beheaded or something else. No one could have predicted the bomb which made it so different.

The extra chapter at the end was also very interesting how Eva Kluge, wife of the alcoholic mess that is Enno Kluge, ends up adopting Barkhausen’s son, the irony being both Enno and Emil were as bad as each other and Eva detested her husband. She, her new partner and her new son seem so happy on the farmland. Plot twist – Barkhausen actually turns up stating he has been looking for his son leaving us with drama until the very end. We are unsure whether the son or Barkhausen recognise one another until the end of the conversation where Barkhausen tries to steal him away but his son has gotten the better of him.

 

I think the audience intended was people interested in World War 2 and Nazi-propaganda, people who know the history of the war and the people involved in it, or people that may know the history of the book and the author. I think the book does sway towards a more academic audience due to the vocabulary choices and the amount of history that is discussed.

I think the audience grabbed has branched out further than that. It has intrigued more people with the historical fiction element and the good positive reviews on how well the novel is written, exposing certain elements of a taboo topic, especially in that era. I think it has grabbed a wider range of people by referring to a popular topic and having realism qualities. I loved it and would recommend to all my friends who love to read and have the time to concentrate and delve into a good, interesting book. It is a book where you can spend an hour or so reading and with the small chapters have a finishing point and pick up the next day, which is great for me and how busy I am.

 

Overall, I loved this book. I would recommend, as mentioned above, to all my reader friends that have the time to read a hefty interesting book. It was very gripping, especially when Quangel was dropping the postcards and we were unaware of what was going to happen next – was he about to get caught? I loved learning the fate of all the characters, most of them pretty sad and gruesome – but I think that sums up the era of the book perfectly. I can’t wait to watch the film adaptation of the book this weekend!

 

I will be reviewing Diary of Young Girl by Anne Frank next. I am going to Amsterdam in a few weeks and thought it would be quite interesting to learn all about her and visit where her and her family were all in hiding during the war.

 

Thanks for reading –

JB 🙂

 

2 thoughts on “Alone in Belin – Hans Fallada

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