Every Man Dies Alone

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

With the many depictions of Nazis as convenient villians in popular films and books, it may be easy to lose sight of what it was actually like to live under their regime on a daily basis. Hans Fallada, an author then internationally known for his novel Kleiner Mann, was nun? (1932; Little Man, What Now?, 1933), opted to stay in Germany when the Nazis assumed power in 1933. He tried to write apolitical novels but found it difficult to adjust to the expectations of the Third Reich. After living in Berlin, Fallada sought refuge in a small village called Carwitz, but even then he had to suffer the paranoia, the eavesdropping, and the suspicions of the villagers.

As a writer, Fallada was obliged to be ambiguous about his allegiances. Geoff Wilkes, in his afterword to Every Man Dies Alone, describes Fallada as “neither an eager collaborator nor a resistance fighter.” Toward the end of the war, Fallada was committed to a Nazi insane asylum. He emerged from that experience very much shaken, but Johannes R. Becher, a friend of his, sought to encourage Fallada’s writing by giving him the Gestapo file on Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple in Berlin. After hurriedly writing Every Man Dies Alone in twenty-four days, Fallada died from a morphine overdose before the book’s publication in 1947.

Telling the Hempels’ story gave Fallada a way to depict many of the compromises, the fear, the betrayals, and the myriad forms of revolt against the Nazis that occurred during their regime. The working-class couple were not initially inclined toward political agitation, but when Elise’s brother died in the war, they decided to write and distribute hundreds of postcards around Berlin that were critical of the Nazis, calling for civil disobedience both at home and in the workplace. The Berlin police and the Gestapo spent three years hunting for the mysterious card makers, and the Hampels were initially so successful that the Gestapo thought that it was dealing with a much larger underground resistance. Eventually, the Hampels were captured, placed on trial at the People’s Court, found guilty, and executed in 1943.

Fear can have complicated effects on a society in which most people have something to hide: In Nazi Germany, informers could prosper. People could be imprisoned or executed for minor acts of insubordination, both in the workplace and at home. Nazi officials wanted not only obedience but also complete agreement with their views. Fallada was interested in the extreme corruption of those who exulted in the display of power and the doglike debasement of those beneath them. Even those in power could be turned into suspects and punished with very little justification. Ultimately, Every Man Dies Alone debates what it meant to revolt against the Nazis if the consequence of that revolt was imprisonment and death. The novel questions whether it was better to live nobly and suffer the result or to compromise with the Nazi system. It asks what kind of values could be affirmed amidst such corruption and universal deceit.

As much as he tries to resolve these moral ambiguities in the novel’s later prison scenes, Fallada leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusions by sifting through the conflicting perspectives of his characters. For the most part, these characters are portrayed as just trying to get by amid occasional Allied bombings and increasingly histrionic Nazi propaganda. Much of the novel’s early action takes place at 55 Jablonski Strasse, an apartment building where the Persickes, an arrogant pro-Nazi family, live uneasily with the Quangels and Frau Rosenthal, a Jewish woman who is afraid to leave her room. The novel begins with Otto and Anna Quangel learning that their soldier son has just died. The news radicalizes Otto against the Nazis, but he has to be careful what he says around Emil Borkhausen, an opportunistic neighbor who notes Otto’s defeatist talk.

When Otto tells the news to Trudel Baumann, the woman who was engaged to his son, she tells him of a resistance cell that she has joined to fight the Nazis. Later, however, in part because of her talk with Otto, the cell dissolves, but not before some other Nazis overhear them talk about it and try to investigate. Once Otto and Anna begin to hatch their plan to spread various postcards around Berlin in the hopes of starting a broader resistance, Emil and Enno Kluge, another loafer, decide to rob Frau Rosenthal’s apartment under the assumption that, since she is...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 28.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 2 (January 15, 2009): 54.

The Nation 289, no. 2 (July 13, 2009): 25-30.

The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009, p. 10.

The New Yorker 85, no. 12 (May 4, 2009): 73.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 2 (January 12, 2009): 29-30.