Thursday, January 13, 2011

THURSDAY-GOLDEN OLDIES: Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

This is the last of my WWII week posts.

I saw this at the bookstore after I had decided on a WWII moratorium. But the quotes on the cover captured my attention: "A signal literary event..." - The New York Times Book Review; "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis."-Primo Levi; "One of the most extraordinarily ambitious literary resurrection in recent memory." - The Los Angeles Time. What else could I do? I bought the book.

Written by Rudolf Ditzen, a German author who published under the name Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone is a fictionalized account of Otto and Anna Quangel’s attempt to resist the Nazis by spreading postcard propaganda throughout Berlin. A quiet, self-contained, working-class couple, they carried on their work for years, evading capture. Unfortunately, the postcards were almost all promptly turned in to the authorities by the terrified recipients, and Otto’s dream that his words might be passed from hand to hand, inspiring even greater resistance, was not realized. The book demonstrates not only the cruelty and sadism of the Nazi regime, but also the fear and stupidity of those who supported or tolerated the Nazis in hopes of surviving (or thriving) as Party members. Fallada (who wrote the book shortly after the war, after being released from a Nazi insane asylum) apparently did not have a very high opinion of his fellow Germans. The book is, in many ways, the most painful to read of all the WWII week books, because it shows how few people can overcome the instinct for self-preservation when terrorized. There are rare examples of heroism, but the majority either ignored the injustice going on around them, or participated in it in the hopes of personal gain. Otto and Anna are remarkable in that they remained decent and humane. They refused to sit idly by.

Written with an omni narrator in an old-fashioned style, this was not a "page-turner." Although some parts moved quickly, there were times when I would read and read, become horribly weighed down by what I was reading, and then feel like I had made no progress at all. We follow not only the actions of the Quangels, but of various detectives trying to trace the postcards to the writers, petty criminals who are at first peripherally and eventually more intricately involved, and relatives of the Quangels who suffer merely because they are related. It’s a depressing picture of wartime Germany, depressing because even though we hold up Nazis as an example of unparalleled evil, the human weaknesses exposed in the book are not unique to WWII Berlin. Wherever there is violence and oppression, the same tendencies to sadism, petty tyranny, rationalization, and cowardice will be found. The human race has suffered so much and learned so little.

All this is not to discourage you from reading this. This is a book that was worth the effort. It will stay with me. If only to remind me that there are options to sitting idly by while evil has its day.

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