Alone in Berlin is a fantastic novel of small scale resistance in the city of Berlin during the Nazis rule. The novel is based on real events and is a fascinating story, which provides a grim overview of life under the oppressive regime.
What I liked about the book was how several separate storylines are woven together into one grand narrative. You see how all the actions of the characters relate to the others, as they all struggle to live, and in some cases, prosper under the Nazi regime.
The story of the writer, Hans Fallada, real name Rudolf Ditzen, is a fascinating one. Born in 1893, he was the son of a lawyer. When he was 18, he killed a friend in a duel and spent the majority of his time in psychiatric clinics in order to feed his morphine habit.
He married in 1929 and settled down for a while, but his reckless nature returned in 1944 when he shot at his wife after a quarrel. He returned to a psychiatric clinic as a result.
At the end of the war, Follada found himself living in East Berlin and published Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein, which translates as Each Dies Only For Himself. This novel would come to be known as Alone in Berlin.
Remarkably, it’s claimed Fallada wrote the novel in 24 days! Unfortunately, Fallada did not live to see his work published. Years of alcohol and drug abuse caught up with him and he died of a heart attack in February 1947, a few weeks before his novel was published.
The novel tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, a hard-working an unsociable couple. Following the death of their son Ottochen in 1940, they begin to take part in a resistance effort against National Socialism.
This involves writing postcards which criticise the regime and dropping them in random places across Berlin. The messages n the postcard range from encouraging people not to give to the winter relief fund and imploring workers to work as slowly as they can.
Alone in Berlin was inspired by the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Fallada based his story on the Gestapo files relating to their activity. They were originally Nazi supporters but turned to resistance following the death of their son in France in 1940.
They deposited around 200 hand-written postcards and leaflets criticising the Nazi regime around the home region of Berlin-Wedding before they were arrested on 20 October 1942.
They were sentenced to death the following April.
What makes Alone in Berlin so powerful is not only that it was based on real events, but that even small acts of resistance can have an effect. It also looks at the role civilians play in totalitarian societies.
Is it better to resist and fight the regime? Or should you keep your doubts to yourself and remain passive for fear of recrimination?
Alone in Berlin summary
Takeaway 1 – Even small acts of resistance can work
When you read the novel it may seem ridiculous that Otto and Anna decided to resist the Nazi party by dropping postcards around Berlin. My first thought was to think this would be pointless and have little effect, but as the novel progresses we see that is not the case.
People who encounter the postcards become nervous and scared as they make contact with them. Should I hand this in to the authorities, or should I throw it in the bin and pretend I never saw it?
When you live in a repressive regime and your every move and action is analysed even a seemingly innocuous act of resistance such as writing postcards can have a large effect.
This is highlighted by the man assigned with the task of tracking down Otto and Anna, Inspector Escherich. He refers to the person dropping the postcards as a Hobgoblin, and as the novel progresses and he has still not caught either Otto or Anna, he and his superiors begin to get restless.
The longer their resistance continues, the more annoying and dangerous it becomes for the regime. They do want to be seen as incompetent to their superiors and the longer it continues the more chance there is of copycats dropping postcards or people agreeing with the sentiments.
Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate resistance. The clue is in the word itself, total. They require total obedience and subservience to the regime for the good of the nation. Any expression of dissent is taken as a threat to the integrity of the nation.
This is why small acts of defiance are so effective in these regimes. They need to be made, otherwise, the regime could continue unopposed for the foreseeable future.
Even if the act is as trivial as dropping postcards, it is still an act of defiance and viewed with disdain by those who support the regime.
Otto and Anna’s crusade may seem pointless, but it provides hope to those who are not brave to stick their necks out and challenge the regime. It provides comfort to others in knowing that they are not alone in thinking ill of the regime.
Above all, it is resistance against an oppressor is essential, no matter how small, if they are to ever be removed from their position of power.
Takeaway 2 – It’s better to act than remain silent
The easy option for Otto and Ana would have been to remain silent after the death of their son. Resistance in a totalitarian society is tantamount to signing your life away. However, that is not the option they chose.
They decided to resist. Even if their resistance was low-level and not what you might expect, they resisted nonetheless.
Other characters in Alone in Berlin follow this mantra too. Judge Fromm harbours an old Jewish lady in his flat, despite the obvious risks. As a judge, it’s likely he won’t be suspected, but in the febrile nature of Nazi Germany that is no given.
He risks to try and save the life of Rosenthal, the Jewish lady who lives above him in their building.
We may think it’s better to remain silent, to go about our daily business than try to help and risk our lives, but by doing nothing you are complicit in the regime.
The Nazis won the most votes in two elections in 1932. Although they did not have a majority, they were able to govern in a coalition. This was until President Hindenburg under pressure from politicians and industrialists appointed Hitler as Chancellor in 1933.
They did not seize power with little support. They were already a popular party when they assumed control. However, we may think, people have more power than they realise. They hold the balance of power.
There are more people than politicians, if we all rose up in defiance of the regime, they would be powerless to stop. The inverse is true of course. If everyone believes in the regime, no matter how abhorrent it is, then they will remain in power.
It is in these scenarios that you have to stand up and be counted. To remain silent is to be complicit in everything that follows. To resist is to stand up for what is right.
Takeaway 3 – Without principles you have nothing
We should all have principles in life. If we don’t we run the risk of being manipulated and used by those more powerful than us.
Principles are what guide us. They represent our morals, our character and our beliefs. Without rock-solid principles, you are drifting through life.
Before the death of their son, Otto and Anna were never huge supporters of the Nazis, but nor were they fervent opposers of the regime. They like many others at that time, who were just trying to make it to the other side with their lives intact.
However, the death of their son changed everything. They were given a reason to question their beliefs and rediscover their principles.
Those people who do not have rock-solid principles are often the ones who become the most fervent supporters of despotic regimes. Without principles of their own, they become consumed by the rhetoric offered by such regimes which fill the vacuum.
This is how such regimes rise. They offer simple solutions to complex problems and suck in those who are disaffected or who have extreme tendencies.
It’s crucial you develop your own set of principles. You must decide what is dear to you and what you are willing to fight for. If you don’t they may be chosen for you.
Alone in Berlin review
I haven’t touched more on the plot during this Alone in Berlin summary to avoid spoiling the book. There are many more subplots and characters in the novel, who make it a fascinating read.
However, it’s best not to divulge too much information, as this will spoil the book. It is one of my favourite novels and a fascinating insight into life in Nazi Germany from a variety of angles and perspectives.
This is one of the best novels I have read in recent times and is an illuminating look into life in Nazi Germany.
It’s not often you get a glimpse into what life was like for ordinary citizens living under the Nazis. Most stories tend to focus on the war effort instead.
By reading this book you get an insight into how ordinary Germans resisted the regime and how they were targeted and treated as a result.
This is a book is a warning about the dangers and inhumane nature of totalitarian regimes. How they dehumanise and turn against anyone that dares question their authority.
Even if you’re not overly interested in the second World War, this book will touch you.
Who should read Alone in Berlin?
I thik everyone should read this book. The mesage within it is powerful and essential whether you’re familiar with the war or not.
In times of increasing polarisation in society, it’s essential that we are reminded of what can happen when this polarisation reaches its logical conclusion.
More than anything, Alone in Berlin is a warning about what can happen. Reading this book is one way of ensuring the horrors of Nazi Germany are never repeated again.