Alone in Berlin: German Lit Month — Part II

My first post on Alone in Berlin, which I read for German Lit Month is here.

Spoilers ahead…

“People with a faith have an easier time of it nowadays, I’m sure. They have someone they can turn to with their worries. They think all this killing is for a reason.”

“Thanks!” said Quangel, suddenly vicious. “A reason! It’s all senseless! Because they believe in heaven, they don’t want to fix anything on earth. Always crawl and keep a low profile. Heaven will fix everything. God knows why it’s happening. On the Day of Judgement we’ll find out. No, thanks!”

6801335Otto Quangel has changed. Writing postcards has changed him. He is still laconic, private, but the postcards are filling him with indignation, restlessness, and questions which he can answer. In a rare conversation with his wife Anna, he dismisses the presence of God. He observes that if there was a God, how could He allow the genocide. Otto is meditating on that theme for us, the readers. He is trying to pin down an answer for the questions that we all ask whenever we read about the Holocaust — What was God doing?

Anna is torn between her husband and God. She could be more rebellious and more opinionated than Otto, but she wants to alleviate their pain by applying the balm called God, even if He is taking them to the guillotine. Later, her Faith mutates into her unwavering love for her husband; she draws strength from that well to survive the final wait. The solitude might be making her cold and suicidal, but her only light is Love. The light of all lights.

Now he learned that this back-and-forth of wooden figures could bring something like happiness, clarity in one’s mind, a deep and honest pleasure in an elegant move, the discovery that it mattered very little if you won or lost, but that the pleasure of losing a closely contested match was much greater than that of winning through a blunder on the part of his opponent.

The insanity of Nazi cells challenges Anna’s determination and courage, but it makes Otto more sane. He enjoys the company of his cellmate (that is out of his character), establishes a routine which includes fitness, and even learns to play Chess. He is so close to death. But he feels free and more alive than ever. He reflects that he never knew that life could be this exciting — the most beautiful irony that Hans Fallada nonchalantly offered in Alone in Berlin.

Hans Fallada is ruthless. He borrows Hitler’s axe to kill almost every good soul in the book. I wanted Judge Fromm to live even after Otto and Anna, but in a pair of brackets, Fallada says that Fromm’s house is bombed three years later. I died a little. But the last chapter is the much-needed resurrection. All the old souls might have lost their lives, but Fallada plants Hope in a young soul, who flees Berlin. That boy could have become an easy victim or one among the Nazis. However, Fallada drops him with an endearing couple; he grows up in a farm, he is educated, he knows love, and maybe, he is the symbol of the Germany that the Quangels and the Judge desired. 

PS: My edition features the postcards written by the real couple and some notes from the interrogations. I shuddered when I read the cards. They were prosaic, but what made them powerful was what the couple risked to write and drop them. Heartrending!


17 thoughts on “Alone in Berlin: German Lit Month — Part II

  1. I was very moved by the character of the cell mate of Otto, it is almost as if the highly cultured man who kept his humanity and the second cell mate reduced to a beast reflect a culture that produced the a Holocaust and world class literature and music

    My thoughts on two other Fallada novels and a biography

    Wolf Among Wolves is often called The Vanity Fair of the Weimer Republic.  It is a long book with lots of characters.  Primo Levi said We All Die Alone is the best book ever written about life in Nazi Germany.  We All Die Alone is among the best novels I have ever read.  The characters are beautifully realized, the plot is very exciting.  You feel the fear of daily life in Nazi Germany.  After reading this I wanted for sure to read more by Fallada so I turned to Wolf Among Wolves.  I was disappointed by this book, maybe my expectations were too high but I did not find the characters especially well developed or interesting.  If this had been my first book by Fallada I think it would have been my last and I would have missed out on We All Die Alone.  Anyway I liked this book so much I decided to read all his translated novels, a total of six, in the hope that maybe one was even better than We All Die Alone.  I was also motivated by a strong interest in life in Weimier and Nazi Germany.  

    I have also read his A Small Circus A Novel.  It is interesting and depicts a lot of the political strife in Germany that opened the door for the Nazis to rise to power but it is far from the quality of We All Die Alone.  The characters are not well developed and the plot about the small news paper began to wear me down. It will take an act of faith but I will try to one day read his other three novels. 

    I like to read literary biographies and I do recommend More Lives than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada by Jenny Williams

    Many leading German writers and intellectuals left Germany.  Hans Fallada decided to stay and learned to work within the acceptable guidelines.  Joseph Goebells, Nazi called him” a very talented fellow”.  Fallafa was not a Nazi, just a man who wanted to live by writing novels and stories.  He began again to escape into alcohol and morphine when he could not accept the horrors of Nazi rule. 

      After the war ended, he lived in the Russian area of control in Berlin, he had some difficulties and was briefly in a mental,hospital.  Once he got out he wrote his master work, We All Die Alone in just 24 days.  He died at fifty, taken to an early grave by his demons.

    Jenny Williams has done a good job laying out the facts of Fallada’s life.  She lets us see how hyper inflation made life so challenging in Germany.  

    Only those already interested in Fallada will read this book and that is how it should be.  

    JENNY WILLIAMS is Senior Lecturer in German at Dublin City University

    Later I will take the liberty of suggesting two more very good set in World War Two German novels

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you SO much for this insight. I loved reading it. Many thanks again. I was wondering if I should read ‘Wolf Among Wolves’. But now that I have read one by Fallada, maybe I should go with your other recommendations. I would so love to know about the other two very good novels set in World War II. You are kind to share your brilliant thoughts and recommendations. I really appreciate it. 🙂


  2. I am going to hold off reading more Fallada novels, maybe will read more for German
    Iterature Month next year.

    Here is a book I highly recommend, the movie starring Robin Williams is very faithful to the book

    Jacob the Liar by Jurek Becker (1969)

    Jacob the Liar is set in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the time of the Nazi occupation.  At the time Lodz was second only to Warsaw as the city with the highest Jewish population. Becker was born there.  

    As the novel starts, we are in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland in 1944, the forty year old Jacob Heym, a childless widower, is stopped by a German sentry.  He is told he is in violation of the eight p m curfew rule.  The German knows it is not eight yet but for a joke he tells Jacob to report to German headquarters and advise the desk officer he is their to receive punishment for his crime.  Jacob figures his best hope of survival lies in abject humility.  While there he hears a radio broadcast saying the Russian army is getting near Lodz.  The desk officer lets him out, a miracle in itself.  

    Jacob tells his best friend he heard on the radio that the Red army was getting close.  That would mean liberation for the Jews and death to the Germans.  He does not want to tell his friend he was in German Headquarters as few get out alive so lies and says he has a radio.  Having a radio is strictly forbidden and can lead to deportation to a concentration camp.  Soon his friend has told a friend and soon it is all over the Ghetto that Jacob has a radio.  The news of the approaching Russian Army lifts the spirits of everyone,they have hope.  The high suicude rate drops to nothing.  Soon people come to Jacob and want more news.  He begins to make up encouraging news.

    I don’t wish to relay to much of the plot so I will just mention a few of the things that really struck me as I read Jakob the Liar

    Becker does not paint the horrors of the Ghetto in broad strokes but in small amazingly details such as someone saying in passing that his house mate died from eating a dead cat.  Jacob talks of his wife and we sense the pain of her absence.  Jacob has a factory job moving crates.  People see the train cars full of people being sent to the camps.  This hangs over everything.  The Germans are moving people one  street at a time to the camps.  Jacob adopts an eight year old girls whose parents went to the camps.  She jumped off the train and Jacob found her wandering around.  He hides her as she should be deported already.  I loved her character.   In one just totally marvelous scene, the girl demands to hear a broadcast from the nonexistent radio.  Jacob goes in the other room and fakes a BBC interview with Winston Churchhill talking about how the allies will soon win.  

    There is much more in this wonderful novel.   The conversations are gems and there are no false notes anywhere.  

     There is great pain in this book, wisdom, evil and transcendent good. It is a classic of Holocaust fiction.

    Later I will suggest another book by a Dutch writer I love, set during the disastrous period of hyperinflation that helped make Germany vulnerable to the Nazis

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh. Thank you VERY much. I love your thoughts. I love how the sadness and trauma are suggested in the book. I am surely adding it to my TBR and I will keep an eye out for the book too. Many thanks for your enlightening views. I feel lucky. 🙂


  3. Here is another book I highly recommend, it deals with the conditions in Germany that lead to the Rise of the Nazis

    Life Goes On by Hans Keilson, 1933

    The obituary in The Guardian, he lived to 101, should be read first.

    Life Goes On centers on a long time married couple and their children.  The novel, set in Germany, starts about 1919 and ends around 1933, just as the Nazis come to power.

    There are not dates given in the novel but it is not hard to set in place based on events in the novel.  The focus is on the slowing crushing and ultimately devasting impact of post WW One inflation and the collapse of the German economy on the family and those in their circles.  

    The father served four years in the war and returned uninjured. He was awarded an Iron Cross for valor but he never wore it.  His wife kept it in a drawer.   He worked as a peddler for a few years until he saved up enough to start a general store in the small town in which he grew up.  He married a decent hard working woman and they had three children.  They lived above the shop.  When times were tough they just said “well we lost the war” what can you expect.  The same customers have been coming in for years just as they have been buying the merchandise they sell from the same suppliers for a long time.  They are constantly struggling to survive as their customers can buy less on less.  Increaingly they have to sell on credit or they will lose trade to bigger merchants.  Likewise they buy what they sell largely on credit.  There is a lot to be learned about German society and the economy in this wonderful book. Their daughter lives and works in Berlin and when we first meet him their son Fritz is getting ready for college.  We see his existential struggles to find value in studying in a society with few jobs.  Slowly, kept masterfully in the background, we see social unrest developing, organized mobs, police goon squads and even and old friend of the father becomes a full time politcal agitator.  From his rhetoric he might be a Commuist but could just as well have been a Nazi.   The couple  wants no part of politics and urges their son to stay apolitical.

    Soon the couple has trouble paying their own bills and they have to borrow from Peter to pay Paul.  This is humiliating for the couple who always prided themselves on their reputation.  The downward spiral of the couple’s finances was very painful to witness.  You can feel the impact of all this on their marriage.  

    Time goes on and soon almost no one can buy anything and customers cannot pay for what they have bought on credit.  In a completely chilling heart breaking series of scenes we see the wife going to the homes of their customers to try to collect a bit of money.  Once affluent people where their coats until they turn to rags.  Everyday things get worse.  Keilson in his genius makes us feel the oppression in our bones.  Things keep greeting worse and worse until the incredible close, which was really inevitable, but I am pretty sure no one, I certainly did not, will see it coming.  

    There are numerous brilliant minor characters and perfect small scenes.   It is also an excellant portrait of a marriage surviving and changing through terrible times.  There is much I have left out.  I strongly urge the reading of Keilson’s three novels, only about 650 pages. 

    At the close of the novel there is a fascinsting afterword by the author added decades later, in which he explains how his publisher told him he needed to change the ending of the novel to avoid offending the Nazjs by appearing to suggest the father had turned to the Communist Party.  In a terrible to read sentence he closes the afterward by telling us both of his parents died in Auschwitz.  His father, the novel draws on autobiographical elements, earned an Iron Cross during WW One and thought it would save them. 

    Keilson was 23 when the novel was published.  The Nazis burned it and many of the book’s first readers.  

    Liked by 1 person

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