Alone in Berlin, takes place during the 2nd world war, with Germany firmly under the Nazi jackboot. Because of the constant fear of arrest by the Gestapo, with the threat of imprisonment, torture and death Berlin was a miasma of paranoia, fear and suspicion. In a world where a family member, neighbour or complete stranger can denounce you for a crime imagined or otherwise and even if you’re not condemned to death, you’ll find yourself classified an enemy of the state, ostracized and unable to find employment.
Otto and Anna Quangel, are a working class couple, who were not interest in politics, and although they weren’t members of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, they had tacitly supported Hitler, even voted for him.
This was all to change – when one day a letter arrived, telling them their son had died a “hero’s death for Führer and Fatherland”. This shocks them out of their apathy and they start a campaign that explicitly questions Hitler and his regime, writing on postcards messages such as:
“Mother! The Führer has murdered my son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”
These cards were then left in the stairwells of apartment blocks, in locations all over Berlin, or dropped into post boxes. It wasn’t long before they caught the attention of the Gestapo. This takes takes the form of inspector Escherich, who is mapping the position of every card with the aim of pinning down the “criminals”. This being Nazi Germany, Escherich himself is constantly under pressure to get results or face the direst consequences: harried & abused by Obergruppenführer Prall, the inspector will try any trick - dirty or otherwise to catch the postcard writers.
Although the postcards aren’t really successful, because the population is so terrified that they hand them straight to the Gestapo, or destroy them, the cards offend the authorities and the case becomes serious and failure to solve it is not an option and it’s just a matter of time before the Quangels become guests of the hellhole that is the Gestapo prison system and then it becomes a question of not will they survive, but how they die.
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Alone in Berlin was originally called Every Man Dies Alone and was based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel a working class couple from Berlin, who came up with the idea of leaving postcards around their city denouncing Hitler and his regime. They got away with it for about two years, but were eventually discovered, denounced, arrested, tried and executed - beheaded in Berlin's Plötzensee Prison in April 1943. Hans Fallada was given the Hampel’s Gestapo files by Johannes Becher, a writer friend of Fallada’s, who was president of the cultural organization established by the Soviet military administration in the Soviet sector, with the aim of creating a new anti-fascist culture.
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Sometimes you pick up a book that so engrosses you, that despite it’s subject matter you cannot leave it alone. You know that there will be no traditional happy ending for Otto and Anna Quangel, that respect for humanity is not high on the Gestapo’s list of priorities, that it is when and not if they are caught and then that they will face every form of torture from humiliation to being treated like a rag doll in the mouth of a rabid dog. None of this matters, or more accurately despite all of it, this book is beautiful, a quiet book of common decency, that reaches beyond the subject matter to reach a grandeur that, although of a tragic nature, still lights up bright enough to shine through the deepest of hellholes and to depict in letters large enough to be seen from the stars stating that despite all evidence to the contrary the human spirit and decency is never ever totally destroyed.
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Hans Fallada (1893 – 1947), born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen in Greifswald, Germany, was a writer of the first half of the 20th century. His works belong predominantly to the New Objectivity literary style, with precise details and journalistic veneration of the facts. Fallada's pseudonym derives from a combination of characters found in the Grimm's Fairy Tales: the protagonist of Hans in Luck and a horse named Falada in The Goose Girl.*******************************************
Fallada was a man of many personal issues, including morphine & alcohol addiction, he had been both institutionalized and incarcerated during the Nazi era. At first he had no interest in writing this story, stating that he hadn’t fought against the regime, had even cooperated. However, unlike many writers and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany, Fallada had felt too attached to the German language and culture to leave, despite the fact that he was urged to flee and had been blacklisted by the Nazis
Alone In Berlin was translated by Michael Hofmann (born 1957, Freiburg, West Germany) a German-born poet who writes in English and is a translator of texts from German.