Every Man Dies Alone
Melville House, 450 pages
Some seventy years after World War II, novels and films involving the events of 1940’s Europe remain in heavy supply and heavy demand. The recent publication of Hans Fallada’s newly translated novel, Every Man Dies Alone, shows the persistent motivation to bring readers new and varied accounts of the events. It seems we never tire of looking at this historical epoch from every possible angle and extrapolating on the source and sustenance of our deep fascination with it. These questions perhaps remain so enduring because their answers are always changing. As our culture changes so do the reasons for hearkening back to the events of World War II, as well as the riches that are found there. So what are we seeking now? I will venture two guesses, though there are undoubtedly others. We seek to exhume the lost sensation of moral realities, and we seek an occasion for courage. The Nazi threat represents the expired possibility of a crystalline clarity of evil, for rarely does one get to see evil so clearly demarcated by a uniform and a symbol. In an age where moral frameworks seem increasingly rickety, questions of good and evil swim like unanchored buoys before our eyes. To the Western mind, the definition and even the terms “good” and “evil” are under threat of philosophical obsolescence; nevertheless, we remember and return with nostalgia to a historical moment when “good” and “evil” were concepts still intact and, when in the face of such a clear dichotomy, an equally clear call to courageous action might sound and one might unhesitatingly respond. If this is at all what one secretly desires from the genre of World War II literature, then Hans Fallada’s novel disappoints; it does not offer a simple and satisfying parable of morality or courage, but rather an honestly complicated account of people navigating the murky waters of “good” and ”evil,” and of people both mustering and failing to muster the strength to respond to the maddeningly soft-spoken call of courage.
Every Man Dies Alone is the fictional rendering of an actual Gestapo file on a German husband and wife, Otto and Elise Hampel (called Otto and Anna Quangel in the novel), who staged their own small-scale resistance against the Nazi regime by dropping postcards with provocative anti-fascist messages in heavily trafficked areas of Berlin. Through careful planning and the modesty of their enterprise, the couple baffled the Gestapo for over three years, and had them convinced they were dealing with a highly organized underground resistance cell rather than a middle-aged couple.
In keeping with the apothegm, “to the victor go the spoils,” the majority of the literature surrounding World War II has been written by the victors and victims, Jews in the Diaspora or citizens of the occupied countries, and as such, the horrors of the Third Reich are often interpreted from the outside. Every Man Dies Alone is one of a proportionally smaller number of works that recount the evils of fascist Germany from the German perspective, or one really should say perspectives because the voices that rise up from the novel are hardly unified, one of the great profundities of Fallada’s work. In Every Man Dies Alone, good and evil are very much at war, but it is no simple matter of nationality or party lines; good and evil, decency and indecency, courage and cowardice are two sides of a crack that splits right through every human heart. Fallada’s sensitive rendering of the complexity of human nature, and the dueling tones of censure and guilt weave like a fugue throughout the novel, could only be achieved by one who felt deeply his share in all the guilt and innocence of his homeland.
After reading his novel, one wishes to group Fallada in with the saintly heroes of the German Resistance, and there is a good deal that would commend him for such a nomination, but there is a good deal that resists the category as well. On one hand, Fallada refused to join The Party, was blacklisted as an “undesirable writer,” and wrote a clandestine, politically critical autobiography in code while imprisoned in a Nazi insane asylum. But Fallada was also an alcoholic and morphine addict, who was committed not for political dissent, but for embezzling from employers to support his addictions. He was spared the worst horrors of such an imprisonment by agreeing to write a novel in accord with Nazi propaganda and by agreeing to revise “unacceptable” details of his other novels, a moral and artistic compromise over which he agonized for the rest of his life. That agony is subtly audible throughout Every Man Dies Alone, which was the last novel he wrote before dying from overdose.
Fallada’s sensitive rendering of the complexity of human nature, and the dueling tones of censure and guilt weave like a fugue throughout the novel, could only be achieved by one who felt deeply his share in all the guilt and innocence of his homeland.
Fallada’s deep awareness of the conflicting forces of virtue and vice in his own character accounts for his novel being less a didactic sermon on the evils of fascism than a pained and humble examination of the good and evil, the courage and cowardice contending in every human heart. Fallada’s narrative style for most of the novel pushes the action forward with simple, unadorned story-telling, that may go so far as to lack complexity. However, his style becomes suddenly sophisticated and his touch both delicate and razor sharp when he cuts into the ambiguities of human ethical motivation—and in almost every character he hollows out a space for this ambiguity.
If the story has a hero at all, it’s Otto Quangel, the brave husband with nerves of iron, who doggedly risks his life to defy Hitler, even to the point of staring down Nazi henchmen. But even Otto’s heroism is not as simple as one might like it to be. It is a refrain in the novel that Otto’s greatest loves are peace, quiet, and his wife, Anna, even to the exclusion and intolerance of all else. When their son is killed on the front lines of Hitler’s army, Otto admits to himself, “he never loved the boy the way a father is supposed to love his son. From the time [his son] was born, he had never seen anything in him but a nuisance and a distraction in his relationship with Anna. If he felt grief now it was because he was thinking…what would now change between them.” After their son’s death, Anna, in a moment of grief, accuses Otto of supporting Hitler and thus being responsible for their son’s death. The sudden distance and hostility in his relationship with his wife pushes Otto to concoct his plan of resistance. Thus, Otto’s opposition to Hitler’s regime is born, not entirely from moral or humanitarian outrage, but in some unsettling way, because, like his dead son, Hitler poses a threat to the isolated peace of his relationship with his wife. It’s only toward the novel’s end, when Otto encounters a generous and loving fellow resistor, that he begins to wonder “whether he had lived the right sort of life, cutting himself off from every one else in a voluntary self-isolation.”
Throughout the novel, other characters’ efforts to remain decent are similarly complicated with ambiguities of motivation. Fallada’s gift is in presenting not only Nazis and villains with a critical eye, but those attempting to do good as well. A judge, who risks his life to hide a Jewish woman in his home, is nonetheless described as “cold.… His goodness itself is cold…on account of the law he serves, the law of justice…human beings don’t mean anything to him.” Later in the novel, a cowardly doctor settles into an escapist morphine haze, while resolving within himself to stop a patient from receiving a lethal injection: “in a minute: I want to enjoy my morphine first. But straight afterwards—that’s a promise!” The doctor, with echoes of Fallada’s own addictions, is the antithesis of the judge. Unlike the judge, who is unflagging in his service, not to people, but to the abstraction of justice, the doctor shows a deep humaneness but lacks the will and courage to act on it.
It is a recurring theme in the novel that even those characters most repulsed by the evil of Hitler and the Nazis cannot find refuge in their own stainless purity. The characters that most ardently seek to be good eventually face the possibility that they have done everything wrong. It seems that there is no remaining decent, but only a constant striving to overcome the myriad indecencies that commingle with the strength, courage, and compassion of the best human action. Decency is not being good, but having the courage to do good despite one’s deep imperfections. Fallada quietly suggests that good is not good for it’s own sake, for the “law of justice,” but that good comes from the the law of love, which even the bravest resistor may fall short of.
Jacqueline Edgington is a writer living in Chicago.