There are so many novels set during the Second World War, but most of the ones I’ve come across have been set on the battlefield or have focused on the experiences of soldiers. They’re about war in a way that Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin is not. This is a story about civilian life under Hitler’s government – the mistrust between neighbours, the way the Gestapo took advantage of it to find scapegoats, the way sociopaths were given a clear and simple path to social climbing, the way people were no longer left alone to be grumpy or odd or solitary. Everything suspicious, everybody only a few steps away from being thrown in a Gestapo basement for saying the wrong thing, or not saying the right thing, or getting caught in the crossfire of scores that are being settled. Even a Gestapo inspector is not immune from harm, and nor is a famous actor, even if he was once a favourite of Goebbels.
Fallada’s story follows the sudden and unexpected resistance effort of Otto and Anna Quangel, who begin dropping anti-war and anti-Nazi propaganda postcards around the city when their only son is killed at the front. What follows is a fascinating commentary on life under the Third Reich and human impulses, both heartbreakingly noble and depressingly mean and small. I haven’t read anything like it in a long time – a Novel with a capital N, written like a classic, timeless. Although it’s full of little portraits of humanity it also gives you something bigger.
Did you ever see the finale of Band of Brothers? The captured German leader takes a moment to give this moving speech to his men about how they fought bravely together and were brothers, and you catch this glimpse of how, on the ground, both sides were fighting in the same way throughout the war. Just men, trying to look out for each other and not die and get home and see peace. Not desperate to see the extermination of Jews or out for world domination. It’s always a thing isn’t it – people think they would have resisted the Nazis if they’d been alive at the time, but statistically very few would. They would have got swept along with the tide of fear and Fallada does a very good, very quiet job of helping you understand that. The Quangels’ resistance is tiny, almost certainly futile and yet the likely consequences are catastrophic. Fallada explores both sides of that coin in a novel that is fascinating, deeply moving and will probably echo in your mind a long time after you finish it.