Book Review – Every Man Dies Alone

  • Book Title: Every Man Dies Alone
  • Author: Hans Fallada, born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen

Overview

Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone deals with the lives of several Berliner citizens during Germany’s Third Reich. After Otto and Anna Quangel’s only son dies at the front, the couple becomes disillusioned about the government. Rations grow leaner and the persecution of Jews and minorities become daily occurrences. More men are whisked away to the front, and most of them don’t return. Otto Quangel begins to write postcards with anti-government slogans, he leaves anonymously in large office buildings.

Hans Fallada, German writer of the 20th century
Hans Fallada, German writer (1893-1947)

But the story swiftly moves to some of the other characters who also live in the Quangel’s apartment house. There is Borkhausen, a down on his luck loser who makes denouncing his neighbors his fulltime job. There is Enno Kluge, a hapless lazy bone who steals from his estranged wife as easily as from the countless women that take him in. And the Persicke family whose youngest son, Baldur, is a fanatical Hitler youth and the most dangerous of them all.

By painting the picture of these weak and despicable characters, Fallada takes us deep into the horribly uncertain lives, most civilian Germans endured where nobody could be trusted and where utter disregard for human life was business as usual. While Kluge and Borkhausen make their meager living through denunciation and plain theft, gambling and doing favors for the Gestapo, Otto Quangel continues his clandestine postcard business. Much to the frustration of the Gestapo, in particular, Inspector Escherich who is in charge of finding the perpetrator. Even he is not immune to the wrath of the upper orders, getting a taste of Gestapo treatment after he is unable to find the man who so rudely disrespects the Reich’s order. The inspector even tries to save his own hide, proclaiming Enno Kluge the writer of the postcards and killing him to save his hide.

Unbeknownst to the Quangels, their postcards land almost immediately at the Gestapo, striking fear in anyone who comes across the heretical messages. Most people are too scared to read past the second word and turn them into the authorities, rendering the Quangels attempts futile.

Book cover of US version of Hans Fallada's book "Every Man Dies Alone"
Every Man Dies Alone (US) book cover

But were they? One of the key questions of the book deals with just that. Just because no one reads the messages, would it have been better not to write them? Should one give up if the outcome is unknown and potentially meaningless?

After two years of postcard writing, the noose tightens until Otto Quangel is finally caught. As interrogations follow each other, we get a sense for the techniques of the Gestapo who jerk a fever-ridden Anna from her bed to force answers. Upright and honest, the Quangels spend weeks being questioned. Still Anna insists she’s the writer of the cards while Otto maintains they are his. Of course, their answers don’t matter as more and more people fall under suspicion, including the former fiancée of the Quangel’s son, Otto’s brother and wife. Escherich, the Gestapo man, kills himself, finally convinced of his own government’s evil and maybe Otto Quangel’s only disciple.

Alone in his cell, Otto Quangel, upstanding and honest maker of furniture, receives a capsule of cyanide from a former neighbor. The knowledge of having control over his own death — certain after the vindictive tribunal of the Third Reich’s head judge — frees Otto. He no longer frets and goes, head held high, to the guillotine. Anna finds death during a bombing raid when her prison is leveled. The only bright spot is Enno Kluge’s ex-wife who finds happiness in the country and ends up raising one of Borkhausen’s sons.

Critique

Structure

Independent chapters, written like short stories describe various characters surrounding the Quangel’s story.

Dialogue

Smooth and to the point, sometimes overshadowed by long narratives.

Invented versus Real Characters

Many of his characters have been invented, but the Quangels were based on Otto and Elise Hampel, a couple who wrote postcards to fight the Third Reich after their son’s death.

Authenticity of Setting

The 1940’s in deteriorating Berlin, its squalid apartments whose dwellers are even more neglected, is convincing. So are the decrepit conditions of the assorted cells in Gestapo and city jails, interrogation techniques.

Tone

Fallada’s book is a drab account of Germany’s blackest history. Most of the emphasis is based on shoddy characters who will do anything to get ahead, who have no morals and no compassion. While this is certainly true for people in any country and at any time, it takes a bit of perseverance to make it through.

Overall

This is Hans Fallada’s last book. A gifted writer with longtime addictions to drugs and alcohol, Fallada finished the war in a Nazi insane asylum. Severely weakened, he hurried to complete this story about the ordinary citizens of WWII Berlin in 24 days. He sometimes switches from past to present tense to get a point across, a jarring technique which detracts more than it helps. I’m convinced he would’ve edited it out, had he not already been severely ill – he died in February 1947 and never saw the publication of his book. When comparing this story with Fallada’s Wolf among Wolves, a story about a couple struggling in post-depression Berlin, it becomes obvious, that this story was never quite finished. Wolf among wolves is a work of literary art. Every man dies alone struggles to reach the same literary quality. However, its messages are powerful, its characters deep and multifaceted. Fallada used real Gestapo documents to write his book. We only wish he had had more time.

The opinions stated above are my own.

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