Little Man - What now ?
Citizen resistance to fascism in 1940’s  Germany
A review of Hans Fallada’s ‘Alone in Berlin’1 
by Kate Wilson

You will need to take a deep breath before reading this book. Set in wartime Berlin and dealing with one ordinary working-class couple’s dogged but doomed resistance to the Nazi regime, it lays out all the apparatus of Gestapo terror and focuses with such unerring clarity, directness and authenticity on human weakness and suffering, that if you have a faint heart you might not get all the way to its horrific end.2  The inevitable happens though - Otto and Anna Quangel pay with their lives for dropping subversive postcards around the streets of Berlin. By the last few chapters, I was reading crab-wise back and forth to avoid what I already knew would be upcoming: the clinical details of an execution by decapitation – a killing technique favoured by the Nazis by which they routinely dispatched dissenting citizens and the flower of their own youth3. But, as it was, I saved myself nothing by this technique: the writing is too compelling. A point to make here is that Alone in Berlin is not a ‘thriller’ in the sense that the Irish Times on the back of the cover would have you believe or the Guardian’s own reading group4 for that matter (‘terrific’, ‘fast-moving’ ‘gripping’, ‘dark’ are mere clichés for a genre to which Fallada’s book does not belong). In this story, perhaps precisely because it is based on a real-life case5, it’s not a question of ‘if’ certain things will happen, but ‘when’. The feeling of suspense, or more explicitly, ‘dread’,  is caused by something other than the manufactured tensions of a thriller: instead, Fallada demonstrates the psychology of fear by which the Third Reich controlled its populace, taking you right into the minds of those who are suffering unspeakable dilemmas: the old Jewish lady hounded by her neighbours and in solitary hiding, longing to be with her grown-up children who are safe but beyond reach in Ilford, Brooklyn or Copenhagen; the young man, kicked almost to death, listening to his pregnant fiancee in the hands of Nazi questioners; a witless
loser harassed and tricked into a false confession. This is Fallada’s strength as a writer - he captures your human interest, not by writing high literature, but through what appears to be naively authentic reportage of the experience of ordinary individuals6, of which you, the reader are one. You find yourself quickly reeled in, not only because of your own vulnerabilities, but because you feel instinctively that Fallada knows who and what he is talking about (in fact he did live through the period and survived).

Pictures: (above) Man in Berlin 1943, Bundarchiv photo (adapted); (right) Hans Fallada in 1911