I forget where I saw the high praise for Alone in Berlin (not the blurbs), but I decided to give it a go at the library. I wasn’t a member yet, so I had to leave it after I had got through eight chapters, but was sufficiently intrigued to borrow it the moment I got my library card.
Alone in Berlin (German title: Jeder stirbt für sich allein) takes place over a couple of years in the lives of Otto and Anna Quangel, whose very existence sees a sea change when the news comes of their son’s death in World War II. Once quiet, nose-to-the-grindstone, and politically apathetic, the news and emotional strain on Otto turns him into a quiet, nose-to-the-grindstone political activist. He decides, with his wife’s support, to start planting anonymous postcards denouncing the Führer and his war, all the while reporting to work at the factory and being as boring as ever.
Otto and Anna are the fictionalised names of Otto and Elise Hampel, a couple who really did dare to protest and paid with their lives.
It was almost funny, the cruelty and horror of the SS and Gestapo in the first half of the novel — they were so ludicrous and self-contradictory it almost felt like a farce. But when it got sad, I found myself tearing up more than once.
Like The Changeling and To Kill a Mockingbird before it, I have no idea how I’m going to adequately express how this novel affected me, but I’m going to try. Fallada lived through the Third Reich and I don’t doubt his rendering of the paranoia, cruelty, and desperate self-preservation that touched all the characters was pretty much spot on. Needless to say, the worry that anything one said that could be misinterpreted as treasonous or reflecting an unreliable character emanates throughout the story, and it reminded me a little of the fear amongst Singaporeans when they talk politics in public. No one knows when one hits those OB markers (unless you’re Chee Soon Juan, then you know the authorities aren’t going to look kindly on anything you do).
I’m grateful that there were those in the novel who tried to be kind, in whatever small ways they could. And I’m especially gratified that the initially unpleasant character Inspector Escherich was eventually the one who was genuinely affected and changed by the Quangel’s activities. I, like him, freely admit that I am not brave enough to take a stand — and I am definitely not brave enough to make the choice he makes, but then I’m not in the same horrific position in which he found himself.
We know Hitler is defeated and Germany emerges from the nightmare. Otto and Anna die, people they knew who had nothing to do with their activism die. I know there are Singaporeans braver than me who will take a stand to argue for what they believe in, there always have been, and things are opening up, I strongly believe that, because the Singaporean government cannot possibly restrict the Internet to the extent that they need to in order to ‘preserve harmony’ and still be attractive to foreign investment and business (and tourism).
So I applaud those who care about Singapore enough to speak, to put themselves in the metaphorical firing line, and if they haven’t read Alone in Berlin and they’re feeling a little demoralised about the point of it all, it will give them a renewed sense of hope and purpose.