A review of the novel “Alone In Berlin” by Hans Fallada

This remarkable novel was first published in German in 1947 and I read an English translation by Michael Hofman published in 2009. It is a long work – almost 600 pages – but the translation is excellent, the narrative compelling, and the text is divided into 72 chapters, so that it is a compulsive read.

It tells the story of a couple in their early 50s, living in Berlin during the Nazi era, who choose an idiosyncratic but immensely dangerous method of protest by leaving anonymous handwritten postcards around the city attacking the regime and the war. Otto and Anna Quangel commence this campaign in 1940 when they learn of the death of their son. But how long can they survive undetected and what impact can such a protest really have?

The story is populated by a series of generally unsavoury characters, led by the Gestapo detective determined to track down the Quangels: “Inspector Escherich was firmly convinced that he would find a knot of secrecy and deceit in well-nigh every German home. Almost no one had a clear conscience.”

Fallada – drawing no doubt on his own experience – describes a claustrophic world in which: “The air was thick with betrayal. No one could trust anyone else.” And yet the prisoner Dr Reichhardt can assert: “We live not for ourselves, but for others. What we make of ourselves we make not for ourselves, but for others.”

Hans Fallada was the nom de plume of Rudolf Ditzen who took the name from two characters in Grimm fairey tales. He was a sad individual who suffered from alcoholism and morphine addiction. He remained in Germany throughout the Nazi period and had a a complicated relationship with the regime, neither an eager collaborator nor an active resistor.

Shortly after the war, Fallada was enouraged to write this novel by an official in the post-war Soviet military administration who drew his attention to the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel who left handwritten missives around Berlin between 1940-1942 before being detected and executed. Amazingly Fallada drafted his novel in around a month and then died before it could be published.

There are many similarities, but significant differences, between the story of the Quangels and the reality of the Hampels, some of the changes literary licence by Fallada and others the result of Fallada not being shown all the Gestapo files. The Quangels are portrayed in ultimately heroic terms whereas sadly the Hampels were more flawed characters.

“Alone In Berlin” has been made into a film starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson.


  • Janet

    Sorting through the contents of a late relative’s bookshelf, I have come across many books from the 1940s and 50s. I have read a number of these on the basis that they must have been deemed worthy of being kept, and found this premise mostly correct. It becomes obvious when reading novels from a different period that most are deemed “good reads” because they resonate with circumstances and attitudes of the time, almost irrespective of the quality of writing. Sometimes both coincide and you get a “classic”. Thank you for this review, I will look out for the book.

  • Roger Darlington

    Often worthwhile to try something different. Hope you find it interesting, Janet.


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