Every Man Dies Alone is a rare book, one that to my knowledge has no precedent. It is a novel, based on an actual Gestapo file, that takes the reader into the daily life of everyday people living in Hitler’s Germany. What is unprecedented is that it was written by someone who lived through the nightmare and wrote his book almost immediately afterward, soon after which he died of a morphine overdose.
The book is also rare because it has languished, virtually unknown outside of Germany for more than half a century, which is completely inexplicable. This is a great and powerful book and one of the most penetrating and disturbing examinations of life in a totalitarian society, written before the historians and anthropologists wrote the books that have shaped so many of our impressions of the Third Reich.
Not that those impressions we have are inaccurate. But many of the histories were written years, even generations after the fact. This book was obviously incubating as the horror was living itself out, and emerged, more than 500 pages, only months after the last shots were fired in May 1945. Most of the first-hand accounts we’re familiar with came from the victims of Nazism, like the Diary of Ann Frank or the many Shoah stories. This book comes from a much different perspective, from the eyes of German citizens. (And I know, the Germans were victims of Nazism also, but they were also its enabler, whether they meant to be or not.)
There are probably too many fictional embellishments to the plot to categorize this as historical fiction, but it does what good historical fiction is supposed to: it takes you right there, so you feel the terror of the housewife being interrogated by an odious Gestapo official, you hear her prison door clank shut, leaving her in darkness, and you experience for yourself the confusion, rage and frustration of parents who are told their son has been killed in a war they don’t understand.
For more than two years, starting in 1941, a working-class husband and wife in Berlin actually decided to defy Hitler and do what they could to raise the consciousness of their countrymen, to tell them Hitler was a monster who invaded Russia with no provocation and was killing wholesale the flower of Germany’s youth. Their effort seems ridiculous: they would hand-write postcards with anti-Hitler messages and calls for worker sabotage, and drop them on the windowsills and in the stairwells of hundreds of buildings, hoping they would be read, passed around, and hopefully help turn people against Nazism. And that was all. But they had to do something, and by doing this small thing they placed themselves on a moral plane above the perpetrators and collaborators. They were heroes, fully aware they would eventually die for their crime.
Their effort was a total failure. Of the hundreds of postcards they dropped off, all but a tiny fraction were immediately handed over to the Gestapo. People wanted no part of the hopeless campaign. One day the couple slipped up and were caught by the Gestapo, tried and beheaded.
Fallada’s book offers a fictionalized account of this couple that includes a wide cast of unforgettable characters, nearly all of them repulsive. Take whatever your impression is of life under the Nazis, make it a hundred times worse, and you have Fallada’s world. And the book begins in 1940, when the Nazis were at their peak of power, having just swallowed continental Europe whole and appearing invincible. But even then, the German people were living in a stage of constant fear, and fear is what permeates every page of the book. A world of informers, extortionists, corrupt officials, a browbeaten population terrified into believing it must report everything to the Gestapo, lest they come under suspicion as an accomplice.
Nearly every scene is drowned in treachery, and often in blood. Totally innocent people are swept up, tortured and put to death over the most casual passing reference by the postcard-writing wife. And the Gestapo always wins. Torture, extortion and the threat of the concentration camps always get people to talk.
Every Man Dies Alone is a mystery novel, a breathless thriller about a two-year chase. It follows the Gestapo step by step as they pursue their prey, recording in painstaking detail the destruction and fear they leave in their wake. But I saw it most of all as a window into the lives of the “ordinary people” of Germany. Many of them hated Hitler and hated the atmosphere of terror. And yet they played along, and even gave the cards to the Gestapo. We are reminded that many Germans despised Hitler, especially after Stalingrad, but by the time war was declared in 1939 it was too late, they had handed Hitler total power, and now all they could do was survive as best they could. And yes, many, many others followed him blindly, believing in him until the very end.
The postcard couple are at the core of the book, but surrounding them is a constellation of supporting characters – low lives, Hitler Youth, a Jew in hiding, a compassionate judge who sees exactly what’s happening to Germany, a postal worker who learns her beloved son is smashing the skulls of Jewish babies in Russia, die-hard radicalized Nazis, and others who begin to have their doubts….
Each of these characters is interesting, each leaves a strong impression. But I have to say, several are one-dimensional, and Fallada spends way too much time going into their individual stories. (This is particularly true in the case of Enno Kluge, a compulsive gambler and con man who somehow gets involved, mistakenly, in the investigation; he ends up shot in the head and thrown in a river. Intriguing, but Fallada definitely gives us too much information.)
Also, the book is a little too long. It dragged for about 100 pages in the middle, but then took on ferocious speed as the Gestapo zeros in. The style isn’t rich or florid; it is simple and straightforward. But I hung on every word, and found myself reading late into the night.
Primo Levi called this, “The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.” I won’t disagree, though there’s so little to compare it to – there was hardly any organized German resistance to speak of until Stauffenberg’s ill-fated plot in 1944. It especially makes you wonder, to what extent were the ordinary German people responsible for the blight of Hitler, a question that has mystified me since I can first remember learning who Hitler was.
I lived in Germany as a college student, my former history professor served in the Waffen SS, I’ve spoken with countless students whose parents participated in Hitler rallies and I’ve read a fearful number of books about German history. I always am left with the same question, how much did the “ordinary Germans” know and to what extent can they be held accountable? Fallada helped me better understand all the forces pressing against the ordinary German seeking to survive in a time when death and betrayal were a possibility with each knock on the door. I will never know the actual answer, will never have a perfect understanding of this impossible question. But Every Man Dies Alone gave me a new perspective, and showed me what the Nazi terror meant for the simple factory worker, the mail deliverer, the lowlife pimp and gambler, the retired judge who knew what justice meant. I don’t think you can fully understand life in Nazi Germany if you don’t read this book.
As a quick note: I discovered this book quite fortuitously, when I was led to this article. This was the description that moved me to order it:
What was it like? I would ask myself, the years I lived in Berlin. What was it like in the leafy Grunewald neighborhood to watch your Jewish neighbors — lawyers, businessmen, dentists — trooping head bowed to the nearby train station for transport eastward to extinction?
With what measure of fear, denial, calculation, conscience and contempt did neighbors who had proved their Aryan stock to Hitler’s butchers make their accommodations with this Jewish exodus? How good did the schnapps taste and how effectively did it wash down the shame?
Now I know. Thanks to Hans Fallada’s extraordinary “Every Man Dies Alone,” just published in the United States more than 60 years after it first appeared in Germany, I know. What Irène Némirovsky’s “Suite Française” did for wartime France after six decades in obscurity, Fallada does for wartime Berlin. Like all great art, it transports, in this instance to a world where, “The Third Reich kept springing surprises on its antagonists: It was vile beyond all vileness.”
Fallada, born Rudolf Ditzen, wrote his novel in less than a month right after the war and just before his death in 1947 at the age of 53. The Nazi hell he evokes is not so much recalled as rendered, whole and alive. The prose is sinuous and gritty, like the city he describes. Dialogue often veers toward sadistic folly with a barbaric logic that takes the breath away.
Yes, it definitely takes the breath away. I’m grateful to the writer for steering me to this book I’d never heard of. Few novels can hold you and move you like this one.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.