Hans Fallada’s classic novel of German resistance deserves the widest audience
The novel Primo Levi called “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis” is finally out in paperback. Lost to the vagaries of publishing for 60 years, Every Man Dies Alone, by the forgotten novelist Hans Fallada, was translated into English for the first time last year.
Based on a true story, Every Man Dies Alone received the highest praise in Britain and the United States when Melville House published the hardcover edition. The New York Times called it “a signal literary achievement of 2009,” while Charlotte Moore, writing in the London Times, declared it “as morally powerful as anything I’ve ever read.”
Whats’ more, though a brick of a book at more than 500 pages, it reads at the pace of a thriller. The New Yorker said it “has the suspense f a John le Carre novel. A visceral, chilling portrait.”
The two stories behind the book — the one it’s based on, and the one of how it came to be written — are fascinating, too. Almost unbelievably, Every Man Dies Alone was written in 24 days by a dying drug addict who had once been mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Mann or Herman Hesse.
Hans Fallada, born Rudolf Wilhem Friedrich Ditzen in 1893, took his pen name from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. At 17, he was run over by a horse-drawn cart, resulting in injuries that fostered a lifelong struggle with drug addiction and, later, alcoholism. A failed suicide pact with his best friend — the other boy died — led to his first stay in a mental hospital.
Despite mental instability and morphine addiction, Fallada became a successful journalist and leading German novelist. His novel Little Man, What Now? was a bestseller in Germany, Britain and the United States, where a movie version starring Margaret Sullivan was a hit in 1934.
Unlike other prominent German authors, Fallada could not bring himself to flee to England or the United States, which left him at the mercy of the Nazi Party. For much of the 1930s he supported his family by writing children’s stories. Falluda was arrested for attempting to murder his estranged wife in 1944 and consigned to a mental hospital.
There Fallada was pressured by Josef Goebbels to write an anti-Semitic novel. He pretended to comply, but instead, he used a code to write one of his best books, the autobiographical novel The Drinker.
After the war both Fallada and his new wife, a rich, young widow, fell into morphine abuse. A friend in the post-war government, hoping work might restore Fallada, gave him the Gestapo file of a working-class Berlin couple executed by the Nazis.
Otto and Elise Hampel conducted a secretive campaign, distributing thousands of postcards with anti-Nazi slogans, after Elise’s brother was killed at the front. Eventually caught, they were beheaded in 1943. In Fallada’s hands, they became Otto and Anna Quangel. Fallada creates around them a richly populated society under the heel of tyranny.
At one point, Anna says the postcard project is too small to make a difference. “Whether it’s big or small, Anna,” Otto replies, “if they get wind of it, it’ll cost us our lives.”
Anna muses: “He may be right. No one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.”
Fallada composed the novel in 24 days, telling his sister Elisabeth, “At last I’ve got one right.” But he died before the German edition was published in 1947.
Every Man Dies Alone is a literary triumph that serves an important historical function. Not every German, it seems, was Hitler’s willing accomplice.
In addition Every Man Dies Alone, Melville House is also issuing new translations of Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker.
“Every Man Dies Alone is one of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II,” says the thriller writer Alan Furst. ” Every word rings true –this is who they really were: the Gestapo monsters, the petty informers, the few who dared to resist.”