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Every Man Dies Alone/Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital. 1939–45
Reviewed by Judith Freedman, M.D., F.R.C.Psych.
Am J Psychiatry 2010;167:1538-1539. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.10091243
View Author and Article Information
London, United Kingdom

Book review accepted for publication September 2010

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Accepted September , 2010.

Copyright © American Psychiatric Association

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Berlin in 1939: the city had made a remarkable recovery from the Great War; its citizens enjoyed prosperity, optimism about peace, and expectations of renewed stature in the world. By 1945, the city lay in ruins.

Much has been written about Jewish and other Berliners who were deported to their deaths in concentration camps and about the fate of the Nazis. But until now, we have known little about the lives of ordinary people in Berlin. These two books address that gap in our knowledge and offer tentative answers to the questions of what the German people did and did not know about the intentions of the Third Reich and why they remained complicit and did not resist.

Hans Fallada (pseudonym for Rudolf Ditzen), struggled throughout his adult life with drug and alcohol addiction and was admitted to psychiatric hospitals. He continued to write, sometimes collaborating with the Nazis but at other times producing books the Nazis criticized. After the war ended, a fellow author encouraged him to resume writing and suggested as his topic Otto and Elsie Hampel, a working class couple who mounted an individual resistance to the Nazis. Fallada wrote a fictionalized account in 24 days in late 1946. He died before it was published in German, in 1947. The English translation was published in 2009.

Every Man Dies Alone begins with the postwoman delivering to Otto and Anna Quangel, the fictional counterparts of the Hampels, notice of their only son's death in the German army. Otto Quangel, a factory foreman who had never before concerned himself with politics or emotions, is moved enough by his wife's despair at the loss of their son to devise an act of resistance, on his own and unconnected to any of the cells of other resisting individuals in Berlin. Otto, later joined by Anna, wrote postcards criticizing Hitler and calling for disobedience and sabotage. (One card, shown in the appendix to the British edition of the book, read, "German People Wake Up.") They left the cards in public locations around the city. The Quangels hoped that the cards would be passed on between citizens, but such was the fear of being caught with contraband material that the cards were quickly turned over to the authorities. There follows a gripping account of the Gestapo tracking down the Quangels, torturing them and sending them to a puppet court to be sentenced to death.

The couple die separately in prison. A central question, raised early in the book by Anna, is whether such small acts of resistance matter. The question becomes more pressing as it becomes certain that the Quangels, like most individulas who resisted, will be killed. However, Fallada shows the impact of their dignity and commitment on people around them, particularly their Gestapo interrogator, Escherich, who "lowered his gaze" when Otto confronted him about being part of a corrupt system. Escherich later shoots himself.

Primo Levi described Fallada's work as "the greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis." The different translations of the title in the American and British versions emphasize two aspects of the meaning of this book. The German title is Jeder stirbt für sich allein, which literally means, "each dies for himself alone." The American title, Every Man Dies Alone, refers to the fatal sacrifices that those who resisted made. The British title, Alone in Berlin, focuses on how the decision to resist the Nazis had to be made on an individual and isolated basis, without the support of a community.

Berlin at War is an excellent companion to Fallada's novel, a historical narrative that is as gripping to read. This is a historian's account of the lives of ordinary people in Berlin, based on diaries and accounts written at the time as well as recent interviews with survivors. Moorhouse begins in 1939, with the city of Berlin celebrating Hitler's 50th birthday. He suggests that while most citizens joined enthusiastically in the occasion, there were already individuals who registered protests. Berlin, after all, was the most cosmopolitan German city, with the largest number of Jews and foreign nationals, and was politically inclined toward the left. The Nazis had registered a lower percentage of the vote in Berlin than elsewhere in the country.

Moorhouse proceeds through the years of the war, suggesting that initially, Berliners could not believe that they were vulnerable to attack. The government supported this view by ensuring that workers quickly tidied the streets after bombs were dropped, repairing the damage and maintaining an appearance of normality. The aerial attack began in 1940, with nocturnal air raids by the Royal Air Force. Accounts of that period emphasize that a significant part of the toll on people was sleep deprivation; some people had to be dragged from their beds by the wardens during air raids.

As the war continued, Berliners increasingly distrusted the information from their government. Many turned to the BBC, listening under their blankets to news broadcasts. Berliners knew that while they were under attack externally, they were also being watched by the Gestapo. Many turned to denunciation, maliciously or for self-protection. Suspicion and accusation were rife. There were so many denunciations made that the Gestapo tried to reduce the number!

Moorhouse argues that anyone contemplating resistance knew that the risks were great and likely to be fatal. There was little sense of a supportive community, so one could only act for oneself. Information leaked out about the concentration camps, but recent research has shown that less than one-third of Berliners believed it; such was the population's disavowal of the brutal reality of the Nazi regime that they asked few questions about where the transports were taking their fellow Berliners.

Fallada and Moorhouse, through fiction and history, show that within the heart of Nazi Germany, as with all repressive regimes, the risk of death for resistance was great, but some people took that risk because they could not live otherwise.

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