When Borders closed its doors in Ann Arbor I was among the jackals feeding off the corpse, buying up dozens of books at bargain prices. Some of the books I bought fell into the category of “Books That I Know I Ought To Read.” Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (first published in Germany in 1947) was on that list, and sure enough, it looked heftily important sitting there on my bookshelf for almost two years.
The copy on the dust jacket had me girding my loins for a difficult, if meaningful, read when I recently pulled it off the shelf. I wasn’t wrong, but I was right for the wrong reasons. The prose itself (translated by Michael Hoffman) is very simple. This 500-page novel was, after all, written in 24 days, and that generally leads to a certain zippiness in presentation, to an uncomplicated, linear structure.
The difficulty is in learning again, and again, about the power of fear. It is not the language and not the plot (based on a true story about a nondescript working-class couple in Berlin who begin an anti-Hitler, postcard-writing campaign following the death of their son at the front) that rivet, but the steady accumulation of terror and suspicion that we watch seep into a populace, making the unthinkable not so much ordinary as a component of self-preservation. This is not a story of the banality of evil, as we understand it from Hannah Arendt, in which the unspeakable becomes normalized in a society; rather, this is a story from within the community of those who remained aware of the moral and physical degradation of their state. And that is partly why this is such a difficult book. Because it is not a fantasy filled with heroes who rewrite the past for us. There is no happy ending available. Every Man Dies Alone is a story of ineffectual and piecemeal resistance that changed absolutely nothing. It is a story of the unknown, the forgettable, the everyday German citizens who were not pro-Nazi, who were not informers, who were not necessarily cowards, but who were always afraid, and thus, generally complicit.
I am not a scholar of WWII, of Germany (or France) during the Nazi era, or of Fallada’s work, and so my reading is necessarily superficial, but as I was reading this novel I was thinking that it might be a good companion piece for readers to Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, which portrays the mass exodus from Paris as German forces prepared to invade. Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone soon after the end of WWII; Nemirovsky was writing of the war as she was living within it. What she had perceived as a five-part novel ends after the first two parts. Arrested as “a stateless person of Jewish descent,” she died in Auschwitz. I suggest that these books might be usefully read together not simply because both were written by authors who were living within the maelstrom of Nazi Germany and Occupied France, but because both are dedicated to working on the level of the individual. These are not sweeping sagas of battles, or of heroes and villains (although there are some of the former and plenty of the latter), but of an everyday reality defined by the unthinkable.