I discovered the 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone in a conversation about books with a friend on the beach in Cape May. The novel was written in the aftermath of World War II, by Hans Fallada, the pen name of a German named Rudolf Ditzen with a history of mental illness and substance abuse who spent time in mental institutions, prison, and rehab. He wrote the book in 24 days in September and October 1946, but died before it was published in 1947. In 2009, when the English translation was finally published, the book gained a whole new audience, becoming one of the New York Times “notable books of the year” in 2009.
I’ve read lots of novels set in part during World War II: All the Light We Cannot See, Life after Life, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Lilac Girls, Moon Tiger, The Girl from the Train, and The Paris Architect are a few relatively recent ones. Each of those novels portrayed some aspect of the war that I didn’t previously know much about. However, it’s been awhile since a novel has made me think and engage in self-examination as much as Every Man Dies Alone, likely because of the times we are in and the questions I ask myself regularly about how to respond to many things that are happening in the world that seem to me to be so very wrong.
Based on a true story, Every Man Dies Alone is about an ordinary German couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who resist Hitler and the Third Reich. Their act of resistance is carried out in an environment in Berlin where many ordinary citizens believed the hype that Hitler really was ushering in a new era of German greatness (making the awfulness of the war worth it); they willingly spied on and reported neighbors who acted suspiciously. Others became part of the system of oppression as police and members of the Gestapo. Still others were skeptical and privately opposed Hitler, but because they were afraid of the Gestapo, they remained silent or turned in anyone they suspected of acting against the government. Any kind of dissent was treasonous, and people were arrested, imprisoned, and executed for minor offenses.
When their only son is killed in the war, Otto and Anna are “radicalized” and begin their resistance. Otto decides to write postcards against the Hitler regime (“he needs an outlet for his rage”) and drop them surreptitiously in random places throughout Berlin, hoping they will be picked up and read by passersby who will be influenced by their message. The first postcard reads: “Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop until he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”
Anna, angry and sick with grief over the death of her son, initially says the act is too small and won’t do any good, but agrees to participate. Otto convinces her: “They all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there, that not everyone thinks like the Fuhrer.” Later he reflects again on the possible success of their efforts: “I’d like to be around to see it [Hitler and the Third Reich] all collapse. I would like to experience that. We’ve done our bit to make it happen.” Together, they imagine that their postcards will change minds and create a larger movement of resistance. Ultimately, after more than two years of postcarding Berlin, they are discovered and arrested, brutally interrogated, charged with treason, tried and found guilty in a farce of a trial, and sentenced to death. Otto is executed by beheading, and Anna dies later during an air raid when a bomb falls on the prison.
After his arrest, Otto is devastated when he learns that out of 285 postcards he wrote, only 18 were not turned in to the authorities. He is at first convinced that nothing good was accomplished, that their act of resistance was a complete failure. Eventually, as he languishes in prison, he comes to understand the value of his act of resistance and before he dies attains the kind of serenity that comes from knowing he did what he thought was right.
So what is the point of resisting when the act is so small and/or it stands almost no chance of being effective in the long run? Several conversations in the novel sought to answer that question and resonated with me as I ponder how and whether to resist the many things that are wrong in the world these days and often wallow in feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.
At one point, Otto and Anna’s son’s former fiancee Trudel and her husband Karl consider hiding a Jewish woman in their house. Karl says, “There’s nothing we can do,” to which she responds, “If everyone thought like that, then Hitler would stay in power forever. Someone somewhere has to make a start.” The narrator continues: “She was desperate to do something against Hitler, against the war. In principle, he was too, but it mustn’t carry any risk; he wasn’t willing to run the least danger.” I ask myself: what risks am I willing to take to do what is right?
In prison, Otto shares a cell for a time with a musician, Dr. Reichardt, who was arrested as a communist sympathizer. They talk about what Otto did with the postcards and his belief that his efforts were futile:
Otto: “They didn’t do any good!”
Dr. Reichardt: “Who can say? At least you opposed evil. You weren’t corrupted. You and I and the many locked up here, and many more in other places… – they’re all resisting, today, tomorrow…”
Otto: “Yes, and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?”
Dr. R.: “Well, it will have helped us to feel we behaved decently until the end.”
“Decently” seems to be another word for “with moral integrity.”
On another occasion, when another cell-mate sadistically destroys the only photograph Dr. R. has of his wife and children, Otto accuses him of being too soft because he didn’t fight the man. Dr. R. responds: “Do you want me to be like the others? They think they can convert us to their views by physical punishment. But we don’t believe in force. We believe in goodness, love, and justice.” Otto retorts: “But in life you need to be tough sometimes!”
Dr. R. responds: “No, you don’t. And a saying like that is justification for every form of brutality!” An argument for nonviolence if there ever was one.
According to German legal protocols, Otto’s defense lawyer goes through the motions of submitting a request for clemency following his death sentence, despite not having any sympathy for or understanding of what Otto did. The lawyer asks Otto, “What made you do it? Write those postcards. They didn’t accomplish anything, and now they’ll cost you your life.”
Otto replies: “Because I’m stupid. Because I didn’t have any better ideas. Because I thought they would accomplish something, as you put it.”
Lawyer: “And don’t you regret it? Aren’t you sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that?”
Otto: “At least I stayed decent. I didn’t participate.” Again, that word “decent.”
Often the meaning of the title of a novel is not immediately obvious, and so when I read, I keep my eyes open for something that will explain it. In this case, the title seems to come from a conversation Otto has with Dr. Reichardt who says, “It would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what we have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”
I need that encouragement and challenge right now, when I feel helpless against a barrage of what I believe are unjust, mean-spirited, self-centered, short-sighted, hypocritical, and racially-charged attitudes, actions, and policies. I want to stay decent and act with integrity, and to be able to believe that in the end decency, goodness, love, and justice will prevail.
*Disclaimer: The book, clocking in at more than 500 pages, is much more complex with many more characters than this summary and analysis would indicate. It’s a gripping story, with lots of suspense – in short a good read!