Following on from my last post about reading books discovered in the blogosphere, there was a spate of posts about Alone in Berlin some time ago, which made its cover instantly recognisable to me. In short, I’m glad to have had the introduction. It’s a novel about a German father who loses his son at the front during WWII. Being part of the silent and silenced population, his response is to break that silence by leaving anti-Nazi propagandist notes lying around in public places. This act of resistance, this breaking of a silence, is anonymous; it’s therefore still a silence, only one that’s in a form of his choosing under conditions of minimal choice. I was particularly attracted to this book because, at the time, I was busy with my publishing experiment with academic plagiarism and obscurantism, something also undertaken anonymously. It was interesting to read such different motivations for leaving subversive notes lying around. This is the most effective side to the novel.
The overwhelming experience that it presents is how the German people under Nazi rule were far from being of one mind. The responses to their predicament varied as much a people do. This is so even if they are inevitably divided into only two minds by a decision. There was the dominant question, for example, of whether to join the Nazi party or not. The characters often illustrate this dualism through being contrasted with alternative versions of themselves. Two working-class collaborators differ from each other in their self-centred motivations and reactions to authority. Two Gestapo inspectors have completely different methods for detection and the temperaments to match.
Where the characterisations fail is in Fallada’s authorial interventions. He sometimes draws his characters with character judgements. This closes the characters down with the very condemnatory dehumanisation that Fallada was so intent on exposing about Nazism. The reason for this is perhaps the context in which the novel was written. The typical moan about the book is that it was commissioned by the East German state, hence the last third of the book caricatures a perception of decadence vs socialism as cure.
Yet these flaws evince strengths that are easily overlooked. The dual-mindedness to people’s responses to totalitarian rule earlier in the book are an indication of the struggles that Fallada would have had to deal with when finishing Alone in Berlin according to the strictures of another totalitarian dogma. This political context makes the book a peculiar historical document. How enriching, amid alternative narratives about Nazism, to have a Communist-endorsed version of events that arose from the Cold War that followed.
But what I liked most, as a questioning dropper of anonymous notes myself, is something seldom discussed.
The idea that anyone would avoid taking the credit for their messages is a bizarre one in our age of hyper-visibility. And the dangers in any smug comparison are there for anyone sensitive to them. It would be easy to run away with the idea that we enjoy freedoms that were fought for in the 20th century, and that there are no longer any ideologies or puppet-masters influencing the popular desire to be heard above the throng.
I’d like to add that Alone in Berlin was published in 1947 – watch out for the 1947 club, running between 10-16 October. Have a look at the post on Stuck in a Book for details. Thanks to Kaggsy for drawing my attention to this.