Novels based on true events and real people can be hit or miss. There’s always a chance that too much artistic license will be taken to flesh out a story that doesn’t quite fill a novel and there’s always a chance that the true events and real people will be far more interesting than the novel can ever be.
Hans Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone” is neither of things. It bridges the gap between fiction and reality and it makes the reader realize that sometimes there is a compelling story in being absolutely ordinary.
Otto and Anna Quangel are the protagonists of Fallada’s story and they are based on Otto and Elise Hampel. The Hampels were ordinary citizens of Berlin during World War II when they decided that they had to do something to protest the war. They wrote treasonous postcards and left them around the city. There weren’t many people who saw the postcards and the culture of fear in Germany at the time was such that most people were terrified to read them. But the Gestapo was afraid of the writers of these postcards. Fallada was given the Hampels’ Gestapo file after the war and he created the Quangels in their place.
The Quangels don’t bring about an end to the war and they don’t even shake the foundation of the Third Reich. There’s a telling scene early on in the book in which Anna asks Otto if his plan for the postcards isn’t a “bit small” and he replies that they will be executed if they are caught. To some, it might seem as though there’s no point in risking one’s life when it is something small that might not mean anything – and this is a recurring theme in the book – but to the Quangels it means everything.
Fallada writes them in a way that the reader wonders what she might do in the same situation, because the Quangels are the “every man” of every society and no society is immune from the necessity to make a stand. The question of whether one stand is more right than another is an important thread in the book. The answer isn’t easy, not for the Quangels and not even for the Nazis who are searching for them – one inspector even kills himself with the thought that he has become Otto Quangel’s only disciple.
The starkest scene in the novel is when Otto is sharing a cell with a symphony conductor and they discuss what impact the actions that led them to their cells might have on the larger world and whether or not it was worth it. The conductor tells Otto that if there were men willing to assassinate the Nazi hierarchy the moment it came into power, then they wouldn’t be there in the first place. That they will die alone is not a condemnation of the bravery that led them to stand up, even if no one noticed they were standing.
Fallada wrote the novel in twenty-four days after being released from a Nazi mental hospital. The appendices in the book make it clear he was definitely not anti-Nazi and that makes his fictional accounting of a small act of defiance against a regime he tolerated, more than he supported it, all the more telling about what the average German might have felt and thought. It’s easy for the reader to imagine Fallada, and herself, finding the cards under the looming shadow of the Gestapo and being terrified at the stupidity of whoever left them.
But still, you want to be brave enough to do something.