There are some things that history books, even good ones, can't teach you. I was recently reading The Third Reich at War, the final volume of Richard J. Evans' magnificent trilogy about the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Late in the book, Evans notes that there was some civilian opposition to Hitler, then adds the crushing truth: It was hopeless. The only people who could've changed things belonged to the military — figures like Count von Stauffenberg, the officer played by Tom Cruise in the movie Valkyrie. The others, however heroic, were just small fry.
Now, if you want to know what it was like to be small fry in that demented Reich, you're better off going to Every Man Dies Alone, the recently rediscovered 1947 novel by the German writer Hans Fallada. Vibrantly translated by Michael Hofmann, this story of ordinary resistance to Nazism is at once a riveting page turner and a memorable portrait of wartime Berlin.
The story centers on a married couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who hear that their son has been killed in the war. While Anna falls into rage and despair, the normally passionless Otto — a stolid, laconic foreman whose men think of him as a machine — decides they should act. The two begin entering public buildings and leaving a single postcard with an anti-fascist message for someone to find. It's a small act, but they know that one mistake will mean their own doom — as well as ruin their family and friends.
Fallada uses the Quangels' rebellion as the launching pad for a panorama of life under the Nazis. There's the retired judge who quietly deplores Hitler, and the apartment super who robs his frail Jewish tenant knowing she won't dare report the crime. There's the Hitler Youth who bullies his parents, and the postal worker who flees to the countryside in despair when she learns that her beloved son has been seen smashing Jewish babies' heads against car fenders.
The most complicated figure is Inspector Escherich, the Gestapo man who's chasing the Postcard Phantom, as he calls the people dropping the subversive messages. As he tracks down the Quangels, he goes from being a thoughtless, sometimes violent servant of the Reich to a man who comes to grasp that he himself is merely a replaceable cog in a society run by gangsters.
If anything binds these diverse characters, it's that they share the paradoxical condition created by police states. Even as they feel desperately isolated and alone, they also feel that they're not alone — somebody out there is watching, or could be watching, every single thing they do. It's a feeling Fallada knew firsthand. He lived a life of drug abuse, alcoholism, asylums and prison. As both a writer and an addict, he spent much of life trapped inside his own head — yet aware that he was under surveillance.
Perhaps because he was himself an outsider, Fallada has a knack for capturing the small, unglamorous, seemingly futile heroism of the Quangels. Virtually all the people who find their postcards are either such loyal Nazi citizens or such cowed ones that they instantly turn these hot potatoes into the authorities. And still the Quangels fight their fear and go on.
With its vivid cast of characters and pervasive sense of menace, Every Man Dies Alone is an exciting book. Yet like so many stories about Hitler's Germany, it's also a challenge. It compels you to wonder how you would behave if you were in the same dreadful situation. I mean, it's easy enough to think that, with his position and resources, we would've been as brave as Oskar Schindler, who even had the satisfaction of knowing he was saving lives. But what if you were Otto and Anna — with no real power — and no way of knowing if your actions achieved anything at all?
Without being sentimental about it, Fallada suggests that the Quangels may not have changed the regime, but they did change themselves. The workaholic Otto finds himself opening up to many wonderful things he'd never bothered to notice — he becomes more fully human. As for Anna, she has the transcendent satisfaction of knowing she fought back against evil. She may not have been able to save the world, but at least she tried to save her own soul.
Now that may not seem like very much in the grand sweep of history, but Fallada makes us understand that in frail, mortal, human terms, such courage is more than enough.