The city is paralysed by fear.
But one man refuses to be scared.
Otto, an ordinary German living in a shabby apartment block, tries to stay out of trouble under Nazi rule. But when he discovers his only son has been killed fighting at the front, he’s shocked into an extraordinary act of resistance, and starts to drop anonymous postcards attacking Hitler across the city. If caught, he will be executed.
Soon this silent campaign comes to the attention of ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich, and a murderous game of cat-and-mouse begins. Whoever loses, pays with their life.
Elderly couple Otto and Anna Quangel live in Berlin. Neither belongs to the Nazi Party because Otto refuses to give a proportion of his wages to it as he wants to save. Everything changes when they receive news that their son – their only child - has died in the war. Partly in response to his loss and partly in defiance against the hypocrisy and corruption of the Reich, Otto and Anna launch a campaign against the regime, leaving anonymous postcards around the city denouncing the Party, the war and even Hitler himself.
The Quangel’s civil disobedience is interwoven with the story of other Berlin residents. There’s Eva Kluge, a post woman married to workshy philanderer, Enno, whose world crumbles when she discovers that her beloved eldest son is an SS man whose committed atrocities against Jewish civilians. Emil Borkhausen’s a petty blackmailer and police informant living in the basement of the Quangel’s building with his prostitute wife and brood of feral children, led by the sharp-minded Kuno. Inspector Escherich is assigned to investigate responsibility for the postcards and who quickly finds that his Gestapo superior cares more about the appearance of justice than its attainment. Finally there’s Baldur Persicke, a sociopathic, cunning teenage member of the Hitler Youth and enthusiastic Nazi who will stop at nothing in his desire to rise to the top.
Fallada’s tale (translated by Michael Hoffman) is a complex affair, running different plot points for each of the characters, which intersect at critical points in a way that is both heartbreaking while also being a damning indictment of the Nazi regime. Based on a real act of civil disobedience, the outcome is inevitable but the tension comes from seeing the way in which Nazi ideology has perverted every level of society, leaving everyone self-motivated, venal and yet also constantly afraid. There are no easy answers in this novel and few happy endings, which makes it depressing at times and at times utterly chilling, e.g. when Escherich experiences the same brutality he’s dished out to others and when Baldur goes to visit his alcoholic father in an asylum.
This edition includes an afterword by Geoff Wilkes which gives details on Fallada’s life and a brief summary of the real life events that inspired this novel.
It’s an intricate, complex story that horrifies and moves in equal measure. It’s well worth a few hours of your time.
A stunning and brutal indictment of the Nazi regime, this is a difficult read but well worth the effort.
Cross-posted to books and bookworming.