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The power of words…

May 25th, 2010 by Peter

The Observer | Books | Hans Fallada’s anti-Nazi classic becomes surprise UK bestseller

There is an interesting article on the Guardian website from Sunday’s observer about the high sales of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. It’s great to see a classic book like this selling so well but what makes it an important work is not sales figures, it’s not it’s recent translation into English after sixty years of relative unknownness in the English world, it’s the fact that this book packs such power.

Hans Fallada did not have the benefit of hindsight, of dozens of history books to pore over and find out exactly what went on in the third Reich; Hans Fallada lived through it first hand. The books power is in the fact that it proves the truth of history, it makes it so real and immediate. This is harder than it may sound – the historical novelist has the advantage of looking back from a safe distance and knowing how history has settled upon things, being able to research many different views and look at facts that were obscured at the time. The writer who tackles the events of their day does not have that luxury, they must right what they know and what they saw and what they felt. This book forms a testimony to the evil of the Reich, it stands as damning evidence in support of later historical assessments.

It would be a liar who said this book was pretty; it would be a liar who said Nazi Germany was pretty. But what this book represented for me was something else – it was human dignity in appalling circumstances. The story is of Otto and Anna Quangel who respond to the death of their son at war by writing propaganda postcards and distributing them around Berlin. It is their act of rebellion against the state. This small act envelopes many other characters as the book explores the nature of the security state; we see people showing both dignity and humanity and also those who choose the other path and behave in an evil way. The book raises the question of whether this act of defiance achieved anything in real terms but beyond that it raises the question of whether it’s a duty as a human being to defy evil even when your act of defiance is not changing things. This brought to mind a quote by Major-General Henning von Tresckow, one of the plotters in the von Stauffenberg coup attempt:

“What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.”

We remember von Stauffenberg, von Tresckow, Martin Niemoller, etc, because they in one way or another had the courage and conviction to stand up to evil. Alone in Berlin shows us that evil but in those characters who are willing to stand up to it it shows the redemptive power of those who refuse to lie down and accept evil but will stand up and be counted whatever the cost.  The Quangels, in this book, take a small step and resist in the only way they know how. The book is a well paced and very well written. It’s well written, it’s horrifying, it’s inspiring; I’m glad to see that it is also popular.

7 Responses to “The power of words…”

  1. yarb says:

    I’ve had it on my shelf for over a year now! I’ll get around to it one day. Have you read any of Fallada’s other novels?

  2. Peter says:

    It’s well worth a read. I haven’t read any of his others, no, I must admit I’d not heard of him at all until this came out. Have you read any of the others?

    The brief biography of his own life in the paperback edition of this book made for interesting, if tragic, reading too.

  3. Katja says:

    Sounds really interesting, Pete. Heaven only knows when I’d ever get round to reading it, though – my brain is generally so fried by the end of the day that all I can cope with is chick lit, and sometimes not even that! Maybe I’ll save it up for August, when I’m not teaching.

  4. Peter says:

    A summer of books sounds like a grand idea. As you’re a linguist I expect you’ll be reading it in the original German though, correct?

  5. Katja says:

    Er – yeh, Yes, that’s right.


  6. yarb says:

    Yeah, I’ve read “The Drinker”, which is a terrifying close-up study of alcoholic damnation, and “Little Man, What Now?”, a gentle unassuming novel about a young couple trying to get along in 1930’s Germany against the backdrop of nazism and hyperinflation, with German nudists for comic relief. Both strongly recommended.

  7. Peter says:

    Thanks, I must pick them up or knowing Waterstone’s probably have to order them online. I was looking at Wolf among Wolves too which sounds like it might be worth reading.

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