Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Alone in Berlin: a story of resistance


In the days in which we are living, stories about resistance are much needed.  To that end, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada proves a valuable resource.  Inspired by a true story, Alone in Berlin was first published in 1947 as part of a denazification cultural rehabilitation in East Germany, remained unpublished in English until 2009. After TV versions in both East and  Germany in the '70's, it became a major film in 2017 bringing attention back to the story again. 

Based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, alone tells of how an ordinary German working class couple, the Quangels, comes to the point of initiating their own resistance following the death of their son at the front. (And the suicide of a viciously bullied neighbor.) The Quangels begin writing anti-Hitler postcards and dropping them around the city.

There are several striking things bout the book.  First Fallada (born Rudolph Wilhelm Adolph Ditzen) presents a striking picture of what life was like in Nazi Germany through the eyes of common people. In an understated, matter of fact tone, we get a feel  for what day to day was like.  Through the interconnected relationships of families and neighbors, it is helpful to be reminded that in most times, most people spend most of their  energy just trying to get by. Whoever happens to be fuhrer or (President) is simply what has to be be dealt with. For most, true ideological analysis and commitment is a luxury.  It also makes clear that in these kind of regimes, self serving behavior becomes common  and corruption permeates everything. Paranoid perspective on the part of governments allows people to use the security apparatus for self advancement and the settling  of personal scores.  These kind of systems  attract people of like character.

Step by step the tension tightens until finally the Quangels are taken in and begin the journey through the Gestapo and "Peoples' Court" to their inevitable execution. At one point, Otto Quangel discovers  that most of his postcards were almost immediately turned into the police.  Very few seen multiple times or perhaps even read. 

When questioned by  his interrogator he responded, " You see it doesn't matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight whether he has others on his side or 
not...." Later, when he questions what good did our resistance do?, his cell mate, a symphony conductor, responds, "Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. And much more it will have  helped people everywhere..nothing in this world happens in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end." These words help Otto preserve is dignity an decency to the end. At one point, the gestapo interrogator  realizes that Quangel is the better man and sees his own moral emptiness.        

In these times, it's important  to remember that  "effectiveness" and "visible results" are not always helpful criteria. In his afterward, Geoff Wilkes that we defeat the regime in both ideal and metaphysical terms by preserving our own moral integrity both as individuals and as representatives of what a  better society could be.  As opposed to Hannah Arendt's comments on Eichmann and the banality of evil, Wilkes says that Fallada "comprehends and honours the banality of good."

So in thee days, we should figure out our personal version of the Quangel (Hampel)'s postcards. And maintain our own decency, no matter what.                                         

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