Alone in Berlin (Every Man Dies Alone) – Hans Fallada

31 October 2011
Chapters 1-9…
…the first half of Part 1, The Quangels. As soon as I started reading I thought, 1984. Whenever any character is outside the four walls of the family home – and, as in Orwell’s novel, sometimes when they’re inside – they have to perform those doublethink manoeuvres Winston Smith is so adept at. And Hitler is regarded in exactly the same way as Big Brother: the best way to get on is to praise him in whatever ways you like – even, in the case of one particularly oleaginous member of Hitler Youth, by seeming to be critical. He has spent all of his sixteen years up to now as Bruno Persicke, but now he’s Baldur, the name of the head of the movement he belongs to. He likes to keep his family on their toes with impromptu quizzes and lectures. He asks them to look at a photograph of Hitler and Goebbels celebrating the fall of France. They are impressed – but he tells them it is a kind of fake, put out by the Party machine to draw the world’s attention away from what their glorious leader really has in his mind: the invasion of Britain. His parents smile weakly, and wonder what trick he’ll play on them next.

I’ve stopped at the end of Chapter 9 because we’ve reached the end of a single day in Berlin in 1940. Chapter 1 is subtitled ‘Some Bad News’, so we know – as if we didn’t already – that this isn’t going to be an easy ride. But, somehow, Fallada makes sure it isn’t all awful. At one point, when the non-Party-member Otto Quangel interrupts a workplace Party meeting to tell them the truth of how things are at the factory where he works, I assumed he’d be summarily beaten up. But no: he loses his ‘official’ place in the (Party-dominated) union but, so far, he seems to have got away with it.

And by the end of Chapter 9 he is the one who is alone. It’s been a terrible day for him, but he has come to a conclusion: he can’t do what he has to do if he is too close to his wife, or to Trudel, the woman who was their son’s fiancée until they received the letter reporting his death that morning. He isn’t an attractive man – nobody in Fallada’s little world is – but he is the only principled man we’ve encountered. Trudel has told him that she, and some others she knows, are as dissatisfied as he is by the tawdry workings of the Party, but in a world where nobody is what they seem, how can he trust her?

So, not 1984 then? Maybe little Otto will be the conscience of a Germany sapped of moral strength by a combination of fear and the promise of rewards if you behave like a coward. Maybe he’ll have more success than Winston Smith?

But I’m jumping the gun, because we’ve met other characters and stuff happens, most of it bad. I’ve mentioned the Persickes, a family in the same apartment block as the Quangels. They seem to be Fallada’s archetypal Party members, with no interest in what Nazi ideology might be, merely a pride that their sons are doing so well and that they will probably all be able to make some money on the side. They are planning something to do with Mrs Rosenthal, the Jewish woman who has been moved into a flat upstairs, after being moved out of a bigger place. She doesn’t know where her husband has been taken, but talk of the concentration camps is commonplace: it’s where you go if anyone can pin a charge of sabotage on you, or anything else. Maybe he’s there. (Ominously, when his plan goes awry, Bruno/Baldur reassures the family that things will soon be easier with regard to the Jews. They will be able to do things they can’t get away with yet….)

Baldur is perfectly ok about enlisting the help of local low-lifes. We’ve met one of them through Otto Quangel, trying to wheedle money out of him, and the other through Eva Kluge the postwoman. She’s the one who brings the Quangels the ominously typewritten letter from the front that first causes them terrible distress and then brings about a kind of distance between them. Her estranged husband is a gambler and womaniser, and also a determined shirker. Fallada spends a whole chapter showing us how shameless he is: he uses a neighbour to trick his way into the apartment and only leaves when Eva, despite her exhaustion, almost physically throws him out.

The attempt by these two to steal from Mrs Rosenthal’s apartment is like a Laurel and Hardy film. And when Baldur arrives with his brothers in the SS to get them arrested – leaving the coast clear for his own family to take the best things – he turns out to be nearly as inept as they are. Quangel has arrived home late from work and is there at the door… and he’s been supported in his action by a former judge who lives in the block. Maybe he’s not entirely on his own – but when he goes downstairs to speak to his wife, he knows what he’s got to do.

5 November
Chapters 10-18…
…to the end of Part 1 – The Quangels. We don’t know what Quangel is planning until Fallada has teased us for chapter after chapter. Over the next few days – Fallada ticks them off in the chapter subtitles – Mrs Quangel is driven almost frantic with worry about what her husband is up to. And meanwhile, because this apartment block is a microcosm of the whole of Germany, we begin to learn how things work in this little world. Most of it isn’t pretty, but there are enough hopeful things to wrong-foot jaundiced 21st Century readers who think it’s all going to be gloomily predictable. It isn’t. And Quangel might be an anti-hero, but that doesn’t stop him being heroic.

But this is Nazi Germany, and if we recognise it from 1984, well, Orwell was writing within a year or two of Fallada and they both knew about totalitarianism. Near the end of this section, when Quangel has finally explained to his wife about his planned gesture of quiet (and anonymous) resistance – the careful writing and distribution of subversive postcards – we get this: ‘anyone with a card in his hand will feel like a criminal. Because in fact everyone thinks the way the writer of the card thinks, but they can’t let it show because it’s a capital crime.’ This might not be identical to Orwell’s concept of doublethink, but we recognise the same private yet all-pervasive atmosphere of self-censorship.

The crudity of Nazi psychology is something that Fallada has insisted on from the start. Baldur Persicke’s first attempt to rob Mrs Rosenthal might have ended in farce, but if we are lulled into thinking that this is going to set the pattern Fallada puts us right as the week goes on. Mrs Rosenthal has been given sanctuary by one of the good guys – tell you later – but returns to her flat in confusion. Soon she’s dead – another cock-up, in fact – but the smooth-talking police inspector not only turns this to his advantage but demonstrates Nazi doubletalk for us at the same time. He is able to make Baldur squirm by using the language of justice and order whilst letting him know that he will be able to loot the flat – within strict limits – shortly after. So that’s it: a life of incessant fear for the majority, a life of routine intimidation interspersed with extravagant treats for the ones in power.

So, what about the good guys? I’ve almost said enough about Otto Quangel. From around Chapter 4 or 5 (I think) he becomes ever more outraged by the simple unfairness of what he sees all around him: people not doing their jobs properly but getting special privileges, people treating neighbours as though they were a lower species when anybody can remember them as perfectly decent and honest. (The Rosenthals are the archetype here.) And, somehow, other people are able to see through his chilly taciturnity to the decent bloke beneath. When he first goes to Trudel’s factory to tell her of her fiancé’s death she knows how outraged he is and tells him something about her membership of a ‘cell’ of activists. Then there’s the man who encourages him to investigate what’s going on in Mrs Rosenthal’s flat, Judge Fromm: he’s the one who offers her sanctuary by hiding her away in his spare room.

But there are problems with both of these. We see that the resistance cell is as problematic in its operational methods as the Nazi Party itself: when the cell leader discovers Trudel has ‘blabbed’ to an outsider, as he puts it in this translation, he is ready to have her executed. She only gets away because another cell member comes to her rescue – and, like Trudel, is summarily thrown out. And whilst Judge Fromm offers sanctuary, there is something clinical about it: solitary confinement in a blacked-out room. Mrs Rosenthal is driven almost mad within a few days, resorts to too many sleeping-pills to help get her through it – and in a hallucinatory state she finds her way back upstairs to her flat. Clearly, what the rather self-absorbed Fromm is offering, however kindly meant, is a dead end. Literally.

So we’re left, for now, with the Quangels’ cards. Otto has told his wife about them, and by the end of Part 1 he has left the first in a stairwell in an office block exactly like thousands of others in the city. He’s only intending to write out one or two per week, because he has to take such pains to inscribe them in anonymous-looking lettering. But it feels like a start – and his wife is with him now. The little misunderstanding at the start of the book – in her anguish she refers to Hitler as ‘your’ Fuhrer – has been sorted out, and she is as determined as Otto to make a stand.

13 November
Chapters 19-25…
… which make up roughly the first half of Part 2, The Gestapo. We see very little of the Quangels as three chapter-subtitles inform us that six months have passed, then another six, and another. What we do find out is that the Gestapo are on the case from the start. Fallada shows us the process when an actor finds the first card. He was once a Nazi darling – a Goebbels darling, to be precise, in a satirical dig at the feudal-style favouritism of the new princelings – but now he’s down on his luck after some careless talk. He’s not careless now, and both he and the lawyer he’s meeting are instantly galvanised by the danger they are in. They can both think of reasons why they might be blamed for the postcard, and Fallada lets us realise that everybody in Berlin would think in exactly the same way: they report the findings to the cops. And by late 1941 the Gestapo inspector on the case has a pin marking every location where the postcards have been found.

Fallada gives us his highly believable version of how things work in the Gestapo. He makes Escherich, the inspector, into the competent kind of cop we’re familiar with from crime fiction. As is so often the case, he’s the only one who knows what he’s doing; underlings and bosses are idiots, and he has to devise ways to keep the people in the higher echelons off his back as he plays it the only way that will work: sit tight and wait for the postcard-writer to make a mistake. He builds up a picture of the probable perpetrator, and it’s pretty accurate – except he can’t imagine such a man working in collaboration with anybody else. He’s convinced the writer is working alone. His boss wants results, but he can stall him for now. Ok.

Enter another player, one we know all about: Enno Kluge. This is the low-life from Part 1, the work-shy womanising husband of Eva the postwoman. He’s in a clinic, waiting to see the doctor for a sick-note when a postcard appears. The receptionist has taken against him and swears that only he was near enough to have dropped it, a story she embroiders for the police’s benefit, and he’s arrested. Escherich knows he has nothing to do with it, but we see his good-cop performance at work. He’s always friendly, always doing favours for the little crook… it’s another mind-game. He decides to have Enno followed and does a bit of his own embroidering for the boss’s benefit. In a near-comic scene the local Gestapo chief, spending the afternoon with bottles of looted champagne, plays a drunken power-game with Escherich. He wants him to promise that this will lead to a quick closure of the case results, but the inspector manages to stall him for now….

It’s becoming clear that absolutely everybody in Berlin plays mind-games of one sort or another. Even the Qhangels’ postcards are designed to work on people’s deepest and most hidden thoughts…. Unfortunately, Otto Quangel is a beginner, and doesn’t realise how terrified people are. But Enno is no beginner, and we get a lesson in how he wheedles his way into women’s affections. The woman he’d latched on to at the end of Part 1 is Hetty Haberle, widow and owner of a small pet-shop, and he needs a safe haven now. He tells her a story which any Berliner would find plausible, of how his wife, a Party member, has set the Gestapo on to her husband who hasn’t joined on principle. He’s previously given Hetty a false name, and he has to use the full range of his techniques – weeping, making moves to leave, persuading her to throw him out while before she gets into trouble – to get her to take him in permanently. He knows what he’s doing, and she’s taken in.

Chapter 25 ends ominously: ‘Hetty has no idea that she has put herself… into terrible danger.’ And the next chapter is subtitled Fear and Terror. Oh dear.

19 November
Chapters 26-32…
…to the end of Part 2. Fallada carries on ignoring the Quangels – his habit of leaving characters to simmer in the background inevitably reminds a traditionalist like me of Dickens – and keeps the focus on Enno, Hetty and Inspector Escherich. Now he needs a low-life character to move things on, and he already has one, of course: Borkhausen, Enno’s partner in the shambolic attempt to burgle Mrs Rosenthal’s flat. And all this section of Part 2 is sleazy.

The fear and terror of Chapter 26 aren’t to do with the Gestapo, but with Hetty’s emotions as she comes to realise what kind of man she’s been trying to make a new life with. He robs her, puts the money on a horse – it’s only luck that makes it a winner – and she decides to chuck him out. There’s a mildly repellent scene in which he pleads outside the locked bedroom door for her not to do it, but she’s as strong as he is pathetic. Then, before leaving them for a while, Fallada lets us know that she isn’t the one who is going to decide what happens next, but other people. ‘Escherich, for example, and… Borkhausen.’ Uh-oh.

The inspector is getting a huge amount of grief from above, and he is given one of those pointless ultimatums these idiots go in for in Fallada’s highly plausible version of Nazism. He has a week to make an arrest, and the only person in the frame, Escherich knows, is innocent. Tough. Needs must, so Enno it has to be, if he can find him – and the person he happens to know who might be able to do it is Borkhausen. Because this is the other big thing about not only Fallada’s version of Nazism, but the one that’s come down to us from history: it relies on criminals to the extent that you can’t tell where official policy ends and criminality begins. He offers this lowlife 500 marks if he can do it. If he can’t, Escherich has enough on him to get him shipped out to a concentration camp. And he wouldn’t want that, would he?

No he wouldn’t. He gets lucky, tracks Enno down to Hetty’s place – and we get the pathetic scene outside the bedroom door from his point of view as he peeps through the window. What Borkhausen decides to do next is take Hetty to one side and blackmail her. She realises instantly that if she pays he’ll report back to the Gestapo anyway – because, Fallada implies, even honest and hard-working people like her have learned enough under the Nazis not to trust anybody. She agrees to the 2,000 marks he asks for, but only under conditions that will give her time to spirit Enno away.

And so on. The Bork tries to double-cross her, obviously, fails, is humiliated both by the boy who might or might not be his son – how the hell should he know? – and ends up with nothing. He tries to mess Escherich about, but he’s flustered and to lets slip which apartment block Enno has moved to… so no money from him, either. Maybe there is justice…

…and maybe not. So far, Escherich has only been focusing on getting his man, but thoughts that he’s been pushing to the back of his mind come crowding in on him now: it’s clear that Enno is innocent, and that the Gestapo torturers will discover that in no time. So who’ll be for the chop then? Another thought pushes itself into his consciousness, and he tries to suppress it. He might have to do something – who knows what? – that might cause him a pang of conscience. Whatever it is, it will involve the lightweight, easy to conceal pistol he takes with him.

And that’s how Enno’s story ends. The inspector finds the safe-house within the apartment block, promises the woman who runs it that she’ll be hearing from the Gestapo very soon, and takes Enno away. Almost aimlessly he finds a spot where he’s going to, er… offer Enno a choice. It isn’t really a choice of course, because coming with him to the station will lead to indescribable pain and suffering that he’s quite happy to attempt to describe in some detail. So it’s goodbye Enno, in the river he somehow dreaded more than the bullet – and, at the same time, goodbye any hope of redemption for the copper who threw in his lot with the Nazis. He has a conscience, but in this world… where does that get you?

14 January 2012
Part 3
Early on – it’s a long time ago now – I began to compare Fallada’s Berlin to Dickens’ London. Well, sort of, because there are still several strands going. The only important ones in this section are the Quangels and Inspector Escherich, but a chapter early early in Part 3, following other characters, sets the scene. The leader of the resistance cell we first came across in Part 1 is obviously lying to Trudel’s new husband about the contents of a suitcase he wants him to look after. To spare her feelings, the husband lies to Trudel about it, and she lies to him about something else…. Welcome to life in Berlin, where you’re a fool to trust anybody.

Anyway. Fallada likes to pre-empt the dramatic tension with subtitles like the one for Part 3 – Things begin to go against the Quangels – and the one for the final chapter in this section, ‘The death of Escherich’. So it goes. In fact, things start to go badly for the inspector before they do for the Quangels. The Gestapo hierarchy – and not just his boss, the unspeakable Obergruppenfuehrer Prall – are expecting results fast. Escherich, who has always liked to just get on with his job as though he isn’t working for a criminal regime – file that thought away for later – doesn’t jump to it when they demand it of him. At a crunch meeting at which they are expecting something new, he simply repeats what he’s already said about waiting for their man – now universally known as The Hobgoblin – to make a mistake. If they want a different approach, why not bring in Inspector Zott? Oh dear. Later the same day he’s in the building’s notorious basement with fewer teeth and a striped prison uniform: his dereliction of duty, according to the hierarchy, is tantamount to desertion. Ok.

Meanwhile Fallada does his best to keep the Quangels’ story interesting. It jogs along, with Fallada preparing us for what’s to come with conversations between Otto and his wife: he wants to talk about what they should do if they are caught, wants to get Anna used to the idea of imprisonment and even death. (Of course, the reader knows more about what these things are like in Nazi Germany than the Quangels do. Gulp.) Sure enough, in the second part of this section they begin to make mistakes. First, Quangel is caught red-handed by a snoop in a building near where their in-laws live, and they are arrested. They only get away with it because the police station supervisor doesn’t like their accuser, and because Inspector Zott, when contacted at Gestapo headquarters, rules Quangel out: he doesn’t fit the profile he’s erroneously created for the perpetrator who, he thinks, is single and works on the trams.

Later, when confronted with his mistakes – there’s been a cluster of reported findings of the cards in this area, and Zott hadn’t noticed – he admits his incompetence so blandly that Prall is wrong-footed. He doesn’t boot him down to the basement – but he does reinstate Escherich, in one of those random-seeming moves the organisation is prone to. Nobody says it – is there a name for rule by bullies? – but everybody realises he’s probably the best man for the job.

Time for more mistakes. Quangel puts two cards, which he never intended to take to work, into his split leather satchel and they fall to the floor at his workplace. Nobody sees them fall, but Escherich pieces it together when he eventually discovers Quangel’s address. (There’s some plot business to prolong the time it takes: Quangel’s name isn’t on the list because he isn’t on his normal shift… which is also why he has the cards with him.) And the novel becomes a police procedural for most of the rest of Part 3. We see the competent cop working around his incompetent superiors, as in Part 2. Fallada even refers to how he is able to play the ‘soft cop’, playing both Quangels off against Prall’s heavy-handed thuggishness. Anna is too ill to follow what’s really happening, but in the flat they find proof – Fallada isn’t making it hard for Escherich – as an unfinished card the Quangels had forgotten about falls from inside a book.

It’s what happens after the arrest that’s interesting. Quangel plays dumb, but Escherich can tell he’s a lot cleverer than he pretends. And, by being patient and seeming interested – Fallada has shown us this before, with Enno, all those chapters back – he gets Quangel to drop the pretence. It’s in an interrogation during which the Inspector shows him the map, confronts him with the sad fact that almost all the cards have been handed in by people who never even finished reading them. Quangel knows this last detail is true: he’s seen the fear on the face of the man who picked up the cards at his factory that day – and Fallada doesn’t need to dwell on the disappointment of the man who has been risking his life for two years. It’s a quietly devastating moment: we’ve been in on the dogged determination of this man’s doomed mission since the beginning. All his cards have brought is fear.

It’s Escherich’s reaction that is interesting. Reader, the postcards work for him. As he berates Quangel for the misery he has brought, he can’t help sympathising with the plight of the people reading them who immediately fear for their lives. And when Quangel confronts him with the fact that he is working for a regime that engenders such fear, he can’t deny it. Twice, he lowers his eyes under Quangel’s gaze because he knows he’s right. And when he is forced to join in his thuggish boss’s victory celebration – which involves smashing brandy glasses down on Quangel’s head in the cell – he confronts his own demons. He looks for his pistol, fires – and it’s Quangel who is forced to clean up the mess in the office. The arrest and its aftermath has turned out to be the best episode in the novel so far.

Other strands, briefly. We meet Borkhausen again, through one of Zott’s pointless house-searches. It’s the Persickes’ flat, with nobody in it now but old man Persicke rattling around and drinking himself half to death. He pays for his habit with money he’s embezzled from work, so he has something to hide from Zott’s spy, posing as a Party agent. This is Klebs, a low-life who is no better than a rat in Fallada’s descriptions (as often as not, he is ‘it’), and he sees he could easily rob this alcoholic…. But the Bork, posing as the apartment supervisor, meets him with two full suitcases, decides they can share the loot – and they’re both caught. Fallada is reminding us that this is the tawdry fabric of life under Nazism: there is a criminal justice system, but it’s as arbitrary as everything else. Klebs was there on Gestapo business….

There’s a chapter called ‘Interlude: an Idyll in the Country’, in which Nazi Berlin becomes a distant memory for a time. Enno’s widow, Eva the former postwoman, is a farm-hand now, and all her old Party worries are behind her. Fallada back-tracks briefly to some nasty recriminations she had to endure along the way, but in this little village she has met a white-haired teacher who seems the image of decency. One morning a 14-year-old runaway from Berlin arrives to pinch her breakfast. She feels sorry for this kid, not as streetwise as he thinks, doesn’t piece together – as Fallada makes clear to the reader – that he is the Bork’s son. He hates his parents anyway, and she takes him on as a project. Is there hope after all?

Maybe, maybe not. This happens before the ‘fateful Monday’ when the Quangels are arrested. On the same day the Bork and Klebs are sentenced – a hopeful sign, surely? – but Trudel, many months pregnant, miscarries. Fallada really can be like Dickens when he tries. Sort of.

22 January
Part 4 – The End
…which is exactly what we get, right? Misery and death? Well, yes and no. There’s plenty of misery, and the Quangels do end up dead, but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. Honest.

However… the Quangels aren’t the only ones to die, because Fallada picks up another thread first. Remember Trudel and her husband? There are only the most filament-like connections between them and the Quangels, but we are given a lesson in exactly how these are enough to condemn them. As the older couple are interrogated, separately, we see how easy it is for the Gestapo to make something out of very little: the mere mention of Trudel’s name is enough to get the unspeakable Inspector Laub excited and soon, when they arrive at their flat, there are men waiting inside. The fractured skull that Trudel’s husband receives from them is enough to kill him many chapters later. As for Trudel, her admission of having seen Quangel fairly recently leads to further admissions: she delivered one postcard for him, her husband was looking after a suitcase for a friend… and so on. By the time she’s been treated abominably for weeks and, to cap it all, hears about her husband’s death, she’s had enough. On her way back from the morgue she manages to climb over the railings and falls five floors to her own death. So it goes, in this universe, as we’ve understood for some time now.

But that’s a sub-plot, and most of this section is about the Quangels. What Fallada decides to do, given the inevitability of what is going to happen to them, is let us inside their heads to give us as plausible a picture as he can of what such an experience must be like. I’ve mentioned Laub and his way of spinning tiny slips of the tongue into cast-iron evidence. His technique – beatings, twelve-hour interrogation sessions, sleep deprivation – works better on Anna than on Otto. There is absolutely nothing he can do to keep anything secret from him, as Otto quickly realises. He almost wrong-foots Laub by admitting everything early on.

Laub, along with Obergruppenfuehrer Prall in Part 3 and the unspeakable Judge Freisler who presides over the trial near the end of the novel – he was a real-life judge under the Nazis – is one of Fallada’s irredeemables. But Fallada has been feeding us tiny morsels all along that not everyone is like this, that the Nazis most definitely don’t govern by consensus. So Part 4 also contains the prison chaplain who puts his own safety at risk by doing what he can to make the prisoners’ lives more bearable. And there’s the prison guard who allows Trudel to spend time with the body of her husband, the doctor who shows real sympathy to Otto just before his execution and, in the neatest move of all, there’s Judge Fromm from their old apartment block who risks his own life for them.

I’ve been thinking about Judge Fromm. His attempt to help Frau Rosenthal in Part 1 comes to nothing. And his attempt to save the Quangels unnecessary suffering at the end – he pulls every string he possibly can to be able to slip cyanide capsules to them both – also comes to nothing: neither of them uses it in the end. So he’s a useless, interfering old fool, yes? Not at all. Fallada has managed to have Otto and other characters engage in a kind of debate: although his own postcard protest has come to nothing, and although he will die for it, he has proved that human decency can exist. Escherich understands this at the end of Part 3, and in Part 4 Quangel has the opportunity, several times, to make his captors think about the moral worth of what they are doing. Often there is no effect, obviously, but sometimes there is. There’s a rather shame-faced guard, and there’s the defence lawyer (who actually does no defending at all) seeming very uncomfortable when faced with home truths about the principles of what he is doing.

And there’s the maestro who becomes Otto’s cellmate in the remand prison, another man who has nothing tangible to offer him beyond a share of his upmarket food. Except – and it’s the exceptions that count – he reveals to this dried-out, clapped-out old stick that there is something life-affirming in music, there is a point in the personal challenges that can be found in games of chess. This man’s only role in the novel is to point out, to Otto and to the reader, that humanity goes a long way beyond the merely practical help we might offer. Herr Doktor Humanity-in-the-face-of-intolerable-oppression – not the name Fallada gives him – is a figure from a morality tale.

Is it all a morality tale? Yes, sort of. Live right, behave decently – decency, or whatever that is in German, is the only real beacon of hope in this section – and it might be worthwhile for the human race to carry on. Through all the brutality, through the bureaucratic pettiness of Nazi procedure, through the trial whose only function is to humiliate the defendants… redemption is always a possibility. So the dour inevitability of this sad little story doesn’t stop it being hopeful.

Of course, there’s the matter of the Quangels’ execution to get through, and Fallada spares us nothing. Otto gets through the many weeks before it by following routines he’s learned from the musician – and the cyanide capsule makes him feel empowered. Anna is different. She worries, makes a fuss – does everything wrong. When Fromm gives her a capsule to lodge in her cheek, it becomes the source of more worry… until she decides to destroy it. It’s something else that Fromm has done for her that carries her through: he has held out the hope that she will see Otto before she dies. Good old Fromm. She becomes almost serene, a model prisoner – and dies before the authorities get round to executing her. Otto isn’t so fortunate, but he is just as serene. He never doubts the value of what he has done for a moment, and faces his executioners with every shred of his humanity intact. Maybe this isn’t only a morality tale, but a Christian morality tale. There is no defeat in death.

Fallada makes it absolutely clear in the final chapter, set after the war has ended. We’re back with the boy who might or might not be Borkhausen’s son, and he’s doing all right. Neither he nor Fallada knows that this farmland will become a collective in East Germany soon, so we can rejoice in the new possibilities it opens up. And when, to tie up one tiny little thread, Fallada has the Bork arrive to pester him on his way to market, the boy demonstrates a bit of muscular Christianity. He owes this man nothing, would only bring misery on himself and his new parents if he invited him home – so he threatens him with the whip and with the police. Borkhausen is old-school, and they are living in a new world of decency and hard work now.

If only.

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