Monday, June 29, 2009

Knot and wave

There seems to be no end to the flow of books about the
Second World War and Nazi Germany in particular. Nor
should there be. We’ll be unpicking that knot for a long
time to come yet. Even previously unknown works
written around that time are still coming to light, to an
English-speaking readership anyway.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is a compulsively
readable novel—I know, I've just read the final 350 pages
of it in one go—by someone who was clearly a compulsive
writer. Clearly a writer, actually. ‘From the minute I sit
down and write the first line,' I have seen him quoted as
saying, ‘I am lost, a compelling force is in command.
That force dictates just how and how much I must write,
whether I want to or not, even if it makes me ill.’

The extraordinary history of this 500-page book is that
Fallada wrote it in 24 days in 1946 and died the following
year before it was published in his native Germany.
Extraordinary, because it has taken till now for an English
translation—a wonderful one, by Michael Hofmann—to
appear. Based on a true story, as they say, it’s about a
humble working-class couple in Berlin during the war who
decide to make their own personal protest against Hitler
by dropping inflammatory postcards ('German people
wake up!') in public places where passers-by will see them
and, hopefully, pick them up.

Without preaching, moralizing or trying to ram home a
‘message’ Fallada paints an unforgettable picture of the
corruption of German society under the Nazis, and how
very difficult it was to do anything out of line with state
orthodoxy, so suffocatingly insidious was the network of
informers and party bootlickers, and so terrible were the
consequences of deviation, however minor. As some Nazi
functionary remarks in the book, thinking was not
required of the German people—Hitler would do that for

There are many books, of course, that find the ordinary
German people in the 1930s and 40s totally complicit in
what Hitler and the Nazis did. I don't know. I do know
that few of us would have the courage to stand up for our
beliefs if oppressed by real state terror—the kind that
would drag you from your bed in the middle of the night
and take you away, never to be seen again. The Germans
themselves haven't stopped contemplating the possibility
of its recurring. Check out a new German film, The Wave.

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