I would say the main difference between TV and literature is that in TV the good guys usually win, but in novels, they almost never do. If they were to film a story like Every Man Dies Alone (not this book specifically, because it’s ending is too well-known, but one like it, about German resistance to the Nazis), there’d be some kind of success. They would never produce a TV show about resistance that was so wholly ineffectual.
And yet if you were to look at the history of opposition to totalitarian regimes, you’d find that most resistance was extremely ineffectual. The Nazis lost due to external factors, but I remember being struck by the long history of Soviet dissidence—millions of people who died, were exiled, or imprisoned or suffered other calamities, and all essentially for nothing. Its not clear that their efforts shortened the regime by so much as a single day.
The same can be said of the history of the Civil Rights movement between Reconstruction and the 1950s. Decades of protest that saw an erosion of civil rights, a resurrected KKK, a resurgence in lynching, the defeat of dozens of civil rights bills. Pretty depressing!
But people struggle on, what else is there to do? In Every Man Dies Alone a working-class couple are radicalized against the Nazi regime by the death of their son, and they start distributing subversive postcards. Almost all are immediately picked up and given to the police. The police detectives follow the case almost lackadaisically until after two years the evidence has accumulated and the couple are picked up and killed, along with several members of their family who were totally unconnected to the plot.
The novel was written in 24 days by Hans Fallada, a German writer relatively well-known in his day who, unlike most other well-known German writers, did not go into exile at the beginning of the Nazi regime. He stayed behind, struggling to write books that met the censorship requirements, and, in one case, adding a chapter to the end of a book where the character’s son converts to and extols National Socialism. He wasn’t a Celine or an Ezra Pound, but he certainly doesn’t have the purity of purpose and mind that one wants from one’s protest novelists.
And yet, because he stayed behind, he’s able to give a level of detail and about day-to-day life in Nazi Germany that’s quite rare amongst major German novelists. There is a reason you’ve probably read so many more descriptions of Weimar-era Germany than of life in Nazi Germany: it’s because the writers decamped! They weren’t around to write about it!
What’s striking in Every Man Dies Alone is the breakdown of civil society. The worst are elevated into positions of power. Fear rules all. There are no laws, where the party is concerned, and brutality and knavery rules the day. This isn’t the Nazi Germany of fearsome jack-booted stormtroopers who terrify the masses by marching in unison. It’s the Nazi Germany of petty informers and of sixteen year old kids in Hitler Youth uniforms who frighten their own parents; it’s the Nazi Germany of shirkers desperately trying to avoid military service; of factories that are mismanaged because party members are being elevated into the good jobs; of police departments that still try to catch and prosecute crimes even though there is no law, and where everyone knows that fearsome brutality lies just below the surface, but isn’t quite able to believe it can happen to them.
It’s a novel that makes you realize how much our media, in some ways, glamorizes Nazi Germany. It’s because our images of the era are, to a large part, drawn from images perpetuated by the Nazis themselves. Images of strength and power, soaring buildings, fast cars, sleek, beautiful men in immaculate uniforms, and of cunning, cultivated monsters who are as terrible as they are self-aware.
You won’t find any of that in this book, and that’s what makes it good. Along with its effort, perhaps a failure, to justify the sort of resistance undertaken by its heroes.
I don’t normally reread books. I remember when I first read this book, some eight years ago, I read it as a thriller and was captivated by the plot. It kept me turning pages, and I just wanted to see what would happen next.
On this reading, I could see some of the problems with the pacing. There is a lot of repetition. The last act of the book, where they are imprisoned and tried, is absurdly long. The middle half is stuffed with side-stories about little characters encountered along the way, most of whom ultimately don’t matter much. It’s all a response to the colorlessness of the couple at the center of the book. They’re heroic, but they’re also stoic and laconic. They don’t do a whole lot that’s worth reading or seeing about, so the author is forced to figure out a way to give the book a middle. Fallada famously wrote the book in 24 days, based on information he got from the police dossier of the couple who inspired the story, and he died before he could revise it, so what you see is what you get. Nonetheless, it’s very worth reading, as is his first major novel, Little Man, What Now? which is about a couple trying to survive in Depression-era Weimar—it’s a sort of German Grapes of Wrath. I’ve never read any of his other books, but I do someday intend to.