Message from the Edge

Daily Life in the Third Reich

Hans Fallada, in Every Man Dies Alone, takes us into the moment-to-moment reality of life in Berlin, 1942, when Hitler is claiming victory in France, but bombs are starting to fall in the city.  This is not a book about the response to Nazi fascism of communism, socialism or liberal democracy–yet it tells the reader more about resistance than any book of history.  It is not about the Holocaust, though the odor of the Final  Solution adds to the general stink.

A working-class couple loses their son, conscripted into Hitler’s army, then killed in action.  His mother, in her grief, says to this father that “you and your Fuhrer have killed my son.”  The father, a skilled woodworker now supervising the manufacture of coffins from the cheapest materials, and an uneducated man of few words, is hurt.  Man and wife cannot even talk to each other for days.  There is no proper mourning of the son–no body, no ritual, no time off.  The war, the food shortages, and above all, the dictatorship, have taken over all aspects of civil society, at least in these apartment blocs that house the regular folk.

The man decides on a simple act.  Gloved, he blocks out on a plain postcard the words “The Fuhrer is Killing Your Sons,” and drops the card onto the floor of an ordinary office building.  He and his wife reconcile, and the couple undertakes the effort of more cards, more elaborate messages, more drops.  The frightened people who find the postcards call the police; the Gestapo starts a map with pins.  Every Man Dies Alone becomes the story of all the details, consequences, effects and outcomes of this simple campaign of rudimentary resistance.

The reader witnesses the intimate lives of the couple, their neighbors, Party members and the Gestapo.  We understand the many who succumb to the degradation of greed, boot-licking, pleading for their lives.  Witnesses to the Nazi hierarchy, we identify with their abused lackeys as well.  And, of course, near the end we enter the prisons, interrogation cells, torture chambers and death row.  Most of all, detail after tiny detail, we come to appreciate what constitutes human decency in these circumstances.  The maintaining of shreds of dignity becomes heroic.

After the war Hans Fallada relapsed into alcoholism and drug addiction, and died of a morphine overdose in 1947.  With this book he has explored the regime from within and left us his own elaborate postcard, which covers a  terrain we are lucky not to have had to explore by ourselves.   What a generous gift he has offered us from the ruins of his life!

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