Thursday, June 2, 2011

Every Man Dies Alone

Every Man Dies Alone
By Hans Fallada

"Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one?"

Every Man Dies Alone is Hans Fallada's extraordinary novel of crippling repression, resistance and the triumph of life in Germany under Nazi rule. It follows the compelling story of Otto and Anna Quangel, an aging couple whose only son has been unceremoniously killed in France early in the war. In response to their grief, they begin to write anti-Nazi postcards and drop them around Berlin. Although this is a work of fiction, this novel is based on the true story of Otto and elise Hampel who committed similar acts of civil disobedience and were executed in Plotzensee Prison. Italian chemist (and holocaust survivor) Primo Levi called Fallada's book: "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis."

Concurrently, the novel follows the antics of several characters inside the Gestapo as try, fail, continue to fail and then ultimately succeed in solving the case. While the story of the Quangels and their circle of everyday Germans is interesting, I found the murderous and petty machinations of the Gestapo far more riveting, especially knowing that these monsters agents will eventually get their culprits and the fear that goes with not knowing exactly what they will do once they get them.

In discussing the Third Reich it is so easy to lose site of the fact that there existed a large population within Germany who actively plotted against the Party from distributing anti-Nazi leaflets to harboring their Jewish friends and neighbors.

Before I get to my more philosophical musings on this subject I should review this book a little. If you are looking for some light summer reading, pass this one by. I was glad that the weather remained gloomy and cold while I read this book, otherwise it would have really brought me down. Every Man Dies Alone is one of the bleakest books I have ever read. Along the lines of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich and George Orwell's 1984, Every Man Dies Alone starts off bleak, remains bleak and ends on a sad note. However, along the way there are glimmers of hope and, like I mentioned before, the triumph of the human spirit.

To say that this book deals with some weighty issues is an understatement. To say that this book, first published in German in 1947 (not translated to English until 2009), has little value upon readers in 2011 is categorically false. I found that this book spoke to me in a way that many other books with similar themes have not. Through its bleak, hopeless tone, Hans Fallada speaks a message through the generations and, if anyone is listening, it could very well save us a repeat performance of these historical shenanigans.

When I started this book, I was caught up in a discussion over Facebook about the usefulness of conspiracy theories and whether or not their vocal and ofttimes obfuscating manner was not perhaps a detriment to a large cause of change and social justice. Whether a horde of people yelling often nonsensical theories perhaps clouded issues that might otherwise gain more tread in this world. I wasn't speaking against freedom of speech (I would never, ever do that), just the jumbling of messages that could be something more fluid, more tangible, more cohesive. Millions of voices screaming billions of theories seemed counter-productive against an establishment with one common, conservative and potentially dangerous voice.

After reading Fallada's novel and delving into the tyrannical fear of Nazi Germany, I think I may have changed my tone on this point. Shouting from the rafters is exactly the sort of thing we should all be doing, and often. Silence is equal to support. If you don't speak out when you have a chance, what will you do when you lose that chance? This is the sort of stuff we as citizens of this world are dealing with every hour of every day.

Got a problem with your leader? Do something about it. Dislike the environmental practices of a local industry? Make it known. Think someone in a position of power is lying to you? Call them on it. Sitting idly by and saying things like: "That's somebody else's problem" is exactly the sort of attitude that allowed for the emergence of the Nazi State in Germany and, given that Adolf Hitler is poised to exit from our collective consciousness in the next generation or so, this sort of rampant, oppressive power is very much ripe for a return. Question everything. We owe it to ourselves.

For Otto and Anna they began their revolution far too late but at least they had the guts to do something. Far better people did far less. They realized an inherent truth about their government at a time when doing even the smallest act against the state meant death not only for them but also for anyone associated with them. In a climate of crushing fear it's a wonder that people had the courage to do even as little as the Quangels. Far more simply kept quiet and hoped and waited for it all to end.

There is so much to gain from reading Every Man Dies Alone. This should be required reading for any student of critical thinking.

Silence can be violence.


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