Originally published in 1947, Every Man Dies Alone by the German author Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Ditzen) was translated into English and published anew in 2009. Over five hundred pages, he wrote the novel in less than a month despite psychiatric troubles. Fallada based his work on the true story of a German couple who engaged in an act of civil disobedience during World War II by writing compromising messages that condemned the war and its consequences, as well as Hitler and his regime.
After the death of their son in the war, Otto and Anna Quangel are forever changed. A primal force awakens within them and they are catapulted down a frightening and exhilarating path of rebellion. Though initially at odds with one another–dealing with grief each in their own way–they unite to protest a regime, which has condemned so many to suffer needlessly. Yet, what can two ordinary Germans do while living in the midst of Nazi Germany?
They write postcards with simple slogans and secretly place them around the city hoping that they will inspire some other ordinary citizens. Theirs is not a grand movement. Yet, their minuscule subversion becomes such a nuisance and an embarrassment that it has an irrevocable effect on the inspector who must solve the case or else, as well as the those who are unfortunate enough to find the cards, or be found near them.
Sadly, the question at the heart of this story is what precisely do the Quangels believe others will do once they’ve read these postcards? March against Hitler? Their mission fails to look that far ahead. They are acting on principle fueled by emotion and, while principle can be noble, it can also be dangerous. Fallada simultaneously paints a sympathetic portrait of two heartbroken people you can root for, while showing us that the best of intentions can lead to the worst of outcomes.
This is not the kind of story you read knowing that the heroes will win victoriously. Their fate is set in motion by the first swipe of the pen and even though their weapon may be “mightier than the sword,” it is not enough to stave off the Nazis forever. They live in a world full of predators desperate to make a fast buck, gain power, or just survive. Danger awaits them at every turn and it will find them, but you read on hoping they will outwit, or at least outlast, their enemies. At the end of the day, the Quangels may not change their world, but they themselves change and are not defeated because they took a stand, however small.
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