A Reading Life

Nazi horrors and the power of art

By Katherine A. Powers
June 27, 2010

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In the last few years two bodies of fiction have been revived from the horror house of Europe of the 1930s and ’40s: that of the Jewish Frenchwoman Irène Némirovsky and of the German Hans Fallada. Némirovsky’s fiction is better known at the moment, its recovery having been more remarkable. (“Suite Française,” the novel that brought its author to the attention of 21st-century readers, had lain unnoticed in a notebook for 50 years after Némirovsky’s death in 1942 at the age of 39 in Auschwitz.)

Neither writer has the impeccable personal history required by our age to confer benediction on people who lived and died in those terrible decades. I will not speak to the case of Némirovsky, but I am sure Fallada’s compromises and adjustments to the Nazi regime and, later, to the East German Communist one, account for his disappearance from print on these shores. His having been an alcoholic, drug addict, and embezzler who killed his best friend in a duel, tried to murder his wife, attempted suicide, and spent time in prisons and insane asylums was, it seems, not enough to sustain literary fame.

Born Rudolf Ditzen, Fallada gained international renown with his 1932 novel “Little Man, What Now?” It was translated into many languages, including English in 1933, and again, in 1996, in the present translation by Susan Bennett (Melville House, paperback, $16.95). It is the quintessential Depression story, that of a young German couple beset by unemployment and inflation, moving from place to place, repeatedly coming up against petty tyrannies, sundry shakedowns, and the huge, implacable reality of an economy and society in shambles. It has some wonderfully comic scenes, some sad ones, a happy ending of sorts, and, for me, an unfortunate element of gemütlich sentimentality.

Fallada’s “Wolf Among Wolves” is a far more accomplished novel of Germany’s interwar years. Published in 1937, it is now available for the first time in an unabridged English version (translated by Phillip Owens, Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs; Melville House, paperback, $18.95). It is set in the second half of 1923, a period during which, as recorded by the novel in a grotesque, recurring thread, the German mark went from 414 thousand to 4,200 billion marks to the dollar. It begins in Berlin, a scene of hectic abandon, desperateness, and depravity. Young Lieutenant Wolfgang Pagel thinks he can make a living, even a fortune by gambling and provide for himself and his pregnant girlfriend. He can’t. Through chance and mischance he ends up spending four months on a disintegrating estate in the country owned by a grasping, mischief-making landowner. The man has leased part of the farming land to his son-in-law, no prime specimen of manhood himself, in an agreement that “comes pretty close to the Treaty of Versailles.”

Indeed, the estate could be considered a metaphor for Germany — complete with a failed putsch. Inflation has demoralized everyone and dissolved social bonds; virtue has no reward; the future is scarcely conceivable. But the novel is the farthest thing from abstract; it has a suspenseful, involved plot, far too complicated even to begin to summarize. It held me in its thrall for 800 pages and abounds in interconnected characters — emanations in their own ways of a deliquescing society. Fallada’s sardonic sense of humor is also at work, and I would call this the ideal summer read.

Fallada’s masterpiece, in his own opinion and mine — to the extent that I can form one based on reading only what exists in English — is “Every Man Dies Alone.” Called by Primo Levi, “the greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis,” it was published shortly after the author’s death in 1947 at 53 after a morphine overdose. Finally translated into English last year by the poet and gifted translator Michael Hofmann, it is now available in paperback (Melville House, $16.95). Based on the deeds of an actual German couple, it is the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, whose soldier son has been killed in the early days of Hitler’s war. Otto is a foreman in a factory that once made furniture; then crates for bombs; and, finally and fittingly, coffins: tens of thousands of them, their destination unknown. The grieving father thinks it’s unlikely that they are meant for the front, “because what did they care about dead soldiers! A dead soldier was no more to them than a dead field vole.”

Otto begins to leave postcards with subversive messages on them in public places, and what begins as a series of small acts, the dropping of one or two postcards a week, expands to touch the lives of an extraordinary number of people of every description and position on a spectrum of shame. Far from stimulating resistance to the regime the postcards inspire terror in those who chance upon them, people who immediately turn them over to the authorities. The very smallness of these acts of defiance underscores the monstrousness of the regime against which they’re directed — for nothing is too small to be a capital offense. But it is also their very smallness that makes them so outrageous. They baffle and enrage both the Berlin police and the SS, arousing a morbid fascination that something so clearly the work of one little man cannot be stopped.

The war and life in Hitler’s Germany pretty much burned Fallada’s tendency toward sentimentality out of this work. There can be few happy endings under a regime where, as the novel shows repeatedly, the only freedom is death. Still, within the starkness of this predicament, the world depicted has a Dickensian scope. It teems with individual characters to whom we return again and again as they are touched by Otto’s campaign. Some are sympathetically drawn, many more are not, especially the petty operators and bullies whose activities and states of mind Fallada portrays with bleak comedy.

Each of these books is a historical record, a chronicle of their times written by a man tormented in his soul by them. But they are novels above all and bring the power of art to convey the sordidness and desperation of their time and place and the plight of the lone individual set against them.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at