Hans Fallada Deutsches Bundespost stamp

In the late summer of 1944, the German novelist Hans Fallada was committed to a Nazi psychiatric prison in Strelitz-Alt, some 70 miles north of Berlin. The timing—if not the disagreeable circumstances of Fallada’s incarceration—was propitious. By the end of August, the Red Army had secured Bucharest and was hurtling towards Poland; to the west, U.S. forces were amassing along Germany’s western border. The Nazi leadership, fearing the worst, issued a directive calling all able-bodied men under the age of 60 to the front.

Fallada, born Rudolf Ditzen, was saved both from the indignity of service, which surely would have killed him, and the aftermath of a particularly calamitous divorce. On the evening of August 28, the 51-year-old novelist drunkenly set upon his first wife, Suse, with a loaded pistol. He got off only one errant shot, in the general direction of the kitchen wall, before Suse grabbed the gun and used it to crack Fallada sharply on the skull. She disposed of the weapon in a nearby lake, and a local prosecutor sentenced Fallada to an indefinite term at Strelitz.

The horrors of that prison were manifold. But Fallada had been behind bars several times over the course of his life—first in 1912, after killing his best friend in a botched double-suicide—and seems to have found a modicum of comfort at Strelitz. He temporarily shook the alcoholism that had dogged him his entire life, and eventually he was granted a request for writing materials. Officially, Fallada assured his captors that he intended to finish a state-sanctioned book on a 20-year-old fraud case against a group of Jewish financiers. The Barmat Scandal had helped fan the flames of anti-Semitism in Weimar Germany, and Joseph Goebbels was keen on its revival.

In a letter dated June 1943, a representative of the Propaganda Ministry offered Fallada full support” if he made the Barmat project a priority.” This was no small insurance at a time when German intellectuals and writers struggled under an intensifying campaign of persecution. As Jenny Williams writes in her 1999 biography, More Lives Than One, Fallada probably had in mind a survival strategy.” He would agree to write the book to Nazi specifications, but stall production until the war had ended.

Fallada was no anti-Semite. His fiction is noticeably solicitous of German Jewry—a fact that had not escaped the attention of the Nazi censors on previous occasions—and he counted among his circle of friends Jewish writers and critics. He was a humanist, but also a pragmatist, and he later dismissed enterprises such as conspiracies and coups d’etat” as ridiculous.” The ruling powers were too strong, he told himself, and the evil too corruptive. He aimed to pursue a subtler path of defiance.

'Every Man Dies Alone' cover

Over the stretch of September 1943, Fallada began painstakingly filling pages of prison paper with tiny script, often in cramped, circuitous patterns. He eventually completed a small canon of work: a deeply anti-fascist memoir of his life under the Nazis, a series of short stories, and a great novel of addiction, The Drinker. In the margins of one sheet he wrote:

Every ten minutes or so a guard comes into my cell, looks curiously at my scribblings and asks me what I am writing. I reply, A children’s story,” and continue writing. I dismiss from my mind all thoughts of what would happen to me if anyone reads these lines.

Fallada was not caught, and in October he walked out the doors of the prison with the 184-page manuscript stuffed under his shirt. A few months later, he married a stunning 22-year-old named Ulla Losch, and when the Russians swept through Germany, Fallada was named mayor of the town of Feldberg. But he was a man unhinged, and public allegations of collaboration and political opportunism”—this last volley from a former typist—hurt him badly. He slid with Ulla into a mutually enabling morphine addiction, and finally expired in 1947, shortly after finishing his masterpiece, Every Man Dies Alone.

What now to make of such a relatively brief and singularly tortured career? Was Fallada a collaborator and a coward, or was he—as he framed it later in his life, once the Nazis had been safely deposed—a writer crushed under the heel of history? Three books being published next week by Melville House offer a clue. The first is Little Man, What Now?, Fallada’s melancholy evocation of poverty in the run-up to war; the second is The Drinker. Both titles have appeared before in English, and the former was the basis for a 1934 Hollywood movie. (The film, which was backed by Jewish producers, apparently caused Goebbels much consternation.) The third, Every Man Dies Alone, appearing for the first time in English, is the real discovery here, and arrives handsomely packaged with a cover blurb from Primo Levi: The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.”

'Little Man, What Now?' cover

Resistance! The word seems to promise the modern reader the clamor and catharsis of an armed uprising, perhaps in the mode of Levi’s own novel, If Not Now, When? And yet the resistance Fallada evokes in Every Man is distinctly small-bore—small enough, in fact, that by the end of the narrative, one of the characters, languishing in Gestapo headquarters, can plausibly wonder aloud, So I’ve accomplished nothing?”

The book is based on a propaganda campaign waged by a pair of Berliners, Otto and Elise Hempel, who were eventually captured by the Gestapo, and executed in Plötzensee Prison in 1943. Uneducated and poor, but possessed by a fiery rage against the Nazi regime, the Hempels over a three-year period carpeted their city with postcards calling for a working-class uprising. Fallada was given the Hempels’ Gestapo file by a friend in the postwar ministry, and although he claimed initially to be uninterested in the case, he eventually took to its fictionalization with fervor.

In Fallada’s telling, Otto and Elise Hempel become Otto and Anna Quangel and the postcard scheme is rendered as allegory—the conscience of a crushed populace, burbling up from the tenements and the factories. Small-scale acts of rebellion abound. An old judge in the Quangels’ building takes in Frau Rosenthal, a Jewish neighbor; an aging widow helps protect a lover from the Gestapo; a cell” of dissidents is assembled and than disbanded. Otto and Anna are largely disconnected from this larger political current. Their postcards condemn oppression—they distribute one card decrying the persecution of the Jews”—but they remain intentionally oblivious even to the plight of Frau Rosenthal, who hurls herself out of her apartment window, to her death.

'The Drinker' cover

In an essay translated by the Australian scholar Geoff Wilkes, who contributed an afterword to the new edition of Every Man, Fallada writes of the Hempels: As many lonely people, just like many simple minded people, these two (earnestly, without fantasy) believed that they experienced something unique, what happened to them had not happened to anyone else.” Not so for the Quangels. The fictional couple are aware that others are suffering, and Anna early on wonders at the possibility of pursuing something grander, like an attempt to assassinate the Fuhrer.” The postcards strike her then as an obscure and ignoble form of warfare.” Only after much consideration does she settle into the long war,” for she, too, has become patient.”

From the comfort of the 21st century, we buck against the notion—how could anyone be patient with so much at stake? But Fallada suggests that morality under Nazi rule was not measured by the size of the struggle; it mattered only that one did not capitulate. Or, more specifically, that one did not betray oneself. As one character tells Otto, after the Quangels have been caught and imprisoned:

At least you resisted evil. You did not become evil. You and I and the many people here in this building and many, many more in other prisons and the institutions and the thousands in concentration camps—they are all still resisting, today, tomorrow