May 4, 2010

Hans Fallada and the Banality of Good


Roger Cohen, in his “Globalist” column for the New York Times, offers up a window into the life of ordinary Germans during World War II, through Hans Fallada‘s Every Man Dies Alone.  Cohen, while living in Berlin, often found himself wondering what it must have been like for its citizens to witness the deportation of their Jewish neighbors while going about their daily routines.  How could they ignore what was happening?  How did they handle their shame, if they felt any at all?

For Cohen, Fallada’s final book answered those questions:

Now I know. Thanks to Hans Fallada’s extraordinary “Every Man Dies Alone,” just published in the United States more than 60 years after it first appeared in Germany, I know. What Iréne Némirovsky’s “Suite Française” did for wartime France after six decades in obscurity, Fallada does for wartime Berlin. Like all great art, it transports, in this instance to a world where, “The Third Reich kept springing surprises on its antagonists: It was vile beyond all vileness.”

But the book is not only a revelation into that world where even the smallest resistance to the regime could get you killed.  Based on a true story, it is also the powerful story of a city, of human capacity, and the fear that pervaded daily life even for ordinary Germans during Hitler’s reign:

The book pulses with the street life of a terrorized city, full of sleaze, suspicion, drunkenness, desperation and murder. It proclaims the bestial sadism of which man is capable and the enormous moral stature of decency. It has something of the horror of Conrad, the madness of Dostoyevsky and the chilling menace of Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

Every Man Dies Alone, after 60 years, is finally available in English, and in paperback, from Melville House.