In their 1978 rock-reggae song ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’, the Clash sang about the malevolent atmosphere hanging over British cities in the year before Margaret Thatcher came to power. With the National Front winning increasing numbers of votes, fascism seemed a real danger of becoming a respectable alternative to democracy. As the song put it: ‘If Adolf Hitler flew in today/They’d send a limousine anyway’. At the time, however, movements like Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League made fascism unacceptable among large swathes of Britain’s urban youth.
What, though, if conditions make collective resistance impossible? This is the theme of Hans Fallada’s celebrated 1947 novel, Alone in Berlin. Just translated into English last year, it ranks as one the greatest of all books dealing with resistance to the Nazi state.
Alone in Berlin is based on a real but little known case of individual wartime resistance that Fallada came across in the Gestapo files just after the war. Two obscure individuals dropped postcards proclaiming anti-Nazi sentiments in public places. In Fallada’s novel they feel protected by the anonymity of Berlin. In the end, however, the whole exercise proves futile as the Gestapo pursue them.
Fallada’s heroes in Alone in Berlin only move into clandestine opposition after a personal tragedy befalls them. A more consciously-organised underground resistance against mass apathy is fleetingly introduced. They reason that despite the fact that Hitler’s regime seems unassailable, a gamble has to be taken that it is historically doomed.
Fallada knew what he was talking about. He had tried to find a way to stay alive under fascism without becoming totally compromised.
Battling with his own problems of morphine addiction and alcoholism, he was arrested briefly after being denounced by neighbours as politically and racially suspect.
Fallada’s high-wire act, balancing between personal and artistic integrity and appeasing Nazi critics, is apparent in the new translation of Wolf Among Wolves (2010). Written in 1938, the novel concerns the corrupting experience of Berlin during the hyper-inflation of 1923. In the city every vice is available for sale and currency devaluation fosters nihilistic individualism. To protect himself from Nazi attacks, affronted at another insult to their ideal of the German people, Fallada appended an apologetic note to the book about its subject matter.
Fallada had earlier achieved notoriety among Nazis. His 1932 novel Little Man, What Now? appeared the year before the Nazis seized power. A bestseller, quickly made into films in Germany and in Hollywood, Little Man deals with the crumbling world of urban middle class workers, a new social group stuck helplessly between the two major classes in society. Fallada’s depiction is far from the Nazi ideal of the upright, patriotic lower middle classes.
Fallada also spent time in and out of Nazi insane asylums. During one incarceration he wrote The Drinker, where he details the collapse into utter degradation of Berlin’s lower middle classes, paralleling Fallada’s own struggle against moral turpitude under the Nazis.
Despite overwhelming odds, Fallada contends that individuals are obliged to resist evil rather than send limousines to appease it.