Sunday, 5 June 2016

alone in berlin [hans fallada]

The war, the war. I’m not sure why the second world war suddenly feels so immediate. Of late, so much of my reading seems to return to that point. It might be connected to the fact that in a few weeks I am to return to the city of my great grandparents, which I would visit as a child, the city where they spent the second world war, which is the first tangible point in history where my identity begins to be recognisably formed - genetically, psychologically, spiritually.

That city is Berlin. Fallada’s novel captures it during the course of the war. Fallada’s Berlin is a cruel, suspicious city where the venal are rewarded and the good lurk in the shadows. People still drink in bars, there is still a discernible communal life, albeit one that revolves around suspicion and fear. Those who seek to live in something akin to normality head to the rural outskirts, which then turn out to be just as bad, if not worse, than the city. This is a 1984 world with a snooper’s charter, where the punishment for non-conformity is likely to be death. 

The narrative is a gritty, perhaps even Loachian tale of a common man who resists the machine. The machine being nothing less than the Gestapo and the apparatus of National Socialism. Otto Quangel decides to take on the system via the simple mechanism of producing letters which he drops around the city, hoping to create a viral campaign of resistance. HIs wife, Anna, joins him in his campaign. Ultimately, their failure, and the doomed fate of the couple, are secondary to the significance of the instinct being acted upon. Fallada would seem to imply that the act of resistance, no matter how impotent, is never futile. The novelist commemorates the Quangels and dignifies their actions in spite of their apparent futility. The fact that this narrative is “based on a true story” makes it all the more poignant.

In Fallada’s novel, the Kantian imperative to act is weighed against the societal drift towards inert corruption. The Second World War might have been the last time that the notion of the individual had such little currency in Europe. Wartime is a time when the notion of personal destiny is subsumed to the notion of national destiny (or the destiny of the chosen cause). It’s probably the greatest misunderstanding regarding the concept of terrorism. The terrorist believes him or herself to be at war. War suspends the normal rules of ethical society, primarily that saying “thou shalt not kill”. The Quangels are also terrorists. Their actions are not predicated on the notion of a ‘productive’ result. Instead the action itself is definitive. Their individuality is sacrificed to a greater cause. It’s notable that very little of the novel actually focuses on the potential drama (or dramatic tension) of the Quangels’ actions: instead it looks at the impact their actions have on themselves and others. Within the grand scale of the war, theirs is a minimal tale, one whose impact, measured by spreadsheets, is negligible, but measured by another less definable standard, contains the real stuff of glory. 

Perhaps I find myself returning to the war because I’m trying to understand the societal logic in a world where the individual has become king to such an extent that almost anything can be sacrificed on its altar. On a psychological, spiritual and ultimately even genetic level. Which, in a way, would seem to be far more of a reflection of the Nazi culture Fallada demonstrates in his novel than that of the Quangels, who resist it.

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