Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Nazi Germany’s final solution. Arendt found Eichmann a very small man, engaged in what was basically accounting. He did not have a grand vision for the world, he was just doing a job, an everyday civil servant engaged in carrying out his orders, unconcerned with how immoral those orders were. “The banality of evil.” In Every Man Dies Alone, Hans Fallada tells the stories of Eichmann’s counterparts, a group of ordinary, working class people with no power, no grand vision, just a desire to do what is right in the face of overwhelming odds. “The banality of good.”
Every Man Dies Alone features an ensemble cast, most of whom live in the same building in wartime Berlin. At the center of the ensemble are the Quangels, a quiet, unassuming couple who have lived an unremarkable life. Otto Quangel is a carpenter, foreman at the furniture factory where he works while Anna runs the household. Neither is political, neither has resisted the Nazi movement, until they receive a letter from the army informing them that their only child has been killed.
Soon Otto comes up with a plan. Every Sunday, for the next two years, the Quangels write out one, sometimes two, postcards with messages against the Nazis. Each card carries only one or two lines of script, all printed capital letters to avoid leaving a handwriting sample. Otto takes the cards to buildings around Berlin and leaves them where someone will find them, hoping that the messages on the cards will spread and more people will begin to resist the Nazis.
“The banality of good.”
Writing a postcard against the Nazis is an offense punishable by death. The local police and the Gestapo are immediately on the case, right from the very first postcard.
Two things struck me about Hans Fallada’s portrayal of wartime Berlin. The first was how petty it all was. The pro-Nazi family living below the Quangels is obsessed with the Jewish woman who lives on the top floor. They are determined to drive her from their building, not because they believe in anti-Semitism, though they certainly do, but because they are convinced she has quality bed linens and a radio, which they can steal from her apartment as soon as she is gone. The Nazis are little more than petty thugs, obsessed with their own position and their own personal wealth. They assign one police detective to do nothing but find out who is writing the postcards, as though they have the power to destroy everything.
The second thing that struck me was how omnipresent the Nazis were; everyone was spying on everyone. Anyone you met could be the person who would turn you in for making a stray anti-government remark or for not being enthusiastic enough in your praise of the war effort or your donations to the Winter Relief Fund. As a result, the longer the Quangels get away with writing their postcards, the more isolated from the neighbors, friends and family they become. Everyone in the novel, everyone in Germany, lives in fear that someone will report them to the Gestapo. An act as simple, and as harmless as writing a postcard becomes a dangerous risk, punishable by death. That it makes for such suspenseful reading is a testament to its author.
The history of Every Man Dies Alone is as interesting as the story it tells. Already a successful novelist, Hans Fallada did not flee Germany when the Nazis came to power. Believing his work was not political, and would not attract attention from the Nazis, he stayed in Germany. But his novel The World Outside was attacked for its sympathetic portrayal of convicts. Fallada spent the war supporting himself with light contemporary novels, short stories, children’s stories, fictionalized autobiographies, anything he could find that avoided politics altogether. When forced to, he added a pro-Nazi ending to a film script he was commissioned to write for actor Emil Jennings. He ended the war in an asylum, a result of too much drink. After the war, Fallada was encouraged to write a novel about Otto and Elise Hampel by German author Johannes R. Becher who gave Fallada the Hempel’s Gestapo file. Fallada based Every Man Dies Alone on the Hampel’s story, and wrote the entire novel in two months time. He died before before it could be published.
I’d like to credit Geoff Wilkes who wrote the afterward for the idea of “the banality of good.” Prof. Wilkes afterward is well worth reading, one of the few afterwards I’ve ever read that is. Every Man Dies Alone is translated by Michael Hoffman.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009. I’m very disappointed to find that I did not come up with “The banality of good.” That’s a terrific concept and just the sort of thing I would come up with myself, or at least so I’d like to believe. I have kept Every Man Dies Alone. It’s a book that has stayed with me since I read it almost six years ago. I plan on re-reading it again sometime and I still highly recommend it.