Primo Levi, the renowned Italian-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, called this "the greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis." It is, in retrospect, an understatement.
This is a novel that is so powerful, so intense, that it almost hums with electricity. It is the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class Berlin couple whose world crashes down when they receive word that their only son has been killed during the invasion of France. Anna is prostrated by grief. Otto, a buttoned-up factory foreman, channels his quiet rage into a project: laboriously hand-printed, anonymous postcards bearing simple messages -- "Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son," was the first -- that are left around the capital where they are sure to be seen by passers-by.
It isn't long before the cards come to the attention of the Gestapo, and the hunt is on.
This is heroism writ exceptionally small. The Quangels' bravery seems all the more futile for the time in which it occurs: Nazi Germany is seemingly invincible, its armies sweeping through Europe and its people rapturously behind Hitler.
The fascinating portrait of civilian life in wartime Berlin is clearly the work of one who knew it firsthand. The Quangels' apartment house is a microcosm of Nazi Germany, from an elderly Jewish woman whose tenuous grasp on reality has been shattered by the arrest of her husband, to an aging aristocrat who hides from the new order behind his books and reveries, to the family of zealous Nazis whose youngest son is an up-and-coming leader in the Hitler Youth.
It's the story behind the story that makes this book so compelling. In the 1930s, Hans Fallada was an internationally celebrated author on a par with Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann. Refusing to join the party, he ran further afoul of the Nazis when his novel "Little Man, What Now?" was made into a Hollywood film by a Jewish producer. The Ministry of Propaganda's suggestions that he atone by writing an anti- Semitic novel were declined. It sealed his fate.
Seeking solace in alcohol and drugs, Fallada soon found himself in an asylum for the "criminally insane." He survived the Nazis and the destruction of Germany, but only barely. He emerged a wreck, physically and emotionally. His friend Johannes Bechal, a poet who became a culture minister in the postwar government, gave him the Gestapo file of an ordinary German family that had resisted the regime and urged him to write their story. Fallada finished "Every Man Dies Alone" in 24 days, an astonishing feat. The Gestapo file is included in the new edition.
Hans Fallada died in February 1947, weeks before the book's debut. His real name was Rudolf Ditzen. The choice of Fallada as a nom de plume is intriguing; it means "failure" in Spanish. That is quite possibly the only thing he got wrong.
Michael J. Bonafield is a former copy editor at the Star Tribune. He lives in Apple Valley.