Otto and Elise Hampel were improbable German resisters. By all accounts, the working-class, middle-aged couple accepted Hitler’s New Order up until 1940. Then, during the invasion of France, Elise’s brother was killed—and something snapped in them. The pair began writing postcards denouncing the Nazi regime and calling on Germans to engage in civil disobedience and sabotage.
“Hitler’s war is the worker’s death!” one of them proclaimed. They managed to drop the postcards in public places all over the German capital for two years. Although almost all of these subversive missives were immediately turned into the authorities by the terrified Berliners who picked them up, the Gestapo and the police frantically searched for the perpetrators, assuming they were dealing with a much larger conspiracy. In October 1942 the Hampels were finally arrested and, after their forced confessions, tried, convicted, and sent to the guillotine.
There’s nothing to indicate that this seemingly ordinary couple’s crusade won anyone over to their cause, and their actions never attracted the kind of postwar attention that other tales of resistance did. Much better known are the stories of the White Rose, the Munich students who wrote incomparably more elegant leaflets against the regime before they were arrested and executed in 1943; the defiance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other church figures; the Red Orchestra, as the Soviet-linked, often highly placed espionage rings were called; and of course, the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. The White Rose and the Hitler plot, in particular, have inspired countless books and films.
But the Hampels’ story wasn’t completely forgotten. It would serve as inspiration for Hans Fallada (1893-1947), the immensely popular German novelist of the 1930s who refused to join the Nazi party but also refused to flee his homeland. As Fallada saw it, that left him no choice but to make numerous compromises with Hitler’s regime so that he could keep writing: “I do not like grand gestures, being slaughtered before the tyrant’s throne, senselessly, to the benefit of no one,” he declared later.
When the war ended, Johannes Becher, a German Communist writer who had returned from exile in Moscow and Tashkent, used his position as a rising cultural apparatchik in the Soviet occupation zone to reach out to Fallada. He arranged housing and writing assignments for the ailing writer, who had struggled with alcoholism and morphine addiction while trying to survive the war and Hitler. Most significantly, Becher supplied him with documents from the Gestapo file about the Hampels’ case, suggesting that this might serve as the subject of his next novel.
Fallada took the message to heart. His final novel, Every Man Dies Alone, written in an astounding 24-day spurt, is based loosely on the Hampels’ story. And shortly before its publication in 1947, Fallada succumbed to his assorted addictions and ailments at age 53. His last work was praised, but didn’t achieve the huge sales or psychological impact of his prewar hits. That was hardly surprising: Germany was just beginning to recover from the devastation of 12 years of National Socialism and six years of war; it was too early for an exhausted, shattered nation to focus on a novel that confronts the issues of resistance and fear.
The recent decision by Melville House to translate Every Man Dies Alone into English for the first time, while reissuing two of Fallada’s earlier novels in paperback, should go a long way towards elevating this book to the place it deserves in world, and not just German, literature. If Fallada’s early popularity sometimes raised suspicions that he was a bit of a lightweight, his final book demonstrates the opposite. It’s unquestionably his most powerful work: Primo Levi described it as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” That’s an accurate judgment and not just a routine blurb, but it fails to reflect the full scope of Fallada’s accomplishment. By chronicling the actions of a couple who did exactly what he and most Germans refused to do, Fallada raises the larger question of the meaning of “grand gestures” in the face of any tyranny.
Hans Fallada’s real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and his complicated personal story allowed him to understand the lives of his varied cast of fictional characters. Aside from a prolific novelist, he was many things: a mental patient, a prisoner, a farm worker, a journalist, an alcoholic, a drug addict, and, at the end of World War II when the Red Army occupied his small town, briefly a district mayor. Although he incurred the Nazis’ wrath on several occasions, he never was a member of any resistance group. He tried to keep his distance from a regime he clearly loathed, but he bent to its will when he felt he had to, while battling his inner demons.