In praise of futile acts of resistance

By | April 5, 2011

Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin(Jeder stirbt für sich allein), written in 1946, 18 months after the end of the Second World War, is based on the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple who lived in Berlin during the Nazi period. After the death of Elise’s brother in the war, the couple started dropping postcards calling for civil disobedience around the city. They dropped hundreds of cards until the Gestapo caught them.

In Hans Fallada’s version, the couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, lost their son in the war. Like the couple that inspired the book, they too decided to start dropping postcards around the city. After they were caught, the following conversation went on between Inspector Escherich and Otto Quangel, after the inspector told him that of the two hundred and seventy-six postcards and nine letters he wrote and dropped around Berlin, only eighteen were not brought to the Gestapo by those who found them:

‘So I’ve accomplished nothing?’

‘So you’ve accomplished nothing – certainly nothing that you would have wanted to accomplish! But you should be glad of that, Quangel, because it will certainly help to bring about a reduction in your punishment! Maybe you’ll get off with fifteen or twenty years!’

Quangel shuddered. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No!’

‘What did you expect anyway, Quangel? You, an ordinary worker, taking on the Führer, who is backed by the Party, the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SA? The Führer, who has already conquered half the world and will overcome the last of our enemies in another year or two? It’s ludicrous! You must have known you had no chance! It’s a gnat against an elephant. I don’t understand it, a sensible man like you!’

‘No, and you will never understand it, either. You see, it doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not. I had to fight, and given the chance, I would do it again. Only I would do it very differently.’

Apart from reading of the fear in which everyday Germans lived during the Nazi period, the feeling I had while I was reading the book nearly matches in intensity the one I had when I visited the site of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp (blogged here). Any attempt to understand why an ordinary person would commit atrocious acts of evil needs to be matched by an attempt to understand why some would not cave in the face of fear. And not just refuse to cave, but actually commit futile acts of resistance, such as dropping postcards inciting civil disobedience.

Reading through the book, one could see the futility of the acts of the couple, but one nevertheless joins Hans Fallada in applause. Even if their resistance was not of the same scale as that of von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators (remember the movie Valkyrie?), one applauds their refusal to be sucked in by the promises that joining the party held, or by the fear that ruled everyday life in Germany during the Nazi era.

In the Afterword in the version of the book that I read, Geoff Wilkes of the University of Queensland writes, ‘whereas Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) dissects and anlyses the “banality of evil”, Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin comprehends and honours the banality of good.’


Enhanced by Zemanta