Hans Fallada. Alone in Berlin. Translated by Michael Hoffman. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. RRP £9.99 paperback.
I got Alone in Berlin as a Christmas present. My parents saw the 2016 film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, and thought I would like the book. I did, and not just because it is about resistance. First published in 1947 under the title Every Man Dies Alone, the novel tells the story of the Quangels and their doomed attempt to resist the Nazi regime.
Otto and Anna Quangel are a middle-aged, working-class couple in Berlin during World War 2 who are just trying to keep their heads down and survive Nazi rule. Until they receive news that their only son has been killed fighting, and they can no longer accept the injustice and hypocrisy of the Nazi regime. They begin to carefully transcribe postcards with anti-Nazi slogans and distribute them in buildings around Berlin. Unable to tolerate even this limited resistance, the SS give Gestapo Inspector Escherich the job of hunting down the Quangels. For several years, the Quangels managed to evade capture, but it is clear to all involved that they would be caught eventually. The other residents in the Quangel’s block of flats also feature in the story, including the elderly Jewish woman on the top floor, the ardent party members on the floor below the Quangels, the mysterious retired Judge on the ground floor, and the opportunistic criminal in the basement.
Hans Fallada was an interesting character in himself, who struggled with addiction and mental illness throughout his life. A popular author in Germany before the Nazis came to power, he was no fan of Hitler’s, but decided to remain in Germany during Nazi rule. During this period he toed the line, doing just enough to satisfy the Nazis without giving in to to full scale fascism and xenophobia. After the war he was recruited by the Soviets to write an anti-fascist novel, and he apparently wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. He died soon after.
The novel is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel; this edition of the book contains photocopies of some of their postcards and other historical documents related to their case. Fallada himself found their story quite uninspiring, but he managed to turn the source material into a touching and thought-provoking narrative. The reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for some characters, and disdain, if not repulsion, for others, but they are all well-rounded characters, most of whom are just trying to survive in a violent and volatile society. In Britain, we are used to viewing World War 2 from particular angles, such as the fighting on the Western Front, the horror of the Holocaust, or the hardship and determination of the Home Front. Alone in Berlin looks at Nazi Germany and the War from a less common perspective, the German civilian. I found this alternative angle refreshing.
If you like your novels to have a happy ending, then Alone in Berlin is not a book for you. There is a small sliver of hope at the end, but from the very beginning there is a sense that the story is not going to end well, and that atmosphere of inevitable tragedy hangs over the novel like a guillotine. It’s clear Fallada was a skilled writer, who did an excellent job of exploring the actions of people who have been pushed to the very edge of their humanity.
A few months ago, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. Whenever I visit a new place I try to find out as much as I can about its history of radicalism and dissent, and there’s no doubt that Warsaw has plenty of that. In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, and the ways that it is remembered in Warsaw’s streets and museums. Part 2 is about the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted for 63 days in 1944. The Uprising has an entire museum dedicated to it, as well as an impressive monument.
During the summer of 1944, the German Army was retreating across Poland, pursued by the Soviet Army. The Polish Home Army undertook uprisings in several cities in order to help the Soviet Army, and to assert Polish sovereignty–there were fears that the German occupying force would just be replaced with a Russian one. As the Soviet Army advanced towards the Vistula river, the Home Army in Warsaw decided to begin their own uprising on 1st August. It became the largest military effort of any resistance movement during the Second World War.
The uprising was only ever supposed to last a few days, until the Soviet Army reached Warsaw. However, the Soviets halted their advance on the eastern bank of the Vistula, and the resistance forces ended up fighting, almost entirely unsupported, for 63 days. The Home Army, aided by other groups including the National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army, quickly took control of large sections of Warsaw. These areas were separated from each other however, and communication was difficult. The resistance fighters had received training in guerrilla warfare, but they were inexperienced at prolonged fighting in daylight and severely under equipped.
On the 4th of August, the Germans started to receive reinforcements, and began to counterattack. The following day, they began a systematic massacre of civilians in order to crush the resistance’s resolve. The strategy backfired however, only making the people of Warsaw more determined. Resistance fighters captured the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto (see Part 1), and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp. At the end of August, the resistance decided to abandon the Old Town; the area was evacuated through the city’s sewers, which also served as a major means of communication for the resistance. The resistance eventually surrendered to the Germans on 2nd October; the expected help from the Soviets never came. The city wasn’t captured until 17th January 1945, giving the Germans plenty of time to systematically destroy the city and transport many of its residents to work and concentration camps.
Life in Warsaw was very hard during the uprising, for civilians as well as resistance fighters. There were severe shortages of food; people largely survived on ‘spit soup,’ made from barley captured from the Haberbusch i Schiele brewery. The media flourished in the city however, multiple newspapers were published frequently, and 30,000 metres of film documenting the uprising was produced.
Warsaw Rising Museum
The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened in 2004, to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. The Museum contains more than 800 items and 1500 photographs and videos spread over 3000 square metres. It covers all aspects of the uprising, and provides visitors with a huge amount of information. It is arranged chronologically, and I would recommend following the order of the galleries carefully (you go from the ground floor to the top, then work your way back down, which could be more clearly sign posted). I think you need at least 3 hours to see everything, and I would recommend stopping halfway through for a drink and a slice of cake in the cafe, otherwise you will get too tired to take it all in properly. A highlight for me was the Kino Palladium, a small cinema that shows footage of the uprising that was used to make newsreels. I was also particularly moved by the collection of armbands. Soldiers in the uprising didn’t have uniforms, so used red and white armbands to identify themselves. Some people personalised theirs, and it really brought the human element of the uprising home to me.
Monuments and Memorials
The Uprising Museum is located in Freedom Park, where you can also find several memorials connected to the uprising. The memorial wall documents the name of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the fighting. Set within the wall is a bell dedicated to General Antoni Chrusciel, one of the uprising’s leaders. There is also a memorial to the estimated 150,000 civilians who lost their lives during the uprising, as well as the 550,000 who were deported from the city after the uprising failed.
Set into the city walls surrounding Old Town is the Little Insurgent, a memorial to the children and young people who served as orderlies and runners during the uprising. The statue is based on a small plaster statuette created after the war by sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszjiewicz. It was paid for by former scouts, and unveiled in 1983 by Jerzy Swiderski, a cardiologist who had served as a scout during the uprising. It is a moving reminder of how the uprising consumed every aspect of Warsaw; even children could not escape the brutality.
The best-known memorial to the uprising, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, is on a much grander scale. Located on the southern side of Krasinki Square, the momument was unveiled in 1989, and is up to 10 metres tall. The monument has two sections: the larger represents a group of insurgents in combat, running from a collapsing building; the smaller section, in the foreground of the above photo, shows fighters and civilian woman climbing into a manhole. This is an acknowledgment of the significance of the city’s sewer system to the uprising. The monument is impressive, and you’d be hard pushed to walk past without stopping for a closer look. Monuments and statues can often blend into the street around them, which I think defeats one of the key objectives of memorials; drawing attention to the event, person or people it is meant to commemorate. There is no danger of the Warsaw Uprising Monument failing to attract attention.
Like all cities, Warsaw’s past is inscribed into its streets, buildings and public spaces. Warsaw’s history is more violent than many cities–it has faced more than it’s share of death, destruction, and upheaval, and not just during the Second World War. There a number of different approaches to dealing with such a traumatic history in Warsaw: the city’s museums use different balances of objects and multimedia; and the monuments work on different scales, from the small and personal to the grand and official. Which approaches work best probably depends on personal taste, but the fact that so much effort and thought has gone into all of these commemorative practices demonstrates an admirable relationship with the past.
Jonathan Oates. Attack on London: Disaster, Rebellion, Riot, Terror and War. Barnsley: Wharncliffe Local History, 2009. £19.99.
Out of all the high street chains of bookstores, I have a particular fondness for The Works. If you’ve never come across one before, it’s a sort of outlet store for books and stationary, and I can rarely resist having a browse when I walk past one. I have found numerous bargains in there over the years, including Attack on London by Jonathan Oates.
Dr. Jonathan Oates is the Ealing Borough Archivist and Local History Librarian, but he has also published numerous books on London’s history, particularly its more criminal elements. In Attack on London Oates, inspired by the 7/7 bombings, traces how Londoners have reacted to tragedy, shock, and trauma. Starting with the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, Oates documents some of the most severe hardships faced by London, including the Great Plague (1665-1666), the Gordon Riots (1780), the Clerkenwell Outrage (1867), Bloody Sunday (1887), aerial bombing during both World Wars, IRA bombings during the 1970s, and the 7/7 bombings in 2005. Oates concludes by arguing that such dramatic events bring out both the best and the worst of Londoners; there has been resilience, bravery, and unity, but also looting and xenophobia.
If you are familiar with London’s history, then there probably isn’t much in Attack on London that will be new to you, although I was surprised to learn about the extent of aerial bombing on the capital during the First World War. However, the way the which Londoners reacted to these well-known events is a new angle, which brings together disparate events such as riot, war, disease, and fire in an interesting way. Oates’ referencing style is not very detailed, so it is difficult to identify the exact sources of his work, but it seems to be a well-researched book.
There are some elements of Attack on London that feel a little ‘amateur’. For example, each chapter ends with a conclusion identified as such with a subheading. This feels a little out of place in a history book aimed at a popular audience. Also, one of the photos reproduced in the book, of a plaque commemorating the deaths of 77 people in an air raid bombing in Southwark in October 1940, is blurry. I know I’m being picky, but little things like these combine to give a general impression of not-quite-finishedness that could have been so easily avoided. In addition, the book commits one of my biggest personal faux pas; putting all of the images on a few glossy pages in the middle of the book, and not referring to them in the main text. I know that lots of books have their images arranged in such a way, I guess it is an effective or cost-efficient way of illustrating books. I can understand that, although I would prefer to have the images close to the relevant text. However, when the author does not refer to the images in the text, then they become almost pointless, as they do not serve to back up or illustrate a particular point. Attack on London is by no means the only book that does this, but it winds me up nonetheless.
Because I found Attack on London in a bargain bookshop, it cost me quite a bit less than the £19.99 recommended retail price, which is a bit steep, in my opinion, for what you get. Nevertheless, it is an easy-to-read, engaging reflection on the best and the worst facets of Londoners.