Hans Fallada — Alone in Berlin (1947)
Setting: WWII Berlin
What it’s about: An ordinary German man begins a solitary resistance after his son dies on the eastern front. Based on a true story, Otto and Etta Hampel undertake a unique and eventually pointless act of resistance when their son dies on the Eastern Front.
It is essential to understanding life under dictatorship — a society riven by fear, deception and self-loathing. There are no heroes, and the villains are the seedy, twisted scum of the earth – crooks, swindlers, drunks taking the chance of organised chaos to rule society.
It only recently came to the attention of the English-speaking world, which in turn triggered renewed interest for it in Germany.
Why you should read it: It is a searing excavation of the petty corruption and cynicism that thrived underneath the brutality of fascism. The main plotline is almost secondary to the cast of callous and comical lowlifes that are thrown up through the telling of the Hampels — from gestapo officers to crooks and the neighbours obsessed with taking over the flats of Jewish neighbours.
Time and time again, the venal and petty trump decency. At one point, one of these scoundrels unwittingly helps the gestapo uncover a communist network hiding potential victims from the Nazis.
The world described by Fallada is not just tense and terrifying, it is the apotheosis of the “low, dishonest decade”. Fallada strips away any semblance of order or strength in the Reich.