Every Man Dies Alone — a Review, Sort of

How about this: a secular novel from post WWII Germany that does a pretty good job of articulating the vocation of Christians living under the Theology of the Cross?

Hans Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 1947 on the basis of a commission from a friend working with the Russians in post-war Germany. He wrote it in 24 days (My reaction as an author,? That’s just not fair!), and later wrote to a family member that this was the book he would be remembered for.

It languished in relative obscurity until the past few years, when the English translation has experienced a revival of sorts here in the US.

And well-deserved, I might add. Every Man Dies Alone is a powerful story of what it was like for the common citizen of Berlin at the height of Nazi power in Europe. It is the story of incredible brutality. We know well the brutality against the Jews. We hear less about the brutality against hundreds of thousands of ordinary German citizens. It is the story of fear and how a brutal regime succeeded in creating a climate where everyone lived in fear of retaliation and of being turned in to the regime by a neighbor for some trumped up charge.

And it is also the story of common, ordinary people taking up resistance to evil in a fashion that to the logical mind makes absolutely no difference.

The story is based on the true account of a couple in Berlin who wrote postcards critical of the Nazi regime and placed them randomly around Berlin. In the novel, the couple plays a cat and mouse game with the SS and succeeds for a frustratingly long time before finally getting caught and enduring the consequences of their so-called treason.

What they do — and you catch glimpses of the resistance of others are doing throughout the novel — seems do be innocuous and of no consequence. But in resisting the forces of evil, they are doing what they can, and in the meantime, they preserve their dignity and humanity, even as they seek to lift of the dignity and the humanity of those around them, all in the face of unspeakable brutality and evil. Even some of those who are the perpetrators of the brutality, the pawns of the evil system and the evil structure occasionally catch glimpses of the good that is being done, even if it seems to have no effect.

And isn’t this what we are called to do as God’s people? According to Luther’s Theology of the Cross, we live in the world for the sake of being part of the work that God is doing in the world. God is always working against the evil structures and systems of the world. While it often looks like evil is winning (see the Psalms for poetic articulation of the seeming victory of evil), in faith, we trust that God is at work in the contrary dismantling evil and working towards that redemptive kingdom of peace and justice. Each of us is called, in our own stations of life, to do what we can to work towards those ends. And even when what we do seems small and insignificant, we trust that what is done for the sake of God’s big work is not done in vain.

Fallada’s novel is powerful. It is well-written. It is moving. And it is, in spite of the fact that it makes no pretensions of being a religions novel, a powerful illustration of the calling of God’s people to go about our work for God’s sake.

P. S. — I have been tempted to tell you to read the translator’s Afterword before reading the novel. But I resist. He gives too much of the story away. But don’t skip it. The biographical information about the author and his comments about the story will enrich your appreciation of this fine novel.

3 thoughts on “Every Man Dies Alone — a Review, Sort of

  1. Tom Lenz

    Glad to see this post on Falluda and “Every Man Dies Alone.” I came upon the book a couple years back and like you found it to be powerful. I then read Falluda’s “Little Man, What Now” which I subsequently saw produced as a play in Frankfurt. It is also worth reading.
    I’ve enjoyed your blog and admire your consistency in writing.

    1. Jim Honig Post author

      Thanks, Tom. I will look for that book. In the afterword, I think it mentioned that book as his best commercial success. So sorry I missed your going away party. We were already away in Wisconsin. Hope you’re doing well!

  2. Norm Brockmeier

    I am very much in agreement with your review, Jim. I have been reading Fallada’s book and have reached a stagnation at 70% done, where Quangel’s early card fell out of his deceased son’s book, giving Quangel away to the Nazi’s. The book is so brutal, I don’t know whether I will ever return to finish the story! Norm Brockmeier


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