Last week I finished ‘Alone in Berlin’, a novel written by Hans Fallada, a German dude, in 1947, right after WWII. It’s vaguely based on a true story about a Fredreichshain couple who wrote anti-Nazi postcards and left them in hundreds of Berlin stairwells for years before being caught and executed in 1942.
I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction lately (much of it about WWII), and I had forgotten about the irreplacable function of fiction to answer the question ‘What was it like?’ The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich might put notches on the timeline, but it takes fiction to really walk you through the daily compromises of life under the Nazis.
The terror of the people who find the postcards is especially palpable. They risked death just by finding an anti-Nazi message in their building. If they leave the card there for someone else to find, they might be accused of distributing the postcards. But if they take it with them, they could be accused of writing it. It’s a moral dilemma for a world without any morals.
The postcard-distribution scheme didn’t come to anything, of course, either in real life or in the novel. It didn’t galvanize Germans to rise up against their shitty leaders, or open up their eyes to the injustice of their regime. Almost all the postcards were immediately reported to the police and confiscated (after their discoverers were interrogated, of course), and the German couple who devised the scheme were executed without fanfare.
In the book, the protagonist confronts his show-trial defense lawyer:
But the lawyer didn’t leave, and after a long pause he said, ‘Can I ask you what made you do it?’
‘Do what?’ asks Quangel [the postcard writer] cooly, without looking at the elegant lawyer.
‘Write those postcards. They didn’t accomplish anything, and now they’ll cost you your life.’
‘Because I’m stupid. Because I didn’t have any better ideas. Because I thought they would accomplish something, as you put it. That’s why!’
‘And don’t you regret it? Aren’t you sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that?’
Quangel cast a sharp glare at the lawyer, his proud, old, tough bird-glare. ‘At least I stayed decent,’ he said. ‘I didn’t participate.’
The lawyer took a long look at the man sitting there in silence. Then he said, ‘I have to say, I think my colleague who defended your wife was right: You are both mad.’
‘Do you think it’s mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?’
‘You didn’t need the postcards for that’
‘That would have been a kind of tacit agreement. What was your price for turning into such a fine gentleman, trousersand polished fingernails and deceitful concluding speeches? What did you have to pay?’
The lawyer said nothing.
‘You see!’ said Quangel. ‘And you will continue to pay more and more, and maybe one day, like me, you will pay with your life, but you will have done it for your indecency!’
This is the central point of the book: That it wasn’t only the decent who were persecuted, but also those who were insufficiently indecent. The cop investigating the postcard case is sent to prison for not solving the case quickly enough. Prison guards are fired for showing tiny clemency to the prisoners. You can see how, on a societal level, as soon as you roll this particular snowball down the hill, it becomes an avalanche.