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From the New York Times

( http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/opinion/04iht-edcohen.h... )


Op-Ed Columnist

The Banality of Good

Published: May 3, 2010

NEW YORK - What was it like? I would ask myself, the years I lived in Berlin. What was it like in the leafy Grunewald neighborhood to watch your Jewish neighbors - lawyers, businessmen, dentists - trooping head bowed to the nearby train station for transport eastward to extinction?

The New York Times / Roger Cohen

With what measure of fear, denial, calculation, conscience and contempt did neighbors who had proved their Aryan stock to Hitler's butchers make their accommodations with this Jewish exodus? How good did the schnapps taste and how effectively did it wash down the shame?

Now I know. Thanks to Hans Fallada's extraordinary "Every Man Dies Alone," just published in the United States more than 60 years after it first appeared in Germany, I know. What Irène Némirovsky's "Suite Française" did for wartime France after six decades in obscurity, Fallada does for wartime Berlin. Like all great art, it transports, in this instance to a world where, "The Third Reich kept springing surprises on its antagonists: It was vile beyond all vileness."

Fallada, born Rudolf Ditzen, wrote his novel in less than a month right after the war and just before his death in 1947 at the age of 53. The Nazi hell he evokes is not so much recalled as rendered, whole and alive. The prose is sinuous and gritty, like the city he describes. Dialogue often veers toward sadistic folly with a barbaric logic that takes the breath away.

"Every Man Dies Alone" recounts how a working-class Berlin couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, are stirred from acquiescence to anger by the death at the front of their only son. The action they take is minimalist - writing postcards denouncing Hitler and depositing them at random - but contains the immensity of defiance in a world where disobedience equals death.

Anna Quangel, grief-stricken but still in terror's web, is hesitant at first. "Isn't this thing that you're wanting to do, isn't it a bit small, Otto?" she asks. To which her husband responds, "Whether it's big or small, Anna, if they get wind of it, it'll cost us our lives." That does it: "He might be right: whether this act was big or small, no one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back."

The book is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, whose postcard campaign - "Hitler's war is the worker's death!" - frustrated the Gestapo until the couple's capture in October 1942 and subsequent beheading. Fallada, a sometime morphine addict who lived in and out of asylums, got hold of the Hampel police files through a friend in late 1945, wrote a journalistic account that year, and then, in a burst of creativity, the novel.

Fiction's deeper truth, as compared to journalism's first draft, was never more amply illustrated.

The book pulses with the street life of a terrorized city, full of sleaze, suspicion, drunkenness, desperation and murder. It proclaims the bestial sadism of which man is capable and the enormous moral stature of decency. It has something of the horror of Conrad, the madness of Dostoyevsky and the chilling menace of Capote's "In Cold Blood."

Quangel is a taciturn man, but a moment comes, at his grotesque trial, when he can no longer contain himself: "It was then that Quangel laughed for the first time since his arrest, the first time in a very long time. He laughed with wholehearted gusto. The preposterous comedy of this gang of criminals branding everyone else as war criminals was suddenly too much for him to take."

Fallada catches the intersection of monstrous crime and "preposterous comedy" in power's intoxication. The confrontation of Inspector Escherich and Quangel is unforgettable. Escherich, having got his prey, is contemptuous of this "gnat" fighting an "elephant:": "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?"

Quangel tries to explain: "If one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not."

Escherich, whose Gestapo boss likes to humiliate him, seems unmoved - until he sees the Obergruppenführer and other officers torturing Quangel by smashing their schnapps glasses on his head and something snaps. He puts a pistol to his head with the parting words: "I'm your only disciple, Otto Quangel."

That may be literally so. The postcards were almost all handed in to the police by terrorized Berliners. But humanity is Quangel's disciple. For the "preposterous comedy" continues here and there and terror still poses the existential dilemma: decency and its (mortal) dangers or conformity and its comforts?

As Hannah Arendt once observed: "Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not. ... Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."

In the quiet Quangels, Fallada has created an immortal symbol of those who fight back against "the vile beyond all vileness" and so redeem us all.

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