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Readers interviewing Dennis Johnson

The following questions and answers are an edited version of a longer webchat that occured on April 2013, on the Guardian. Full details can be found here:



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Live webchat: Dennis Johnson on Hans Fallada

The publisher who brought Fallada back to prominence with English readers will be chatting with us on Monday 8 April. Please post your questions now

Monday 8 April 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the execution of Otto and Elise Hampel, the couple who inspired Hans Fallada's Alone In Berlin, by spreading anti-Nazi postcards around wartime Berlin.

This, admittedly, is a grim anniversary, but an important one to commemorate. We're going to do it by discussing their acts of lonely heroism in a live webchat with Dennis Johnson, the co-founder of Melville House and one of the main reasons that Fallada's book re-emerged into the English speaking world.

You'll be able to ask Dennis how he rediscovered the book (legend has it that it was no less than fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg who first suggested to him that it should be translated), about how it felt to oversee such a global success story. You might also want to ask about the other Fallada titles published by Melville House. (Others are almost as remarkable as Alone In Berlin and have similarly extreme back stories.The Drinker, for instance, was written in code while its author was in an asylum.) Ask about Fallada himself too. In 2012, Dennis met andinterviewed Fallada's son Ulrich Ditzen and knows a great deal about this strange and wonderful writer – not to mention the Hampels themselves.

Elsewhere, it's also worth noting that as well as co-running a comparatively new and unusually successful publishing company, Dennis is the founder of one of the world's first book blogs, Mobylives.com, and a leading light in the civilised world's ongoing fight against the encroaching darkness of Amazon . He is, in other words, a fascinating man and we're lucky to have him with us. So please ask him a question!

Dylanwolf : Hello Dennis. Can you please tell us some more about the circumstances under which Hans Fallada wrote Alone in Berlin?

Dennis_Johnson : Hello to you, thanks for your question.

At war’s end Fallada was, by all accounts, pretty much a wreck, both physically and mentally. He'd had a breakdown toward the end of the war and been incarcerated in a Nazi mental institution --- one biographer called it a "psychiatric prison." Under most circumstances, that was a death warrant, but he’d survived thanks to a subtle ruse. Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels had been after Fallada for years to write an anti-Semitic novel---part of the unimaginable pressure he was under---and he’d put them off by saying he planned to write one, but he was still researching it. So when he found himself in the asylum, he told the guards he was supposed to write a book for Herr Goebbels, and so they’d better bring him some paper and leave him alone. And they did!

And Fallada did indeed write a book while in that institution --- three books, in fact, in a text he made sure was unreadable. (Five years after his death, the first one they were able to decipher was the Drinker, which is one of his greatest novels --- it’s about a man who cracks under the pressure of an oppressive society and tries to drink himself free. (Sound autobiographical to you based on what I’ve said so far?) But although Fallada thus survived the war, it’s hard not to imagine a ragged spirit holding on by its fingernails.

So he made it, but by all accounts he was fairly shattered from the experience. And things didn’t get better after he got out --- his wife divorced him and took his beloved kids with her, and his publisher had been forced to flee the country during the war so he was worried about work and money. What’s more, he was in East Germany, in a town under the domination of the Russians, who had picked him, as the local celebrity, to run the remote town he’d moved to in hopes of being out of sight, out of mind with the Nazis. That turned out to be a disaster.

In short, he was under so much pressure that he’d revived all his chemical dependencies (as I think I would have too under the circumstances!) while flailing around trying to come up with a new project that would allow him to support his ex-wife and kids, their home and a new one for himself, and keep himself high, I suppose. 

At which point a poet-friend of his named Johannes Becher, who’d become a kind of arts minister under the Communist regime, came up with what he thought was the perfect project. Becher had access to the Gestapo files confiscated by the Russians, and he’d come across the file of Otto and Elise Hampel, a nearly-illiterate working-class couple who had driven the Gestapo nuts with a long-term, anti-Hitler propaganda campaign in downtown Berlin. Becher brought the file to Fallada and said, “Here’s the stuff of a classic Hans Fallada novel --- common people up against the sophisticated forces of evil. What do you say?”

At first Fallada tried to generate interest in a film of the Hampels' story, but he couldn’t get that project off the ground (he’d developed several film projects based on his novels before the war). Then he wrote a lengthy essay for a magazine about reading the Hampels Gestapo file, and in that essay you can see the novel is starting to take shape in his mind, almost despite himself; you can feel him just getting caught up in the story and what it represents (you can read that essay in the Melville House HybridBook edition of Every Man Dies Alone).

At that point, his son Ulrich tells me, Fallada decided to do what he did: Sit down and write until he was done. According to Ulrich, his father wrote the book in just 24 days.

And that is apparently what he did. He wrote the book the way he was living --- hard, fast, desperate --- and I’ve little doubt the effort was part of the reason he was dead just a few months later. But I picture him writing it in the apartment he’d got only recently in the Pankow neighborhood of Berlin --- just north of the Plotenzee prison where the Hampels were executed by the Nazis --- in a city that was reduced largely to rubble, just like his own life, and putting heart and soul into the story of two people unable to think of what else to do to oppose the Nazis … but write.

Dylanwolf : Which do you think is more damaging to the future of the trees-reimagined book (and its attendant culture of libraries, book shops, literary events and intimate adult-child bedtime-story shared reading) Amazon or the Kindle?

And what can I, as an avid real book reader, do to protect the future of the real physical book for my children (whom am I kidding, at my age I mean my children's prospective children!) aside from making frequent use of libraries?

Dennis_Johnson: Well, clearly the best thing you can do to support print book culture --- or book culture in general, because I don’t think in the end Amazon/Kindle is all that good for digital media either --- is buy books at independent bookstores. You should always shop at places that give a damn about the product and its consumer, no?

Dylanwolf : You should and I should, but I'm weak and I don't. In this modern culture of commodification it is getting increasingly difficult and self-flaggelant to be that discerning chaste citizen. The ubiquity and dominance of advertising and corporate power in politics has rendered such choices as impotent as the Hampel's postcards.


Joe Bean: Hi Dennis, I've read all of Fallada's work and think him a brilliant man. I want to thank you for bringing him back because he certainly deserves it. I've read his biography and wondered if you got any sense from his son as to why Fallada lived the way he did. What drove him to abuse alcohol and drugs? Obviously this is covered in the bio but I'm wondering if you could pass along anything else his son had to add.

Dennis_Johnson:  Well first, thank you for your generous comment.

I presume you’re talking about Jenny Williams’ biography of Fallada (the only one in English) and I agree with you that it doesn’t really get across much of a sense of the man, although simply listing the events of Fallada's life is a rivetting read in itself.

Still, Ulrich Ditzen, Fallada's eldest son whom I've gotten to know over the years, has spoken of his frustration with that version of his father's life to me---he feels it relies too heavily on interviews with his mother when she was in her unreliable and rather bitter dotage; he says he never heard many of the stories she tells there, could not vouch for them himself, and there is no other documentation of them.

And I know in its first page or two Williams gets the English-language publication history of Every Man/Alone in Berlin completely wrong --- she credits Penguin with the project, not Melville House, which is stunning to me, in its seeming deliberation especially, as I had contacted her early on after my acquisition of the rights and even asked her to write the intro (she told me she was “done with Fallada” and recommended the man most identify as the world's leading Fallada scholar, Geoff Wilkes, whom we were indeed lucky enough to work with), so …

But in any event the only other biographies of Fallada were written essentially at the behest of the Stasi. (See my interview --- in the HybridBook edition of any of the four Fallada novels published by Melville House --- with Sabine Lange, the former head archivist of the Fallada archives, which was controlled by the East German cultural ministry, which was apparently eager to cast Fallada as a proto-Communist.)

But as for what drove Fallada to be so self-destructive --- the key may be a couple of childhood incidents. As a boy, he was run over by a horse and carriage, which lead to a year’s hospitalization --- and an introduction to pain-killers. Then, as a teenager, he was involved in a suicide attempt gone horribly awry --- he and a friend agreed to shoot each other in a staged duel. The friend missed, Fallada did not, and he became so distraught at killing his friend that he shot himself, twice, in the chest, and amazingly survived … after a year of hospitalization and surgery and, again, massive amounts of painkillers.

Take that fragile character ahead a few years, have him be the favorite author of Joseph Goebbels, who pays him close heed as result, throw in a Depression and a few kids and a mortgage, and all the stuff I describe above in answer to Dylanwolff, and maybe you’ve got some idea of why he was an inveterate substance abuser. I can’t imagine a better reason to want a drink than having Joseph Goebbels breathing down your neck.

Still, what fascinates me about Fallada is that he didn’t leave Germany, like so many great writers did --- Hesse, Mann, Brecht. And the thing is, he could have: In 1938, Fallada’s British publisher, George Putnam (actually an American), sent a boat to get Fallada out of Germany. But at the last minute, Fallada decided he just couldn’t do it --- he couldn’t leave his country to the barbarians. There may have been something ultimately wise about that --- so many of the writers who fled ultimately committed suicide or died suicidal deaths (Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Toller).

But nonetheless it clearly took its toll that he was perhaps the most well-known writer on hand when the Nazis came to power. He was variously black-listed, thrown in prison, thrown in insane asylums, and called in for regular meetings with the powers-that-be.

His son Ulrich told me he used to stay up late at night listening to BBC reports about the war --- itself a crime punishable by death --- then report to his father over breakfast how the war was going. Ulrich said his father never said much, he just nodded; how long can this go on?

I’m fascinated by writers that stay in dangerous places like that. We publish several --- such as an Iranian writer named Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. He was jailed by the Shah, and banned by the Ayatollahs too. There have been several attempts on his life. And yet he won’t leave Tehran.

But as for Nazi Germany, there’s not much to compare to Fallada except one person, first pitched to me as “the female Fallada” --- Irmgard Keun. She was a bestselling author who ended up on a Gestapo hit list, so she took off with her boyfriend, Joseph Roth. Except she got homesick, so she staged her own suicide, snuck back into Germany, and stayed the war hiding out in a garret. We published a great book of hers called After Midnight. An amazing book, about a young girl trying to get to a party on the other side of town, except that the Fuhrer is coming to town for a speech and they’ve blocked the way. It’s an unbelievably powerful telling of the experience of facism. And find me another writer telling a woman’s experience of Nazi Germany --- from the inside, no less.


Pascal Luke Shaw: I doidn't know anything about this author but right now I am in the middle of reading Alone in Berlin on the strong recommendation of a friend. He also lent me The Kindly Ones by Jonathen Littell so he is obviously into a certain area of literature which is describing and imagining the world of Nazi Germany. Alone in Berlin is a different kind of book, a type of novel I haven't read in a long time, engaging yet strangely alien to the comfortable world we live in. Postcards lead to death. Can we believe that in our age of instant messages? Smalll actions lead to lethal consequences.

The characters inhabit worlds that switch between low-life Gidesque thieves to Nazi appartment block officials, judges, resistence members, post-women, whores, hard working women and the simple, courageuous couple who write. We see how people so easily fell in line with the control obsession of the Nazis but at the same time had options. I strongly recommend the book. It brings the Nazis down to the Untermenschen world they grew from and elevates simple actions of resistence to it's place in life. People like this still exist around the world today, unnoticed and unobserved; these are the real heroes. I wonder how many of us would be so strong as to write a simple postcard. Fallada brings the couple to life and I thank him for it.

Dennis_Johnson: And I thank you for these comments. I do think one of the most moving aspects of this book is that the protagonists are common folk --- middle-aged, uneducated, not that good-looking. Particularly moving to me is that it’s a love story --- this couple find out what they really mean to each other when the chips are down, and I mean down. It makes me tear up just to think about it.

See what happens when they make a movie of it --- which is supposedly going to happen.


Sally Yerbury-Brown: I just want to echoe other's posts in thanking you for bringing Fallada's work back into the light, he is a wonderful writer. As someone who understood the best and worst of the human condition it is perhaps not surprising he found comfort in drink after living through such atrocities. He shines a bright light on the duplicity for good or bad, condeming the evil but celebrating the brave. How many other books did he write? It's chilling to think what kind of books, if any, would he have written or been allowed to write if the Nazi's had won? Was he writing this book before the war ended and if so, was it in secret? And was he imprisoned because he openly didn't support the Nazi's?

Dennis_Johnson: And thank you, for these kind comments. Publishing Fallada was truly a labor of love, one of my proudest accomplishments.

To answer your question, Fallada wrote a lot of books. I like to think I’ve published his best and most important novels: Every Man Dies Alone; The Drinker; Wolf Among Wolves (his favorite novel); and Little Man, What Now?

But he wrote a lot of other books --- during Germany’s version of the Great Depression, he wrote to live. Interestingly, though, his son Ulrich once told me that he had no idea about the troubles the German economy was going through during his youth because his father kept them well fed and living in such a comfortable home. Only later did he figure out that was why his father seemed to be at his desk typing round the clock! Fallada wrote essays, magazine articles, film scripts, and every type of book imaginable, including novels, childrens’ books, and memoirs. (In fact, he wrote so many memoirs that he ran out of things to say and had to make things up for the later volumes --- which is why he’s not considered the best source on his own biography.)

As for his imprisonment, he was in prison on a number of occasions, not all of which can be blamed on the Nazis. He was imprisoned as a young man for embezzling from an employer (a farmer he worked for). He was imprisoned for not joining the Nazi party. And he was imprisoned after having a complete breakdown and shooting off a gun --- the imprisonment described above in answer to Dylanwolf.


Jmschrei : I am curious to know why the title "Alone in Berlin" was chosen for UK release while in North America a title closer to the German original was used. I bought my copy in Canada in the old fashioned way. I was browsing in a bookstore and the title "Every Man Dies Alone" caught my eye. I am not certain that the UK cover or title would have had the same impact. I will confess that I purchase books online and electronically as well but I still enjoy picking up something that looks good on impulse at a bookshop or library.

Dennis_Johnson: Well, with all due respect to the company now known as Penguin Random House, I have to say that I agree with you about the British title and packaging. I should clarify here that while my company, Melville House, owns the rights to Fallada in English, I licensed the UK rights, and our translation of the text, to Penguin UK. and the Penguin editor for the book told me he felt the author’s title was too bleak (as if Alone in Berlin was less so!). Still, while it’s not always true that a foreign-language author’s title works in English, I didn’t think that was the case with Fallada. I thought this one made complete sense in English, and any publisher’s goal should be to preserve the author’s writing. Plus, well, hell, the point of the book is that the TWO protagonists are NOT alone in Berlin. The picture on the cover of one man (alone, get it?) and the back cover text describing the story as being about "one man's" battle against the Nazis was simply inaccurate. Where was the woman who is the co-protagonist of the story? The book is, after all, one of the greatest love stories of all time. These two old, under-educated, poor people have each other … and the sense that there are others, willing to stand up for what’s right no matter what. The British title couldn’t be more wrong, ethically or descriptively.


RabBurnout: Thank you for bringing this remarkable, brilliant, disturbing writer to our attention.

I know something of the difficult circumstances of Fallada's life, but I wonder what you think compelled him to become a writer; and why do you think his work has touched modern readers in such a profound way?

I was extremely moved by Fallada's portrayal of the Quangels in Alone in Berlin - despite not finding the intiial motivation for risking their lives by writing and leaving the postcards, not entirely convincing - but I began to completely empathise with them, and become convinced by them as characters, and by their lonely act of incredible courage. I found the novel very harrowing , but ultimately redemptive and life affirming.

My question is - how accurate is the portrayal of the Quangels to the characters and motivation of the real life Hampsels? Also how much, if at all, was Fallada exorcising his personal demons and conflicts in his work?

Also -there was criticism of the novel in the reading group discussion as being badly written - to the extent that some found it unreadable.

What do you think of such criticism ? and , if true, is it right to think of Fallada as some kind of 'primitive' or 'naif' writer, whose work attains an emotional truth ,and has the authenticity and visceral immediacy of lived experience, despite technical flaws in the writing - or is this view patronising?

Dennis_Johnson : Thanks for this question. You touch upon something I find most significant about the book --- it's hard to read it without asking yourself what you would do in the same situation. That empathy is what makes it so utterly absorbing and, in the end, stirring.

As for your question --- the book is remarkably faithful to the Gestapo file on the Hampels, not only to the character of Otto and Elise Hampel, but the Gestapo interrogator who tracked them down, the other suspects in the case, and the way in which they were apprehended and released, and the way in which the cards were distributed and found.

The way in which the book diverges from the actual case is in what happened to the Hampels after they were captured. That's because Fallada never saw the complete Gestapo file. What he didn't see was paperwork relating to a last-ditch clemency appeal by the Hampels. And that paperwork reveals that, after significant torture, the couple denounced each other.

As for the criticism you cite --- I think Fallada knew exactly what he was doing and was in complete control all the time. If you look at his other books --- particularly The Drinker; Wolf Among Wolves (his favorite among his titles); and Little Man, What Now? --- you will be struck by how different they are, one from another. He was really a master stylist.


Samjordison: Hello! Why do you think that no one had published the book in English before you?

Dennis_Johnson: Well, it could be that because Fallada never left Germany during the war, there was the perception that he was a Nazi. Or it could be that because he ended up in East Germany after the war, people though he was a Communist.

But I think his books speak to the fact that neither charge was true. Which can only mean that the real reason no one had the wit to publish these books earlier was a simply a lack of editorial acumen. He was a bestselling author in English before the war, Hollywood movies were made of his books ... one would think they would have been looking at his post-war work with eagerness.


MythicalMagpie: Hmmm, why did you think it was important this book was brought to the notice of an English speaking readership? - and what do I have to do to atone for reading it on an Amazon Kindle?

Dennis_Johnson: To atone for having read this on a Kindle, you have to spend the rest of your days – and the rest of you money --- shopping at independent bookstores.

As to why I thought this book was important enough to bring it to the notice of an English-speaking audience …For one thing, before the war, Fallada was a bestselling author in both the US and the UK. (In the US, for example, Little Man, What Now? was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and made into a Hollywood movie … which, when the Nazis realized it was made by American Jews, led to Fallada being prohibited from selling his rights to foreign publication). So he wasn’t without a historic readership in English.

But moreso, when I acquired the book I was living in a country recently taken over by the far right, in the character of a president named George Bush. Our civil rights were being curtailed, surveillance of the citizenry was prevalent, and there was much about the country that felt like incipient fascism. The book seemed to me to be to a degree resonant with that experience.


Kevoslo: I was inspired by reading Alone in Berlin to think about what more I can do to stand up against oppression. Thank you for bringing this book to English!

I also have the Norwegian edition (Alle dør allene). According to the book flap copy, this version was translated more recently than the English version, and from a non-censored German original. After only a cursory comparison, the Norwegian version does in fact seem to contain more content than the English one. If this is in fact the case, will there be a new, unabridged English version?

Dennis_Johnson: With the help of the man who is perhaps the world's leading Fallada scholar, Geoff Wilkes, we examined the so-called "unexpurgated" edition of Every Man Dies Alone and decided it was really just "unedited" --- an earlier version of the manuscript. Fallada had signed off on the edition that was subsequently published just weeks after his death, which is what we translated and what we felt was the version he preferred. So we decided to stick with it, but in our newer edition of the book, the HybridBook edition, we include an essay by Wilkes about the deleted material, and we include a full translation of that material (which only amounts to a couple of pages).


ZeljkaMarosevic: Hi Dennis,I want to get to the bottom of this Diane von Furstenberg rumour: is it true? And -- my copy of Every Man Dies Alone is a Hybrid Book. Can you tell us a little more about what that means?

Dennis_Johnson: Yes, the Diane von Furstenberg rumor is true. We were doing a book by a relative of hers who had been an inmate at Auschwitz, a doctor forced to work with the infamous Dr. Mengele. (The book is called A Jewish Doctor in Auschwitz.) So we got to know DVF a little and we found out that she's a voracious reader and a very interesting one at that, and I quickly learned to ask her what she was reading, because she was usually reading books in other languages that hadn't been translated. And then one day she said, "I'm reading the most amazing book I've ever read, it's called Every Man Dies Alone, and you'd be a fool not to translate it and publish it." That led to a long search --- I started simply trying to find some of Fallada's other books that had been translated, back in the day --- but it all started with DVF.

As for the HybridBook format --- HybridBooks are print books we publish that come with a free ebook of related material. In the case of Fallada, for example, our edition of Every Man Dies Alone comes with extracts from the Gestapo files on the Hampels; an essay by Geoff Wilkes about the material deleted from the original manuscript; a magazine article Fallada wrote about reading the Gestapo file about the Hampels; translations of Fallada's related correspondence; an interview I did with Fallada's son Ulrich Ditzen, sitting at his father's writing desk in their old home; another interview with the former head archivist of the Fallada archives, who reveals the archives were controlled by the Stasi; photos given to me by Fallada's family, and more. Our other Fallada books (The Drinker, Wolf Among Wolves, and Little Man, What Now?) are also HybridBooks.

Samjordison: Do you know of any events commemorating the Hampel's anniversary today? Is anything happening in Berlin?

Dennis_Johnson: Here in the US, it's Holocaust Remembrance Week --- amazing that it starts on the anniversary day of the Hampel's execution, but that is just a coincidence. In Berlin, the government is doing a year-long remembrance called "Destroyed Diversity" that entails larger recognition of Nazi attrocities, but it does feature the Hampels' home as part of a tour of significant city sites. The old apartment building they lived in has become something of a tourist attraction over the last couple of years, particularly since Every Man became such a sensation, and there's a plaque on the building telling their story.

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