“A Gnat Against an Elephant”: Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone


“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? The Führer, who has already conquered half the world and will overcome the last of our enemies in another year or two? It’s ludicrous! You must have known you had no chance! It’s a gnat against an elephant. I don’t understand it, a sensible man like you.”

For a novel about courageous resistance to tyranny, Every Man Dies Alone has surprisingly few moments of high drama or eloquence. The low key at which the novel is pitched, however, is what makes it so effective and, ultimately, so devastating. None of its motley array of characters are boldly heroic–or, on the other side, particularly villainous (with some exceptions): most of them are just painfully ordinary people with common garden-variety needs, hopes, flaws, and grievances. They become extraordinary only because they are all living under the Third Reich, a context which changes at once nothing and everything. Once upon a time they didn’t have to consider the moral implications and personal risks of mundane activities such as going to work, visiting a relative, or helping out a friend or neighbor. Now the pervasive possibility of surveillance, betrayal, accusation, and punishment strips them of the privilege of living an unexamined life–at least if they have even a lingering shred of conscience. But even for the thoughtless grifters, liars, and weasels among them, the natural instinct for self-preservation puts them in constant creeping contact with deeper moral corruption. One way or another, knowingly or not, for all of them a day of reckoning inevitably looms.

One of Fallada’s memorable achievements in Every Man Dies Alone is to immerse us completely in the minutiae of this world that is rotting from the inside out. He never attempts to paint with a broad brush, to pull back and show us the big picture. Instead, he helps us grasp the scale of the decay through the Dickensian device of minor characters spiraling outward from the central plot, their stories at once individual and intersecting. The overall effect is of a vast web in which they are all entangled and by which they are all contaminated. No one in the novel is free of the sticky strands of fascism: playing along with the Nazis gives you only the temporary illusion of control or power, while fighting them may tear at filaments but cannot destroy or even damage the ruinous system itself.

Otto and Elise Hampel, the real-life Quangels

Or can it? What is the value of individual resistance amidst such an all-encompassing catastrophe? And does resistance have to be effective to be meaningful? These are the questions at the heart of Every Man Dies Alone, embodied in the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, who are roused to belated opposition to the Nazis by the death of their soldier son in a war they never really believed in. “Isn’t this thing that you’re wanting to do, isn’t it a bit small, Otto,” Anna asks when Otto reveals his plan to scatter subversive postcards around the city. “Whether it’s big or small,” he replies, “if they get wind of it, it’ll cost us our lives.” What, after all, can anyone risk beyond that? “The main thing was,” Anna concludes, “you fought back.”

The writing of the first postcard is their declaration of war: “war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory.” The victories they hope for are indirect and individual: to change minds, perhaps inspire similar small acts of opposition to the regime, and–most important of all–stay themselves. “The main thing,” as their son’s fiancée (herself a member of a small resistance cell) says to Otto even before he has committed to his own rebellion,

“is that we remain different from them, that we never allow ourselves to be made into them, or start thinking as they do. Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis.”

Much later, in prison, Otto meets Dr. Reichhardt, a conductor who has “not very actively opposed the Hitler regime, nor conspired with others, nor put up posters, nor plotted assassinations, but had simply lived in accordance with his principles,” a simple-sounding resolve which has led him, among other things, to speak frankly about “how disastrous the course was that the German people were taking under their Führer.” To Otto’s lament that his postcards ultimately made no difference–“and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?”–Reichhardt replies, “it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end,” a moral imperative that Otto eventually echoes to his lawyer, who wonders if he isn’t “sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that.” “At least I stayed decent,” Otto rebukes him:

“I didn’t participate. . . . What was your price for turning into such a fine gentleman, with creased trousers and polished fingernails and deceitful concluding speeches? What did you have to pay? . . . You know perfectly well that the man behind bars is the decent one.”

alone-in-berlinThe main driver of the novel’s plot is less the distribution of the postcards themselves than the investigation  launched to discover the writer of these ineffectually seditious messages. It is led by Inspector Escherich, who pursues the criminal he dubs the ‘Hobgoblin’ more out of stern professionalism than any particular dedication to the Führer. When he finally has the Quangels in custody, though, Otto “vanquishes” him with the reality of this long-awaited victory: in “just” doing his job, he has been willingly complicit in the regime’s cruelty and injustice. “You’re working in the employ of a murderer,” Otto points out, “delivering ever new victims to him. You do it for money; perhaps you don’t even believe in the man.” Pressured by the celebratory SS to join them in “baptizing” Otto by smashing their glasses over his head, Escherich has “the sense that he was hitting out at himself, striking with an ax at the roots of the tree of his own life.” Unable to bear what he has done and who he has become, Escherich–“Otto Quangel’s only convert”–takes his own life.

There are ways in which a novel about a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler or sabotage a munitions factory or otherwise cause disruption on a much bigger scale would be more exciting than one about a middle-aged couple leaving postcards around. Yes, Fallada was  telling the Hampels’ story, but he made other changes to it and could always have raised the stakes in the service of melodrama, after all. In the end, though, I think it is precisely the small scale of the Quangels’ activism that makes Every Man Dies Alone so powerful. For one thing, as Otto points out at the start, even that minor infraction is enough to cost them their lives; the disproportion of the risk and then the punishment is itself a grim measure of fascism’s violence, of the extremities required to maintain its totalitarian order.

More than that, though, there’s something so disarmingly and deceptively manageable about the postcards themselves.  Fallada’s tone throughout the novel is so prosaic and matter of fact, and his Quangels are so very low key themselves, that I nearly made the same mistake as Escherich, underestimating their accomplishment because I measured the scale of their resistance against the vastness of their enemy. Then I saw the reproductions of some of the Hampels’ actual postcards (included in the Melville House edition of Every Man Dies Alone) and found myself affected more powerfully by them than by the novel’s account of the Quangels’ deaths:

“German people wake up! We must free ourselves from Hitlerism!”

That laborious lettering is at once unbearably humble and unthinkably heroic. Anyone could do such a thing–it takes no special skills, no fancy equipment, no elaborate conspiracy, no great physical strength–but how many people would? Would you? Would I? Would we stay decent, even if writing a postcard was “all” it took? In putting the means so close to hand for all of us, Fallada makes it painfully clear that the smallest act of resistance is much more difficult and thus much more precious than we thought.

4 thoughts on ““A Gnat Against an Elephant”: Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone

  1. Jeanne December 8, 2018 / 2:39 pm

    I don’t think this is a “would” question, at least for Americans, anymore. As I said in my most recent post, “IF YOU EVER WONDERED WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE DONE DURING 1930’S GERMANY OR THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT; CONGRATULATIONS: YOU ARE DOING IT NOW.”
    I just got home from the weekly demonstration I coordinate on the town square. We hold signs, and sometimes I do think about how small and ineffectual that seems, half an hour a week in one town in the middle of a vast country. It’s also horribly cold, and I hate cold. And yet we keep doing it, because silence implies consent. I do not consent to what is happening in my country. I will keep standing out there with my signs about immigration and health care and environmental controls until people quit shouting rude things and giving us the finger. That’s how we know it’s still worth it.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 8, 2018 / 5:06 pm

      I actually was thinking about that exact post of yours as I was working on this one. At this point the price of resistance is still not certain death, but the implication in the novel and in your comment, I think, is that the slide towards that is gradual and may even seem unremarkable in the moment. It is hard sometimes not to feel as if the rhetoric around the current situation is extreme, and yet so many experts on the rise of Nazism in Germany keep pointing out that it’s not the kind of thing that comes all at once with clear markers. I wish this book hadn’t felt so pertinent.


  2. Teresa December 9, 2018 / 3:47 pm

    One of the things I loved about this book was the way it focused on being the person you want to be instead of doing the most effective thing. I think it’s easy (for me, anyway) to get stuck because it’s not clear what work is the most effective, but the point is to do something. I always feel better when I do something, and I think it’s because that’s when I’m being the person I want to be. Effectiveness is worth considering, I think, but no course of action is a sure thing, and it’s better to do something than to wait for a guarantee.

    I had a guided tour of the Holocaust Museum in DC last week, and this book came to my mind several times. And, yes, it was troubling how pertinent both the book and the museum seem.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 10, 2018 / 10:06 pm

      I think, too, that focusing on what’s effective becomes kind of paralyzing A couple of articles came out around the Women’s March in 2017 that helped me a lot by pointing out that there isn’t just one cause and there isn’t just one way to be an activist: the thing is to identify something you can do, that works for you and aligns with your values and skills, and do that. It’s never going to seem like enough if your standard is “big change that I can see right away.”


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