Overcoming Fear and Speaking Up

Fallada Jeder stirbt

Hans Fallada: Jeder stirbt für sich allein. (English title: Every Man Dies Alone) ISBN 978-3-7466-2811-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Fear corrupts the human being more than wealth or poverty. Fear dissolves the social fabric like acid, it makes the individual feel alone and powerless, it paralyses him and perpetuates the miserable condition it propels him into. Fear can have multiple facets: the fear to lose a job, a family member, the fear to fail other people’s expectations, the fear of physical violence, of permanent surveillance, the fear to stand out or to be held responsible. Fear is a terrible thing. And the longer I observe society, the more I have to realize that many people I know or deal with are victims of some kind of fear and see not way to get rid of it.

In 1947 the German writer Hans Fallada published a novel about a couple that decided to overcome their fear of the all-powerful Nazi state and engage in a small act of resistance in Berlin during World War II. The plot was inspired by a the case  of Otto and Elise Hampel, who anonymously distributed between 1940 and 1942 post-cards with slogans calling into question the official propaganda and encouraging Germans to speak up against the war, the SS terror, the prosecution of the Jews, the lack of freedom of the press. A perilous act.

Fallada’s heroic couple are called Otto and Anna Quangel. The death of their son as a soldier during the campaign against France propels them into action. Fallada’s description of the two main characters, the evolution of their psychic condition and of the love that binds the two, is riveting. The many side-plots with very authentic secondary characters make for an entertaining read. The violent events – the arrest and death of the Quangels, the fate of some of the secondary characters – perfectly illustrate what fear can do to a society.

An extraordinary novel and an appropriate read at a time when tw types of fear seem to pervasive in Europe and the United States: the fear of uncontrolled immigration, the fear of right-extremist populists grabbing power. Fear leads to terror, terror generates new fear, and if fear isn’t countered it will destroy society. Courageous people are needed, people who dare to think and to speak their mind. Everybody’s voice counts. The Hampels didn’t wait for someone else to save Germany from the Nazis’ totalitarian state. They did what they had to do.

In Fallada’s novel, Otto Quangel is portrayed as a self-absorbed carpenter, interested only in his work. And at the beginning of the novel this is his true nature. It becomes a useful mask, once he has decided to resist. Who would suspect such an old, boring, reclusive fool? Once he has been imprisoned by the Gestapo, he meets another inmate, a conductor suspected of harbouring Communist ideas. He makes Quangel discover the music of Mozart and Beethoven. A defiant piece of music, written as an act of artistic resistance, is Beethoven’s incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 84:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness