Alone in Berlin fans will be satisfied with a newly translated Hans Fallada

Rawer and more unevenly wrought than Alone in BerlinNightmare is the necessary precursor to that great work. 

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Returning to his apartment in ruined postwar Berlin from a sanatorium where he has been treated for drug addiction, Dr Doll, the protagonist of Hans Fallada’s autobiographical novel, dreams of retreating to “an imaginary world . . . to which he had always resorted ever since his earliest childhood at times when he was feeling particularly vulnerable”. In his fantasy he is “a Robinson Crusoe without Man Friday . . . who felt only fear at the thought of being ‘saved’ . . . and did everything possible to hide away completely from his fellow creatures”.

Like Fallada’s bestselling final work, Alone in Berlin, Nightmare in Berlin was published after his death in 1947, and here is translated for the first time into English by Allan Blunden. Fallada based his penultimate novel on his experiences in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Unlike many of his fellow German writers, he did not go into exile when the Nazis came to power but remained to share his nation’s fate – a decision described by the novelist Frank Thiess (who also decided to stay) as “inward emigration”.

The Nazi regime regarded Fallada with a mixture of distaste and opportunism. He was repeatedly blacklisted as an “undesirable writer”; yet he revised the ending of his 1938 novel, Iron Gustav, at the instigation of Joseph Goebbels. In 1946 he wrote: “The guilt of every line I wrote then still weighs on me.”

After a serious accident and a failed suicide pact in his teens, Fallada had suffered repeated nervous breakdowns and addiction to alcohol and morphine. With his first wife, Anna, he spent the war years mostly in a small town about fifty miles from Berlin. After divorcing in 1944, he married a young widow and fellow morphine addict, Ursula Losch. In 1945 the Russian military authorities appointed him mayor of his district, but the strain of his responsibilities drove the couple to breakdown; after a period in hospital they returned to Ursula’s apartment in the US sector of Berlin.

These events provide the framework for Nightmare in Berlin, which Fallada describes in his foreword as “essentially a medical report, telling the story of the apathy that descended upon . . . the better part of the German population in April 1945”. The first part, “Downfall”, opens with Doll in a mood of near-euphoria: “After weeks and months of passively waiting for the war to end, the hour of liberation now seemed nigh.” As their Nazi-supporting neighbours frantically attempt to hide from the advancing Russian forces, Doll and his wife, Alma, prepare to “welcome the long-awaited liberators at the door of our house”.

The celebratory mood swiftly sours. When the Russians arrive, they meet Doll’s greeting with “a look of stony indifference”. Reflecting on the incident, he feels paralysed with shame at the thought that he had “put himself forward . . . in the fatuous hope of showing them that there were ‘still some decent Germans’”.

His sensation of moral paralysis inten­sifies over the following months. Appointed mayor and given the task of purging a community of the Nazism whose spirit has poisoned it, Doll falls ill from exhaustion and despair.

Leaving the countryside for Berlin, Doll and Alma experience a fleeting exhilaration: “If there was . . . a chance for them to start again, it was in Berlin, a city reduced
to rubble, burnt out and bled to death.” Finding the city destroyed and their fire-damaged apartment occupied by squatters, they seek solace in the ministrations of a sinister, soft-spoken doctor who treats them with morphine.

Part two, “Recovery”, describes the couple’s slow emergence from their nadir of narcotic apathy, their turning luck signalled by small gestures of rare humanity: a neighbour offers Doll a coat; a local shopkeeper gives him groceries off the ration; his writing career is rescued by a colleague, Granzow (based on Fallada’s friend Johannes ­Becher, a communist writer). Doll’s dream of safety in Crusoe-like solitude is replaced by the cautious hope that “this beloved, wretched Germany, this diseased heart of Europe, would get well again”.

Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, took his pseudonym from two stories by the Brothers Grimm: Hans from the tale of a man who squanders all he has until he is left, light-hearted, with nothing; and Fallada from a talking horse that continues to speak truth even after it has been slain. The tension between these contradictory personae lies at the heart of the novel: his account of the agonised internal conflict of a writer, torn between the self-protective instinct to detach himself from the horror that surrounds him and the imperative to bear witness to it, has the appalled urgency of a confession with little hope of absolution. Rawer and more unevenly wrought than Alone in Berlin, Nightmare is the necessary precursor to that great work. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article appears in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories