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Tuesday 17 September 2019

Tale of Nazi protester is all about honesty

FR MICHAEL COMMANE

ON TUESDAY morning just past midnight I finished the book, probably the best read of my life. I am not a quick reader but I tore through this book.

The book is Hans Fallada's 'Alone in Berlin'. It only appeared in English in 2009 having been written in 1947.

In ' Alone in Berlin' Otto and Anna Quangel live in a flat in Berlin. The good, the bad and the indifferent live in the apartment building. Otto is a foreman carpenter in a furniture factory, which is now making coffins.

It is 1940 and the German Army has rolled into France. The Germans are euphoric about the victory. And in those 'glory' days, the Quangels receive post telling them that their only child, also Otto, has fallen in France. Anna gets hysterical at the news, eventually telling her husband and adding, ' you and your Führer'. Middle aged Otto senior was not even in the Nazi party but had done well for himself during the early years when Hitler came to power.

He is a silent man with big awkward hands and within days of his wife's comment he decides to set out on an anti-Hitler campaign. He writes postcards denouncing the regime and leaves them in apartment buildings all over Berlin. He knows that if he is discovered it is curtains. He persists with extraordinary purpose. Nothing but capture will stop him.

The policeman put in charge of the case, Escherich, is fascinated and obsessed with the case and names his target the 'Hobgoblin'. He has a map on his wall marking all the places where cards were found and handed into the police - 276 cards and nine letters.

After two years Quangel slips up and is caught.

Inspector Escherich has been impressed with his Hobgoblin and now when he meets him face-to-face he realises what a special person he is. In all the time he has been looking for him he has picked up all sorts of creeps, hoodlums, cowards, sycophants, petty criminals, every type and all of them begged and pleaded for mercy. Eshcherich did many horrible and brutal things but he saw the goodness and bravery of Quangel, who was proud of what he had done.

The police inspector discovers that all but 18 of the postcards were turned into the police.

Escherich is so impressed with Quangel that he sees the folly of his job. It dawns on him how evil the Nazis are but realises that he is now unable to take up Quangel's baton and out of fear and despair shoots himself. He tells himself that he Escherich is probably Quangel's only convert.

The bravery, determination and lack of fear of those who oppose the regime is in stark contrast to those who are suppliant, approve and say yes to the Nazi authority.

It has nothing to do with class, occupation/profession, gender, none of those categories. It has all to do with those who are good and brave. It has all to do with what it means to be honest. It has all to do with speaking out openly and truthfully about what you believe and think.

I was particularly taken by the picture Fallada paints of two prison chaplains. Fallada does not believe in God or a life after death but he becomes greatly impressed with Father Lorenz - the first chaplain he encounters. He is a man in poor health and dressed in shabby clothes. Father Lorenz is greatly interested in the prisoners and is always willing to give them news of other prisoners - something strictly forbidden. He campaigns to have the drunken doctor removed from the prison and is not afraid to speak his mind to his superiors.

The other priest is referred to as 'Reverend'. He does not have a name. When Quangel tells the Reverend what a fine man Fr Lorenz was, the Reverend replies, 'Because he did your bidding! He was a weak man, Quangel. The man of God must be a fighter during these times of war, not a flabby compromiser'.

He asks Quangel to kneel down with him and pray. He takes a snow-white cloth out of his pocket and places it on the ground. It is only large enough for the Reverend's knees!

Fallada's insight of people is extraordinary. His description of the two different types of prison chaplains is remarkable and is as real and as authentic today in Ireland as it was in those terrible Berlin prison cells.

It's the best book I have ever read. Read it and prove me wrong.

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