20th July 1944. Claus von Stauffenberg and others attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler by placing a suitcase bomb in his meeting room in Wolfsschanze. Hitler survives the attempt, and in the aftermath more than 7,000 German army personnel and civilians are arrested, of which almost 5,000 are executed. Not all of the arrested or executed people were actually involved in the conspiracy, now known more popularly as Operation Valkyrie.
As the Nazis took over Germany, they clamped down on all forms of dissent, at first through mock trials and incarcerations of their enemies, and later, as they grew big enough that no one could openly oppose them, simply making them disappear. Despite this, there were people who risked everything to continue resisting in their own ways. Some barely survived till the end of the war. Many of them didn’t. Alone in Berlin is the story of one such couple, based on the real story of the Elise and Otto Hampel.
It is 1940. France has just surrendered before the German military might, and the loyal citizens of the Fatherland are celebrating. Not everyone is in the mood, though. On that very day, Anna and Otto Quangel, a quiet, unobtrusive couple living in the suburbs of Berlin, receive news of their only son’s death. Until then, both have been ambivalent towards Hitler, the Nazis, and their methods. They may have not agreed with their child being conscripted into the army or felt uncomfortable with the arrest of Herr Rosenthal, the Jew who lived on the top floor of their apartment building, but never have they voiced it out. But this changes with the arrival of the letter.
The usually subdued and servile Anna lashes out at Otto even as he attempts to console her, blaming “him and his Fuhrer” for their child’s death. Otto is aware that she speaks out of her grief, but the comment rankles him enough that he starts introspecting on whether it really is “his Fuhrer”. His worldview is further shattered when he informs his son’s fiancé of his death and she accidentally lets slip that she is being recruited into an underground cell opposing the Nazis. Even as he dissuades her from embarking on this dangerous mission, the seeds of resistance are being planted in his own mind, and the final event of the day tips the scales for him.
A family of ardent Nazis in the Quangels’ building decide to “make an example” of Frau Rosenthal who now lives alone in the flat. They direct a couple of thieves to enter the house, beat up Frau Rosenthal and split her belongings fifty-fifty. Unknown to the thieves, the family plans to double cross them, hand them over to the Gestapo, and get all the valuables in the bargain. None of this goes according to plan however, as Otto returns home from his factory shift just then, and upon hearing the noise decides to investigate. He is accompanied by retired Judge Fromm, another resident, and they both observe the scene in the house – the tied-up thieves and the covetous family.
In the presence of witnesses, the family is forced to abandon their plan, and Otto and Judge Fromm return to their homes, puzzling over the fact that Frau Rosenthal was nowhere to be seen. For Otto, the question is answered when he arrives at his own flat. Not only is his son’s fiancé there, but so is the old Jewish lady! Anna, in a sudden burst of defiance, has hidden her even as the thieves were making their way to her place. This is all too sudden for Otto, and he orders both to be gone from his house the next morning. The fiancé is told to build a new life for herself, and never contact them again, while Frau Rosenthal is directed to approach Judge Fromm, who has declared to Otto an intention to keep her safe if she comes to him.
Otto also has other motives for wanting nothing to connect him or Anna to anything that looks remotely treasonous; he’s planning some treasonous resistance of his own. What started off as a germ of an idea due to Anna’s “your Fuhrer” remark has emerged as a plan to get back at the regime that cost him his son. Unlike Anna, though, the meticulous, methodical Otto takes his time to build it up, spending weeks in finding out the most inconspicuous ways of carrying it out. True to his nature, even his plan isn’t ostentatious or large-scale; he plans to write postcards with messages denouncing the Nazis and surreptitiously drop them in areas where people can see and read them, a couple a week.
It seems so tiny, so inconsequential, that even Anna is disappointed in the beginning. But as Otto starts explaining his vision of the postcards being read and passed from one hand to another in secret, inspiring people to think and talk act against the regime, ultimately reaching thousands if not more with their messages, she gets caught up in the simple effectiveness of his idea, foreseeing a possible future where the Nazis are overthrown in a revolution birthed by their postcards.
And so, they get to work. Otto procures postcards, inks, pens, painstakingly covering his tracks to safeguard against eventual discovery; he has no doubt that they will be discovered some day, but wants to prolong that day for as long as he can. He experiments with the kinds of messages he wants to write, settling for a simple one to begin with, appealing to the people to resist against the regime in any way they can. His research has shown him the perfect place to begin with as well – a not too large commercial building whose stairwells are relatively secluded.
The actual drop goes off so smoothly that even Otto who has devised the plan is surprised by the ease of it. He and Anna start their endeavour in earnest, identifying potential buildings, discussing the topics they will write about and crafting the contents of the postcards together. They are careful enough to not drop any postcards in the immediate vicinity of their own house, trying to spread out the locations as much as their work will allow them to without drawing attention to their movements.
For six months, they regularly drop the postcards in places people are bound to find them. In their minds, they envision a slowly rising swell of resistance born of their messages, laying the groundwork for when the masses would rise as one against their Nazi masters. They could not be further from the truth, however. Almost all their postcards, once discovered, have been handed over to the Gestapo immediately by the finders, who are desperate to convince the police they had nothing to do with them. The Gestapo for their part initially treats them as a random incident, but as their frequency increases become annoyed enough to appoint an inspector to solely focus on this case.
The inspector is old school, having been a detective in the Berlin police force before joining the Gestapo. While his superiors demand instant results, he knows a case like this could take months to solve since the miscreant is expertly hiding his movements, and his reputation of solving seemingly impossible cases in the past gives him the authority to demand time. In those six months, though, he does manage to build up a profile of his mystery writer – he is definitely a man, most probably living by himself, isn’t very educated, and most certainly lives in a specific suburb in Berlin since with the suspicious lack of any postcards at the center of it, most of the postcards have been found there; it is the only lapse in Otto’s meticulous planning.
It is around this time that small chinks start appearing in Otto’s well laid plans. The random appearance of a person just as he is about to drop a card has him carry it with him for the rest of the day until he can dispose of it, the immediate discovery of another card has him flee in haste from the building. Although prepared for being caught in the long run, it still unnerves Otto. He contemplates giving up the entire mission but is convinced to continue by Anna with descriptions of the rebellion they are creating with their small contributions.
The inspector gets a break in the case when a man is caught with the incriminating card, but it turns out to be a petty thief who doesn’t fit the profile he has created. He wants to continue searching for the real culprit, but his superiors override him, insisting he interrogate the man for information and make him confess to being the writer. He does so, albeit reluctantly, and devises a plan where releasing the thief might lead him to the source. The plan backfires, the thief almost escapes, and the inspector is forced to kill him. His superior, in a fit of rage, has him removed from the case, arrests him for incompetence and assigns the case to another officer.
The other officer disregards all of the inspector’s theories, choosing to concentrate on one of his own. It leads him nowhere, and after a couple of false arrests and the postcard writer still on the loose, he too is dismissed, and the inspector is brought back to the case. It is a very different inspector that returns, though. Tortured, beaten up, his former confidence has deserted him, making him a shadow of his former self, but one that still awaits the eventual mistake the writer will commit that will land him in his net.
He doesn’t have to wait long. Otto is asked to cover a work shift other than his own at the factory, and unable to drop the two cards he is carrying with him, is forced to bring them with him. Anna has been helping him with the drops for some time, but today she is unwell. The cards drop out of his pocket on the factory floor, are discovered, and the entire building is locked down while the Gestapo are sent for. The inspector while searching for anything out of the ordinary that could explain the appearance of the cards realizes this isn’t Otto’s regular shift and, on a hunch, checks his address; it is in the circle where no cards have ever been dropped.
The Gestapo arrive at the Quangels’ home and proceed to thoroughly search it, over the protests of the sick Anna. They find Otto’s pens and inks, but there are no postcards since the ones in his pocket were the last ones used. They do, however, find one with an unfinished draft in the unlikeliest of places – stuck in a book, kept there by Otto long ago when he was interrupted by visitors and then forgotten. It is proof enough for the Gestapo to take the Quangels into custody. Once captured and questioned, Otto tries to take all the responsibility for the cards, insisting Anna had no part in it, while telling them everything about the events that prompted his actions.
The Gestapo doesn’t care. For them, Anna is guilty simply by association with Otto. They extend the same twisted logic to arrest anyone who they might have known and interacted with during the period they were writing the cards – Anna’s brother and his wife, and even their dead son’s fiancé, who has moved out of Berlin and married someone else. Every one of them is interrogated and tortured to try and get more information out of them. To break Otto down, he is told of how almost all of his postcards were turned in immediately by the docile populace. The news shatters him, but even then, he refuses to implicate anyone else.
The inspector is a spectator to all of this. Once the arrests have been made, his superiors have been quick to claim credit for cracking the case while relegating him to the background. Having read Otto’s postcards, profiling him, and trying to outthink him over the course of the investigation has given the inspector a measure of admiration for him. As he sees the Gestapo interrogators go to work, bullying, disregarding rules, humiliating the captives, it brings back into sharp relief his own degradation at their hands. He finally sees and understands the truth in Otto’s words and ends up shooting himself in the head at his desk for having aided this regime. In the end, the only person in all of Berlin that Otto converts is his own captor.
The Gestapo aren’t done with the Quangels yet. They stage a court trial, where everything from their youth to their refusal to join the Nazi party to their son being a conscript instead of a volunteer is held up as proof of their depravity. The prosecution and the judge work in tandem, disallowing the cross questioning of any “witnesses” or even letting Otto and Anna speak throughout the trial. The only time they get a chance is when the judge is summing up the arguments; a chance Otto utilizes fully to tell the court exactly what he thinks of them – their machinations, their bullying, destructive nature, everything. The enraged judge, who until then was going to pronounce life sentences, promptly changes it to the death penalty.
While on the death row, both Anna and Otto have an unexpected visitor, their former neighbour, the retired Judge Fromm. Having used his influence as an erstwhile member of the judiciary, he was present for their trial and was witness to everything that happened, and comes to them with a way out and a final act of defiance against the regime – cyanide capsules to cheat the executioner. They both accept the gift, but having no idea of when they will actually be executed – another form of torture by the Nazis – Otto procrastinates until the last possible moment and loses his chance. Anna is seemingly forgotten and lives on physically in prison while mentally retreating into a world of her own that she shares with her Otto.
Alone in Berlin confronts us with sober reality. For all their efforts, the Quangels and others like them who opposed the Nazis in their own way could do nothing to bring them down. The combination of brute strength, blind obedience, and complete control over every aspect of their citizens’ lives ensured that no internal dissent ever reached threatening levels for the Nazis. What they couldn’t control, they simply destroyed without opposition. Only external force was strong enough to defeat them, and that too at the cost of years long blood drenched conflict.
Fallada warns us that when a regime achieves this level of power and control, internal resistance is too little too late. If not nipped in the bud before it has a chance to spread and infect others with their ideology, a regime such as this will result in a population either too brainwashed to question them or to cowed to oppose them. Even though in the book he credits the Quangels with a moral and ethical victory over the Nazis, in real life he was quite dismissive of the Hampels’ reason for rebelling as well as their methods.
The debate on who can or cannot be considered a Nazi has always been a topic that crosses the lines of moral ambiguity several times over. Nowhere was it more debated than by the defeated German populace in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s surrender, when most of those who were at best passive onlookers and at worst active participants in Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich scrambled to differentiate themselves from those in uniforms or in the Party with variations of, “I was only doing my job” or, “I only did it because everyone was doing it”. For these, the highly publicized captures and trials of the top Nazis was a godsend, allowing them to exonerate themselves by saying, “At least I didn’t do that.”
Fallada tells us that it doesn’t make a difference. If you kept quiet, if you did nothing, if you pretended to support them but didn’t really, if you compared your minor infractions to those of the killers and planners as a way of saying you can’t be grouped with them, you’re still one of them; you’re still a Nazi. Because your inaction still allowed them to get away with all they did, and that makes you complicit in their crimes. Only the ones who dared to oppose the regime in whichever fashion, big or small, whether their victories were physical, moral, or even if they failed trying are the ones that could ever be considered untainted.