What would you do if you knew that doing the right thing would spell your doom? Would you stop doing it?
What would you do if a prophet told you that everything you’ve worked for in your life will mean nothing in the future? Would you stop doing it? Or would you keep doing it, no matter what? We’re always in search of transcendence in our lives. Maybe you want to build a remarkable career in the field you’ve chosen, or perhaps you want to change the world and make it a better place for future generations, or you might be searching for that transcendence through love, family, or solid friendships that last a lifetime. We put our faith in those goals, and we’re filled with satisfaction every time we're one step closer to achieve them, no matter how small they might be. However, perhaps this hope is actually blinding us from the real repercussions our actions are having or lacking.
This is one of the main ideas in Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone. Fallada was the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen, the German author who wrote this novel in just 24 days. Despite being very prolific, he lived a tormented life. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol and spent most of his time in asylums. This novel was his last work, as he would die just a few weeks after its publication due to heart failure. Ironically, his last novel is about transcendence and the true impact of our actions, even when they bring seemingly pointless consequences.
This novel, based on true events, tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, a working class couple living in Germany during the Third Reich. Apparently, the couple leads a quiet life, and has a passive stance regarding Nazism, until they’re told their only son, who dreaded becoming a soldier, has been killed at the front because, just as many young German men, he was forced to join the army. The couple leave aside their passivity and decide to start an anonymous campaign to speak out against the unfairness and cruelty of the Nazis through postcards that he and his wife leave all over the city with statements such as “Mother! The Führer has murdered my son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”
Throughout the novel, Anna constantly asks her husband about the real impact those postcards are making on people . He lifts her spirits by telling her that, as small as this action might seem, anyone can read the cards, and even if just a few people have done so, the message make leave an impact on them. It doesn't matter if they’re caught by the Gestapo: he believes that their act is valuable because of the fact that they resisted against Nazism and didn’t adopt a passive position. Indeed, this optimistic way of seeing things does help the couple in their moments of doubt and even gives them the brief sense of satisfaction that comes when you do “the right thing.” Nevertheless, the novel gets even darker when they realize that the Gestapo are indeed looking for them, and even worse, they have managed to get rid of and destroy all of their postcards, so basically no one has read their messages.
Otto and Anna Quangel were based on Otto and Elise Hampel, a real-life couple that spread postcards all over Berlin when Elise’s brother was killed. As you may have guessed, the Hampels’ campaign didn’t work at all to end World War II or overthrow Nazism. They were arrested by the Gestapo and executed in 1943. If we leave the story here, it looks like this couple died for nothing and the only thing they did was doom themselves with their good actions. However, when Fallada heard of their story, he highlighted its transcendence, showing how these two people fought and resisted, in their own way, the titanic Third Reich.
Whether you see them as the Quangels or the Hampels, it’s inevitable to wonder how many unknown cases there are about people condemning themselves or failing, as they try to do the right thing or reach a greater goal and achieve nothing. However, as heartbreaking as Fallada’s novel might seem at first sight, in the end, a small ray of hope shines when you realize that this transcendence is just a matter of perspective. There are no unimportant actions nor insignificant goals. The consequences might not be as big and noticeable as you’d expect it, but everything you do has an effect on your surroundings, and so on. Perhaps the Hampels didn’t overthrow the Führer, but they were heroic enough to inspire Fallada to write their story and remember those who resisted fascist oppression with their lives, and also inspire more people in the future, showing that no good deed goes completely unnoticed.
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Images from the film Alone in Berlin, based on Fallada's novel.