It’s not the only irony of this novel that such a title leads a deeply life-affirming story. The book is essentially a meditation on individual response to unjust corrupt authority. The setting is Berlin at the start of World War II, an unambiguously evil authority in political control. Through the choices and actions of the characters, Fallada urges the essential questions for us: how do we live in an unjust society? is resistance moral, even possible? is resistance worth the cost of the almost inevitable failure to effect change?
Fallada faced that issue himself as he attempted to maintain his writing career through the 1930’s and by choosing to remain in Nazi Germany rather than emigrate. His own experiences and observations carry into the novel and give it powerful immediacy and authenticity. The story revolves around a working class couple whose son has died in the early months of the war. They decide to write postcards with anti-war/anti-Nazi messages and to leave them in public places to encourage others to resist. A small, probably futile scheme that nonetheless risks their lives and eventually the lives of others. They get away with it for a couple of years and imagine that the cards are having an impact. Like most people, they “believe what they hoped.”
Their are several other interlocking stories which show the whole range of responses to life in Nazi Berlin – enthusiastic participation, trying to live a separate private life, passive resistance, criminal opportunities, gaming the system and more. There is humor mixed with the horror, not all of the black variety. The repellent basement dwelling “super” is obsessed with stealing the goods from an upstairs apartment. His schemes are continually thwarted, though, like the rat he resembles, he survives all the destruction around him. The characters are well-drawn and much of the story is carried in dialogue which gives it an unexpectedly fluid easy-reading quality. As with a classic studio period movie, it’s easy to miss the structural care and skill in a “new realism” style novel.
All of the efforts at resistance fail, as we know they failed historically. It took armies and lives to bring down the Hitler government. Repeatedly, the resisters ask each other and then are asked by their interrogators, “Why? why do it?”
Eva Kluge, postmistress, quits her job and leaves the party to preserve her self-respect. Facing up to life alone, thinks maybe she can amount to more.
Judge Fromm retires rather than serve this government and tries to help threatened neighbors. His actions are undetected but “bombs fall on the just and unjust alike.”
Trudy, the son’s fiance, not sure what can be done, but knows the “main thing is that we remain different from them…Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis.” We can be “like good seeds in a field of weeds”
Otto Quangel, the card writer, a man who loved peace and quiet, but refuses to let that make him a coward who can ignore the oppression and injustice around him. Reflecting on his “crime” he thinks “my only crime was thinking myself too clever, wanting to do everything myself, though I know that one man is nothing.”
Dr. Reichardt, orchestra conductor, sharing a prison cell with Otto, asks him “who can say (if the cards did any good)? At least you opposed evil. You weren’t corrupted.” The time for a big plan was before Hitler came to power. “As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone or that our deaths will be in vain…we are fighting for justice against brutality”