Strange tale of the anti-Nazi bestseller, the Stasi spies and the missing Gestapo files

By Philip Oltermann | The Observer

Vincent Pérez’s film Alone in Berlin, which premieres with a grand live event at the Imperial War Museum in London on 26 June, hopes to be a summer hit in British cinemas. Starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, the film tells the story of a working-class German couple who embark on a propaganda campaign against Hitler’s regime after learning of the death of their son.

Based on the 1947 novel by the German writer Hans Fallada – a surprise bestseller after Penguin commissioned a new translation in 2009 – it has been hailed as a “redemptive” tale and a “story of resistance and hope”.    

Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson are the married couple who spread wartime subversion in this decently-intended adaptation of Hans Fallada’s novel

Unfortunately, real life is rarely that simple. Historians in Germany allege that Fallada’s fictionalised depiction of resistance to the Nazis has only helped to cover up a true story of collaboration with the communist regime that followed in East Germany.

Fallada, who declined to follow other German writers into exile during the Third Reich and accepted a commission from Joseph Goebbels for a novel glorifying the Nazis’ rise, did not himself come up with the idea for Alone in Berlin, originally entitled Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Everybody Dies Alone).

Instead, the book was conceived and commissioned by Johannes R Becher, a leading apparatchik in the Soviet military administration, who had been charged with rebuilding German culture on anti-fascist principles. In search of heroes, Becher had come across the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a poorly educated, previously apolitical couple who spent nearly three years evading the Gestapo in order to leave handwritten cards with anti-Nazi messages around Berlin after hearing of the death of Elise’s brother.

In order to persuade Fallada to write the book, Becher, the de facto culture minister, had to tamper with the source material. Recent research, published in Germany after Alone in Berlins revival, has shown that the batch of Gestapo files handed to Fallada was missing a volume that showed how the Hampels petitioned for mercy and accused each other of being the main instigator behind the postcard campaign.

“The GDR [the East German state] wanted resistance fighters to be uncompromising heroes who died with the word ‘revolution’ on their lips. But that was a lie, or at least not the whole story,” said Christiane Baumann, a historian who has researched how East German politicians used literature for ideological ends. “Fallada wasn’t the incarnation of the resistance, nor were the people in the original story that inspired his novel. That’s what made them so interesting,” she added.

“If Fallada had seen the Hampels’ petitions for mercy, he would certainly have written a different novel,” said Sabine Lange, an archivist, who has worked at the author’s archive in the Mecklenburg countryside.

Fallada died, aged 53, shortly before Alone in Berlin’s publication in 1947, but the cult around his works and personality continued to play a crucial role for an East German regime with an exponentially expanding ambition to monitor and control its citizens.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, East Germany bought Fallada’s estate and then the novelist’s ashes from West Germany in order to establish a museum and archive in his name at a literature centre in Neubrandenburg – one of a network of cultural institutions an increasingly paranoid state had set up with the expressed intention to attract and spy on aspiring writers with “hostile-negative attitudes”.

As with the story of the Hampels, the GDR made sure that aspects of Fallada’s personality and career which didn’t suit the mould of the spotless working-class hero remained less visible than others.

Born Rudolf Ditzen, Fallada was a conflicted character with a troubled past, who had killed a friend in a suicide pact disguised as a duel aged 18, and suffered from alcoholism and morphine addiction throughout his life. During the build-up of the new East German state, Socialist Unity party leader Walter Ulbricht had informed Moscow in a telegram that Fallada’s “novels should be published, but not his biography”.

A prison diary in which Fallada described an editor at his old publishing house as a “small degenerate Jew” remained locked in his East German publisher’s drawer for 30 years.

A Dutch academic who contacted the archive with an interest in fatalistic tendencies in Fallada’s writing was only granted restricted access, because he was pursuing a psychoanalytic approach, a “pseudoscience” compared with the true science of Marxism, noted GDR-era archive director and Fallada biographer Tom Crepon.

Crepon was not just the guardian of Fallada’s public image but also a collaborator with East Germany’s secret service, the Stasi, who under the pseudonym “IM Klaus Richter” filed regular reports on writers who passed through the centre, even going as far as accusing a rival biographer of using his interest in the novelist’s life as a cover for travelling to the west.

Even though the Fallada archive’s function as a surveillance centre became public when the Stasi’s records were opened after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some former staff members allege that the centre has yet to fully engage with its oppressive past.

Lange, who worked as an archivist at the centre for 15 years, was fired in 1999 after describing her workplace as “unfree”. “The centre had once been a nest of spies, but when the fall of the Wall came, it didn’t feel like a turning point,” she said. “Many of the old patterns of thinking remained.”

“In my view, the spirit of the past still lingers,” said Baumann, who wrote a critical study of the literature centre and its Stasi connections in 2006 which was promptly dismissed by Fallada’s son in a local newspaper. “There was never a radical break,” she added.

Approached with these allegations, the centre’s current director, Erika Becker, points out that a working group produced, though never published, a report on the literature centre’s Stasi connections in 2005.

A newly commissioned book of the Fallada archive’s GDR history was published in 2007, though some critics have accused the author of downplaying the Stasi angle. “The literature centre was the first cultural institution in Neubrandenburg which has opened up its history to discussion in public events,” said Becker.