Suffering Form Totalitarianism in Everyman Novel
In Hans Fallada’s book, Every Many Dies Alone, we see first-hand, the lives of those who live in a totalitarian regime. Ironically, we see that every man (or woman) does not die alone. It was shown again and again throughout the novel; even though it was disguised through all the death and torments the book shows us. Even though almost all of the characters who died were physically alone, they were never alone emotionally. However, every character in the novel experiences their death in a different way. Some being more willing to die, while others it was a hard concept to grasp. In addition, this novel shows that every human being can have agency, or the ability to act and cause change. This is portrayed in both a positive and negative way throughout the novel, and just like their deaths, each character experiences agency in their own personal way.
Being the main character of the novel, I would like to focus on Otto Quangel first. Otto’s first reaction to the Nazi’s is that of apathy. As long as the Nazi party did not affect his quaint life, he was happy. Fallada writes, “To him [Otto] a human being was a human being, whether he was in the Party of not.” (20). However, according to the philosophy of Arendt, Otto only lived his life of labor; a life that only sustained itself, disregarding both work and action, and ultimately led to the rise of the authoritarian regime of the Nazi’s. If Otto and the others had stood up and protested the rise of the Nazi party back in the 20’s, then the party may have never gained power and collapsed.
Just like all other characters in this novel, Otto has a form of agency that he directs upon the Nazi party. However, this agency was not necessarily started by the Nazi regime, but rather the Nazis more indirectly caused Otto’s form of agency. Whenever Otto and Anna received the letter about Ottochen’s death (11-13), Anna’s response was the triggering cause of Otto’s agency, rather than the death of his son. Anna furiously exclaimed to Otto, “That’s what you get…you and that Führer of yours” (13). He responded, “Me and my Führer? Since when is he my Führer?” (13). This dispute between Otto and his wife was ultimately the tipping point of Otto’s agency. Those six words, “you and that Führer of yours”, started the entire outbreak of Otto’s agency, and ultimately, his death. His agency of course, was the writing of the postcards. By beginning this action, Otto conclusively signed his life away to the Nazi regime, however, this did not stop him, he was not afraid of death, but rather curious of it. Even with having the cyanide capsule, Otto felt “a terrible, tormenting curiosity tickled him” (502). Otto’s curiosity ultimately led to his execution rather than his suicide. Additionally, Otto did not necessarily die alone like the title invokes. His and Anna’s love brought them together spiritually, even if they were physically separated. Anna was on Otto’s mind before he died. He wished her “the comfort of believing she [was] dying at the same hour as [he was]” (496). In conclusion, for a love like Otto and Anna shared, an individual is never truly alone.
Otto’s agency of the writing of the postcards is a very controversial topic even to this day. Many may argue that they were ineffective, while others would state otherwise. It does seem that they were largely ineffective though as 259 postcards along with 8 letters were turned in to the Gestapo. With 276 postcards written and 9 letters, all but 18 pieces of propaganda were turned in. (375-376) Inspector Escherich even stated, “it’s just that they were found by individuals do deeply compromised already that they didn’t dare hand them in. Those eighteen cards were just as ineffectual as all the others” (376). Escherich additionally stated, “Did you ever stop to think how much misery and fear you brought upon people with those card of yours? People were in terror, some were arrested, and I know of someone killing himself over one…” (375). so with all of this negativity, it seems that Otto’s postcards were ultimately ineffective. Nevertheless, it can be argued that it was not the postcards that were not the cause of the people’s terror, but the authoritarian regime itself. However, I would like to argue that the postcards caused the greatest change in this novel-the death of Inspector Escherich.
Inspector Escherich’s death is arguably the most important reaction from the postcards. By following the case for so long, the postcards actually affected how he thought about the Nazi regime. After the capture of the “Hobgoblin”, Escherich completely reversed his life. When ordered to smash his Armagnac glass over Otto Quangel’s head, he hesitated, and “He had to try four times, with trembling hand, before the glass broke” (379), presumably, because he felt remorse for Otto and knew that what he was doing was wrong, thus he held back his strength in order to save Otto the pain. Escherich additionally “had to face the mocking, challenging star of Quangle” (379) which made the situation even more uncomfortable for Escherich. The combination of remorse for Otto and the realization of the criminality of the Nazi regime later led to the suicide of Escherich.
“He drew out the pistol and fired. This time his hand hadn’t trembled” (381). Escherich’s finally committed the largest form of protest available-suicide. Similar to the self-immolation of the Tibetan monks, Escherich’s death had significant impact on the Nazi regime. Even though, “[I’m] probably the only man Otto Quangel converted with his postcard campaign” and “Otto Quangel’s only convert put the forman to the trouble of a couple of hours of grisly overtime” (381), Escherich’s death did not go in vain. Only a subtle change in authority can mean a large change in the end. In may seem odd to consider suicide a form a protest but in a totalitarian society such as Nazi Germany, many things can be used as a form of agency. Similarly to Otto, Escherich did not die alone, even though it seems like he did. By finally learning the truth about the Nazi regime through the “Hobgoblin” case, he put his soul at rest. By doing this, he was allowed to have a fresh conscious and allowed to spiritually guide Otto on his way through the rest of the novel and to his death.
Lastly, Trudel has her own personal habits of agency. Initially, she was the only character in the novel actively fighting back against the Nazi regime by having her secretive “resistance cell” (32) in the factory. She states even as individuals, we can make a huge impact on the Nazi regime, “We can vandalize the machines, we can work badly, work slowly…we must refuse to become Nazis” (32). Trudel has a very positive outlook against fighting the Nazi regime, and the death of Ottochen fueled her passion even further. She described herself and her colleagues like “good seeds in a field of weeds. If it wasn’t for the good seeds, the whole field would be nothing but weeds.” However, Trudel begins to lose her passion for agency once she settles down and gets married to Karl Hergesell.
Trudel’s death was arguably the most depressing in the novel. She was truly in love with Karl. “She was full of him, the air that she breathed was him, the bread she ate, the blanket that kept her warm, all him” (439). After learning about his death through Chaplain Lorenz, everything goes downhill for Trudel. She feels an “intense pain radiation out, chilling her like ice” (441), demonstrating how cold her heart became after the death of her husband. She had finally given up hope, and pitched herself “into the void” (442) and fell to her death. However, just as the other characters in this novel, she physically died alone, but not emotionally/spiritually. Her death ended her suffering and now she “[Trudel] shall see him once more” (440).
Even though death was a common theme throughout this novel, every man did not die alone-even though it seems like they did. Each death was both symbolic and augmented the eventual destruction of the Nazi regime. Fallada also gives us an opportunity to see what life was like in a totalitarian regime and how that affects the agency of characters in various situations. It is shown that in such a heavily disciplined society such as Nazi Germany, any action can be a form of agency as it just takes one event to change the life of another; as shown with the suicide of Inspector Escherich from Otto Quangel’s postcards. I believe this novel accurately portrays the struggles anyone experiences in any authoritarian regime, not only the Nazis; and overall, depicts how one simple action, such as writing a post card, can dramatically change one’s life.
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