The Political Power of Grief in Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone

The opening chapter of Every Man Dies Alone is one of gradually accumulating dread. The tension mounts just as Eva Kluge, the mail woman, climbs the stairs to the second-floor apartment of Otto and Anna Quangel, an elderly couple living in Berlin during Hitler's reign. It is the beginning of World War II and their son, Otto (tenderly referred to as Ottochen), is a soldier in the German army. In her hands, Eva Kluge holds Otto's death notice and she must hand it over to the Quangels. The loss will irrevocably alter their lives, plunging them into a deadly confrontation with the Nazi state.

The Quangels are based on the real-life Hampels, who wrote subversive postcards encouraging the German people to resist Hitler and the Nazis. From 1940 to 1942, Otto and Elise Hampel secretly placed the postcards all over Berlin until they were arrested and later executed by beheading in 1943.

Otto and Elise Hampel

Postcard written by the Hampels


Through a friend, Fallada discovered the Gestapo files on the Hampels and decided to write a book about the couple. In Fallada's fictionalization of the Hampels' story, he raises compelling questions about morality in times of war, what it means to resist a genocidal government, and how our individual actions ripple across history. But what I want to examine is the role that grief plays in the narrative.

I want to return to the opening scene of Every Man Dies Alone and the moment at which the Quangels learn of their son's death. In real life, Elise Hampel lost her brother, not her son, but Fallada makes a carefully calculated decision to portray the loss of a child and the devastation it causes. Anna Quangel's expression of grief is visceral. As she reads the death notice, "she emits a soft scream, a sound her husband has never heard from her." Her grief is intensely physical: her "cheeks and mouth continue to tremble, as her whole body trembles, caught up in some mysterious inner quake." Otto has not yet read the letter and doesn't know what it contains. Upon asking Anna to explain why she is reacting in such a violent way, she says "What do you think's happened? Nothing has happened, there is no Ottochen anymore, that's all!" The quake in Anna's body extends to the room as a fault line forms between Anna and Otto, separating them in their opposite expressions of grief. She is shaken while he remains stoic, unsure of what to say and unable to comfort his wife.

The death of Ottochen is a personal moment of rupture for the Quangels, but also a catalyst for political action. While the initial, brutal shock of his death temporarily cleaves Anna and Otto apart, they come together in a shared desire to fight back against the Nazi state that murdered their son. Grief awakens the Quangels, stirs them from their passivity and moral complacency. Grief at once destroys and rebuilds them. Who they were before Ottochen's death is obliterated. They are reborn as individuals dedicated to resistance.

Many lives were lost over the course of World War II. Every instance of personal loss did not spark a larger political consciousness but, for the Quangels, their grief is not just individual but social. It represents a call to arms, an awakening to the shared grief of an entire nation trapped under totalitarianism. Rather than seclude themselves or turn inward, the Quangels are compelled to do something, to take drastic measures. Writing postcards and placing them in public areas throughout Berlin may not seem like a major project and it certainly does not rise to the level of what partisans and organized resistance movements throughout Europe were doing during World War II, but, nevertheless, it carried the punishment of death. Anna Quangel observes that "whether their act was big or small, no one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back."

The Quangels' first postcard directly addresses the death of their son and uses Ottochen's death as a rallying call for the people of Germany to stand up against Hitler and the Nazis. The card begins with the provocative statement: "Mother! The Führer has murdered my son." It continues with: "Mother! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world." The Quangels use their grief to appeal to the mothers of Germany (and the world), to warn them that more death is coming and they too will know the grief of losing a child. The postcard could have started out in a number of ways, appealing to other demographics and rasing other issues but it is telling that a mother's grief is what the Quangels choose to emphasize.

For the Quangels, this is the natural thing to do. Grief triggered their political awareness and their subversive acts of treason. Without the death of Ottochen, there are no postcards. His death and the personal devastation it causes directly instigates the Quangels' political resistance. Fallada writes:
The first postcard in the war that was started by the death of their son is rightly about him. Once, they had a son; the Führer murdered him; now they are writing postcards. A new chapter in their lives. On the outside, nothing has changed. All is quiet around the Quangels. But inside, everything is different, they are at war.
People enlist in causes for countless reasons, from a desire to help their communities to a lust for power. For the Quangels, their fatal plunge into the anti-Nazi resistance movement, though performed on a small scale, is inspired by grief. The personal automatically becomes the political in the world of the Quangels. Shattered by the death of their son, they choose to fight back against the system that killed him and to use their grief as a warning call to others that, until the Nazis are defeated, the death will continue, children will keep dying, and mothers and fathers across Germany will suffer the Quangels' same fate.

Grief can be debilitating but it can also be a force for consciousness-raising, for ethical engagement, for communal connection. Grief can inspire massive protests or even just individual acts of courage that may seem small but can reverberate through history and affect the future in unknown ways. The Hampels were executed; they did not bring down the Nazi state on their own, but that's not what mattered. Though they died, they went to their death knowing that they had taken a stand for what they believed in. Fallada honors their lives in Every Man Dies Alone and ensures that their acts of bravery, rooted in profound grief, are never forgotten.