The Makings of History / Of Images and Truths

As the novel of 'Alone in Berlin' is published in Hebrew, it is a good time to discuss the way Germany has managed to alter its historical image.

During World War II, Elise and Otto Hampel were simple Germans who did not believe they had the ability to influence the political history of their country. In any event, the rise of the Nazis did not actually change their lives - until Elise's brother was killed in the fighting. His death shocked his sister and her husband so much that the two began to disseminate protest postcards in the streets of Berlin. They were caught, sentenced to death and executed in 1943.

Otto and ELise Hampel

As a consequence of the war, Germany was divided into two: In the eastern part a communist dictatorship was established, which like all such regimes invested a great deal of effort in shaping the country's political culture. At the same time, the East Germans created a fiction to the effect that most of its residents had been opponents of the Nazis, not supporters of the regime or perpetrators of its crimes - as opposed to most of the residents of West Germany. This fiction eventually led, among other things, to East Germany's refusal to compensate Holocaust victims, as though it wasn't their problem, only that of West Germany.

The tendency to deny responsibility for the crimes of Nazism also led to an emphasis by East German authorities on isolated acts of resistance, such as the protest postcards distributed by the Hampels. Communist writer Hans Brecher, a political commissar and later minister of culture in the East German government, handed the Hampel file to his friend, Rudolf Dietzen, a famous writer at the time who went by the pen-name Hans Fallada. Dietzen adapted the story into a novel within less than a month. It was published in 1947.

"Every Man Dies Alone," Dietzen-Fallada's book, was relegated to oblivion until it was rediscovered, published about two years ago in English, with the new title "Alone in Berlin," and became a best seller. The New York Times considered its publication the literary event of 2009, which was a good reason to publish it in Hebrew as well (it was recently published by Yedioth Ahronoth ).

The large number of books about Berlin being published in the last few years in Hebrew is part of a phenomenon worth analyzing, along with the flourishing of the community of young Israelis living in the German capital. Berlin is less exciting and far less attractive than Paris and London, but it is investing a fortune in developing its image, and life there is relatively cheap.

The Hebrew edition of "Alone in Berlin" owes its publication to Germany's efforts to influence its historical image: The Goethe Institute, associated with the German foreign ministry, underwrote part of the publishing expenses, as it did with Gunter Grass' "Crabwalk," which deals with German suffering during the war.

There is of course irony in the fact that the German foreign ministry is helping to finance publication in Israel of a book that originated as a communist propaganda project. Books that contain revelations about rebellions must be read with caution: Only a few Germans opposed the Nazis, and the majority of them did not do so because the Nazis persecuted the Jews, but because they believed they were about to be defeated in the war. This is the essence of "Alone in Berlin" - and also the story of Fallada himself.

As opposed to the image the distributors of his book sought to create for the author, Fallada didn't go underground or leave his country during the war years in order to fight against it from the outside. He continued to write and publish, and although he didn't join the Nazi Party, he cooperated with the authorities, out of fear or necessity - or both. He also received instructions from propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

In 1944, Fallada was hospitalized in a mental institution. Again, as opposed to the version of his book's distributors, this did not happen because he opposed the regime, but because he was a mentally unbalanced person who tried to murder his wife. Indeed, in his youth he murdered a friend; he also tried several times to commit suicide. For most of his life he was addicted to drugs. After the war he agreed for some reason to serve as a mayor under the aegis of the Soviet occupation of East Germany. He held the position for a little over a year and died in 1947, shortly before the publication of "Alone in Berlin."