Even though they made a valiant effort, the German citizens were almost powerless to stop the onslaught of Hitler and his henchmen. No one survived without the help of another and no one was condemned without another casting blame, with or without good reason. As Quangel remarked, quite accurately, the evil were punishing the good. The good were imprisoned by them while they, the criminals ran free.
This book had a profound effect on me as I read it, and I had to read it slowly in order to deal with the information without jumping up and screaming at invisible demons, "How could you?". It explains so well how Hitler managed to gain control of everyone with a systematic program of fear and suspicion. No one was above board. They didn't even care if they arrested the guilty person, it was simply the thrill of the arrest and the torture. Everywhere one looked there was a "watcher", a spy, a mean spirited human being, envious and angry, ready to turn in someone to save themselves or curry favors. I don't even think they really knew what they were angry about, they just knew they wanted to live and so they "ate their young".
Maniacs and petty criminals were in charge. Even those German people who wanted to fight back were helpless because they could trust no one. Only a madman with madmen accomplices could have accomplished what Hitler did because anyone normal, with a modicum of common sense and compassion, would have seen through him. How does a people, en masse, become so hateful and greedy, how do they agree to follow a madman? This book explains how it happened; little by little, ordinary people fell sway to Hitler's magnetism and then little by little he gained control over every aspect of every citizen's life with nothing short of brutality.
Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen) has captured the mindset of the victim and the victimizer perfectly. He makes us watch as they bring about their own demise even when trying to do something good, even when trying to fight the demons. They are helpless; they are little people fighting monsters, fighting the hydra. Fallada himself was mentally unstable at various times in his life and perhaps it is this instability which allowed him to understand the odd workings of the mind and to get inside the heads of all these characters so precisely, feeling all their emotions and all their concerns and then expressing them perfectly leaving no doubt in the reader's mind, of what they were thinking and feeling.
The characters who tried to fight the system were systematically crushed. Ordinary families quietly fighting back were doomed to failure. People were constantly taken away and tortured regardless of their guilt or innocence. It was a government gone wild and a populace that was complicit in its system of terror.
In a small, incidental way, the Quangels, an ordinary couple, try to defeat the system, to fight back, to resist. In the process, even innocent people are blamed for their actions and suffer the consequences. Most people don’t appreciate their efforts but rather believe they have placed them in unnecessary danger and are angry with them. Fear has taken over so completely that they can’t wait to rid themselves of any suspicion, even when pointing fingers at innocent people, so long as they alleviate their own fear and remove the shadow of suspicion from themselves. Others blamed falsely are considered necessary consequences. An angry receptionist turns in Enno Kluge for a crime he has not committed, merely because she is angry with the system and with herself for being overworked. Since she knows he is a shirker, she basically sentences him to death with her evil tongue. She doesn’t care about the consequences of what she has done with her lies and finger pointing; she is only concerned with satisfying her own fury and feels totally justified for her actions. Even the doctor, with a hidden Jewish wife, betrays this innocent man, in order to try and save himself, once discovering the postcards the Quangels distributed. Not one person seemed to think about the message on the cards but only of the consequences of finding them and like a "hot potato" they thought only of passing it on, and in some way, exonerating themselves from the guilt of merely finding it and seeing it. There was no depth to which these people wound not descend in that effort.
Everyone is consumed with their own survival and they do not care about anything else. People have become expendable. They are robots trying to survive in awful circumstances in which someone is always watching, always waiting, always eager to betray them simply to save themselves and they are eager to do the same. It is a vicious cycle. Fear is ever present, and you, the reader, will feel it too. Hitler managed to reduce the victims in concentration camps to something akin to animals, but at the same time, he transformed the German citizens into beings worthy of being sent to Hell, creatures of the netherworld.
Fallada tries to find some way to show that the resistance of these people was not futile, but is he successful? In the end, two survivors, the wife of Enno Kluge and Kuno, the son of a lazy, dishonest man, Borkhausen, are contrasted with the evil that still lives in the heart of Borkhausen, as his son abandons him when he returns to take advantage of him and ruin his life once again. These two have managed to escape the horror and brutality of Hitler, by sheer accident. In their survival is there hope?
Chance was the reason anyone survived, not planning, not by design, merely by accidents of fate, so well was the Hitler machine organized and oiled. The author tries to get the message across that, in the end, the good will survive and the evil will be punished, that hope endures, that their efforts weren't wasted. Does he succeed?