Nightmare In Berlin

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Available for the first time in English, here is an unforgettable portrayal by a master novelist of the physical and psychological devastation wrought in the homeland by Hitler’s war.

Late April, 1945. The war is over, yet Dr Doll, a loner and ‘moderate pessimist’, lives in constant fear. By night, he is haunted by nightmarish images of the bombsite in which he is trapped — he, and the rest of Germany. More than anything, he wishes to vanquish the demon of collective guilt, but he is unable to right any wrongs, especially in his position as mayor of a small town in north-east Germany that has been occupied by the Red Army.

Dr Doll flees for Berlin, where he finds escape in a morphine addiction: each dose is a ‘small death’. He tries to make his way in the chaos of a city torn apart by war, accompanied by his young wife, who shares his addiction. Fighting to save two lives, he tentatively begins to believe in a better future.

Written with Fallada’s distinctive power and vividness, Nightmare in Berlin captures the demoralised and desperate atmosphere of post-war Germany in a way that has never been matched or surpassed.


My review:


An intense, atmospheric autobiographical novel beginning on the day WWII ends. Released in Germany in 1947 as “Der Alpdruck” (The Nightmare) by Rudolf Ditzen, better known as Hans Fallada, the novel shifts between moods of despair of the German people and hope. It is almost dream like narrated, rich in internal stories and conflict during the early years after the German defeat. Ordinary citizens live in rubble, search in ruins for food and scraps of clothing and there is no moral sense left in the people.

The main characters in ‘Nightmare in Berlin’ are Dr. Doll and a much younger widow he marries. They move out of the city of Berlin before the bomb raids to take shelter in the countryside and Dr. Doll is haunted my nightmarish images of the war and terrible dreams at night. Repetitively he imagines lying “at the bottom of a huge bomb crater, on his back, his arms pressed tightly against his sides, lying in the wet, yellow mud….and he is not alone in this abyss…he knew that his whole family was lying here with him, and the whole German people…all just as helpless and defenseless as him, all tormented by the same fears as him.” 

Doll is a study in apathy who attempts at intervals to take action. To understand his intense characterization that is so central to this novel, you may want to know, that the author Fallada was a deeply troubled man. Unfit for military service, he was always haunted by guilt and wrote in his final letter to his mother, “Some part of me has never been completely finished…with the result that I’m not a proper man, only a human being who has aged, an old grammar-school boy.” 
Although he was a great storyteller and beloved children’s author, he was addicted to drugs, depressive and attempted suicide. 

Fallada died in 1946 of a morphine overdose. His sense of shame had stalked him his entire life and his wounded patriotism is reflecting with real despair in this novel he described as a ‘medical report’; meaning the state the German people faced with evils perpetrated under the Nazis. 

As Doll and his wife return to Berlin they find their city reduced to rubble, burnt out and bled to death. People are bargaining, bartering and dealing everything from American cigarettes and chocolates to drugs. He hardly recognizes his fellow countrymen. So corrupt, he is stricken by how low people must stoop in order to endure. Although he too has indulged in such opiates to drown out the despair. On top of that, he is facing the reality of his marriage to a much younger and shallow woman with unrealistic expectations. As he is trying to ‘right’ his life and not do drugs and settle his debts, he is requesting advance payments from publishers to pursue his real passion. To write his next great novel. 

Very parallel to the author’s real life, he is expressing his love for Germany in bold, ironic and ambivalent fiction. The novel ends on a positive note with hope and optimism that 'the nations will get their houses in order again, even Germany, this beloved, this wretched Germany, this ailing heart of Europe will become well again.’ Contrary to that, the author passed away before this last novel of his was even published. 

One of the very few novels written of the earliest days directly after WWII affecting the German population, I was surprised to find out about the medicated state of its people. I was aware of the rubble and the poverty. I knew enough to see the loss, the numbness and the despair. And although praised for his work, I am not sure if Falladas’ fictional account and his own experiences can translate directly to the entire nation. In his circles that may have been very true that opiates were used to provide “little deaths” to forget the wretched situation. But was that so for the entire nation? Could everyone afford this way of forgetting?

It is only a reflection of my opinion to question that, and I have to do a lot more research to fully answer my own questions. It certainly provided me a new view on the situation. Out of my own experience of family accounts told to me by aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents growing up during and after WWII in Germany, although not Berlin, I was not aware of this medicated state, but a state of apathy and low morale was very well present. 

I enjoyed my first reading one of Falladas’ works. I thought the translation was well done. The text was simply forward and it flared the mood and consciousness of a person in such a situation well. It is not a novel for everyone but a person interested in history would probably find this book as interesting as I did.