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Valerie SchultzNovember 15, 2023
Elise and Otto Hampel (d. 1943), German couple who protested against Hitler and the Nazis (Wikimedia Commons)

The book Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada, weighs heavily on my heart long after I finished reading it. Written in 1947, it was not translated into English from the original German until 2009. The novel tells the tale of a couple in Hitler’s Berlin. After their only son is killed in the war, Otto and Anna Quangel begin a quiet and personal resistance to the Third Reich: They write postcards and leave them in random spots around the city for people to find and read.

The unsigned postcards tell the truth about Nazi corruption and lies and urge the overthrow of Hitler, topics everyone else in the city (and the country) is too afraid to discuss. The atmosphere, charged with extreme fear for one’s life, prompts regular people to inform on their neighbors and family members. The terrified citizens also turn in almost every one of the treasonous postcards they pick up in public places. The Gestapo investigators eventually track down the couple responsible for the forbidden postcards. They separate Otto and Anna, imprison them, torture them, try them and sentence them to death. Otto is beheaded, and Anna is killed when a bomb hits the prison.

Although Every Man Dies Alone is a work of fiction, its main characters are based on a real couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed for their crimes against the state. The author, Hans Fallada, lived through the fear and distrust of wartime Berlin but was not a resister himself; in fact, he was sometimes condemned as a fascist cooperator because, rather than flee Nazi Germany, he stayed and wrote stories for German entertainment. After the war, upon reading the Gestapo’s file on the Hampels, Mr. Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. He died before it was published.

It is a harrowing book. I recommend it.

Hitler and the horrors of the Holocaust are not ancient history: There are people alive now who were alive then, who lived through or fought against Nazi atrocities. Nevertheless, our national memory is short. I realize that comparisons of our current political wrangles in the United States to Nazi Germany are overwrought, but this book got me thinking about the hazards—and seeming foolhardiness—of bravery. Back then, an ordinary couple’s handwritten messages were never going to spark the political ouster of Hitler, yet they felt compelled to do their small part, to be a clean drop of water into the filthy bucket of totalitarianism. Since the courage to follow their consciences cost them their lives, their unnoticed, unremarked deaths may well lead one to ask, “For what?”

Every nameless resister of injustice wonders about the answer to that question. But the question brings home to me another question: When?

As in, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?” (Mt 25:37-9).

We must ask ourselves: When do we risk our safety or comfort to do what Jesus has commanded us to do for others? The parable of the sheep and the goats delineates our obligations if we are to follow Jesus. These merciful acts are not suggestions; they demand bravery from us. Our Christian response may even be illegal, which challenges our law-abiding instincts. But if the world is supposed to know that we are Christians by our love, we are not providing clear evidence. Anyone studying the behavior of mainstream Christians in this country, in this century, would assume that the Gospel of Matthew reads like the following alternative:

When I was hungry, you cut funding for free school lunches.

When I was thirsty, you banned water breaks for farm workers.

When I was a stranger, you lined the riverbank with razor wire.

When I was naked, you cleared away my belongings from my encampment.

When I was ill, you canceled my health insurance.

When I was in prison, you accelerated the schedule for state executions.

These policies of cruelty and hardness of heart are often enacted by Christians in positions of power. By Catholics in positions of power. Who read the same Gospels the rest of us do.

Many of us regular folks, powerless folks, are intimidated by the possible danger of opposing hateful statutes carried out in our name. In our political climate, we increasingly see that people who stand for justice, sometimes just by doing their jobs, are mocked or threatened or followed or doxed or harmed. Their families are similarly imperiled. We see that it is safer and easier to remain silent. I thought of the brave postcard-writing Quangels in 1940s Berlin when I read about U.S. senators in 2021 who were too afraid to convict an impeached and guilty former president because they worried that they or their families would pay a steep price for their principles. They cite their excuses: Because they couldn’t afford private security for their loved ones. Because they feared they would not be reelected. 

Like the Nazis in Germany, it happens slowly—oh, surely that can’t happen here, we citizens think—and then it happens all at once. Fear rules us.

What can we do, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, to counteract intolerable laws? We must be brave enough to live our faith in a way that supports the core of what we say we believe. Our acts of bravery may seem insignificant, but they matter hugely for our collective spirit. When we overcome our wavering voice to speak at a school board meeting on behalf of bullied students, when we ignore an unjust ordinance against giving water to folks who are waiting hours in the sun to vote, when we participate in a march for gun safety that puts our face on the local news, we know that, as Jesus tells us, whatever we have done for one of these least siblings, we’ve done for him. What we do for others we do for Jesus, who braved risk and rejection and suffering, who, in the face of fear, was the bravest heart of all.

More: History / Books

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