Physical labor and strict house regulations dominated the lives of inmates (Sommer never refers to them as patients). In the novel, rules govern everything from daily routines—bedtime is 7:30 PM, residents are woken at 5:45 AM—to interpersonal communications. And while guards speak to inmates in the informal second person (“Du” and “Ihr”), the confined are required to show deference to staff by referring to them more formally with “Sie” and “Herr Oberpfleger” (Mr Senior Attendant).
While this system of practices might appear to us (as it did to many residents at the time) punitive in nature, there was a pedagogical justification behind it. Authority, discipline, and work were intended to instill a diligence and perseverance in men and women whose excessive drinking was presumed to reflect an incontinent character. The institution was assumed to be providing the necessary will and power, performed repeatedly through daily routines, which, it was hoped, would become internalized over time. In this, the alcohol treatment centers differed little from prisons and asylums.
There is no way reliably to establish the extent to which these methods proved effective at the time. But Fallada is quite correct that many, maybe even most, residents sought to do little more than “game” the system (ie, do what one thought doctors and guards wanted in order to hasten one’s release).
Getting out of a treatment center or psychiatric facility to which one was indefinitely committed, however, was not all that easy. Staff could often see through such ruses. And so, as Fallada shows, interpersonal relations in the treatment facility played out as a battle of wills between staff and inmates, as well as among inmates themselves, to see who could make the other capitulate.
It may be hard to resist seeing this dog-eat-dog portrait of life behind bars as a reflection on Nazi Germany. After all, Fallada wrote the novel during the final year of the regime, and, as Every Man Dies Alone confirms, he was acutely sensitive to the brutalizing dynamics of everyday life under Hitler. But there are few, if any, cues in the novel that indicate Fallada intended this to be a commentary on the Third Reich. Fallada is not interested allegory here. Sommer’s story is not intended to stand in for something else. It is what it is: a picture of the brutality human beings can inflict upon one another and themselves out of short-sighted convenience.
Dr Eghigian is Director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program and Associate Professor of Modern History and Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State University. He writes and teaches on the history of madness, mental illness, and mental health in the Western world. He is one of the editors of h-madness, a blog that follows the history of psychiatry. He is the co-editor and author of numerous books, most recently From Madness to Mental Health: Psychiatric Disorder and its Treatment in Western Civilization (Rutgers University Press, 2010).