Evil applied in daily instalments

To the Bitter End (1942-45)

February 11, 2000

This second volume of Victor Klemperer's Third Reich diaries is even more compelling than the first; for it describes how the noose was even further tightened round Klemperer's neck by the Nazis. Almost all Jews around him were murdered. "Murder is everywhere" - these are Klemperer's agonised words. Only those Jews who were married to an "Aryan" or were otherwise "privileged" were allowed to remain in Dresden, but on February 12 1945 even most of those few were to be deported to the East, which always spelt death. Klemperer was still spared but was convinced that his turn would come in a week's time. But salvation came from above like a deus ex machina in a Greek tragedy: on the evening of February 13 1945 the ferocious Allied bombing raid on Dresden destroyed Gestapo files and interrupted its nefarious work. It allowed Klemperer and his wife Eva to escape while chaos reigned in the city and most of the population had to be evacuated. Klemperer tore off the Jew's star that he was compelled to wear and fled first to northern Saxony, then to Bavaria until the village in which the Klemperers had finally found shelter was occupied by American soldiers. All his fears, hopes and terrible experiences are recorded with a sure touch. The tension that the events depicted by Klemperer arouse is gripping and makes it difficult to put this book down.

Yet the end is not bitter, but ends on a fairy- tale note (his own comment) when the Klemperers, after a lengthy and trying journey from Bavaria to Dresden, are on June 10 1945 walking up to their house in the hills in the city's outskirts. Therefore, the powerful title To the Bitter End is misleading. Of course, that is the title of a German book by Hans Bernd Gisevius (1947), of which an English translation was in 1948 published in London by Jonathan Cape. As an insider's account of resistance to Hitler in the armed forces, it made sensational reading at the time.

Klemperer was able to survive only because he was married to an "Aryan" woman who stuck with him during all those gruelling years. The travails that a Jew had to endure in Nazi Germany during the war make frightening reading. The Klemperers were driven out of their house and had to live in various houses assigned to Jews. On June 2 1942 Klemperer lists 31 decrees that harassed Jews. To cite a few only: Jews were forbidden to use public transport, to visit restaurants, to purchase flowers, magazines and goods in short supply, even milk, to own domestic animals (Eva's beloved cat had to be put down), to walk in some streets and parks, and to go to libraries. They had to pay special taxes; their bank accounts were blocked and they were permitted to withdraw smaller and smaller amounts only. But all these restrictions amounted to nothing as against the constant threat of house searches, of ill-treatment, of prison, concentration camp and violent death. The Gestapo's house searches were terrifying. Klemperer was beaten and his wife spat upon. Worse was to come. Jews were even forbidden to speak to "Aryans". Violation of the most trivial decree meant death. Finally, most Jews were taken away eastwards to be killed. Klemperer's professorial pension was stopped in November 1943 and eventually he had hardly any money left. Most of the time they were hungry. Klemperer was conscripted to work at a rate lower than that paid to Aryans, first to clear snow, then to do tedious work in two firms until he was declared unfit to work because of a heart condition. His work mates were friendly and chatted with him during work. None of them grasped the full horror of his situation. Nor did even his closest Aryan friends.

Klemperer's descriptions of life in Nazi Germany are succinct. He avoids undue sentimentality. When he finds his wife again, whom he had lost sight of for hours after the bombing raid, he merely states: "We greeted one another very warmly, and we were completely indifferent to the loss of our belongings". His writing appears authentic because his integrity is striking: he does not conceal his own faults. His power of observation is acute. His accounts of their hazardous journeys are moving. He portrays with a sure touch the reactions of the Germans whom he meets. He records the baneful effect of Goebbels's propaganda. Many had an unshakeable faith in Hitler, expressed by one elderly man even as late as April 21 1945. Yet he also comes across critics of the regime. By the spring of 1945 most people wanted the war to end. When the fear of the Gestapo was gone, the relief was enormous. Klemperer had great hopes of what he might now be able to do. But the Klemperers still encountered the trials of living and travelling in a country whose economy had broken down. Although weakened by lack of food, they often had to walk for miles and carry their luggage on their epic journeys to and from Bavaria. Still, they managed to survive these physical ordeals despite all their health troubles - his heart complaint and Eva's injured foot.

Martin Chalmers has provided a useful introduction and a readable translation. On a few occasions he translates too literally, but that is not worth spelling out. It is a pity, though, that he did not correct the few errors committed in his translation and introduction to the first volume, some of which I mentioned in my review of that book (The THES, July 10 1998).

Klemperer's Third Reich diaries are an indispensable, unforgettable record of life in Hitler's Germany seen through the eyes of a victim of Nazi persecution. Even under the most adverse conditions, he continued to note down his impressions and thoughts. His diary was the lifeline that enabled him to endure his tribulations. And it is brought to life for his readers by his incisive style and scrupulous attention to detail.

Hans Reiss is emeritus professor of German, University of Bristol.

To the Bitter End (1942-45): The Diaries of Victor Klemperer (abridged and translated from the German)

Author - Victor Klemperer
Editor - Martin Chalmers
ISBN - 0 297 81880 5
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 538
Translator - Martin Chalmers

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