Terror and adulation

I Shall Bear Witness
July 10, 1998

Victor Klemperer's "Third Reich Diaries" have been a remarkable literary success in Germany. More than 150,000 copies have been sold. In a leading Munich theatre they were read to a packed house for a whole week, 24 hours each day. No wonder that $550,100 was paid for the English translation rights, the largest sum ever received by a German publisher. These diaries afford a unique insight into life under Hitler's tyranny from an outlaw's point of view. Klemperer, though himself a Lutheran, was the son of a rabbi who preached in the Berlin Reform Synagogue, where services took place on Sunday, most prayers were said in German and worshippers did not need to cover their heads. He survived the war in Germany only because his courageous "Aryan" (that dreadful term) wife Eva, a pianist, stuck to him throughout those years of misery and because luck, too, was on his side.

Klemperer was professor of romance literature at the Technical University of Dresden. (Otto Klemperer, the famous conductor, was a cousin whom he hardly knew.) Appointed in 1920, he hoped it would be a stepping-stone to a chair in a renowned (normal) university. But that was not to be. Anti-Semitism was a major obstacle. But also, he did not play the academic game well.

Although disappointed in his career and having to cope with his wife's severe depression, Klemperer always carried on working. Writing kept him from becoming intellectually and spiritually crushed in Nazi Germany. At first he was permitted to stay in his post because he had served in the war, but in May 1935 he was compulsorily retired on a miserly pension that was finally stopped altogether. Although all avenues of publication in Germany were closed to him, he decided to write a history of French 18th-century literature, which was published after the war and is probably his best work; for he felt at home in the 18th century and in tune with the cosmopolitanism and liberalism of Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot.

In younger years, he had been so convinced a German nationalist that foreign countries, Switzerland, France and Italy, were not to his liking - things were done so much better in Germany. Hitler cured him of nationalism but never of his conviction that he was German. He did not feel that he belonged to the Jewish nation. In his view, to believe in a Jewish nation was to accept Hitler's ideology. Rather sadly, he even equated Zionism with National Socialism. For him the National Socialists were un-German. Their racialism was inhuman, mere zoology. His German patriotism was perhaps a substitute for religion. An agnostic, he had all the same been baptised as a Lutheran because, in his view, a proper German had to belong to a Christian church. Writing was an endeavour to prove his mettle as a German writer, even though there was no prospect of publishing his writings during the Third Reich.

The tale told in these diaries is harrowing. Once Hitler was in power, Klemperer did not harbour any illusions about the nature of the regime. The rule of law no longer prevailed. He saw it as his duty to record not the major political events but "the details of everyday life", his experiences, even his changing moods. Hopes and fears alternate all the time. At first he hopes that the regime will not last or that the persecution will be bearable, but these hopes are always dashed; the fears of torture and death come to the foreground. To escape from his travails, he manages, although perpetually short of money, to have a wooden house built in a village near Dresden because for Eva a flat feels like a prison; she does not foresee that in the last four years of the war they will be herded together with other Jews in so-called "Jews' houses", with little space at their disposal. Klemperer buys a car after learning to drive, which he does badly. But excursions into the country afford moments of precious freedom, as do visits to the cinema and his work. Finally only his reading aloud to his wife and the writing of his diary grant him space to breathe.

In 1938 persecution gathers pace. Jews are forbidden to drive, to own a car or a telephone, to board taxis, to use public telephones, to leave the city in which they reside and eventually even to emigrate. Civil servants are not allowed to speak to them, let alone visit them. Access to the state library is forbidden, putting an end to Klemperer's scholarly research. Curfews are imposed. So are heavy additional taxes, which exacerbate Klemperer's worries about money. Rationing is far worse for Jews than for "Aryans". They receive reduced rations; many goods may not be purchased at all. Restaurants, theatres and cinemas are out of bounds, his typewriter is confiscated, which makes it difficult for him to carry on with his autobiography, one of his reasons for keeping a diary. (His account of the first 37 years of his life, Curriculum Vitae, makes fascinating reading.) Major and minor indignities are unremittingly inflicted upon the Jews. Worst of all is the decree requiring all Jews over six years of age to wear the yellow Jews' star on their clothing in public. It exposes them to ridicule and harassment. It makes Klemperer afraid to go out and thus greatly restricts his freedom. Particularly frightening is the news that Jews are being deported to Poland.

Klemperer had no illusions about the regime; he foresaw that matters would get worse. Why did he not leave Germany? It would not have been easy. In 1933 he was 52. To obtain a university post abroad was exceedingly difficult. He tried various avenues, but never whole-heartedly. Even after the November pogroms (Kristallnacht) of 1938, he did not seize the chance of travelling to Cuba where he could have waited for an immigration visa to the United States. He did not want to be dependent on his brother Georg, who had gone to Boston. Above all, neither he nor Eva could imagine a life outside Germany. He wanted to be a German scholar. And she could not bear the thought of being without a house and garden, though when they had to leave their house she showed far more composure than he did. To leave Germany would also have meant abandoning all hope. One day the nightmare might be over and he could be a teacher and active scholar again.

He writes about the German population's reaction to the war, to the hardships brought in its train and to anti-Semitism. The outbreak of war was not greeted with enthusiasm as it had been in 1914. The German victories were hailed, but the shortages and other hardships were not welcome. Most Germans ignored the persecution of the Jews, but some deplored it and sought to help them. Grocers, bakers, butchers and fishmongers often gave them food that they were not entitled to have. An elderly ophthalmologic surgeon showed much kindness. The Klemperers were able to deposit their silver wares, which were to be confiscated, and his precious manuscripts with an old friend, a woman doctor, who kept the diaries at great risk to herself and to them. The regime was based on terror but also on adulation of Hitler. Klemperer also notes how patriotism and dislike of National Socialism were for many Germans uneasy bedfellows.

His professorial colleagues behaved badly. When in 1935 modern literature scholars met for their annual conference in Dresden they shunned him, as if he had been struck by the plague. Indeed, the conduct of one of his former friends, the Dresden historian Johannes Kuhn, who at first was critical of Hitler but then became converted and wrote articles tainted by Nazi ideology, arouses one of his few outbursts of hatred: if Klemperer were ever in power after the war, he would let "all the ordinary folk and even some of the leaders goI butI all the intellectuals (would be) strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from lamp-posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene". But Klemperer was not less generous after the war than he might have been in 1936, as Martin Chalmers mistakenly maintains in his perceptive introduction. He merely thought Kuhn had forfeited the right to teach, but would not have minded his having a post in a library. However, Kuhn was re-appointed to his chair and ended his academic career as a Heidelberg professor.

Chalmers's translation is, in the main, good, but there are some infelicities of style and even some errors. For instance, "I've been reading the Italy course" would be better rendered as "I've been giving a course of lectures on Italian literature". The phrase "to live in a state of law" jars on one's ear, for "in einem Rechtsstaat leben" is best translated by "to live under the rule of law". To enter his hostile views of the Third Reich in his diary was indeed "leichtsinnig"; however, in this context the word does not mean "frivolous", but "reckless" or "irresponsible".

However, these flaws do not impede the flow of Klemperer's writing. Not for him the heavy professorial style only too frequent in German academia. His portraits of others are memorable, his accounts of experiences succinct and impressive, and his comments pithy and penetrating. He does not waste words or use cliches. He notes how in the Third Reich thought is degraded by the misuse of language. In his Lingua Tertii Imperii, he shows how many words were turned into tools of propaganda. His narrative skill, too, is remarkable. Particularly harrowing is his account of a week spent in police custody during which he was forbidden to read or write until after a few days a kindly warder gave him a pencil and one (!) sheet of paper.

Fortunately Klemperer survived because Dresden was bombed, just when most remaining Jews, all married to "Aryan" spouses, though not he himself, were about to be deported, which was a sentence of death. In the chaos that reigned after the attack the Klemperers were able to escape from Dresden. After an epic journey through Saxony and most of Bavaria they were eventually liberated by US soldiers in Upper Bavaria. The last war years had brought more and more terrible tribulations. They are recorded in the second volume of the diaries, due to appear in English next year. It, too, is likely to keep readers spellbound; for Klemperer does not merely document the nature of Nazi terror, but makes one also feel what it was like to be one of its victims. He does so because his account of his travails is genuine literature.

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

I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1933-41

Author - Victor Klemperer
ISBN - 0 297 81842 2
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 500

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