The diaries of Victor Klemperer

Having posted recently about Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum, I should note that one of the most acclaimed memoirs of the Nazi period is I Shall Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941 by Victor Klemperer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Klemperer was a distinguished professor at the University of Dresden, honoured as a frontline veteran of World War One. By 1945 he was one of the few Dresden Jews to survive the war, thanks to his marriage to an Aryan. The second volume of his diaries, To the Bitter End: 1942-1945 provides highly detailed observations of the daily life of the Third Reich.

May 30, 1942: We spoke this morning about the unbelievable human capacity to endure and get accustomed. The fairy-tale horror of our existence: fear of every knock at the door, abuse, disgrace, hunger, prohibitions, the gruesome enslavement, daily approaching dangers, every day new victims all around, absolute helplessness — and yet still hours of ease, reading, work, eating more and more miserable food, one vegetates and again one hopes.

June 21, 1942: The empty garden bench outside of my window gives me pain. Ernst Kreidl and Dr. Friedheim sat there last summer. Now Kreidl has been shot dead and Friedheim has “died” in jail.

June 25, 1942: Mornings are the worst. Everything crowds in on you. Will I be beaten and spat at today? Summoned? Arrested? Arrest now means certain death.

Klemperer, a decorated World War I veteran, cousin of the famous conductor Otto Klemperer, was born in Landsberg (Prussia) in 1881, the son of a rabbi who moved his family to Berlin in 1890. He gave up a business career to study and become first a journalist and finally a professor of Romance languages at the Technical University in Dresden. He survived the Nazi era in Dresden in part because he was married to an Aryan, in part through sheer luck. His chronicle of the life of a Jew in Germany during the Third Reich offers a minute, often day-by-day description of ever increasing persecution.

In February 1943, the last Jews of Dresden not protected by marriage to non-Jews or other privileges were picked up from the factories where they were working and sent to Auschwitz, where ten survived. That left some sixty ‘privileged’ Jews in the city, the nervous inhabitants of a Germany increasingly vulnerable to the growing violence of the war and the regime. Casualties were mounting on the Eastern Front in particular. Allied bombing raids began to devastate the country from the summer of 1943. And as defeat loomed, the regime searched out signs of panic, treachery and defeatism in its own population with ever more punitive measures.

Klemperer was one of the few Dresden Jews to live through this terrifying ordeal. His diaries fulfil his ambition, stated in 1942, ‘to be the chronicler of the cultural history of the present catastrophe.’

Excerpts From the Diaries of Victor Klemperer

March 10, 1933 . . . Hitler elected as Chancellor. What I had called terror was only a mild prelude. . . . It is amazing how everything collapses . . . prohibitions and acts of violence. And with it, on streets and radio, unrestrained propaganda. On Saturday I heard a piece of Hitler’s speech in Konsigsberg. I understood only a few words. But the tone! The unctuous roaring bark, the bark, really, of a clergyman. . . . How long will I be able to retain my professorship?

March 17, 1933 . . . on Friday, unfortunately, Thiemes was here. It was frightful . . . such enthusiastic conviction and support. The phraseology of unity. Progress piously repeated. Grete (his wife) said, “Everything else failed, now we have to blow this horn.” He corrected her vehemently. “We didn’t have to.” In really free elections he has voted for the right cause. This I can’t forgive him. The poor dog may be frightened for his job. He must howl with the wolves. But why in front of me? . . . Naked violence, breach of law, terrible hypocrisy, unmitigated barbarism poses as law.

April 25, 1933 The focus of the Hitlerite movement is undoubtedly the Jewish cause. I fail to understand why on their agenda this item is so central. It means their ultimate ruin. But probably our ruin as well.

Feb. 11, 1936 Outside the post office a man stopped me. “Don’t you recognize me? Dr. Kleinstock, rector of the Vitztum High School. I saw you the other day too. You also saw me but you looked away. I was afraid you looked away because you feared I wouldn’t greet you. That’s why I stopped you to ask, How are you?” I was moved by his attitude. I answered and added, “I was told that you, Herr Rector, are a top-Nazi now.” He: “Oh my God, one can never please everybody.”

July 19, 1937 I myself have had too much nationalism in me and now I am being punished.

Sept. 15, 1941 (after Jews were ordered to display the yellow Star of David) Frau Kreidl Sr. was in tears. Frau Voss suffered a heart attack. Friedheim said this was the most difficult blow to date, worse than the confiscation of capital. I feel shattered, and cannot calm myself. Eva wants to take care of all errands from now on. I will leave the house only at night for a few moments.

April 29, 1942 Another house search, another suicide. Dr. Korn — a surgeon, Catholic Jew, wife Aryan — was beaten up in the street. He was ordered to present himself next morning at the Gestapo. Suicide during the night. The head of the search party: “We’ll see to it that nobody among you comes out of this alive.”

May 27, 1942 This afternoon these pages go to Pirna. My latest fear is that there, too, they are not absolutely safe. . . . If discovered there, these manuscripts . . . would destory Eva and me. The danger is so great and constantly present that I have become fatalistic. This manuscript is my duty and my ultimate fulfillment.

May 30, 1942 We spoke this morning about the unbelievable human capacity to endure and get accustomed. The fairy-tale horror of our existence: fear of every knock at the door, abuse, disgrace, hunger, prohibitions, the gruesome enslavement, daily approaching dangers, every day new victims all around, absolute helplessness — and yet still hours of ease, reading, work, eating more and more miserable food, one vegetates and again one hopes.

June 21, 1942 The empty garden bench outside of my window gives me pain. Ernst Kreidl and Dr. Friedheim sat there last summer. Now Kreidl has been shot dead and Friedheim has “died” in jail.

June 25, 1942 Mornings are the worst. Everything crowds in on you. Will I be beaten and spat at today? Summoned? Arrested? Arrest now means certain death.

Web links

  • The everyday life of tyranny: “So many fall around me, and I am still alive…” In this essay from the London Review of Books, Thomas Powers examines the extraordinary diaries of Victor Klemperer, recording his life as a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.
  • Excerpt from the introduction to I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, Volume 1 by the translator, Martin Chalmers (Amazon.com)
  • I am German, the Others Are Un-German: Spiegel
  • Victor Klemperer: Wikipedia
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