'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Book review': I Will Bear Witness': How the Little Things Add Up to Horror
I WILL BEAR WITNESS A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941 By Victor Klemperer Reviewed by Richard Bernstein
He does not deny his Jewishness, despite his conversion to Protestantism. But he does express an intense resentment toward those who take Jewishness as a prime element in personal identity. He blames Hitler for the creation of the "Jewish problem," believing that before the Nazis came along to fetishize the concept of blood and race, there was no separate Jewish identity. It is for that reason that Klemperer is given to a disproportionate rage against Zionism, which he compares more than once to Hitlerism... Like Nazism, he says, Zionism turns the Jews into a separate racial category, and this violates his powerful belief in assimilation, his undying conviction that he is German.
Victor Klemperer, for many years a professor of Romance languages at the Dresden Technical University, was an intelligent and literate man and a fine scholar but not an extraordinary individual. And that is one of several things that makes the publication of his diaries, written in secret during the entire period of the Nazi nightmare in Germany and concealed for decades in East Germany, an extraordinary and important event.
Klemperer, a Jew baptized as a Protestant, survived the 12 years of Nazi rule in part because he was married to an "Aryan," in part because he had special dispensation for having served on the front lines in the German army in World War I.
"I Will Bear Witness," covering the years 1933 to 1941, is the first of two volumes of the diaries in which Klemperer recorded the day-to-day experience of living as a Jew in Germany under Hitler. Written for himself, apparently without any thought of eventual publication, the book is history raw, an unvarnished account of a single exceedingly beleaguered life, most notable for the petty outrages, the quiet desperation and the undercover spiritual struggle that they reveal.
The diaries, translated from the German and abridged by Martin Chalmers, are straightforward and unadorned, full of pain and anger, but also full of shrewd observations on the nature of the Nazi regime and the quality of the response of the German people to it. (In Germany, Klemperer writes two years after the Nazi takeover, "90 percent want the fuehrer and servitude and the death of scholarship, of thought, of the spirit, of the Jews.")
Most of all, the diaries are a record of the way events -- the gradual loss of civil rights, the rumors of deportations, the everyday slights, the banal and not-so-banal horrors of a madman's tyranny -- were experienced by one person at that time, an innocent man turned guilty by a fiendish ideology. They have in this sense some of the same value as Anne Frank's "Diary," though, of course, they represent the response not of a pubescent Dutch-German girl but of a sophisticated, assimilated, cosmopolitan middle-aged man striving to maintain self-control and dignity as the only world he knows crumbles around him for no reason.
Klemperer was born in 1881 and, after being restored to his post at the university in Dresden at the end of the war, died in 1960 at the age of 78. He was a twice alienated man, alienated from his German identity and from his Jewish identity at the same time. He does not deny his Jewishness, despite his conversion to Protestantism. But he does express an intense resentment toward those who take Jewishness as a prime element in personal identity. He blames Hitler for the creation of the "Jewish problem," believing that before the Nazis came along to fetishize the concept of blood and race, there was no separate Jewish identity. It is for that reason that Klemperer is given to a disproportionate rage against Zionism, which he compares more than once to Hitlerism.
Like Nazism, he says, Zionism turns the Jews into a separate racial category, and this violates his powerful belief in assimilation, his undying conviction that he is German.
"Until 1933 and for at least a good century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else," he writes in January 1939, six years after Hitler came to power. "There is only one solution to the German or West European Jewish question: the defeat of its inventors."
In fact, very few of Klemperer's entries treat matters philosophically or touch on what might be deemed the big issues, like freedom, nationalism and how the horrible aberration that Hitler is to him could have come to power and consolidated his anti-Semitic tyranny so quickly and with so little opposition.
The very everyday quality of Klemperer's concerns at times slows down the narrative; yet given its overall length and the fact that he was not writing for an audience, the diary as a whole has remarkable momentum. It is the accumulation of relatively small insults that brings home the poisonous nature of a regime of many rules but no just law: Klemperer is insanely chastised by the police for gardening on a national holiday, he is banned from the university library, he is prohibited from driving his car. Jews are no longer sold tickets for the popular Elbe River ferries. Some events that are now well known, like Kristallnacht in 1938, the most severe anti-Jewish assault up to that point, pass without a great deal of comment by Klemperer.
"I do not need to describe the historic events of the following days, the acts of violence, our depression," he writes briefly of that incident. "Only the immediately personal and what concretely affected us." The "immediately personal" was a search of the Klemperer household by the police and Klemperer's brief arrest, after which he writes: "Since then, we have both been unceasingly tormented by the question, go or stay? To go too early, to stay too late? To go where we have nothing, to remain in this corruption?" The Klemperers do not leave Germany, though Victor does spend time unsuccessfully looking into teaching posts abroad. They lack money but they also lack the real desire to leave; they are too attached to Germany for that. Klemperer survived the war because of his unusual situation, but, of course, many of those who did not leave perished as a result.
Much of the diary shows Klemperer simply striving to get by. He records chronic financial difficulties, relieved from time to time by a gift from his older brother Georg, a surgeon, who went to the United States in 1935. Not long after Hitler's accession, a Polish Jew named Sandel swindles Klemperer of some money, and Klemperer feels he has to file a complaint with the police, or others will suspect he wants to "protect the JEW." "A terrible situation," he writes. Another preoccupation is building a small cottage outside Dresden, which he and Eva finally succeed in doing despite cash shortages and bureaucratic obstruction.
He makes sporadic notes on what he calls "the language of the Third Reich." He notes, for example, in 1934 that Hitler tells German youth, "You sing songs together," of which Klemperer observes: "Everything is aimed at deafening the individual in collectivism." This is a shrewd remark. It anticipates the George Orwell of "1984" and Newspeak. Klemperer is also ahead of his time in likening communism to Nazism ("both are materialistic and lead to slavery"), which makes it strange that, after the war, he became a Communist Party member in East Germany.
The diaries record Klemperer's moods, which alternate between despair and the effort not to give up hope. He reads between the lines of newspaper reports of great German victories to perceive when matters are not going so well -- as when, for the first time, the German press, in August 1940, reports a "systematic and cowardly attack on Berlin" by the British air force. Klemperer knows that not all hope is lost.
This first volume (the second, covering the years 1942 to 1945, is scheduled to be published next year) does not reach into the very worst of the Nazi period, when the death camps were in full swing and the "final solution" was steady Nazi policy. Still, Klemperer hears rumors of deportations of Jews to Poland. ("They have to leave almost literally naked and penniless." When, in September 1941, he, like other Jews, is forced to wear the yellow star, he sees it as the ultimate humiliation, declaring, "That means upheaval and catastrophe for us."
One reads these late diary entries with a growing sense of foreboding, since we know, as Klemperer himself did not, that far worse than the yellow star was yet to come.