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Destiny in Any Case

Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten: Tagebücher 1933-1945

by Victor Klemperer, edited by Walter Nowojski
Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, two volumes, 1,691 pp., DM128.00

One of the most remarkable studies of National Socialism in the early postwar years was a small volume entitled LTI (Lingua tertii imperii), which appeared in 1947. Written by a professor of the Technical University of Dresden named Victor Klemperer, it was a brilliantly conceived philological analysis that sought to crystallize the meaning of Nazism from its official language. Klemperer pointed out that, by a deliberate militarization and mechanization of common speech, by the use of superlatives and adjectives of enhancement, by giving positive value to terms that in the past had been used pejoratively (fanaticism, blind obedience), by expressed preference for feeling rather than reason, by the use of euphemisms to cloak reality, and by repetitive stereotyping of opponents, the Nazis had deliberately subverted the language in order to change the way in which the German people thought about politics and life.

LTI was favorably received by scholars in the West, some of whom may have wondered, in the years that followed, what had become of its author. In the thirteen years that remained of his life, Klemperer devoted himself to an earnest attempt to repair the damage that the Nazis had inflicted on German education and culture. He was an active member of the Communist Party in the German Democratic Republic and a member of the national parliament; his professorship in Romance languages at the Dresden Technical University, voided by the Nazis, was restored to him; he was visiting professor in Greifswald, Halle, and the Humboldt University in East Berlin; and he was a member of the Academy of Sciences and active in other organizations dedicated to the renewal of intellectual life. But there were no more books before his death in 1960, and even LTI was forgotten by all but specialists.

This silence, if protracted, turned out to be misleading. Ever since he was seventeen years old, Klemperer had been a dedicated diarist, and in 1995 a new generation was captivated by the publication, in two volumes, of his diaries for the years between 1933 and 1945 under the title Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten. Recognized immediately as the most comprehensive and meticulous extant account of life in the Third Reich as experienced by a German Jew, this became an overnight sensation. In Germany 140,000 copies of the original edition were sold; there were radio and theater readings and a CD; and the book became the subject of a thirteen-part television series. It was hailed in the international press, Philip Kerr of The Sunday Times writing that it was “a colour film of Nazi Germany after years of black and white.” Preparations began for its translation into twelve languages, an effort slowed, however, by the enormous length of the manuscript. (The English translation reviewed here represents only half of the diaries of the Nazi years and will be followed by a second volume, covering the years 1942-1945, in 1999.) Meanwhile, in Germany, a two-volume autobiography, Curriculum vitae, covering the years from 1881 to 1918 has appeared, as well as the diaries for the period between 1918 and 1933 and selections from the later journals. As Martin Chalmers writes: “With these works Victor Klemperer has after all become a part not only of German but also of European and world literature.”

1.

Victor Klemperer was born in 1881 in Landsberg an der Warthe in the eastern part of the Mark Brandenburg. His father was the rabbi of the reform synagogue in Landsberg and, after 1889, second preacher of the Reform Congregation of Berlin. Victor was the youngest child of a large family in which the assimilationist tradition and the belief in German culture was strong, and he grew up proud of his Germanness and believing, as he wrote in his autobiography, that “Germans were better than the others, freer in thought, purer in feeling, more peaceful and just in action. We, we Germans were the truly chosen people.”1 He had pronounced literary interests and talents from an early age, but also a strong desire for independence that was stimulated by the attempts of his three older brothers, all of whom were on the way to distinguished professional careers, to direct his life.

It was partly out of resentment over this pressure that Klemperer twice interrupted his academic work, the first time, during his years at the Gymnasium, to become an apprentice in a commercial enterprise, and again, during his university years, to pursue a career in freelance journalism, at which he had some measure of success before deciding to complete his work for a doctoral degree. This he accomplished in 1913 with a dissertation on the nineteenth-century German novelist Friedrich Spielhagen; he followed this up with the work that indicated the direction of his future academic career, his dissertation on Montesquieu, written under the influence of Karl Vossler, a liberal professor of Romance languages and literature at the University of Munich. Klemperer’s first post was lecturer in German literature at the University of Naples, which he held until Italy’s entrance into the First World War in 1915.

Klemperer’s own service in the war had an importance in his life that was out of all proportion to its length and rigor. Called up in 1915 and enrolled in the Bavarian Field Artillery, he was sent to the Western Front in November and spent five months as an artilleryman in Flanders before illness intervened. After a period in the hospital, he was transferred to the army’s censorship office in the east, first at Kowno and later in Leipzig, for the duration of hostilities. His war record, and the Bavarian service cross that he received for his time in Flanders, were very useful to him after 1933, for they shielded him from some of the unpleasantness and injustice suffered by German Jews who were not war veterans.

Of much greater importance in this respect was the fact that on May 16, 1906, Klemperer married the pianist Hedwig Elisabeth Eva Schlemmer, the daughter of a Königsberg family, after a two-year courtship that had been opposed by both families, the bride’s because Klemperer was a Jew, Klemperer’s because his brothers regarded Eva as a poor match. The marriage was marked by much strain and sorrow, particularly after 1933, but it survived and was basically happy; and in an eloquent passage in his autobiography, Klemperer wrote that with the very first words that he had exchanged with Eva he had “the presentiment, nay, the certainty of our agreement and complementarity”2 and had never had occasion to doubt this in the years that followed. The couple had similar tastes, a passion for the movies, for example, about which Klemperer frequently wrote in the early years of their marriage, and when the bad times came they were alike in their stubborn bravery in the face of deprivation and persecution. During the Third Reich, the fact that Eva was a Protestant exempted her from some of his difficulties, and after 1941, when the persecution of the Jews accelerated, it protected him from the fate that he would have suffered had he been single.

The Weimar period was a time in which Klemperer made his mark both as a teacher in the Dresden Technical University and as a prolific scholar, with books on modern French prose and poetry, a history of French literature from Napoleon to the present, and a biography of Corneille. The coming of National Socialism, however, created an atmosphere that was hardly amenable to a flourishing interest in such subjects. He survived the turbulent period that followed Hitler’s accession to power and, on April 10, 1933, wrote in his diary:

The awful feeling of “Thank God, I’m alive.” The new Civil Service “law” leaves me, as a front-line veteran, in my post—at least for the time being…. But all around rabble-rousing, misery, fear and trembling.

From constant preoccupation with National Socialism and its future intentions he tried to isolate himself. As he wrote later,

I fled, I buried myself in my profession, I gave my lectures and pathologically tried not to see the seats before me growing ever emptier.

When, as he had feared, the university pensioned him off in 1935, he responded defiantly with a burst of scholarly activity; he had all but completed the history of French literature in the eighteenth century that he hoped would crown his life’s work when the Nazis, in a decree of 1938, denied Jews the use of all university and public libraries. That blow he survived by beginning to write the story of his early life, which was completed and smuggled by Eva to a friend’s house in Pirna, outside Dresden, in 1942.

His wife did not have such defenses against the pressures and petty persecutions of the outside world, and as early as 1933 she was affected by severe depression and nervous disorders. Klemperer sought to alleviate this condition by building a small house in the village of Dölzschen, near Dresden, and later by learning to drive and buying a secondhand car. This proved to be an effective remedy for Eva’s troubles and afforded the couple much pleasure, but it also brought them to the verge of financial collapse, the more so because all of Klemperer’s sources of outside income (lecture fees, royalties, and the like) had dried up. His pension after 1935 was only half of what his university salary had been and was diminished further by local taxes and arbitrary exactions by Nazi agencies.

An occasional check from Klemperer’s oldest brother helped them survive, but the radius of their life became ever narrower, and they had to deny themselves small pleasures like the movies, which were in any case soon declared illegal for Jews. Ever since their first years together, Klemperer had read aloud to Eva, and thanks to lending libraries, which she was permitted to use, this now became their major pleasure, and together they enjoyed the works of such contemporary authors as Franz Werfel, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Pearl Buck (whom Klemperer especially admired), Ricarda Huch, Hans Fallada, and Dorothy Sayers. But this did not ease their financial condition, and they were eventually forced, by a combination of economic stringency and Nazi pressure, to give up the car and the house in Dölzschen and move into a Jews’ House, that is, a house in which persons with Jewish spouses lived. This was comfortable enough but limited their privacy and made work difficult.

During all this time, persecution of Jews by party and local authorities mounted in intensity, particularly after the onset of the war in 1939. For a minor offense against blackout regulations Klemperer had to spend a week in solitary confinement, without the privilege of reading, an experience that left him severely shaken. He wrote in his diary after his release in July 1941:

What was it in the end, what torments did I report? How can it be compared with what is experienced by thousands upon thousands in German prisons today? Everyday life in prison, no more, a bit of boredom, no more. And yet I feel that for myself it was one of the most agonizing times of my life.

  1. 1

    Victor Klemperer, Curriculum vitae: Erinnerungen 1881-1918, edited by Walter Nowojski (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1996), Vol. I, p. 315.

  2. 2

    Klemperer, Curriculum vitae, Vol. I, p. 385.

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