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 …

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Letters

LTI’ Endures May 6, 1999