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.”


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.

Worse was to follow: the Nazi decree that, beginning on September 19, all Jews must bear an armband with the Star of David. Klemperer wrote:

I myself feel shattered, cannot compose myself. Eva, now firmly on her feet, wants to take over all the errands from me, I only want to leave the house for a few minutes when it’s dark. (And if there is snow and ice? Perhaps by then the public will have become indifferent, or che so io?)

Whatever the official explanation given for the regulation, it seemed to be a sign that the complete elimination of the Jewish population was coming closer. Already, since the beginning of the war in Russia, the Jews’ House was filled with rumors about expulsions of Jews to Poland and about what happened to them there. At the same time, as the war slowly turned against Germany, concern began to arise about how long the inhabitants of the Jews’ Houses in Dresden would continue to be exempt from the evacuations that were taking place in other cities.

This question was finally answered on February 13, 1945. In the second volume of his diaries of the Nazi years, Klemperer describes how he was asked to help in delivering official letters to families like his own. He agreed without any foreboding only to discover that the letters were orders to all Jews capable of physical labor to report three days later at a given address in working clothes, with a handbag that could be carried a long distance, and with food for three days. He recognized this as a death sentence, writing,

For the first quarter of an hour my heart threatened to stop completely, later I became completely detached, that is, I became an observer for my diary.

He was, however, to be reprieved. On the evening of a day on which he had worn himself out as a bearer of ill tidings, Dresden was destroyed by British bombers, and in the attendant chaos Klemperer tore the Jewish star from his jacket and made his way with his wife through a collapsing Germany to American lines in Bavaria.


Throughout all of this he continued, faithfully and meticulously, to keep his diary, on loose sheets of paper that Eva carried to her friend in Pirna for safekeeping. One should perhaps at this point ask why. Certainly it was a dangerous occupation in the Nazi years. In May 1942, after a house search made in his absence, he noticed that some books had been taken from the shelves. He wrote:

Had the Greek dictionary been among them and had the manuscript pages lying in it fallen out and aroused suspicion, that would unquestionably have been the death of me. People are murdered for lesser lapses…. But I go on writing. That is my heroism.

His diary, of course, was something that he had begun in quieter times for the pleasure of describing such things as new friendships, and travels made at home and abroad, and his reaction to the latest best seller or Jan Kiepura movie, and for the even greater pleasure of reliving these experiences by re-reading his entries at a later date. Keeping his diary had become a habit with its own routine, and he would have felt lost without it. But with Hitler’s coming to power it assumed a new importance, for the Nazis brought about a revolutionary intrusion into the private lives of all Germans and one that broke so completely and brutally with all previous norms of public behavior that a record was required, not for publication, for he never seems to have thought of that, but for himself. In his thoughtful preface to the English translation, Martin Chalmers writes that the diaries “primarily reflect Klemperer’s own need to settle accounts with the events of the day as they affected his own life.” It is this that gives the diaries their remarkable immediacy and, because they were always scribbled down under intense pressure, their urgent and sometimes breathless quality.

From the beginning he was concerned about how his own pride in being a German would be affected by the actions of the new government and by public response to them. When Hitler killed off the SA leadership on June 30, 1934, he was deeply disturbed, less by the violence of the act than by the popular acceptance of it. He wrote:

The confusion in the populace’s ideas is shocking. A very calm and easygoing mailman and likewise old Prätorius, who is not at all National Socialist, said to me in the same words: “Well, he simply sentenced them.” A chancellor sentences and shoots members of his own private army!

As time passed, he was depressed by evidence that, despite the dangers of Hitler’s foreign policy and his party’s contempt for the restraints of law, nobody seemed to want to get rid of the Führer; everybody was too afraid of losing his livelihood, or his life, to try. But, he asked himself,

Can I reproach them with it? During my last year in my post I swore an oath to Hitler, I have remained in the country—I am no better than my Aryan fellow creatures.

After the frenzy of nationalist enthusiasm and the new anti-Jewish laws that followed the Anschluss, he wrote despondently:

How deeply Hitler’s attitudes are rooted in the German people, how effective the preparations were for his Aryan doctrine, how unbelievably I have deceived myself my whole life long, when I imagined myself to belong to Germany, and how completely homeless I am.

Yet he fought against his own pessimism, telling himself that there was no accurate way of fathoming the national mood and insisting to himself that, although the idealistic patriotism of his youth might have disappeared, he was still a German. In a comment on Zionism in November 1939, he wrote:

I shall go along with that just as little as I do with National Socialism or with Bolshevism, [I remain] liberal and German forever.

Klemperer was fascinated by the centrality of the Jewish question to National Socialism; it was, he once wrote during the war years, its quintessence, “the poison gland of the swastika viper.” Yet, was this anything more than a perverse corruption of Romanticism? Looked at practically, there was no German Jewish question in Germany. Until 1933, Klemperer wrote,

The German Jews were entirely German and nothing else…. Jews and Germans lived and worked together without friction in all spheres of life. The anti-Semitism, which was always present, is not at all evidence to the contrary. Because the friction between Jews and Aryans was not half as great as that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers and employees or between East Prussians for example and southern Bavarians or Rhinelanders and Bavarians. The German Jews were part of the German nation, as the French Jews were part of the French nation, etc. They had their place in German life, and were in no part a burden upon the whole.

The Jewish question for Klemperer was, in short, an invention of Hitler and his followers, who created it by a deliberate process of demonization that in its irrationality resembled the anti-Semitism of medieval times. This served to justify the ingenious policy of persecuting the Jews by denying them rights possessed by other Germans. Klemperer was meticulous in recording the stages of this systematic deprivation and prohibition of conveniences and small pleasures, the denial of such amenities as having a telephone, or going to the theater, or buying a newspaper, or visiting a barber, or buying flowers, or using a bicycle for any purpose except going to work, or walking in public parks, or using the popular Elbe steamers. In the middle of the war, as a kind of exercise, Klemperer made a list of the 31 regulations of this kind currently in force and remarked that “the little needle-prick often hurts more than a blow with a club” since it reminded the the recipient that he was considered to be a member of a lesser breed that did not deserve what others enjoyed as a matter of right.

The reaction of Aryan Germans to this policy was not, however, always what the government expected. Germans taking foreign guests for a walk in the English Garden in Munich were apt to be embarrassed by the signs reading “Jews are not wanted here.” Klemperer’s tobacconist sometimes slipped into his pocket a few cigars that he was not entitled to buy for himself, and merchants who knew Eva’s situation were often generous in overlooking the gaps in her ration book. Joseph Goebbels was reported to be furious over the reaction to his decree that all Jews must wear the Star of David, for it seemed to inspire more sympathy than anything else.

In Klemperer’s own experience the only unpleasantness that he suffered from this regulation, aside from the usual insults from louts in SA uniforms, was some jeering by schoolchildren. In contrast to this, he was surprised by the number of people who made a point of exchanging greetings with him, like the two old ladies who crossed the street to shake hands with him and tell him how sorry they were, or the nursery worker who said to him, “You, mate, do you know Herrschmann?—No?—He’s a Jew too, porter like me—I just wanted to say: It doesn’t matter about the star, we’re all human beings, and I know such good Jews.” Such incidents were not always consoling, for they were apt to reveal deep misunderstanding of the true situation of the Jews; but Martin Chalmers is certainly correct in writing, “It is difficult…to reconcile the evidence of I Will Bear Witness with the argument of Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which proposes the existence of an all-pervasive ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’ as the common sense of Nazi and pre-Nazi Germany.” This single-cause explanation of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis finds no support in Klemperer’s eyewitness account of what it was like to live in the Third Reich as a Jew. On the contrary, we find much here to indicate how far short Nazi propaganda fell from convincing ordinary Germans that the Jews were the source of all their problems.

The less than perfect efficiency of Goebbels’s propaganda machine is apparent also in Klemperer’s treatment of the war years, which is remarkable for its re-creation of shifting public moods, the proliferation of rumors, and popular misconceptions about the international situation. By this time he had become fascinated with the language used in public pronouncements and was beginning to collect the material that he would later use in his book LTI. What struck him forcibly was the growing sophistication of ordinary Germans when they heard or read official communiqués and how they had begun, so to speak, to parse their language. An acquaintance told Klemperer that whenever the word heldenhaft (heroic) began to appear in descriptions of German military operations, one could tell that things were going badly, and that it was remarkable how often Russian armies that were declared to have been “annihilated” seemed to recover and have to be “annihilated” all over again in later reports. By 1942 there was evidence that a lot of people had stopped believing what they were told.

For the next generation of historians of modern Germany, Klemperer’s diaries will be required reading. One does not have to read more than a few pages to be impressed by their authenticity and by the author’s dedi-cation, honesty, and energy, to say nothing of the courage that sustained him in his task. In July 1944, after an American air raid, he wrote, “I will go on observing, making notes, studying until the last moment. Fear doesn’t do any good, and everything is destiny in any case. (But naturally, despite all philosophy, fear grabs me from time to time. So yesterday into the cellar while the Americans droned overhead.)”


LTI’ Endures May 6, 1999

  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.