Commentary Magazine


In Hitler's Germany

To the Editor:

A characteristic odor of British Germanophobia pervades Daniel Johnson’s otherwise informative article, “What Victor Klemperer Saw” [June]. From the most meager of anecdotal evidence, Mr. Johnson concludes that Victor Klemperer’s diaries “once and for all [demolish] the myth that ordinary Germans did not and could not know about the Holocaust.” There is overwhelming evidence to the contrary—namely, that the regime successfully managed to hide the Holocaust from ordinary Germans.

True, as Mr. Johnson writes, “even decent Germans were implicated by Nazi indoctrination.” But anyone who has lived under a totalitarian regime knows that it is impossible to remain totally unaffected by the constant and ubiquitous assault of agitprop. It is not German, but human, nature that is weak and, alas, prey to moral cowardice.

Readers who learn from Mr. Johnson that “even formerly friendly acquaintances [of Klemperer’s] who were by no means Nazis . . . now cut him dead” should remember that during the McCarthy era, many innocent Americans, falsely accused and temporarily put on administrative leave from their jobs, were also “cut dead” by the neighbors with whom they had barbecued only the night before. And those “friendly acquaintances” were, unlike Germans, not living under totalitarian terror. In Nazi Germany, by contrast, people could be arrested for talking to a Jewish acquaintance in a streetcar.

Franz M. Oppenheimer
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

In his article on Victor Klemperer, Daniel Johnson deprives his readers of much information critical to judging both the diarist and his diaries.

Having endured a dozen years under the Nazis, Klemperer chose to live his remaining fifteen years under the Stalinists. The Americans liberated him in Bavaria in May 1945, but by June he was already back in Dresden, and by year’s end he had joined the Communist party. It was this membership that facilitated the 1946 publication of Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich. He was also able to resume his Dresden professorship, and went on to hold other positions in Greifswald, Halle, and, finally, Berlin. In 1950, he served as a representative in the pseudoparliament of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In 1952, he received the GDR’s National Prize for Art, 3rd Class, and in 1956 the Fatherland’s Silver Service medal.

These facts shine a different light on Klemperer’s response to a request by a former student and Wehrmacht major for aid in securing a job in 1947. Mr. Johnson reports that Klemperer refused the request because he correctly considered that the loyal assistance of many Germans, particularly educated Germans who should have known better, had been key to the Nazis’ success. Evidently, he was not daunted by the utter inconsistency of refusing to aid his former student while he himself was loyally assisting the Stalinists, who (as he noted) were replacing one form of unfreedom with another. From 1933 to 1945 Klemperer had observed everything and learned nothing. Can Mr. Johnson think of any reason why, applying Klemperer’s own standards, we should not judge him more harshly than he judged his former student?

In the end, though, I submit that the flaws Klemperer both observed and exemplified—what Daniel Johnson calls the “mentality of national self-deception and willful ignorance”—are not German but Western. They arise out of a set of ideas still dominant among the intelligentsia of not only Germany but, among others, the UK, France, and the U.S. In France, they have been promoted by intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. In America, Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish market a more cheerful version—what Allan Bloom called nihilism without the abyss.

Douglas Hoffman
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Daniel Johnson writes much that is true, but there is so much more to be said.

Long before Hitler came to power, Victor Klemperer had converted to Christianity (though he remained a nonbeliever); he married a Christian woman, fought for the Kaiser on the Western front in World War I, and believed with all his heart and soul in Germany. And even after he was deprived by the Nazis of his professorship and most of his worldly possessions, forced to live in a “Jew House” and to beg for food and clothing, he never forsook his total loyalty to his imagined Germany. In July 1942, he wrote, “Even if I hated Germany, I would not therefore become un-German. I could not tear what is German out of me.” Indeed, in the early days of the war Klemperer had to restrain his impulse to root for the Wehrmacht when it invaded Poland—all the more ironic in view of the fact that Klemperer’s origins were as much Polish as German, his father having begun his career as an Orthodox rabbi in his native Poland.

Once the war ended, Klemperer the Jew was no longer a despised person. With Hitler gone and Germany occupied by the Allies, Germans of all descriptions discarded their Nazi allegiance and reached out to help the Klemperers. After twelve years of Nazi persecution, the Jewish-born Klemperer was alive, back in his old house, and restored to his pre-Nazi-era professorship at Dresden University. He was among the few Jews who survived; but at what cost?

Like most of his relatives, he could have escaped from Nazi Germany before the war. Yet he was disdainful of Jews who went to Palestine, likened Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, to Hitler, and waited too long to join relatives in America. If Victor Klemperer had been less intent on being a good German and remaining in Germany, he might well have been spared his ordeal.

One also has to question whether he survived “to bear witness.” After all, he never published his diaries, and after the war he gave no thought to leaving Germany even though he could easily have emigrated to America. That he later joined the Communist party raises a further question as to Klemperer’s core beliefs. What had he really learned from the Nazi ordeal? Why was he willing to trade one form of totalitarianism for another?

In reflecting on Klemperer’s diaries, I have a final nagging thought. What if Victor Klemperer had succeeded in his youthful desire to shed totally his Jewish identity, and had not been forced by the Nazis to share the Jewish fate? During the Hitler years, how would he then have acted toward the sufferings of his fellow Jews?

Alfred H. Moses
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

My compliments to Daniel Johnson for his excellent and thorough discussion of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. Whether Mr. Johnson’s analysis will help put to rest the still widely held German attitude that most citizens did not participate or even know about the Nazi murder of the Jews until near the end of the war is questionable. According to a German acquaintance of mine, the fact that Klemperer knew about concentration camps and gassings and shootings almost as soon as they began proves nothing about “ordinary” Germans; rather, it is said, Klemperer learned these facts from the Jewish underground.

All this aside, Klemperer was certainly an intriguing figure, though typical of quite a number of self-hating German Jews who protested their Germanness all the way to the gas chambers.

Hans Fisher
New Brunswick, New Jersey

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Daniel Johnson writes:

I do not know what “a characteristic odor of British Germanophobia” smells like, but if Franz M. Oppenheimer means to say that Germanophobia is characteristic of the British in general, and of me in particular, he is wrong on both counts—doubly so in my case. Having written and lectured on German history, culture, and politics all my life, I find Mr. Oppenheimer’s insinuation offensive.

His own knowledge of everyday life in the Third Reich is shaky, to say the least. Aryan Germans were not normally arrested for talking to Jewish acquaintances; indeed, most of them were left alone by the Gestapo. The “totalitarian terror” to which Mr. Oppenheimer refers certainly existed; but it was concentrated on the Nazis’ political, religious, and racial enemies. To compare the ostracism suffered by Americans accused of Communist sympathies in the McCarthy era with the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany is not merely tasteless but grotesque. McCarthy was rejected by most Americans as soon as he threatened the rule of law; Hitler was not rejected by most Germans even after he had abolished it.

Mr. Oppenheimer’s main contention—that the Nazi regime succeeded in hiding the Holocaust from ordinary Germans—does not stand up to scrutiny. Although the evidence cannot be surveyed here, the key point is that Victor Klemperer enjoyed no privileged access to information. Along with the rest of Germany, he noticed when Hitler predicted on January 30, 1939 that war would bring about “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Once the Holocaust was under way, in 1942 and 1943, Hitler often gloated over this “prophecy.” By that time a substantial proportion of the 10 million German soldiers who served on the Eastern front had already witnessed or participated in the massacre of Soviet Jews. A very high proportion of German civilians listened to BBC and other Allied broadcasts, which made explicit and accurate mention of what was happening in the death camps. Thousands of German corporations profited from, tens of thousands of German bureaucrats administered, and hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” Germans carried out the extermination of European Jewry. Everyone who wanted to know could and did.

It is true that the Nazi authorities went to considerable lengths to disguise the full extent of the Final Solution. But they were no less secretive about the earlier “T-4” euthanasia campaign, during which 70,000 psychiatric patients were gassed. Yet this crime was the subject of public protests by Bishop Galen and others, which evidently garnered so much support that Galen was not arrested. In 1941 Hitler redirected the T-4 gassing units to murder inmates of the concentration camps. This time there were no protests.

Whether or not protests brought about a change in policy (patients at mental hospitals were starved or given lethal injections instead, these methods being easier to conceal), they did place definite limits on Nazi crimes. Had the churches and others shown the same moral courage in defense of the Jews, the Holocaust could not have happened on the monstrous scale that it did.

Douglas Hoffman is entitled to criticize Klemperer for returning to Dresden after the war and for resuming his career in Communist East Germany. He was not, and never claimed to be, a hero; as long as he was left alone, he had no desire to become a dissident. But unlike his former pupil, the Wehrmacht officer, Klemperer was not ordered to carry out atrocities or prosecute a war of conquest; he was permitted to teach and publish.

Klemperer’s postwar diaries reveal that any illusions he might have had about Communism were soon dispelled, but he no longer had the energy to make a fresh start in the West. After all he had suffered, I am inclined to judge him less harshly than Mr. Hoffman, but I concede that this is a matter of opinion. What is certain is that his diaries will be no less valuable to historians of Communism than to those of the Third Reich.

I am grateful to Alfred H. Moses and Hans Fisher for their courteous comments. Mr. Moses raises a fascinating hypothetical question: if this deeply patriotic German had succeeded in shedding his Jewish identity entirely, might he have become an anti-Semite? Mr. Fisher likewise sees him as a “self-hating German Jew.” Voluminous as the diaries are, they can be used to support this view, but also its opposite. Klemperer was undoubtedly ambivalent about his Jewishness, and was capable of harsh and occasionally unjust remarks about other Jews. Anti-Semitism, however, was repellent to him for objective as well as subjective reasons: it was the essence of all that he feared and abominated in Germany, not merely as a Jew but also as an intellectual.

That most ordinary Germans knew and tacitly consented to what was happening to the Jews is the most disturbing fact to emerge from the Klemperer diaries. It is also a fact that some Germans—and not only Germans—find hard to accept. Whether, like Mr. Oppenheimer, one blames “not German, but human, nature,” or like Mr. Hoffman, indicts “not German but Western” self-deception, the fact remains that the Holocaust was perpetrated not by humanity or the West in general but by the Germans in particular. To acknowledge this fact, and try to understand the reasons for it, is the duty not only of the Germans but of us all, Jews and Gentiles alike.

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