What Victor Klemperer Saw
The name of Klemperer has long been synonymous with music. One of the greatest conductors of all time, Otto Klemperer was among those titanic figures of the Jewish diaspora of the 1930’s who fructified the Anglo-American cultural landscape. His exile was our good fortune.
In many ways, Klemperer embodied the tragedy of the German-Jewish symbiosis. In his role as director of the Kroll Opera, he had premiered major works by such composers as Stravinsky, Janácek, and Hindemith; by pioneering new styles of performance, he had also become an object of hate for reactionaries, called by the Nazis “Obermusikjude”: “chief music Jew.” Yet, in 1946, Klemperer was the first great emigré to return to Germany after the war, a model of magnanimity, seeking, as he said then, “to heal the wounds made by this terrible time.”
This imposing giant of a man was prey to depression, and at one point had placed himself in the care of his cousin, Georg Klemperer. Georg had run a large Berlin hospital and, as one of Germany’s most eminent physicians, had traveled to the Soviet Union to minister to the dying Lenin. Georg, who would become an emigré himself, had a younger brother, Victor, who remained behind in Germany to pursue a promising academic career as a professor of Romance languages in Dresden. Otto had become acquainted with his cousin Victor when they were both students in Berlin, but thereafter lost touch. As he moved from success to success, the conductor neither was aware of nor, as far as is known, cared about the increasingly desperate plight of a comparatively obscure relation left behind in Germany.
Today, however, when Germans discuss the name Klemperer, they are more likely to be referring to Victor than to Otto, for Victor, who died in 1960 in East Germany at the age of seventy-eight, has now belatedly emerged from the shadow of his cousin to eclipse his fame. From the moment they began to be published five years ago, Victor Klemperer’s diaries, which after his death had been preserved for decades by his second wife, became unprecedented bestsellers in Germany. The first two volumes, covering the years 1933 to 1945, went through six editions in a year, transforming the fortunes of their (formerly Communist) publisher, the ailing Aufbau Verlag. Five more volumes are also available in German, covering the period both before 1933 and after 1945. In the meantime, the first two volumes, which even abridged run in German to some 1,700 pages, have come out still further abridged in English under the title I Will Bear Witness1
Without question, these diaries constitute one of the great works of the age, by far the most readable—and most revealing—first-hand testimony to have emerged from the Nazi era. But Klemperer’s posthumous renown also has something to do with our own historical moment, and in particular with the German nation’s continuing reassessment of its past. In the face of the indictment leveled four years ago by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners2—also, ironically, a best-seller in Germany—Victor Klemperer’s diary has been pressed into service as a witness for the defense: the defense, that is, of “ordinary Germans.” For if Klemperer’s tribulations, recorded in minute detail, make unmistakably clear just how badly most ordinary Germans of the 30’s and 40’s did in fact treat their Jewish neighbors, ordinary Germans of the 90’s have also taken heart from his discriminating acknowledgments of those who showed compassion.
Who was Victor Klemperer? The son of a Reform rabbi, he was born in 1881 into the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia of Bismarck’s new Reich. From his youth, his only wish was to be German, to identify with and contribute to the self-confident Kulturvolk among whom he lived. Jewishness, not to mention Judaism, was irrelevant to this goal. In Curriculum Vitae, reminiscences of his early youth that he began in late 1938 after the Kristallnacht pogrom (and that were not published until 1989), he describes his father’s funeral: since his elder brothers had already converted to Lutheranism, the presiding rabbi turned to him to recite the Kaddish. Klemperer recalls his blunt refusal, his acute sense of embarrassment, his eagerness to have done with everything his father had stood for. And, indeed, it was not long afterward that he, too, was baptized. Only many years later, when the Nazis sought to segregate Jews from German culture, did Klemperer rediscover his Jewish heritage, and then not in any theological or communal sense but as a detached student of literature and history.
The young Klemperer had sought to make a career first as a writer and then as a journalist, in neither case with much success. In the years before World War I, having married the highly musical and non-Jewish Eva Schlemmer, he decided to start again, and threw himself into academic studies under the guidance of the leading Romance scholar Karl Vossler. Like many patriotic German Jews, Klemperer, already then in his thirties, volunteered for and fought in the Great War. But despite his record of service, and despite the several excellent books on French literature he would publish in the ensuing decades, he never rose higher than a chair at the Technical Academy in Dresden, a second-class post for a first-class mind.
He resented his professional marginalization deeply, rightly suspecting that anti-Semitism was partly to blame for his failure to advance. Yet his belief in the superiority of German culture remained undiminished; he envied rival scholars like Erich Auerbach, who with Vossler’s help had escaped persecution by finding a niche in Istanbul. Until 1933, and even for some time afterward, Klemperer still identified unconditionally with the German nation, and had nothing but contempt for Jews who disowned Germany, going so far in his diary (in a 1934 entry) to compare Zionists, with “their nosing after blood, their ancient ‘cultural roots,’ ” to Nazis.
After Hitler came to power, however, Klemperer realized that it was only a matter of time before he would lose his job. As a veteran, he was exempt from the initial purge of Jewish academics, but his students were deterred from attending his lectures and seminars, and in May 1935 he was summarily dismissed. Though he despised the cowardice of more conformist colleagues, and was glad to escape the bizarre academic rituals that Nazis like the philosopher Martin Heidegger loved to improvise, the loss of his professorial status led to daily humiliations and cumulative persecution.
At first, as his diary chronicles, he suffered mainly from bureaucratic chicanery, if always with an ominous undertone that gradually became more explicit. Just before the reoccupation of the Rhine-land in 1936, for example, the atmosphere in the village where he and his wife were living turned ugly: the mayor warned him he was only a “guest.” But by April 1938, after the Anschluss with Austria, he writes in despair of “how deeply Hitler’s attitudes are rooted in the German people, how good 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.” After Kristallnacht, which took place in November of that year, the Klemperers were visited by the police, accompanied by an aggressively anti-Semitic “citizen”; they were in search of weapons, and upon the discovery of his old saber from World War I he was arrested, later to be released without charge. This was the first of several house searches that became ever more brutal as the Gestapo took control. Even formerly friendly acquaintances who were by no means Nazis, such as the local police constable, now cut him dead; by now, he reckons in his diary, at least 79 out of the 80 million Germans were hostile to the Jews or indifferent to their fate.
In the early years of the regime, Klemperer took refuge in his work: despite the depression induced by the loss of status, career, civil rights, and, in the end, property, he wrote a history of French literature in the 18th century. Deprived of access to libraries, he doggedly commenced his Curriculum Vitae. His diary, too, is replete with countless examples of Nazi jargon that he recorded in preparation for another book, LTI, shorthand for Lingua Tertii Imperii (“The Language of the Third Reich”), published after the war; it is still by far the best such study.
Suspended between disbelief and despair, the Klemperers had refused to consider emigration until Kristallnacht. But they had waited too long; though Victor’s brother Georg was already in America, they lacked friends in high places. Thus he resolved to “bear witness”: recording the progressive degradation of Germany and of the Germans became an act of defiance, a life-saving routine, and a source of consolation. His diary saved his dignity and his sanity. It also became his magnum opus, a prodigious project: the anatomy of tyranny.
In the pages of this work, Klemperer notes how, as Hitler’s victorious blitzkrieg gave way to the nightmare of prolonged war on the eastern front, overt anti-Semitism became still more widespread among the German populace and took ever more extreme forms. Even though scarcely any Jews remained within Germany, the Jews were blamed for every misfortune. It was, indeed, his realization of German hatred that forced him to reassess both his own identity and that of his fellow Germans. By October 1941, he was constantly asking himself: “Who among the ‘Aryan’ Germans is really untouched by National Socialism? The contagion rages in all of them; perhaps it is not contagion, but basic German nature.”
Though he had little access to reliable information—far less so than most Germans, who could and did listen to the BBC or other Allied radio stations, usually with impunity—Klemperer was able to report in his diary the mass shooting of Jews on the eastern front in January 1942. By March of the same year, he had heard about Auschwitz. In April, a carpenter told his wife in detail about the massacres at Babi Yar outside Kiev. In an entry dated October 1942 he calls Auschwitz a “swift-working slaughterhouse,” and by January of the following year he is speaking of “the constant dreadful fear of Auschwitz.” In October 1944, he was told that “six to seven million Jews” had been “shot or gassed.” He records cases of the Gestapo not only taunting its victims with the imminence of their extermination but informing non-Jews of what lay in store for the Jews. In such entries, Klemperer demolishes once and for all the myth that ordinary Germans did not and could not know about the Holocaust.
Were it not for his “Aryan” wife, Klemperer himself would certainly have perished along with all his Jewish acquaintances. Jews in mixed marriages were treated more leniently in Nazi Germany, though many of their Aryan spouses yielded to the pressure to divorce, and those who did not were reviled. The only successful public protest in Nazi Germany against the Final Solution was mounted in Berlin in 1943 by women in mixed marriages who maintained a vigil outside the Rosenstrasse detention center until their Jewish husbands were released. Living in Dresden, isolated in a mini-ghetto (the Jews’ House), the Klemperers knew nothing of these heroic Berlin women, but Eva clearly partook of their fortitude and ignored the constant insults by her compatriots.
Hard as the early years of the Third Reich had been for the Klemperers, the war years were incomparably harder, physically and emotionally. Malnourished, maltreated, aware that the malediction pronounced upon his people would do him in unless the war ended first, Klemperer nevertheless observes himself in his diary with extraordinary detachment. In July 1941 he spent eight days in solitary confinement for infringing the blackout. Deprived of books and eyeglasses, suspenders and collar, plunged into mortal terror and nihilism, he performed manic mnemonic exercises that somehow helped him “climb back to earth from . . . hell.”
Despite his age, despite myopia and angina, Klemperer was drafted into forced labor units. When his Jewish doctor tried to declare him unfit, a Nazi doctor refused to hear of it. As it turned out, the work was not especially onerous—clearing snow, followed by a stint in an herbal-tea factory—and it brought him into contact with Germans who lacked the instinctive anti-Semitism he had encountered everywhere else. But his frank acknowledgement of this fact hardly led him (as some commentators have supposed) to abandon his earlier convictions about “the unfathomable hatred of Jewry” in Germany.
Far more sophisticated than later historians, Klemperer remarks time and again on the insidious way that even decent Germans were implicated by Nazi indoctrination. In August 1944, for example, during an air-raid drill, the warden, “a decent man,” at first indignantly denied that Jews would be left to burn if their cellar collapsed, but then admitted: “I should very much like to help you, but as you know, my hands are tied.” Klemperer’s acid comment:
It is tragicomic . . . when the man attempts to make us fit into the general “effort,” when he inevitably slips into the stock of phrases he has learned by heart, which are like an insult to us: three times yesterday we were told that we had to play our part, both for our own and the general good, ready for action as a “community bound by oath.” Pretty to hear, when one wears the [yellow] star and is an “enemy of the state.”
This brings us to the most dramatic scene in the diaries. Klemperer survived and witnessed the Allied destruction of Dresden on February 13-14, 1945. To this day, that raid is generally regarded by Germans as an Anglo-American atrocity; yet Klemperer, a Jewish civilian, foresaw its military inevitability already in October 1944, when, with the defection of Hungary from the Axis, it became clear that Dresden would form “the transport junction behind the front which is most threatened. . . . Then we shall get heavy air attacks.”
The Dresden bombing almost certainly saved Klemperer’s life. Carrying out a compulsory labor assignment, he had delivered summonses for deportation to most of the remaining Jews of the city, many of them seriously ill or mothers with small children. Then the Allied bombers arrived. His description, written a few days later, vividly evokes the firestorm, in the course of which Eva disappeared and he was slightly wounded in the face. He dashed through the conflagration, clutching the bag containing his precious diary, his head swathed in a blanket. Reaching a terrace by the river Elbe, he watched as the “little rococo jewel-box” of Dresden was incinerated along with at least 30,000 people. As dawn broke on February 14, Eva found him and ripped the hateful yellow star from his coat.
In the ensuing chaos, with records destroyed and the Gestapo distracted, the Klemperers left Dresden and traveled incognito across Germany, evading the flailing tentacles of the dying Reich. In Munich, where they arrived in April, they found Victor’s old teacher and patron, the anti-Nazi professor Vossler, who had been “altogether isolated” but not persecuted. Vossler serves as a reminder of how very different were the fortunes of anti-Nazis who did not happen to be Jews. The professor had retained his apartment, his library, and his maid, who served the Klemperers a “princely peacetime lunch.”
By the time the GI’s came on the scene, Klemperer notes sardonically, “the Third Reich is already as good as forgotten, everyone was opposed to it, ‘always’ opposed to it.” Not until a week after the end of the war did he dare reveal his Jewish identity to a German official in a village where the Klemperers were staying. Her response: “Immediately smiling courtesy, helpfulness, expression of respect. One ‘Herr Professor’ after the other.” When he asked her not to tell the villagers, whom he still did not trust, she replied vehemently: “Well, do you think you still have anything to fear? On the contrary: you will get preferential treatment!” Thus does Klemperer’s chronicle of the Third Reich, which begins in agony, end in excruciating irony.
When they first began to appear, the Klemperer diaries were compared favorably (by Time and other publications) with the diary of Anne Frank. Such comparisons are unfair: a late-middle-aged professor and an adolescent girl are bound to have incommensurable views of the world. It is Anne Frank’s childish naiveté that lends her journal its unforgettable charm, and her fate that renders it unbearably poignant; by contrast, the relatively happy end of Klemperer’s war is less obviously tragic.
Anne Frank will always remain the best starting point for understanding the Holocaust, because her voice speaks directly to children across the decades. The historical value of the Klemperer diaries is, however, incomparably greater. Its wealth of detail, its sensitivity to linguistic and social nuance, its political insight and awareness, its humane intelligence—these qualities leave all other such efforts in the shade. Like Samuel Pepys in his time, like the Duc de Saint Simon or James Boswell in theirs, Klemperer evokes the atmosphere of Nazi Germany so well that the stench fills one’s nostrils. And all the while, the horror of his story is illuminated by shafts of dry, bitter wit.
The true uniqueness of Klemperer emerges when one compares his diary with those of his non-Jewish German contemporaries. Take, for example, the journals of Joseph Goebbels, which have been appearing in a scholarly edition since the late 1980’s and which offer a supreme instance of that much overused expression: the banality of evil. Despite Goebbels’s reputation as the leading Nazi intellectual, despite his much-vaunted Ph.D., what strikes one immediately about his diaries is the absence in them of any interior life. Where Klemperer’s diary is a never-ending dialogue with himself, Goebbels’s is a monologue of hatred, reminiscent of and no doubt influenced by Mein Kampf. Where Klemperer acknowledges his own resentments—including of his famous cousin Otto—Goebbels displays no self-knowledge at all. Klemperer is fascinated by the Nazi mentality, and uses his skills as a linguist to analyze it; Goebbels is wholly uninterested in the Jews or the others on whom he preyed. Although Goebbels’s status as Hitler’s closest confidant renders his voluminous record of Nazi politics a valuable source for historians, it was conceived primarily as a propaganda weapon, aiming to deceive not only contemporary public opinion but also posterity and perhaps even its author.
The diaries of the novelist-essayist Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) provide a different kind of contrast to Klemperer, revealing how even those Germans who did not consider themselves Nazis were, for the most part, indifferent to the persecution of the Jews. As a hero of World War I, a literary celebrity, and a foe of the Weimar Republic, Jünger had for a time been close to the Nazis, even contributing to the party newspaper and sending copies of his books to Hitler. By the time the Nazis came to power, however, he had come to regard them as murderous demagogues and satirized them in his 1939 novel On the Marble Cliffs, which thereafter put him out of favor with the regime.
Still, the Wehrmacht authorities in occupied Paris, where Jünger was stationed for much of World War II, permitted him to publish the first volume of his diaries. When he republished it after 1945, together with the ensuing volumes, he carefully suppressed those passages that did not fit his postwar image as a free spirit and someone close to the German resistance.
Jünger’s diaries are far more self-consciously literary than Klemperer’s. As a distinguished amateur entomologist, Jünger had no less an eye for detail, albeit of a clinical kind, but where Klemperer’s responses to what he sees are spontaneous and ethical, Jünger’s are studiedly aesthetic. Indeed, Jünger—as a good Nietzschean—deliberately excludes any hint of Judeo-Christian compassion from his reflections on the human catastrophe that he observed from the side of the aggressor. Similarly absent is any sense of responsibility arising from that aggression. The diarist looks down on the maelstrom of events as if from a higher sphere, one in which anti-Semitism is construed as a vulgar vice (to which, incidentally, in his own earlier journalism, Jünger himself had hardly been immune) rather than a genocidal ideology.
Klemperer, for whom the Nietzschean idea of “living dangerously” was not the whim of an intellectual spectator but an inescapable fact of life as a Jew in the Third Reich, is more clear-sighted about the Nazis than Jünger or the countless literati who thought like him. In April 1933, during the first weeks of the Nazi “seizure of power,” he saw that anti-Semitism was not mere demagogy, not a means to an end, but, however incomprehensibly, it was the end itself: “The fate of the Hitler movement will undoubtedly be decided by the Jewish business. I do not understand why they have made this point of their program so central. It will sink them. But we will probably go down with them.”
Nowhere in Jünger’s diaries is the truth stated so plainly, even though it is clear that Jünger knew a good deal about the Final Solution, at the latest after his visit to the Russian front in 1942-43. But he is more concerned with the “Old Testament” vengeance to be visited upon the Germans for their deeds than with the deeds themselves. He mourns his fallen son Ernstel; he has sympathy for his compatriots in defeat; but toward the Jews, he is pitiless.
Another outstanding diarist, Jochen Klepper, was the “Aryan” partner in a mixed marriage and thus in a comparable situation to the Klemperers. A devout Lutheran and a thoroughly decent man, Klepper showed the ultimate solidarity with his Jewish wife, Hanni. Though he could save her from deportation to the death camps, he could not, despite his acquaintance with the Nazi interior minister, save his stepdaughter, Reni. All three committed suicide in November 1942.
In his diary, Klepper’s constant refrain is that the German people do not support Hitler’s anti-Semitism. After the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, he even suggests that the Nazi measures are alienating the population. He contemplates the impending annihilation passively: the churches are impotent, so are the veterans. Even as he chose death rather than abandon his loved ones, Klepper was in denial about his beloved fatherland.
This was not Klemperer’s attitude; indeed, he saw clearly that such passivity was at the root of the German problem. In January 1947, two years after the end of the war, he wrote to a former pupil, Hans Hirche, who had appealed to him for help. Hirche had been a major in the Wehrmacht and was now having difficulty finding a civilian job. Klemperer is blunt Hirche’s word of honor that he was innocent of atrocities, even if accepted, does not exonerate him of guilt: “You and all the others must have known what crazy criminals you were serving, what unthinkable cruelties you stood up for and made possible by your loyalty.” To the claim, “we didn’t know,” Klemperer rejoins: “Hadn’t one of you read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where all that was later carried out had been planned in advance with shameless openness? And were all these murders, all these crimes, wherever one looked, only evident to us—I do not only mean the Jews, but all the persecuted?”
If Klemperer is inclined to be lenient, it is toward ordinary soldiers. But toward officers, and toward the intelligentsia—anyone who could have and should have known better—he is implacable. To Hirche’s argument that he had hoped to moderate the regime from within, Klemperer replies:
It must have been obvious long before 20 July [1944, the date of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt on Hitler’s life] that there was nothing left to moderate—and after 20 July the madness continued for nearly a whole year. No, if I look at these things objectively, I cannot find anybody free of guilt.
Stripped of some of its cruder and ahistorical claims, Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis—that most ordinary Germans shared the Nazis’ “eliminationist” anti-Semitism and were ready to participate in genocide without coercion—is, therefore, quite compatible with Klemperer’s view that Nazi ideology had so saturated German culture that (as he noted only six weeks before the surrender) “with this people, this desperado regime really will resist down to the last village.” It is true that he mentions occasional acts of generosity to Jews by individual Germans, but these acts were rare and seldom involved serious risk. They were far outweighed by the instances of petty cruelty, especially from those in any position of authority.
From sources other than Klemperer, we also know that many of those involved in the Nazi extermination program may have felt revulsion at what they did. Many SS men suffered from stress, and Adolf Eichmann himself, in the prison memoirs recently released by Israel, claims to have watched the shooting of Jews with disgust, and even to have tried in vain to save a child who resembled one of his own; on the way back to Berlin, Eichmann writes, he drank heavily. In fact, it is precisely this mixture of saccharine sentimentality and zealous obedience that was typical of the Third Reich, and not just of the Nazis who ran it.
That is certainly what Klemperer believed, right to the bitter end. Even without his yellow star and with the regime collapsing, he lived in constant fear of recognition by “ordinary Germans,” however much they might now curse the Nazis. When queried by someone whether he was “of Jewish descent or mixed race,” he did not give himself away but notes afterward: “I am just as close to death as on the night of the bombs.” Klemperer bears witness, alas, not to the decency of most ordinary Germans, but to their moral cowardice.
That this moral cowardice has not altogether disappeared from mainstream German opinion today is, finally, the lesson implicit in the reception of the Klemperer diaries. In effect, Klemperer has been made to say what most Germans want him to say: namely, that, during the war years, they, just like every other nation, were a “normal” mixture of good and evil. This interpretation is even shared by some older historians in the United States. Thus, Fritz Stern has recommended Klemperer as a balance to Goldhagen, and especially as one whose more “nuanced picture” includes the Germans’ “moments of decency and quiet help.” Similarly, István Deák, writing in the New Republic, asserts that the diaries show how “in Dresden . . . ‘ordinary’ Germans tended to behave decently toward the frail, bent, old professor. . . . Unlike the minority of radical anti-Semites, the majority of Europeans did not want all the Jews to disappear from their midst; they wanted only that there should be fewer Jews.”
Leave aside the elision here of the distinction between Germans and Europeans, which transforms a dubious thesis into a tenable one; leave aside, too, that German Jews had never made up more than 1 percent of the population, a figure reduced by 1944 to about one in 10,000 (how many fewer would be few enough?). Since a major part of the raison d’être of the Klemperer diaries is to document the perversion of the German language and culture, let us dwell instead on that word “decency” (Anstand). It was, in fact, a favorite word of the Nazis—Klemperer himself describes two SS men as “inoffensively decent”—and for many Germans it served effectively as yet another means of denying reality. Decent Germans refused to recognize the indecency of the Nazi regime until it was too late, and they then proved themselves too decent to do anything about it. Would it have been decent to kill the Führer? Most Germans, even after the war, did not think so, to judge by their hostility or indifference to those who actually came close to assassinating Hitler: the dashing Claus von Stauffenberg and the unsung “little man,” Johann Georg Elser.
Today, decency in Germany takes other forms. It is true that younger Germans are readier to discuss the Nazi past than were their parents or grandparents. It is also true that no German politician could get away with apologetic remarks about the past like those made by Jörg Haider in Austria. Much more typical of the German mindset is the unwillingness, or refusal, to take cognizance of certain uncongenial interpretations of the past. Thus, in 1998, the novelist Martin Walser, while careful not to blame the Jews directly, asserted that “the Holocaust industry” had persecuted Germans, and that the Holocaust itself had been “instrumentalized” for sinister purposes.
Walser’s remarks dovetailed with the turn-of-the-millennium wish of the left-wing government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder to banish unwelcome and inconvenient memories. Of Goldhagen’s book, Schroder had this to say: “I haven’t read it; but I don’t believe it makes sense to claim that all Germany not only knew of the murder of the Jews, but also wanted it.” In Schröder’s case—his father was killed on the Russian front—filial piety may explain this reluctance to confront the guilt of ordinary Germans. But what a German politician, especially a left-wing one, also knows is that saying he has not read Goldhagen is something public opinion will largely approve of.
A closer reading of the Klemperer diaries would cure the chancellor—and not only the chancellor—of any illusions about what wartime Germans knew or wanted concerning the Jews. But no such closer reading is likely to take place, and for reasons the diaries themselves make clear. Truly to immerse oneself in this modern classic is to find oneself wondering, and not for the first time, whether the mentality of national self-deception and willful ignorance that it so brilliantly depicts will ever, like the ideology of National Socialism, fade into history.
1 Random House. Vol. 1, 1933-1941, 519 pp., $29.95; vol. 2, 1942-1945, 556 pp., $29.95.
2 Reviewed in COMMENTARY by Robert S. Wistrich, “Helping Hitler,” July 1996.