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“Life Under Nazism”

ISSUE:  Summer 1999
I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933—1941. By Victor Klemperer. Translated by Martin Chalmers. Random House. $29.95.


Between 1905 and 1935, Victor Klemperer (1881—1960) spent most of his adult years as a professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden. The youngest child of Rabbi Wilhelm Klemperer, since 1890 second preacher at Berlin’s Reformed Synagogue, he grew up in a politically and religiously liberal milieu. Services at the Reformed Synagogue were conducted in German and held on Sunday. All of the Rabbi’s sons were eventually baptized, and their conversion elicited no protest from the father. It went without saying that all members of the family considered themselves German.

Two of the Rabbi’s four sons were successful physicians; the eldest, Georg, internationally renowned, was called to Lenin’s bedside after the ultimately fatal attempt on the Bolshevik leader’s life. A third, a successful attorney, underlined his standing in society by marrying the daughter of a general. Victor, the youngest, showed considerably less promise and dropped out of gymnasium at age 16.After an uninspiring commercial apprenticeship he finished school and then began studies in Romance and German philology. Next, he exchanged university life for an equally unsuccessful stint as journalist and writer. He resumed his studies in 1912, received a doctorate the following year and, in 1914, completed a work on Montesquieu and qualified as a university teacher.

After wartime service, his academic career began at the University of Munich in 1919 and led to the professorship at Dresden which he held for the next 15 years. From 1920 to 1935, he vainly waited for a call to a university in whose curriculum his humanist interests would occupy the center rather than the periphery it filled at Dresden.

These career frustrations certainly derived, in part, from Klemperer’s Jewish origins, a murky issue, however, when one considers that other Jewish contemporaries rose to higher posts in the academic hierarchies of the Weimar Republic. His first major publication, a two-volume study of Montesquieu, appeared in 1914—1915, a time when praise of French culture found no audience in a nation whose armies were turning northern France into a nightmare landscape of devastation. His major works during the Dresden years, the final volume of a collective history of French literature, French Literature from Napoleon to the Present, and a monograph on Pierre Corneille, further stamped him as an outsider in German academic culture. Added to his admiration of the civilisation of Germany’s “hereditary enemy” was his emphasis on literature as cultural history, rather than philological and stylistic analysis, another interpretation that placed him outside the mainstream of German literary studies of that time. Reviews of his work were largely negative, and detractors saw their disparagements confirmed by such essays of his as “Is there a Spanish Renaissance?” (1927) and “World- and European Literature” (1929), whose concern with broad fundamental conceptions was decried as journalism rather than scholarship. Even his mentors, who remembered him as an outstanding student, would not recommend for a university chair someone who did not seem to fit into any existing academic compartment and who was a Jew in the bargain.

Worse was to come after Hitler came to power. As a veteran of World War I, he was able to keep his chair until 1935.When he was dismissed, it was chiefly because contracting enrollments led to the closing of all French literature classes in Dresden. The sufferings that ensued did, however, help turn Klemperer into a writer with a far larger audience than that of the student of the French Enlightenment.

At first, retirement did not slow Klemperer’s research even after he was barred from the university reading room. That changed on Dec.3, 1938, after the Night of the Broken Glass, when a tearful librarian informed him that he would no longer be permitted to borrow books. For Klemperer this was “the absolute end”. His literary pursuits had to be abandoned and his unquenchable need for self-expression channeled into the autobiographic mode. He began to transform his diaries before 1918 into Curriculum Vitae. Memoirs of a Philologist, and he continued his diary entries which his Aryan wife Eva would carry in installments to a hiding place in Pirna, a small town 17 miles southeast of Dresden. Concurrent with his journal he assembled a treasure trove of notes on the evolution of vernacular German under the Nazi dictatorship. Neither shortage of paper, nor ink, nor the increasing risk to himself, his spouse, and his friend in Pirna, nor—for that matter—to anyone mentioned in the diary, dissuaded him from this task. While he could not be sure that anything he wrote would ever see print “I go on writing. That is [the substance] of my heroism,” he confided to his diary in the last weeks of World War II.

The translation of the diaries composed during the 12-year Nazi interlude opens a large sample of Klemperer’s confessions to readers in the English-speaking world. Confessions strikes this reviewer as the word that best describes them, for they not only provide a day-by-day account of Victor and Eva Klemperer’s life under Nazism but also provide an unvarnished picture of thoughts and responses to a succession of events that gradually turned a pillar of society into a hunted outlaw. The diarist does not hide his blemishes. He is, above all, a German professor with all that this status implies: curious, learned, and still incurably pompous. He is uncomfortable in the presence of “ordinary people.” He resents the housekeeping chores that take up an ever larger part of his day while his wife shoulders the complex burdens of shopping with a proliferation of ration cards. Professors washing dishes. Unimaginable!

Politically, Klemperer remains a liberal. Fascism and communism remain equally repellant he asserts: “Both are materialistic and tyrannical, both disregard and negate the freedom of the spirit and of the individual” (Dec.31, 1933). Still, he too, squeezes out a sullen “Heil Hitler” when visiting an office to collect his pension. Culturally he remains a German. Entries abound in which the chronicler equates Zionism with the ethnic arrogance of Germany’s extreme right. To be sure, his former belief in German cultural eminence evaporates in the heat of Nazi oppression. But he never seriously pursues emigration. On Nov.21, 1941, he reflects: “If we go, then we save our lives and are dependents and beggars for the rest of our lives. If we remain, then our lives are in danger, but we retain the possibility of afterward leading a life worth living”.

Up to that point he has survived (as he will survive everything), thanks to his marriage to an Aryan. Nevertheless, he must wear a yellow star, symbolizing that no law protects him and no privation can be challenged in any court of law. Eventually he asks (in the portion of the diary that will appear this year) on June 25, 1943: “Will I be whipped or spit at today?”

Thus the diary exposes the sadism of German treatment of the small and helpless Jewish minority; it also reveals the pettiness and meanness that suffering brings to the surface among the victims, and, at the same time, lets us share the many surreptitious acts of kindness that come the way of Victor and Eva, both from friends and strangers. Clearly, the gentile custodian of his writings constantly risks her life for his sake. The librarian at the university weeps as he denies him the privilege of borrowing books. The Aryan cleaning woman they must dismiss comes after dark to the house on Christmas Eve bearing gifts. At times the diarist is almost convinced that 90 percent of his fellow Dresdeners are, like himself, victims of political terror. The difference is that they must conform while he is doomed, or perhaps blessed, to remain an outcast. He rails against the conformists in the intellectual and academic life of the nation. If a benevolent future were to place him on the side of a post-Nazi regime, he scolds: “He would have all the intellectuals strung up, the professors three feet higher than the rest” (Aug.16, 1936). It is the anguished outcry of a scholar whom all former colleagues have deserted. After his dismissal, no one calls, visits, or writes. The world he inhabited until 1935 has buried him with indecent haste in an unmarked grave.

Nothing remains but to grit one’s teeth and to grasp every opportunity for survival until inevitable collapse overtakes Hitler’s hellish regime. That it will collapse remains an article of faith, but whether it will in time to save Victor, the ailing outlaw, and his heroically faithful wife, remains the fundamental question at the end of 1941 when the first German setbacks in Russia provide the first ray of light for this Jewish German stretched on a rack of conflicting loyalties.

Klemperer’s single-minded composition of this straightforward record comes to us substantially complete. There are cuts in the German original edition, and additional elisions in the translation. The latter certainly omits nothing of significance. The translation is faithful to the original, only occasionally marred by awkwardly literal renderings of German idioms. But such lapses are few in number. The English version provides a clear view of an original that has no literary pretensions other than to record in plain language successive Nazi outrages, from the confiscation of Klemperer’s typewriter to such absurdities as a decree forbidding Jews to buy newspapers or—believe it or not—asparagus. Nothing in the English text detracts from the translator’s great service to history.

Reading it compelled me to peruse the German sequel—whose forthcoming English translation I await with impatience—and its record of the final years of the war: more callous tightening of the screws of discrimination, hunger, terror, and finally the Klemperer’s salvation by means of a grisly miracle. On Feb. 13, 1945, three days before the Nazis decreed the deportation of the remaining 179 Dresden Jews in mixed marriages, Allied bombers levelled the city. Victor and Eva survived, and during the ensuing chaos she tore the yellow star from her husband’s clothing. Next, the couple moved west by a variety of means—trains, hitchhiking, and on foot—finally winding up at a Bavarian village subsequently occupied on April 28 by American troops.

Now began a new life. By June 10 the couple had returned to Dresden and had reclaimed their confiscated house. Before long the husband regained his position at the Technical University. By 1951, the year of Eva’s death, he had become a professor at the University of East Berlin. His two-volume history of French literature in the 18th century appeared, the second volume posthumously. The Curriculum Vitae and the diaries did not find a publisher until after the decline and fall of the DDR, and, given the author’s jaundiced view of the Bolshevik universe, that does not surprise. Still, he, too, made one last bargain with the devil. Not long after his return to Dresden he joined the Communist party. Though he viewed it as the representative of yet another tyranny, he saw no other way to reclaim his career. That career was his only means of helping rebuild his city and his country. He also saw party membership as an expression of gratitude to many an old Communist who had stopped him on dark streets before 1945 and whispered: “Hang in there. This will not last forever.”

Klemperer remained his own man in other ways. He kept fighting what he knew was a losing battle for the liberal arts in a culture as worshipful of “practical” materialism as the Nazis had been. The outsider of 1914 remained an outsider to the end. Only now does the publication of his personal testimony publicly validate a life that seemed to go forever uphill at best and nowhere at worst.


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