Thursday, February 11, 2010

Klemperer collecting life

It’s half a century since the death of Victor Klemperer, author of one of the most famous diaries to have documented the horrors of the Nazi regime. The London Review of Books said his diaries will never be forgotten, and Der Speigel suggested they eclipse everything that has ever been written on the era of National Socialism.

Born in Poland in 1881, Klemperer was the eighth child of a rabbi, but later converted to Christianity. One of his brothers went on to be a surgeon to Lenin, and a cousin was the famous composer Otto. Klemperer studied at various universities in Germany, Switzerland and France, and also worked as a journalist for a while. Having volunteered during the First World War, he was decorated with the Iron Cross.

After the war, Klemperer was appointed to the Chair of Romance studies at Dresden’s Technical University. In 1935, though, the Nazis took the job away from him, confiscated his house, sent him to a home for Jews, and obliged him to work as a labourer. Because his wife, Eva, was not a Jew, and because she stayed with him, Klemperer avoided deportation for most of the war. In 1945, though, he was due to be deported, but used the confusion created by Allied bombings to escape.

Klemperer went on to become a significant post-war cultural figure in East Germany, lecturing at the universities of Greifswald, Berlin and Halle, and publishing an important analysis of the language used by the Third Reich. He also became a delegate of the Cultural Union in the GDR parliament in 1950. He died on 11 February 1960 - 50 years ago today. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia.

However, it is for his diaries that Klemperer is best remembered today. First published in Germany in 1995, they became something of a literary sensation. English translations by Martin Chalmers were published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (part of Orion) between 1998 and 2003 in three volumes: I Will Bear Witness (1933-1941), To The Bitter End (1942-1945) and The Lesser Evil (1945-1959).

The German magazine Der Spiegel offers this analysis: ‘Klemperer trusted his thoughts and feelings to his diary. ‘Collecting life’, he called it. Already at the age of 16, Klemperer began keeping a diary, and he wrote till just before his death. His entries began in the days of Kaiser Wilhelm II, continued during the turbulent times of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, and conclude in post-War communist East Germany. During the Third Reich era and perhaps even before, Klemperer’s entries were, in a way, part of a survival strategy. At the time, Klemperer lived between humiliation, terror, and danger and he endured all of it. The reason was quite simple: Klemperer wanted to record his gruesome experiences of everyday life for those after him. In fact, he felt obligated to write. In his diary, Klemperer adopted the view of a distant observer even though the catastrophe affected him directly. The style of his writing was like a game of ping-pong, switching back and forth between inside and outside views on the things going on around him. Klemperer was seen as a Jew, but he didn’t feel like one. He wanted to be German, but the Nazis made him ‘un-German’.

And that makes Klemperer’s records unique.

Decades after his death, Klemperer’s diaries emerged as mainstays on bestseller lists, touching thousands of readers, shocking and gripping them. Author Martin Walser once said: ‘I know of no other means of communication that can make the reality of the Nazi dictatorship more comprehensible than Klemperer’s prose. Nowhere else than in these diaries have I been able to experience and see first-hand what type of criminals the leaders and functionaries of the time were. It’s incredible how this type of crime could legally establish itself.’ In his writing, Klemperer placed expectations on himself as well, aspiring to ‘become a writer of contemporary cultural history’. Commenting on that issue in the weekly Die Zeit newspaper, Volker Ulrich wrote: ‘There’s no doubt: He became just that. The diaries covering 1933 to 1945 - which merge the most detailed observation skills, linguistic mastership, educational scepticism, and human grandeur - eclipse everything that has ever been written on the era of National Socialism.’ ’

The London Review of Books argues that Klemperer’s diary will never be forgotten: ‘This record achieves two things. It tells us what was experienced by German Jews; Klemperer’s experience was typical in every way except its outcome - he survived. His vivid accounts of many others who didn’t, his careful record of what he overheard in the street or was told by others, his account of his own human diminishment as he was progressively stripped of every right and freedom, his gradual awareness of the enormity of what was happening to Europe’s Jews, his refusal to omit any gesture of courage or generosity, his discovery that he was a Jew after all, his care to notice the deprivations of war as food, fuel and clothing were at first rationed and then disappeared altogether: these observations preserve what can so easily be lost - a sense of what happened. For this alone his book will never be forgotten.’

Some extracts from Klemperer’s diaries can be read on the Spartacus website, at Der Spiegel, and at Amazon.

10 March 1933
‘Eight days before the election the clumsy business of the Reichstag fire - cannot imagine that anyone really believes in Communist perpetrators instead of paid Nazi work. Then the wild prohibitions and acts of violence. And on top of that the never-ending propaganda in the street, on the radio etc. On Saturday, the 4th, I heard a part of Hitler’s speech from Koenigsberg. The front of a hotel at the railway station, illuminated, a torchlight procession in front of it, torch-bearers and swastika flag-bearers on the balconies and loudspeakers, I understood only occasional words. But the tone! The unctuous bawling, truly bawling, of a priest. . .

Ever more hopeless. The boycott begins tomorrow. Yellow placards, men on guard. Pressure to pay Christian employees two months salary, to dismiss Jewish ones. No reply to the impressive letter of the Jews to the President of the Reich and to the government.

No one dares make a move. The Dresden student body made a declaration today and the honour of German students forbids them to come into contact with Jews. They are not allowed to enter the Student House. How much Jewish money went towards this Student House only a few years ago!

In Munich Jewish University teachers have already been prevented from setting foot in the University. The proclamation and injunction of the boycott committee decrees ‘Religion is immaterial’, only race matters. If, in the case of the owners of a business, the husband is Jewish, the wife Christian or the other way round, then the business counts as Jewish.’

27 November 1938
On the morning of the 11th November two policemen arrived accompanied by a ‘resident of Doeizschen’. Did I have any weapons? - Certainly my sabre, perhaps even my bayonet as a war memento, but I wouldn’t know where. We have to help you find it. The house was searched for hours. At the beginning Eva made the mistake of quite innocently telling one of the policemen he should not go through the clean linen cupboard without washing his hands. The man, considerably affronted, could hardly be calmed down. A second younger policeman was more friendly, the civilian was the worst. We said we had been without domestic help for months, many things were dusty and still unpacked. They rummaged through everything, chests and wooden constructions Eva had made were broken open with an axe. The sabre was found in a suitcase in the attic, the bayonet was not found. Among the books they found a copy of the Sozialistic Monatshefte (a Socialist monthly magazine) this was also confiscated. At about one o’clock the civilian and the older policeman left the house, the young one remained and took a statement. He was good-natured and courteous, I had the feeling he himself found the thing embarrassing.’

1 September 1939
‘On Friday morning the young butcher’s lad came and told us: There had been a wireless announcement, we already held Danzig and the Corridor, the war with Poland was under way, England and France remained neutral, said to Eva, then a morphine injection or something similar was the best thing for us, our life was over. But then we said to one another, that could not possibly be the way things were, the boy had often reported absurd things (he was a perfect example of the way in which people take in news reports). A little later we heard Hitler’s agitated voice, then the usual roaring, but could not make anything out. We said to ourselves, if the report were even only half true they must be already putting out the flags. Then down in town the dispatch of the outbreak of war.’

22-24 February 1945 (about the Allied attack on Dresden some days earlier)
‘. . . Had there only been this first attack, it would have impressed itself upon me as the most terrible one so far, whereas now, superseded by the later catastrophe, it is already blurring into a vague outline. We very soon heard the ever deeper and louder humming of approaching squadrons, the light went out, an explosion nearby . . . Pause in which we caught our breath, we knelt head down between the chairs, in some groups there was whimpering and weeping - approaching aircraft once again, deadly danger once again, explosion once again. I do not know how often it was repeated.

Suddenly the cellar window on the back wall opposite the entrance burst open, and outside it was bright as day. Someone shouted: ‘Incendiary bomb, we have to put it out!’ Two people even hauled over the stirrup pump and audibly operated it. There were further explosions, but nothing in the courtyard. And then it grew quieter, and then came the all-clear.

I had lost all sense of time. Outside it was bright as day. Fires were blazing at Piranaischer Platz, on Marschallstrasse, and somewhere on or over the Elbe. The ground was covered with broken glass. A terrible strong wind was blowing. Natural or a firestorm? Probably both. In the stairwell of 1 Zeughausstrasse the window frames had been blown in and lay on the steps, partly obstructing them. Broken glass in our rooms upstairs. In the hallway and on the side facing the Elbe, windows blown in, in the bedroom only one; windows also broken in the kitchen, blackout torn in half. Light did not work, no water. We could see big fires on the other side of the Elbe and on Marschallstrasse. Frau Cohn said, in her room furniture had been shifted by the blast.

We placed a candle on the table, drank a little cold coffee, ate a little, groped our way over the broken glass, lay down in bed. It was after midnight -- we had come upstairs at eleven. I thought: Just sleep, we’re alive, tonight we'll have peace and quiet, now just put your mind at rest! As she lay down, Eva said: ‘But there’s glass in my bed!’ - I heard her stand up, clear away the glass, then I was already asleep.

After a while, it must have been after one o’clock, Eva said: ‘Air raid warning.’ - ‘I didn't hear anything.’ - ‘Definitely wasn’t loud, they’re going round with hand sirens, there’s no electricity.’ - We stood up, Frau Stuehler called at our door ‘Air raid warning,’ Eva knocked at Frau Cohn’s door - we have heard nothing more of either - and we hurried downstairs. The street was as bright as day and almost empty, fires were burning, the storm was blowing as before. . .’

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