Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Klemperer collecting life

Today, it is 60 years 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. Der Spiegel also recalled that Klemperer said of his diary-writing habit that he was ‘collecting life’.

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. 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). Last year (2019), the publisher De Gruyter launched Klemperer Online, a digital edition of the complete and unabridged diaries as transcripts and facsimiles of the handwritten pages.

The German magazine Der Spiegel offers this analysis of the diaries: ‘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.’

Further reviews can be read at The Atlantic and The Guardian. Some pages from Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness can be read freely online at Googlebooks. Here are two extracts.

10 March 1933
‘30th January: Hitler Chancellor. What, up to election Sunday on 5th March, I called terror, was a mild prelude. Now the business of 1918 is being exactly repeated, only under a different sign, under the swastika. Again it’s astounding how easily everything collapses. What has happened to Bavaria, what has happened to the Reichsbanner etc. etc.? Eight days before the election the clumsy business of the Reichstag fire - I 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 Konigsberg. 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. On the Sunday I voted for the Democrats, Eva for the Zentrum. In the evening around nine with the Blumenfelds to the Dembers. As a joke, because I entertained hopes of Bavaria, I wore my Bavarian Service Cross. Then the tremendous election victory of the National Socialists. Their vote doubled in Bavaria. The Horst Wessel Song between the announcements. An indignant denial, no harm will come to loyal Jews. Directly afterwards the Central Association of Jewish Citizens in Thuringia is banned because it had criticised the government in ‘Talmudic fashion’ and disparaged it. Since then day after day commissioners appointed, provincial governments trampled underfoot, flags raised, buildings taken over, people shot, newspapers banned, etc. etc. Yesterday, the dramaturg Karl Wollf dismissed ‘by order of the Nazi Party’ - not even in the name of the government - today the whole Saxon cabinet etc. etc. A complete revolution and party dictatorship. And all opposing forces as if vanished from the face of the earth. It is this utter collapse of a power only recently present, no, its complete disappearance (just as in 1918) which I find so staggering. Que sais-je? On Monday evening at Frau Schaps with the Gerstles. No one dares say anything any more, everyone is afraid [...] Gerstle was hobbling on crutches, he broke a leg skiing in the Alps. His wife drove her car and took us part of the way home.

How long will I keep my post?

On top of the political pressure the misery of the constant pain in my left arm, the constant thinking about death. And the distressing and always unsuccessful efforts to obtain building money. And the hours of lighting stoves, washing up, keeping house. And the constant sitting at home. And not being able to work, to think.

After cursory reading I wrote a bad newspaper piece, ‘The New Spain’, after previously writing a bad article for Dante in Paris, ‘The Idea of Latinity in Germany’. Now I want to - no, I must return to the nightmare of the ‘Image of France’. I want to force myself to write now and catch up on the missing reading chapter by chapter.

I ordered a lot of books for my department, since it turned out there was still 100M left in my budget: Spain, 18th-century France and cultural history. On Tuesday I have to give a primary-school teaching candidate the now required unseen translation into French. I am so out of practice myself that I would only make a very poor translation. [...]’

27 November 1938
‘On the morning of the 11th two policemen accompanied by a ‘resident of Dölzschen’. 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. Pigsty etc.. 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 Sozialistische Monatshefte (Socialist Monthly Magazine - an SPD theoretical journal) [. . .] this was also confiscated. At one point when Eva wanted to fetch one of her tools, the young policeman ran after her; the older one called out: You are making us suspicious, you are making your situation worse. 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. In addition he complained about an upset stomach and we offered him a schnapps, which he declined. Then the three of them appeared to hold a conference in the garden. The young policeman returned: You must dress and come to the court building at Münchner Platz with me. There’s nothing to fear, you will probably(!) be back 
by evening. I asked whether I was now under arrest. His reply was good-natured and noncommittal, it was only a war memento after all, I would probably be released right away. I was allowed to shave (with the door half open), I slipped Eva some money, and we made our way down to the tramcar. I was allowed to walk through the park alone while the policeman wheeled his bicycle at a distance behind me. We got on to the platform of the number 16, and got off at Münchner Platz; the policeman kindly covered up the fact that I was being taken into custody. A wing in the court building: Public Prosecutor. A room with clerks and policemen. Sit down. The policeman had to copy the statement. He took me to a room with a typewriter. He led me back to the first room. I sat there apathetically. The policeman said: Perhaps you’ll even be home in time for afternoon coffee. A clerk said: The Public Prosecutor’s Office makes the decision. The policeman disappeared, I continued to sit there apathetically. Then someone called: Take the man to relieve himself, and someone took me to the lavatory. Then: To Room X. There: This is the new committals room! More waiting. After a while a young man with a Party badge appeared, evidently the examining magistrate. You are Professor Klemperer? You can go. But first of all a certificate of discharge has to be made out, otherwise the police in Freital will think you have escaped and arrest you again. He returned immediately, he had telephoned, I could go. At the exit of the wing, by the first room into which I had been led, a clerk rushed towards me: Where do you think you’re going? I said: Home, and calmly stood there. They telephoned, to verify that I had been released. The examining magistrate had also replied to my enquiry, that the matter was not being passed on to the Public Prosecutor. At four o’clock I was on the street again with the curious feeling, free - but for how long? Since then we have both been unceasingly tormented by the question, go or stay? To go too early, to stay too late? To go where we have nothing, to remain in this corruption? We are constantly trying to shed all subjective feelings of disgust, of injured pride, of mood and only weigh up the concrete facts of the situation. In the end we shall literally be able to throw dice for pro and contra. Our first response to events was to think it absolutely necessary to leave and we started making preparations and enquiries. On Sunday, 12th November, the day after my arrest, I wrote urgent SOS letters to Frau Schaps and Georg. The short letter to Georg began: With a heavy heart, in a quite altered situation, pushed right to the edge, no details: Can you stand surety for my wife and myself, can you help the two of us over there for a couple of months? By my own efforts I would surely find some post as a teacher or in an office. I telephoned the Arons - the husband had spoken to me on Bismarckplatz on the day of the Munich Agreement. Herr Aron was not at home, Frau Aron would receive me at eight in the evening. I drove there: a wealthy villa in Bernhardstrasse. I learned that he and very many others with him had been arrested and taken away; at present we still don’t know whether they are in the camp at Weimar or are working on the fortifications in the west as convicts and hostages.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 11 February 2010.

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