Otto Klemperer: Diarist of Nazi Germany: Robert Pearce Recommends a First-Hand Account of the Third Reich

By Pearce, Robert | History Review, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Otto Klemperer: Diarist of Nazi Germany: Robert Pearce Recommends a First-Hand Account of the Third Reich


Pearce, Robert, History Review


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'In the late afternoon we walked up to Dolzschen. This line--the last words in two volumes of diaries by Victor Klemperer spanning the years from 1933 to 1945--may seem matter-of-fact, prosaic, even dull. Yet in fact they are wonderfully inspiring and life-affirming. They signal that a remarkable and courageous man, and his equally remarkable and courageous wife, had somehow managed to survive a monstrous tyranny. To appreciate the power of Klemperer's simple statement, however, you have first to read the preceding 1,200 pages of diaries--one of the most detailed, compelling and revealing human documents from the Nazi period.

Germany's Jewish Patriot

Victor Klemperer was born on 9 October 1881 in the small town of Lansberg on the Warthe, in the recently formed German Empire, the youngest of nine children of a rabbi. When Victor was nine, the family moved to Berlin. The Klemperers did their best to conform. The father was undoubtedly liberal: he called himself a priest, conducted services in German and observed no dietary restrictions. When his three elder brothers converted to Christianity in order to secure good jobs, two subsequently becoming doctors and another a lawyer, Victor did the same. He had some doubts about whether 'Germanness' and Jewry could be combined; but if they could not, he mused, he would choose the former. 'Germanness meant everything to me and Jewry meant nothing'. He married a non-Jew in 1906, the pianist Eva Schlemmer, and voluntarily enrolled in the First World War, seeing action on the Western Front and being awarded the Bavarian Cross. If any Jew had proved his identity as a true German, it was surely Victor Klemperer. After the war be took up a post as professor at the Technical University of Dresden. He and Eva had many friends and travelled widely. It was a full and varied life.

Then, in 1933, Hitler came to power. Klemperer's life was never the same again but, remarkably, he continued to write the diary he had first begun at the age of 16. Partly, this was out of habit, partly it was to provide source material for possible memoirs and for a book he was determined to write on the language of the Third Reich. (Hence he was always recording the characteristic phrases and verbal tricks used in official propaganda. However much the Nazis abused language and used it to tell lies, he insisted, their use of words would find them out. Truth was found not so much in wine as in language. In Lingua Veritas.) But soon keeping a secret diary became punishable by death, and it was obvious that Klemperer, though confirming outwardly (so that he gave the 'sickening' civil service oath of allegiance to Hitler in September 1934), was inwardly a rebel. He was Winston Smith, before Orwell had even conceived of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Writing a diary was his means of defying Hitler, and also of surviving psychologically amid ever greater persecution

A Jew Once More?

Hitler's coming to power depressed Klemperer even more than Germany's defeat in 1918. Germany, he believed, would 'never wash off the ignominy of having fallen victim' to the Nazis. On 3 April 1933 he had 'the impression of swiftly approaching catastrophe ... Everything I considered un-German, brutality, injustice, hypocrisy, mass suggestion to the point of intoxication, all of it flourishes here.' He was shielded from anti-Semitism to some extent, through his exemplary war record and from his marriage to a Christian, and what he felt as this stage was not so much fear, as a Jew, as shame, as a German. Yet it was impossible to avoid the obvious nazification of life. There was a swastika on the tube of toothpaste he wanted to buy; a swastika on a children's toy ball.

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There was hope, in this early period, that the Nazi regime might not last long. After all, the Nazis were 'absolutely unGerman' and so could not possibly survive. Hitler's voice portrayed impotent rage. …

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