Prussianism, Nazism, and romanticism in the thought of Victor Klemperer

By Birken, Lawrence | German Quarterly, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Prussianism, Nazism, and romanticism in the thought of Victor Klemperer


Birken, Lawrence, German Quarterly


The recent publication of Victor Klemperer's Tagebucher, 1933-1945, as well as his other diaries and memoirs, has forced us to re-evaluate the work of this half-forgotten scholar.1 Klemperer, a professional philologist of Jewish origins, was able to survive the Nazi era without leaving Germany largely because his wife was an "Aryan." Deeply patriotic, he was increasingly tortured by the question of just how closely the German culture he had always championed might be related to the Nazism he despised. While Klemperer originally believed that National Socialism was nothing more than a mixture of undeutsch foreign doctrines crabbed together by a fraudulent government, he eventually decided that it was a German phenomenon after all. In the analysis of Nazi Language entitled LTI ("Lingua Tertii Imperii") which he developed in his diaries and published in 1947, Klemperer thus attempted to formulate a coherent explanation of the relationship between German culture and National Socialism by linking them both to Romanticism.2 But while the characterization of Germanic culture as "Romantic" foreshadowed the theories of a plethora of post-war historians, it was also flawed. Ironically, Klemperer's own writings contain the elements of a more radical if controversial characterization of National Socialism.

I. Nazism as Romanticism?

Michael Nerlich has called Victor Klemperer "one of the last if not the last representatives of the French Enlightenment" in a National Socialist Germany increasingly under the spell of Romanticism.3 It was from the perspective of the Enlightenment that Klemperer asked the central question which has continued to haunt modern historians from Meinecke to Goldhagen; namely, how could the Germans of Goethe's time have mutated into those of Hitler's Reich.4 To answer this question, Klemperer believed, it was necessary to trace the history of German antisemitism. As early as 1933 he had already noted that "the fate of the Hitler movement lies without question in Jewish affairs" ("liegt fraglos in der Judensache").5 In LTI, Klemperer went on to argue that "antisemitism constituted the central and in every respect decisive factor in Nazism." Not only was Jew-hatred the "Nazi Party's most effective means of propaganda, its most effective and popular means of concretizing the race doctrine," but it was actually "for the German masses identical with the race doctrine" itself.6

While conceding that antisemitism had been too common a feature in history to blame it on the Germans alone, Klemperer also argued that the German antisemitism of the Nazi period was unique in three ways. In the first place, its sheer virulence was atavistic, harking back to Medieval times. In the second place, it arrived "not in the garb of the past, but in that of the most extreme modernity" ("sondern in hochster Modernitat"). Finally, it was racial rather than religious, and thus irrevocable. 7 What appeared to be a return to the Spanish doctrine of Limpieza de Sangre was now clothed in the language of zoology. This emphasis on racial antisemitism not only set Nazism apart from earlier forms of Jew hatred, but from other forms of fascism. Klemperer thus noted that although Italian fascism sought to restore the Roman state, it never taught that "the inhabitants of the reconquered domains would stand lower in the zoological scale than the descendants of Romulus."8

But if Nazi antisemitism was unique, in what way was it particularly German? Klemperer attempted to answer this question by more or less distinguishing between general traits on the one hand and specific doctrines on the other. In the course of his experiences under Nazism, he came to believe that the general traits of the Germans included a proto-Romantic tendency toward a megalomaniac universalism, a Grenzenlosigkeit which manifested itself in taking things beyond their conventional limits, a "Grundeigenschaft der Masslosigkeit."9 In this context, Hitlerism exhibited a characteristically "Romantic" rejection of conventional boundaries, with its messianic pretensions and its fanatic agenda of "die ganze Welt oder Nichts. …

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