I Will Bear Witness – Criticism


     Victor Klemperer

This Diary (1933-1945) was written by a Protestant who had converted from Judaism. Victor married a Protestant and was a professor of literature teaching at a University in Dresden until 1935. He was thoroughly a liberal German; he admits he would not be Jewish except that he was compelled to be one by the Nazis. If Klemperer is a familiar name, it is due to Otto Klemperer, the great Twentieth Century conductor and Victor’s cousin. Victor, thereby, was an uncle to Otto Klemperer’s son, Werner Klemperer, Colonel Klink of “Hogan’s Heroes.” 

Although somewhat uneven, the Diary of 1000 pages, is compelling. The first impression of the Nazis was their obscurantism. Anything Nazi morons could not understand (Einstein’s physics) they labeled Jewish and non-Germanic. They sought a Teutonic/Aryan paradise among descendants of Poles and Slavs, populations which moved west after the Germanic tribes (Lombards, Franks and Goths) who had fought the Romans and moved south and west. Based upon this mogrel genetic heritage, the Nazis wished for a people of one biological substance of Gothic purity. The premises of the Nazi system were fairytales and nonsense. A remnant of reason and fact was the spark that kept Klemperer, his wife, Jews, non-believers and others not deluded by cuckoo-cloud deliriums. None of the Nazi opponents realized what Hugh Trevor-Roper knew: “facts don’t trouble the bigot and the crank.”

If there had been no War and if the Nazis had remained in power, Germany would have become a second-rate power for its hard nose myths and failures to invest in basic research and to support academic and educational excellence. While being shunned, confined in a world of limited activity and losing library privileges,  Klemperer researched and wrote in his field. During impromptu searches and raids of his homes, Nazi goons would steal the obvious (food) and destroy the useful, cigarette wrapping papers, but leave Klemperer’s writings in tact. The reader suspects that Nazis could not read.

During those times he was forbidden to possess and read Nazi books like Mein Kampf, and biographies of Goering and Himmler. Yet he obtained and read each. He noted Hitler was an excellent orator – while speaking adding emotion but no substance, repeating himself and stating the most obvious by dramatic means. About Mein Kampf Klemperer reported what others like Heinrich Boll have observed. It is poorly written, a dictation put on paper by Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s prison mate.

The Diary gives insights about fighting boredom. Klemperer and his wife lived and as time went by,  there were many fewer opportunities to see friends, to keep their cat, drive until 1941, to enjoy peace and quiet, to reflect and to contemplate. Safety, food and health were primary concerns. Boredom was a psychological force telling them to die, go away, make a mistake so the Gestapo would arrest and dispose of them. During the War all Germans suffered from these deprivations, but Jews and individuals from mixed marriages endured them 12 years. Klemperer arrives at no conclusion to overcome boredom, except to survive. It is left to readers of the Diary to understand and make accommodations with existence to make their own lives worth while.

There are omissions and drawbacks in the Diary. Klemperer was mostly restricted in his movements. Background is missing. He tells little about the times in Dresden beyond his own observations. He includes very few jokes, ironies and humor, e.g. It is the Fourth Reich, and every German must answer in a questionnaire: “Were you arrested during the previous regime? If not, why?”

Klemperer also never loses his voice and position of status, professor and privilege. He should be treated especially. He notes benefiting from his standing. Many non-Jewish, non-compromised Germans give him preferences and perks. The reader can only guess about the man inside the status, privilege and exalted standing. It is difficult to determine if he survives because of ingrained wit, native intelligence and luck, or how non-Nazi Germans treat him or how Nazi society pegs him and he abides the rules.

Consequently when Klemperer writes, he rarely questions himself, how he has acted within his scope of Dresden society and among individuals he sees. This lack of perspective and withdrawal affects the writing. One notable exception is when Klemperer admits to stealing food from his housemates. In many ways, after reading the Diary of 12 years, Klemperer should be known to the reader beyond some of what he did to survive. He is not. One suspects details are unobserved and unwritten, but include trivialities which Klemperer longs for, going to the barber (wife, hair stylist). Why didn’t he cut his wife’s hair, and she his? No answer.

Early in the Diary Klemperer often raises a subject arising from circumstances, and doesn’t develop it. He either does not want to explain much or he pompously notes it to show off his intelligence. Later his analyses becomes more complete. He introduces hundreds of people. It is difficult to keep all of them straight or to follow tidbits of their stories as they happen, even when so and so is taken to Theresienstadt and to Auschwitz. Klemperer does not know what happens in Auschwitz except that going there [and to any Concentration Camp] means death. The Nazis maintained the pretense of normalcy and the façade of legality by issuing death certificates for some deportees. In the end the reader is left wondering what happened to people in the Diary, this person or that one in Dresden after the February 1945 bombing. The editor of the Diary should have cleared up some mysteries.

These weaknesses should not support any conclusion that this Diary should not be read. Klemperer wrote them and they were transported and preserved at great risk to everyone (Germans and mixed-marriage couples). They were written under conditions of physical hardship, sickness, lack of medical care, mental and physical distress and stress brought on by Nazi cruelty, being ordered to kill the pet cat, compelled to forced labor while in ill-health and always confronted with slow death by starvation, if not a quicker means by deportation. In the end any reader must conclude Klemperer did about as well as anyone could in surviving and in writing.

A sensation of reading the two volumes should be noted. The paperback is smaller, less weight and of smaller print. For ease of reading the hardbound books should be used, but the suffering and struggle on the pages can be physically reinforced by reading the paperbacks.

Finally, there is a tragic irony about the Diary. Several times Klemperer writes he will make so and so famous by writing the name down. If the Diary survived, each person would be known. The Diary was secured mostly by Anne-Marie. After the February 1945 bombing Klemperer and wife left and went to Bavaria on forged papers. The war ended with them in the American zone. Klemperer returned to Dresden in the Russian Zone, East Germany, retaking a University job until death in 1960. He published some academic works. The Preface to the Diary observes Klemperer’s reaction to a Russian Commissar after a 1945 interview, “just like a Gestapo agent.” The Diary was collected but remained unpublished because the Communists didn’t like it. It was published after German reunification in 1995. The persons in the Diary are thereby unfamous, and perhaps not likely to be known, ever. Readers do not know what happened to Anne-Marie, savior of the Diary: After the War Victor Klemperer make the mistake of living in the East under a system akin to Nazism.



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