Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

 “I SHALL BEAR WITNESS: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41”  and “TO THE BITTER END: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-45” (English translations by Martin Chalmers originally published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, beginning in 1998)

The account of one democrat opposing political tyranny, as reported in this week’s “Something New”, has forcefully reminded me of another.

In 1998 I was given for review the English-language translation of the first volume of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. I was soon spellbound and, when the later volumes came out, I made sure I read them too.

Klemperer was a German Jew who managed to survive all twelve years of Nazi rule because, at first, the Nazis were reluctant to deal with him.

Jewish by descent but Protestant by religion, he was married to an “Aryan” non-Jewish wife, he had been a front-line soldier in the German Army in the First World War  and he was a distinguished academic – a professor specialising in French literature.

The Nazis stripped him of his civil rights only gradually. In 1935 he was dismissed from his university post, but only later was he forced to wear the yellow star. He was not summoned for deportation (to a death camp) until very late in the war. Fortunately for him, the Allied air-forces came to his rescue. When his hometown of Dresden was razed in the notorious fire-bombing, Klemperer managed to “lose” his identity papers and yellow star, mingled with refugees fleeing westward before the advancing Red Army, and was finally liberated by American forces in Bavaria.

He had survived.

Because of the way I’ve summarized his life here, you might think his two war diaries are memorable as a chronicle of that survival. In a way they are. Day by day, Klemperer records desperate strategies of survival. But there is much more to the diaries than that.

They really show a humane, patriotic old-style German intellectual constantly shocked and affronted that his country had been taken over by thugs. There are many entries in which he wonders when “the real Germany” – meaning the Germany of liberal humanists like himself – will show itself. There are many entries in which he refuses to believe the Nazis represent the nation.

There are also passages that surprise us by revealing how difficult it can be to make neat moral judgements on people in the past.

In their distress, as Klemperer records it, he and his wife sometimes had great kindness shown to them by ordinary Germans, including some minor Nazi Party officials.

We are used to scorning those Germans who, after 1945, claimed not to have known what the Nazis’ genocidal plans really were. In diary entries from well before the war, Klemperer shows how the Nazis’ intentions were clear to anyone who wanted to heed them. And yet, in entries during the war, he himself still does not believe that mass-murder is happening. When the Nazis start rounding up Jews, he wonders how well they will be treated when they are “resettled in the East”.

After 1945, we can only conclude, there really were at least some Germans who were being truthful when they pleaded ignorance.

Klemperer died in 1960. He chose to live the last years of his life in old East (Communist) Germany, where he conformed to Communist rule, lived the life of one of the state’s privileged intellectuals and again survived. A third volume of his diaries deals with these years and has been published under the title The Lesser Evil. This is essentially what Klemperer believed East Germany to be, as opposed to West Germany. In his private observations he clearly thought both halves of Germany were still infected with the continuing spirit of totalitarian rule.

Since the reunification of Germany, our knowledge of the oppressive nature of Communist rule might make us doubt some of Klemperer’s judgements on his later life. But they in no way blunt what has now become the common critical view. It says that Klemperer’s diaries are among the great published diaries, up there with Mme de Stael, with Boswell, and with Anne Frank.

They show us that opposition to tyranny can take many forms. One of the most effective is patient, close observation of the way things really are from day to day. When the daily truth of everyday life is told simply, it will always expose a tyranny as a fraud.

Footnote: I Shall Bear Witness has also been published under the title I Will Bear Witness.

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