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I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941 (1995)
de Victor Klemperer
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Let me start with the obvious – – this is a very depressing book. Klemperer describes what happened when Hitler came into power in 1933. Hitler blamed the Jews for the poor economy and Germany's loss in World War I. This craziness about Hitler and the Nazis to take unprecedented actions against the Jews. Imagine living in a society and a country where you could not trust anyone – – neighbors, work colleagues, government officials, the police etc. Imagine living in a country that could take away your business, your home and even your life!
This is the circumstances that the author and his wife found themselves in. I have read various accounts of what life was like in Nazi Germany. It's hard to believe how many Germans were utterly cruel and indifferent to many of the atrocities happening around them.
And in 2017, we should not be fooled or lax, these types of actions can easily take place again.
I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945
A Diary of the Nazi Years
By Victor Klemperer
Victor Klemperer was a professor of French literature, specializing in the Enlightenment, employed at the Technical University of Dresden at the time the Nazis came to power in 1933. At that point in his career he already had a few scholarly works in print and was planning another, a project on the 18th century he continued researching and writing until circumstances forced him to postpone that work. But he did continue the personal diary he had begun many years earlier, now with the purpose of documenting not the big picture of Nazism in Germany (he would leave that to historians) but the experience of it by a single individual, along with other ordinary personal matters he had been recording for decades.
The fact that the Nazis considered him a Jew despite his conversion to Protestantism in his youth put him in the bulls-eye of their abuse. But he was married to an "Aryan," and on that account some of the harshest measures heaped on non-Aryans were sometimes blunted or postponed, including shipment to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where most of Dresden's Jews were to meet their deaths. He had to wear the yellow star, avoid contact with Aryans, not use public transportation, subsist on starvation rations, and would in fact have been sent off to his death within a few days had not British Lancaster bombers rained fire on the population of Dresden, Aryan and non-Aryan alike, in the spring of 1945, allowing Victor and his wife Eva to escape the city and leave behind his Jewish identity by claiming his identification papers were destroyed in the fire.
There are plenty of books about the Nazi era. What's so special about the Klemperer diaries? Why would I recommend these two volumes to anyone interested in learning what the Hitler regime was like over any work by a professional historian, however worthy that study may be?
My answer has to do with the special character of the diaries, their combination of documentation of a horror growing worse with each passing day (everyone Klemperer talks to believes such an absurd regime will surely fall within months) and the details of a middle-aged upper-middle-class couple's life, including the stresses and strains on their marriage, not all of them the result of Nazi oppression. One quickly comes to feel one is living with the Klemperers, if only as a fly on the wall, as they struggle to complete the construction of their "dream house" in a suburb just outside Dresden — Eva's obsession despite their having to subsist on a modest pension after her husband losses his university post.
The daily visits to the house site as they scrape together the money to lay a foundation, then construct modest living quarters and, of course, a garden, seem like an exercise in futility, given what the reader knows is going to happen a few years later. You want to shout at them, "Get out! Get out!" But Eva is determined to have her house, partly, one suspects, because she had given up her own career as a musicologist and performer in favor of her husband's career. Besides, Hitler really did seem too extreme, too downright surreal, to last much longer (odd, that in America he was seen as a "moderate" who would keep the Bolshevik menace in check). And, besides, as the author of these diaries keeps asserting, he, Victor Klemperer, is a German, a real German, not like the aberrations who had taken over his country, though his faith in that identity is sorely tried over the next twelve years.
The course of the Klemperer marriage, however inadvertent, is continuous and detailed. In the '30s, Victor is careful to not complain about Eva's morning fits or constant dental emergencies or her obsession with the house, but the reader wonders what is going on in the woman's mind, when (with the hindsight of history) the dreadful future seems so clearly written on the wall. But as the years pass and the noose tightens economically and in every other way around the necks of Jews, Eva meets each new deprivation with remarkable personal resources, not just sharing all of her husband's social and economic disabilities but assisting neighbors in need in the "Jews houses" where the Klemperers are finally forced to live, right down to scrubbing their floors. She also risks her freedom (as an Aryan she could have secured her own status simply by divorcing him), if not her life, by smuggling the manuscript pages of his diary to an Aryan safe house. Using her Aryan ration card she spends hours each day scrounging for food (mostly potatoes, sometimes rotten). And, yet, the Klemperers maintain a remarkably active social life, mostly with others marked as Jews but also with a handful of Aryans.
In the end, the diaries reveal the slow maturing of two human beings who are already well into middle age at the point the diaries open. Victor evolves from a slightly ivory-towerish academic into a more fully rounded person capable of both empathy and a sense of complexity for the people, all the people, he lives among; Eva, from a house-hungry spouse with possibly a grievance about the loss of her own chance at a career into a courageous and devoted spouse and neighbor. Their marriage and love for one another grows stronger with each new stress placed upon them. What seems in the early pages of the diaries a marriage held together perhaps largely by routine and convenience, by its mid-point has become a thing of unshakable devotion and deep affection.
The diaries provide documentation of many different aspects of German society under the Third Reich, despite the restriction of their being written from one man's point of view. Among these is the obvious fact that many Germans had no use for Hitler, were sympathetic to those the Nazis designated as Jews or otherwise non-Aryan and, as might be expected in a situation where getting the wherewithal just to survive became more and more difficult, were largely ignorant of the strictures Jews were living under. Why else would they risk their own freedom and lives by befriending and assisting individual Jews? There is a naïveté about some of their expressions of support — a stranger crossing the street to shake the hand of someone wearing a yellow star (much to the chagrin of the person wearing it, knowing how dangerous such an act was, primarily for the star-wearer); a shopkeeper slipping extra food into the bag of someone wearing the star and offering a whispered word of encouragement to hang on, it won't be long now till the war is over.
There are far too many of these acts, some of them a good deal more substantial than what I've indicated, to put them down to anything other than sincerity. And on the question of what ordinary Germans knew about the "Final Solution," even Jews themselves didn't realize what shipment to Theresienstadt meant until the last year or two of the war. For a time they even entertained a belief that in Theresienstadt they would at least have a better diet and get decent medical care. It's hard to believe non-Jews could have known something more, at least not ordinary working stiffs, despite the manic, irrational broadcasts by Goebbels blaming "World Jewry" for all the evils in the world (in one he insists the Jews using their American dupes were bombing Rome in order to destroy Christianity, just a first step in their plan to kill all the gentiles in the world). Even when the truth becomes clear about Auschwitz and the other death camps, some supporters of Hitler insist the Fuehrer could not have known about the camps because he was a "man of peace.”
"...National Socialism was already [in 1923] ...powerful and popular. Except that at the time I did not yet see it like that. How comforting and depressing that is! Depressing: Hitler really was in line with the will of the German people. Comforting: One never really knows what is going on. Then the Republic seemed secure, today the Third Reich appears secure."
But he also writes, later:
"There is no German or West European Jewish question. Whoever recognizes one, only adopts or confirms the false thesis of the NSDAP and serves its cause. Until 1933 and for at least a good century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else.... The anti-Semitism, which was always present, is not at all evidence to the contrary. Because the friction between Jews and Aryans was not half as great as that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers and employees or between East Prussians for example and southern Bavarians or Rhinelanders and Bavarians. The German Jews were part of the German nation, as the French Jews were a part of the French nation, etc. "
There seem, in fact, to be two distinct kinds of (Aryan) Germans in these diaries: Nazi thugs who descend on Jews' apartments, beat up the old women and men and steal the butter off the table before trashing the place; and "ordinary" Germans, even officials like local police who, when they had to visit the Jews Houses, doffed their hats, shook hands, apologized for the intrusion and even offered words of reassurance. One wonders how this could be the same country, never mind the same city. These "good" Germans give Victor hope, though by the end he believes the entire nation will have to be reeducated in the values he believes to have been essential to German culture dating back to the Enlightenment (he blames Romanticism for Nazism). He, happily, lives to see that day and even to reclaim his former professorship at the Technical University of Dresden, which lay then in the Soviet zone and becomes part of East Germany.
One wonders why these diaries are not more widely read as firsthand witness for that horrific period of German history. Is it because life as Klemperer records it is too complex for our sound-bite culture (some of the older men in the Jews House cheer for the Wehrmacht — they had fought against the Brits and French in the first world war and can't bring themselves to change sides). Is it because he insists early on that Zionism and Nazism are ideologically the same thing: blood = land? I keep expecting him to change his mind about Zionism after the slaughter of Jews goes into high gear in 1942-43, but he sticks to his guns. He fully expects to be one of the slaughtered, watches as his neighbors are taken away in twos and threes. He loses his faith in the Germany he believed in before 1933, but he never loses faith in the principles he believes that culture exemplified at its best.
It's impossible to summarize a work as varied and rich as these diaries, never mind give a sense for the experience of living through those years vicariously with the Klemperers. The diaries end in 1945 with a return to their suburban home after living for several weeks as refugees in Bavaria. But that return is, of course, just another beginning. The volume of the diary that takes up where these two leave off extends as far as 1959 and was published in Britain, but not in the US. Klemperer died the following year, 1960, of a heart attack.
I found this diary fascinating and believe it's an indispensable work of history -- almost one-of-a-kind. You see a lot of diaries and memoirs from the Holocaust/WW2 years, but not much from the mid- to late-1930s and the rise of Hitler. Reading Klemperer's diary, which covers January 1933 through December 1941, you can see how the fascist state gradually chipped away at the rights of Jews, and the Holocaust was accomplished in little baby steps. I can summarize it like this:
Jewish civil servants were thrown out of their jobs. Klemperer, a college professor, was forced into early retirement and didn't get a veteran's pension. Non-Jewish maids were prohibited from working in Jewish households. First Aryan civil servants, then all Aryans were forbidden to associate with Jews. Jews had to fill out an inventory of all their assets. Everyone was either leaving the country or trying to; many of Klemperer's Jewish friends left for places as far away as South America. Kristallnacht happened; the synagogues burned. Jews were no longer permitted to drive. War started, and with it, rations: Jews got smaller rations than Aryans. People who were half Jewish or less could serve in the military, but had limited opportunities for promotion. Jews were no longer allowed to use the library reading room, then they were forbidden to check out library books. There was an earlier curfew for Jews, and they were only allowed to go grocery shopping at certain times of the day. Many stores had "No Jews Allowed" signs. Jews were no longer allowed to live in their own homes; Klemperer and his wife had to move into a special "Jew house" and rent out their home to a tenant selected by the Nazis. Klemperer committed a minor breach of blackout regulations and served an eight-day jail sentence in solitary confinement; the same offense, committed by an Aryan, would probably have resulted in a 20-mark fine. As the book ended, Klemperer had just gotten out of jail and his typewriter was confiscated; Jews were no longer permitted to have them. And the war has three and a half years left to go!
Yet Klemperer was extremely fortunate in a lot of ways. He was very assimilated -- in fact, he had converted to Christianity, after a fashion -- and had a lot of Aryan friends, and most of them remained his friends. His siblings provided much-needed financial support. And his marriage to an Aryan woman would eventually save his life; he was one of the few hundred German Jews who never had to go into hiding and was never deported to a concentration camp.
All this he faithfully records, along with the minutae of daily life: his pet cat, building and maintaining his house, learning to drive and buying a lemon that breaks every week, constant dental appointments and general hypochondria, dinner parties, reading, scholarship, sibling rivalry, the weather, etc etc etc.
One thing I took note of was, at least from what Klemperer saw, perhaps half the German population sympathized with the Jews, if only in a quiet way. He writes about meeting ardent Nazis and people who try to make his life miserable because of his Jewishness, but more often he notes expressions of sympathy from strangers, shopkeepers slipping forbidden food into his basket, that sort of thing. He even wrote about a "Star Club," a group of Aryans who went around giving friendly greetings to Jews on the street who wore the yellow star, just to show them not everyone hated them. This sort of thing flatly contradicts the theses of a lot of scholars who write books with titles like "Hitler's Willing Executioners." The problem was, at least in Klemperer's case, most of the people who sympathized with him did so in a very quiet, unproductive way: they were either too apathetic or too scared to take real action. As some wise person once said, all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
Victor Klemperer wrote two other diaries, one up to 1945 and the other about the postwar years in Communist East Germany. I hope they are as good as this one; I plan to read them both as soon as I can get my hands on them.
Really great read.
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Wikipedia en anglès (1)
The publication of Victor Klemperer's secret diaries brings to light one of the most extraordinary documents of the Nazi period. "In its cool, lucid style and power of observation," said The New York Times, "it is the best written, most evocative, most observant record of daily life in the Third Reich." I Will Bear Witness is a work of literature as well as a revelation of the day-by-day horror of the Nazi years. A Dresden Jew, a veteran of World War I, a man of letters and historian of great sophistication, Klemperer recognized the danger of Hitler as early as 1933. His diaries, written in secrecy, provide a vivid account of everyday life in Hitler's Germany. What makes this book so remarkable, aside from its literary distinction, is Klemperer's preoccupation with the thoughts and actions of ordinary Germans: Berger the greengrocer, who was given Klemperer's house ("anti-Hitlerist, but of course pleased at the good exchange"), the fishmonger, the baker, the much-visited dentist. All offer their thoughts and theories on the progress of the war: Will England hold out? Who listens to Goebbels? How much longer will it last? This symphony of voices is ordered by the brilliant, grumbling Klemperer, struggling to complete his work on eighteenth-century France while documenting the ever- tightening Nazi grip. He loses first his professorship and then his car, his phone, his house, even his typewriter, and is forced to move into a Jews' House (the last step before the camps), put his cat to death (Jews may not own pets), and suffer countless other indignities. Despite the danger his diaries would pose if discovered, Klemperer sees it as his duty to record events. "I continue to write," he notes in 1941 after a terrifying run-in with the police. "This is my heroics. I want to bear witness, precise witness, until the very end." When a neighbor remarks that, in his isolation, Klemperer will not be able to cover the main events of the war, he writes: "It's not the big things that are important, but the everyday life of tyranny, which may be forgotten. A thousand mosquito bites are worse than a blow on the head. I observe, I note, the mosquito bites." This book covers the years from 1933 to 1941. Volume Two, from 1941 to 1945, will be published in 1999.
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Classificació Decimal de Dewey (DDC)943.086092History and Geography Europe Germany and central Europe Historical periods of Germany Germany 1866- Third Reich 1933-1945 History, geographic treatment, biography Biographies, Diaries And Journals
LCC (Clas. Bibl. Congrés EUA)
Fes-te Autor del LibraryThing.
From the very beginning, although he was only 52 years of age at the start of I Will Bear Witness, Klemperer was convinced he had not long to live. He made comments like, "I no longer think about tomorrow" (p 15), and "My heart cannot bear all this misery much longer" (p 17). He was sure his heart would give out any day. It was if each passing birthday came as a shock to him because he could see the future of Germany's political landscape. How would he survive it? Yet, every day he strove to improve his life and that of his wife of 45 years. Buying land, building a house, learning to drive a car, taking Eva to her beloved flower shows, keeping a diary and continuing to write throughout it all. These are the little triumphs of Klemperer's life. ( )