I shall bear Witness unto the last: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer (1933-1945)
Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten: Tagebücher 1933-1945 von Victor Klemperer
Victor Klemperer (1881-1960)
The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, painfully and painstakingly written during the Nazi period and throughout every dark month of the Second World War by a Jewish outcast in Dresden, must be regarded as one of the most important documents of the twentieth century. Klemperer had been professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technische Universität in Dresden since 1920, having distinguished himself as a teacher and as a scholar, with several publications to his name. He was an expert on French Literature, and particularly on Voltaire, but had written extensively on Montesquieu and Corneille. In 1933, he lost his academic status and position at the University, as well as half his pension, and thenceforth began his desperate struggle for dignity and survival amid the horror of Nazi rule, which is all faithfully and extensively memorialized in the Diaries. He survived ultimately because he was married to an Aryan woman, Eva Schlemmer, a Protestant from Königsberg, and because his final deportation date, along with that of the few remaining Jews in the city, coincided with the destruction of Dresden, on the 13th and 14th of February, 1945.
The significance of these diaries lies in the revelation of two principal developments, one of a sociological, the other of a cultural nature, both pointing to forces and outcomes that affected all of European civilization and its society, well beyond the limits of the city of Dresden, and well after 1945.
1. The reduction of Professor Klemperer
Well before Klemperer was forced to wear the yellow star publicly on his jacket, from September 19, 1941 until the day of the bombing of Dresden, he had been totally degraded and savagely reduced. Over the course of the five pre-war years, he had been forced to abandon his home, give up driving his car, cease walking through certain parts of the city, forgo his activities as a public intellectual and scholar, as well as interaction with colleagues and acquaintances who were Aryan, and move into a crowded building with people with whom he had nothing in common other than an ancestral Jewish ethnicity. As the years passed, Klemperer lost his library, as well as any possible privilege to use any other library. His scholarly work was interrupted, and his work on the clandestine Diaries became the only intellectual task he undertook, almost daily, in peril of his life.
The progression of the Diaries records a relentless descent and reduction for Victor and Eva Klemperer into a nightmare of horror, poverty and despair that was undreamed of when the initial consequences of the Nazi takeover of power first made themselves felt in their lives. After the beginning of the war, in September 1939, their very survival was constantly in play. The smallest infraction of the growing number of rules designed to make the life of the Jews miserable and fearful could result in deportation and certain death. The Klemperers suffered hunger and debasement. In utter despair and hopelessness, Klemperer was driven to steal food from his neighbors, was forced to work in factories on assembly lines, despite agonizing pain and exhaustion, was accosted by individuals, including children, on the streets and insulted, slapped and spat on during arbitrary house searches where his belongings and food were confiscated, thrown into jail and kept in fearful solitary confinement, - for the minor offense of neglecting to black out a window in the house -, despised, shouted at, cursed, and throughout terrified by the fear of imminent deportation and death.
In his post-war Diaries [The Lesser Evil: Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1945-1959: So sitze ich denn zwischen allen Stühlen. Tagebucher 1945-1959], Klemperer describes the day, July 4, 1945, when he recovered some of the possessions which had been hidden in the home of a friend, together with the war diaries and other manuscripts. “How very rich we were!” was Klemperer's astonished reaction when he saw the silver plate, the clothing and furnishings that had survived. Indeed, what the Diaries record is a long process of reduction and degradation, of the narrowing of life, space and opportunity, a Beschränkung (narrowing) of life, from the high comfort and status of a bourgeois professor to arbitrary confinement and the prospect of a death which for Klemperer was symbolized by the small cylindrical containers in which the ashes of his Jewish acquaintances were buried, in small holes at the Jewish cemetery, after their murder in the Dresden prisons. The total extinction of a rich life, which was, in effect, the life of the old German Bildungsbürgertum, the educated and richly cultivated German bourgeoisie.
This life would never return. Not only had the economic preconditions for that life disappeared for ever, but the culture that sustained it vanished as well.
2. The poisoning of the old culture
The second development recorded in the Diaries that I wish to call attention to, is the gradual poisoning of the language, and the attendant debasement of the culture, which accompanied the horrors of the Nazi period in Germany. Even before the war began, Klemperer noted in his Diaries the changing uses of words and expressions in the media and public discourse, the appearance of superlatives, the emergence of a racist vocabulary, the transformation of the cognitive content of words into new emotional or assertive significations designed for the purposes of propaganda and misinformation. The notes and observations thus recorded became the basis of his subsequent book, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (1947) [The Language of the Third Reich: Notes of a Philologist].
Much has been written on Klemperer’s ground-breaking philological observations, but the emphasis should shift from mere words to the context of the entire culture which the distortion of words serves to debase. For it is not just a matter of words. The entire meaning of the culture becomes tainted when the form in which it is expressed is poisoned, because the poisoning of the words answers to a dynamic of cultural repression and distortion that cannot but affect the content of the overall cultural discourse. In a diary entry for March 19, 1944 (Sunday morning half past nine), Klemperer makes a most revealing observation. He is sitting in a room by himself, separated from the Aryan workers in a factory where he is doing forced labor at an assembly line, and he can listen to a radio in the background, “. . . catching a couple of radio tunes, among them still the same cabaret schmaltz by the same castrato voice that I heard . . . last summer. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have fallen, and that man is still singing: “A little girl has stolen my heart . . . .”
Hundreds of thousands have fallen, monstrous crimes have been committed, yet the content of the entertainment, the entertainment itself, remains unchanged from what it was in peace time. As Theodor Adorno has pointed out, when collective crime is committed, the culture that is responsible for it has failed, and is complicit in the crime. How can a criminal culture entertain? Its attempt at normalcy, at representing a life that is going on “as usual,” is horrifying in its deceptiveness. Whether a culture can recover from such a catastrophe is still an open question, and it is a question that the Diaries of Victor Klemperer pose in a remarkably compelling fashion to us today.
Dresden in ruins, 1945