I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941

by Victor Klemperer. New York: Random House, 1998. 519 pp. $29.95, hardback.

I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1942-1945

by Victor Klemperer. New York: Random House, 2000. 556 pp. $29.95, hardback. 

Reviewed by Samuel Totten

Both volumes of Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years (1933-1941 and 1942-1945, respectively) are a must read for anyone who wishes to ascertain what daily life was like for Jews living in Nazi Germany. Indeed, like very few other books, the two volumes of I Will Bear Witness help one truly understand the insidious and incremental horror of what it meant to live under a totalitarian and racist regime whose every move was aimed at suffocating the life out of a group of people (the Jews)—not for anything they had done but simply because they existed. The collective entries by this diarist slowly but inexorably draw the reader into the claustrophobic, increasingly threatening, and all-pervasive fear that the Nazi terror and the never ending promulgations and restrictions had on the life of each and every Jew living in Germany.

It should be noted at the outset that the very fact of keeping a diary was a life-threatening venture in that, if he had been caught, Klemperer would definitely have been arrested and possibly murdered—either immediately in Germany or after being transported to the death camps in Poland. In other words, it verged on being a heroic venture.

Not only was Victor Klemperer a keen observer of daily life, he was a unique witness to life under the Nazis. Born into a Jewish family, he converted to Protestantism in his youth (though, in the Nazi racial scheme, he was still a Jew). He was married to a non-Jew, or, in the Nazis’ racial vernacular, a “full-blooded Aryan.” His wife’s racial standing exempted him from being deported to the East where millions were murdered in the death factories. He also had served in World War I on the Western Front with honor, and this accorded him a certain distinction in the eyes of the Nazi regime.

A noted scholar in the field of romance languages and literature, and a professor at Dresden Technical University from 1920 until his expulsion by the Nazis in 1935, Klemperer specialized in 18th century French literature and was especially devoted to studying such Enlightenment figures as Voltaire, as well as the 17th century essayist Montaigne. His devotion to the latter provided him with a healthy skepticism that served him well as he experienced, observed, and recorded life under the Nazis.

For the first fifty-odd years of his life, Klemperer lived as a proud German who loved his country with all his heart. At one point, quoting a letter that he wrote to his brother in early 1934, he says: “I wrote that I was a German through and through and intended to remain in Germany to the bitter end” (Volume I; p. 52). He not only looked askance at Zionism, but at certain points even equated it, in its nationalistic fervor, with Nazism: “We hear a lot about Palestine now; it does not appeal to us. Anyone who goes there exchanges nationalism and narrowness for nationalism and narrowness” (Volume 1; p. 23). He was equally disdainful of Communism and Nazism, for he looked askance at all dogmatic political systems.

Throughout the diary, Klemperer attempts to ascertain the “truth” behind Nazi propaganda—its outright lies and deceit—as well as the truth of rumors that are rife among the populace. And while he is by turns skeptical, analytical, honest, and despairing, he is also one who hopes against hope that somehow, some way, things will turn out for the best. Indeed, he hangs on to a frayed thread that keeps getting thinner and thinner as the Nazis increase their choke hold on German society, and particularly on the collective and individual lives of the Jews.

For the reader, Klemperer’s hope against hope is both exasperating and enlightening. It’s exasperating in the sense that the reader knows what no one else—no German Jew, no German Christian, and no Nazi (with the possible exception of Hitler)—did at the time: the fact that Nazi-planned and systematic annihilation would eventually engulf the Jews of Europe and millions of others. It is enlightening in that it provides powerful insights into why so many Jews and others did not flee from Nazi Germany when they had an opportunity to do so. “Why didn’t they simply leave?” is a question that students frequently ask, and understandably so, when studying the Holocaust.

As Klemperer clearly delineates, there were innumerable reasons why he—and, presumably, many other German Jews–did not leave. Among them were that he loved Germany and being a German (though this sentiment was to radically change in the later years); he felt that he did not have the language skills to earn a decent wage in a nation where German was not spoken (although he was a French scholar, he did not speak French); his lack of adequate funds made such a move tentative, at best; he deplored the thought of having to, ultimately, depend on and then be indebted to relatives, friends, or others for his own and his wife’s daily existence; and, again, there was that ever-present hope that the situation in Germany would take a radical turn for the better.

Of the myriad topics raised and examined in the two volumes of this magnificent diary, four stand out most prominently for this reviewer: (1) the ever-increasing stranglehold of the Nazis and how each new regulation restricted individual Jewish lives; (2) the terror induced in the Jews by the Nazis via their words and tactics; (3) the vacillation of some Jews in regard to leaving or remaining in Germany; and (4) Klemperer’s mortification at eventually being forced to wear the yellow star.

For many readers, the first fifty or so pages of Volume One may seem rather pedestrian, even boring, for Klemperer goes into minute detail regarding his various writing projects, his daily routine, his and his wife’s health problems, his dire financial straits, and his petty complaints about everyday happenings. However, as one moves deeper into the diary, the issues that originally seemed mundane, if not inane, take on a life of their own; and, as they do, one gains a clear and almost revelatory knowledge of Klemperer’s hopes and fears as well as his life under the Nazis, including why he constantly vacillates between leaving Germany or remaining there.

Among the many issues Klemperer addresses in Volume One are the following: the way Jews (including many of his closest relatives and friends) and others begin trickling out of Germany in the early years of the Nazi reign and why the trickle ultimately becomes a flood; the combination of political, economic, social, and cultural deprivations put in place by the Nazis, and their incremental impact on the Jews; the brutish and degrading articles that regularly appear in the viciously antisemitic newspaper, Der Sturmer; and the increasing number of suicides among Jews as the Nazis deprive the Jews of their basic rights and attempt to strip them of their last shreds of dignity.

As war breaks out, the author turns his attention to all aspects of German life, and particularly their relationship to the situation of the Jews; the early rumors about the mass murder of the physically and mentally handicapped; the establishment of the ghettos in Poland and the deportations from Germany to Poland; the introduction of the yellow Jewish armband; the “ignorance” or lack of understanding of some “good-hearted Aryans” in the late 1930s and early 1940s vis-a-vis the reality of the Jews’ actual plight in Nazi Germany; and, at the same time, the empathy and decency of many non-Jews. The actions of non-Jews who offered assistance and/or provided a kind word to Klemperer serve, as the translator of this volume notes, as a rebuttal to Daniel Goldhagen’s (1996) thesis that the German people as a whole were inextricably infected with “eliminationist antisemitism.”

As the years pass and the Jews are increasingly ostracized, isolated, and subjected to punishing regulations, Klemperer grows more angry and embittered. The situation finally comes to a head, at which point he makes the decision to refuse to associate with any of his friends or colleagues who do not share his detestation of the Nazis. As he writes on New Year’s Eve, 1936: “Whoever is not a mortal enemy of the Nazis, cannot be my friend” (Volume One, p. 203).

As for the restrictions on Jews, they were plentiful and never-ending. Midway through Volume One, this reviewer experienced the odd sensation that the Nazis seemed to be working literally around the clock to devise new and ever more soul-destroying ways to harm the Jews’ sense of self and position in society. That is more readily appreciated when one realizes that between 1933 and 1939, four hundred separate pieces of legislation were passed “that defined, isolated, excluded, segregated, and impoverished German Jews (Berenbaum, 1993, p. 22). Among them were:

As for the terror felt by the Jews, Klemperer’s words tell it all. “A mood of fear such as must have existed in France under the Jacobins. No one fears for their lives yet—but for bread and freedom” [italics in the original], March 22, 1933 (Volume One, p. 9); “Flagrant threat of a pogrom if the foreign boycott does not cease,” May 13, 1934 (Volume One, p. 65); “We are so medievally helplessly powerless” September 27, 1936 (Volume One, p. 190); “As I lie down to sleep I think: Will they come for me tonight? Will I be shot, will I be put in a concentration camp?” September 3, 1939 (Volume One, p. 307); “Even more shocking reports about deportations of Jews to Poland. They have to leave almost literally naked and penniless. Thousands from Berlin to Lodz,” October 25, 1941 (Volume One, p. 440).

Finally, like nothing else this reviewer has ever read, Klemperer’s diary delineates in heartrending detail the meaning of being singled out in a society primed to look down upon, ostracize, and despise the “other.” Klemperer writes:

Yesterday, as Eva [Klemperer’s wife] was sewing on the Jew’s star, I had a raving fit of despair...Yesterday shut in all day in glorious weather, in the evening sneaked out for a couple of minutes ... Every step, the thought of every step, is desperation ... (Volume One, pp. 434 ff).

Volume Two continues to detail the pervasive discrimination that isolated and impoverished Germany’s Jews (Berenbaum, 1993, p. 22) and ultimately denied them their very lives. Many of the entries are revelatory and can be made valuable use of in the classroom.

An entry on May 20, 1942, provides the reader with a unique insight into the varied emotions that Klemperer and others were experiencing under the Nazis—that is, the daily fear, the sense of impending doom, and the hope against hope that things will work out for the best:

Today over breakfast we talked about the extraordinary capacity of human beings to bear and become accustomed to things. The fantastic hideousness of our existence; fear of every ring at the door, of ill-treatment, insults, fear for one’s life, of hunger (real hunger), ever new bans, ever more cruel enslavement, deadly danger coming closer every day, every day new victims all around us, absolute helplessness—and yet still hours of pleasure, while reading aloud, while working, while eating our less than meager food, and so we go on eking out a bare existence and go on hoping (Volume Two, p. 63).

Those who teach about the Holocaust often focus on the so-called “bystander syndrome.” Most decry, and understandably, the fact that so few non-Jews reached out to assist their Jewish friends and fellow citizens in a time of critical need. But what students need to understand and appreciate (and this is part of “complicating” history, in the best sense of the word) is that there were serious ramifications for being friendly to and/or reaching out to Jews. Throughout the diary, Klemperer comments on terror used by the Nazis to keep its populace in check and to cow its “enemies.”

In an entry dated April 19, 1942, Klemperer states that “The professor has just been given a heavy fine for being too friendly to Jews ... The Aryans’ justified fear of associating with Jews! The Gestapo rages against every relationship” (Volume Two, pp. 41-42). Even more strikingly, an entry dated March 2, 1943, reads: “… a new order has been issued: Anyone who passes something on to Jews awaiting evacuation will be ‘shot by the police’” (Volume Two, p. 206). And yet, it is also a fact that some “Aryans” did reach out and help their Jewish friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.

Many wonder just what the German Jews knew about the mass murder being perpetrated by the Germans in the Soviet Union and Poland. Klemperer’s diary speaks to what the German populace picked up via rumor and innuendo about such concerns. Below is a sample of what Klemperer wrote in various entries between January 1, 1942, and June 10, 1945, concerning the rumors of mass murder:

Paul Kreidl [a friend] tells us — a rumor, but it is very credible and comes from various sources — evacuated Jews were shot in Riga, in groups, as they left the train [italics in the original], January 13, 1942 (Volume Two, p. XXX).

... people have been long been saying that many of the evacuees [German Jews forced out of Germany] don’t even arrive in Poland alive. They were being gassed in cattle trucks during the journey, and the truck then stopped on the line by an already-dug mass grave, DATE (Volume Two, p. 204).

Two Jewish rumors: There had been mass murders in Poland in the course of withdrawals. On the other hand, Jews had been allowed out of Hungary after a Hungarian agreement with the USA. We consider point 1 very likely; point 2 can be correct only if Hungary has broken away from Germany. Did it? We are tapping in the dark, August 19, 1944 (Volume Two, p. 346).

I learned: A little while ago many elderly Jews (Three hundred? Three thousand?) had been transported from Theresienstadt, and afterward an English broadcast had announced that this transport had been gassed. Truth? August 20, 1944 (Volume Two, p. 347).

The two volumes of this diary are a must read for anyone who wishes to gain a clear and deep sense as to what life was like for the Jews during the Third Reich. By reading them, one will not only enhance one’s knowledge, but be able to provide students with powerful and valuable insights into what daily life was like under the Nazis. Then and only then will students begin to appreciate the insidious actions and power of the Nazi regime and its impact on German society, and, most significantly, individual Jews.

 

References

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Memorial Museum. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

 

Samuel Totten is a professor in the College of Education at the

University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.