on 10 May 2000
I devoured the roughly 1500 pages of Victor Klemperer's diary 1933-1945 in the German original in four consecutive days and nights. What grips one is the question how Klemperer, an identifiable Jew, could have survived the Third Reich in the face of the horrendous persecution of the Jews which his diary shows closing in on him from all sides, and still be alive at the end of the Second World War viz the second volume of the book.
What saved him was favourable coincidents -- so many of them that they would appear improbable in a work of fiction. On some occasions, his marriage to a Christian wife, a concert pianist, worked in his favour; on others, the courage of friends of the family, like the dentist, who dared to hide Klemperer's completed diary pages in her home - despite the danger of Gestapo raids - to save ist for posterity; at other points the leniency of an official helped (Klemperer's World-War-I-medal for bravery, or his renown as a Professor of Romance Philology tended to summon respect).
In this second volume, it is shown how humiliations for Jews went from bad to worse in the Second World War. Jews e.g. were no longer permitted to use a seat when they rode in a tram. On one occasion, when Klemperer was on a tram-platform (where he was permitted to stand), the tramdriver addressed him in a sympathetic fashion saying: "What a relief to see your yellow star. At last someone to talk to openly in this moronic madness of a War." By a near miracle, Klemperer and his wife survived the Dresden air raid in February 1945, and his wife pulled the yellow star off him; he then survived the remainder of the war by posturing as an "Aryan" who lost all his identification.
My mother used to say: "No matter what I can tell you about the Third Reich, you won't be able to realize its real atmosphere. Life under that dictatorship is not transmittable by mere words." The sensation is that Klemperer's diaries do transmit that atmosphere, and in enormously precise words. The authenticity of the account arises from the peculiar perspective of a diarist, who, at any given point, possesses neither a privileged view of the future, nor easy hindsight-cleverness.
An example is Klemperer's poignant account of the deportation of the Dresden Jews. Trembling he might be with the next transport, he was at pains to gather all available information, but with little success. The fate of the deported was strictly prohibited knowledge, and rumours were ineffectual in this era of universal mutual distrust. Klemperer surmised, no sooner than three years into the War, that they probably all get killed. Auschwitz especially, he suspected, must be a slaughterhouse. But not before the end of the war did he learn the decisive details, that the number of victims ran to the millions, that some people were read out for immediate destruction at the trains' arrival ramps, that people were purposefully annihilated by forced labor and hunger, by medical experiments, and gassings.
Klemperer's portrayal of the non-Jewish Germans permits no easy generalizations. By at least as great a number of his German compatriots was he shown friendliness as unfriendliness. The behaviour of the civilians tended to be tolerable, the chicanery and humiliations typically coming from the uniformed representatives of the suppressors, as the Gestapo. Heinous behaviour was shown, however, by the Hitler Youth, into whom the fear and hatred of Jews was drilled nremittingly from the tenderest age by the Party Youth organization, which often caused rifts in families where no such fanaticism had originally ruled.
This is certainly an account of history from which one can learn - important both for Germany in particular and for mankind in general, as a portrayal of human behaviour under a terrible dictatorship, in which the varnish of human civilization cracked, and man stood revealed as the beast he can be. The book's instructive power lies in its precision; it is the most authentic book I ever read about the Third Reich.