Many years ago, before I began reviewing for Amazon, I read the first two volumes of Klemperer’s diaries: “I Shall Bear Witness, 1933 to 1941”, and “To the Bitter End” (1941 to 1945). He was of Jewish origin, though a convert to Protestantism. He was Professor Romance Languages at the Technical University of Dresden, and these volumes described the harrowing story of his life in Nazi Germany, complete with his initial bewilderment: he felt himself to be so thoroughly German that he refused to emigrate and, despite being the son of a rabbi, so weakly attached to Judaism. He records the increasing restrictions that were placed on him as a Jew; his dismissal from the University; and how in 1940 he and his Protestant-born wife Eva lost their home In Dölzschen (a suburb of Dresden)and were rehoused in a “Jews’ House” together with other such “mixed couples”. On 13 February 1945 he was served with a notice of deportation; but that was the day before the massive bombardment of Dresden, and in the chaos that followed he removed the Jewish badge from his clothes, and escaped together with his wife from Dresden into American-controlled territory. When the war was over, at the age of 63 he returned to Dresden, and in this volume describes his life in Communist East Germany for the rest of his life.
The volume has a superb introduction written by Martin Chalmers, who also translated it into English. He summarizes the main characteristics of what follows: Klemperer’s scepticism about many of the people who now welcome him back; his thrill about his changed circumstances; the requests he receives to certify acquaintances as having been of good anti-Nazi character; reinstatement to his professorship (after an agonizing six months of uncertainty); the success he has a lecturer; the awards that are heaped upon him, but also his unquenchable ambition and bitter disappointments that certain further honours are given to other people instead of to him; his opportunistic decision to join the Communist Party “as the lesser evil” and even urging several other people to do the same, despite his awareness of how illiberal and repressive that regime was; but he also felt West Germany, with so many ex-Nazis in prominent positions, was worse; his growing apart from his first wife and his marriage, within a year of her death in 1951, to a 25-year old student of his; his continued reluctance to define himself as a Jew; his hostility to Zionism (in one place he records that he had said that the way the Jews treated the Arabs was “worse than the Nazis” – but then he also compares De Gaulle’s presidency to Hitler’ dictatorship!), and of course his uneasiness at the antisemitism he felt had never disappeared even before it was promoted by Stalin in his last years, and the influence that had in the satellite countries.
He was always in a difficult position, politically, morally, practically (especially in the early years after the war when conditions in East Germany were chaotic and primitive: the Russians had moved industrial equipment and livestock to the Soviet Union and there was near-famine) and physically (he was in poor health – he had a heart condition which gave him pain whenever he walked for a short distance). It is astonishing, given his poor health, how many meetings of how many bodies all over East Germany he managed to attend, and how many political speeches and academic lectures he nevertheless managed to give. He was obviously in great demand as a speaker. He records one occasion when he lectured on Communism at a primary school! In addition he is always writing academic pieces for various journals, and he becomes quite wealthy. And, despite his poor health, he was also able to travel abroad: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Austria, West Germany, Italy, France, Portugal – even, at the age of 77, China (though the diary entries for the China trip have largely been cut, though one records that “I have finally become an ant-Communist”.)
He is a self-proclaimed workaholic and doesn’t like university holidays. In term-time, at the age of 70 he was lecturing four hours a week in Leipzig University, six hours in Berlin University, and five hours in Halle University. No wonder he constantly complained about feeling terribly tired. It also meant being away from home for many days, and he repeatedly expresses his guilt for leaving his ailing wife Eva alone so often. After her death and his speedy remarriage, at the age of 71, to 25-year-old Hadwig, he noted over and over again his guilt feelings for having “betrayed” Eva. (Hadwig was an observant believing Catholic while Viktor had no faith at all; and she is also more sharply critical of the communist government than Viktor, who still supporting a regime of whose oppressive nature and Nazi-like sloganising he had been silently critical for years. Occasionally these differences cause frictions between them; but they love each other. Klemperer was even willing to go through a secret Catholic wedding – five years after their civil wedding - so that Hadwig would not be excluded from taking Holy Communion. Perhaps it is under her influence and that of her parents, and perhaps because, after the 1956 Hungarian uprising in Hungary, the East German control on cultural life was in fact tightening all the time, that Klemperer’s diary criticisms of the Soviet Union and of East Germany become ever stronger. He claims to be totally disgusted by politics, but does not, as Hadwig would like him to do, withdraw from it altogether.
Despite his private opposition to its narrow-minded Marxism, he was a leading member of the Kulturbund (the organization for the East German intelligentsia) and was elected as its representative to the Volkskammer (the East German parliament), where, as he wryly reports, he voted as he was told and took part in the standing ovations to Stalin. Among those heaping praise on him on his 70th birthday in 1951 were Grotewohl, Pieck and Ulbricht. The same for his 75th birthday. He notes the names of all the people and organizations who congratulated him – and makes a mental note of those who did not.
The original German edition was heavily cut, but still was a two-volume work, here further reduced to one of 656 pages, no less! In my opinion it should have been drastically cut even further! The minutiae of every day’s events quite swamp his observations and reflections. Over and over again he refers to his inner unease and conflicts, his depressions, his self-accusations – and his “Vanitas” of which he is painfully aware. Although he is thirsty for praise and recognition, he quite often thinks of himself as really a shallow thinker (and as less intelligent than either Eva or Hadwig), feels useless and that he no longer has anything original to contribute, and that others regard him as passé. His repeated complaints and worries – often over the same things - make for some very tiring reading: his heart condition; severe food and fuel shortages in the early post-war years; electricity cuts in the evening; suspicion of continuing antisemitism; thwarted ambitions for a Chair in Dresden, Leipzig or Greifswald; complaints about Greifswald when in 1947 he at last got a chair at that small university. He left Greifswald within a year to take up a professorship at Halle, but he was soon complaining about Halle also. He was never satisfied, and was always plagued by yet further political and academic ambitions. (His second wife observed that when eventually he did in 1953 get the recognition he had so longed for – membership of the Academy and the National Prize – these successes were not met with elation but with depression.)
His political ambitions and his pro-Soviet speeches are particularly hard to justify, since he was fully aware of the repressive and regimented nature of the communist regime, and especially of its slogans which he compared with those of the Nazis and about which in 1947 he had published one of his best-known books, LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii – The Language of the Third Reich. His diaries now refer to LQI – The Language of the Fourth Reich, which was just the same.) Occasionally he writes that he is really a liberal at heart; but then also, “I am attached to our cause and hate the Nazis of Bonn even more than our stupid and unimaginative dictatorship”; and his diary shows genuine relief when Soviet troops put down the East German workers’ revolts in 1953. Of course he was taking a risk with many of the thoughts he committed to his diary, and occasionally he even publicly takes a critical line on the cultural situation in East Germany and on an exclusively Marxist line on literature. It does surprise me that he not only got away with it, but was still publicly honoured. He records other academics who were not so lucky and who were arrested.
The diary is awash with names, as he records everyone he meets socially and everyone who is present at committee meetings, and, although all these names are footnoted on their first appearance, it is very difficult to keep up with who is who, even if one wanted to. The excerpts in the earlier part of the book are much fuller than in the later part, though the ones in the later part are slightly more interesting. In the earlier parts, whenever he travels by street car or by train, he describes the route, the stops, the number of the tram and whether the journey was comfortable or – more often – not. He records meal after meal, especially in the years of shortages: Spartan ones at home unless friends brought him some extra food, poor ones in restaurants and rather more copious ones at some of the official meetings. The moaning tone is all-pervasive, relieved only every now and again when he records basking in any applause he received at one of his lectures. Undoubtedly he had much to moan about, but was it worth publishing it so extensively? He is an obsessional and prolix diarist – sometimes he makes two or three separate long entries a day. The massive material will have been of interest to him – there is a good deal about academic rivalries, some of them personal, some political, others about the low standards in East German universities; but most of it I found monumentally boring and Klemperer a thoroughly unlikeable character. I am reluctant to give up on any book; so I read it in small instalments over seven weeks. But it really wasn’t worth it.