By Victor Klemperer, translated by Martin ChalmersPhoenix Books
The literature of twentieth-century totalitarianism, whether in prefiguring the epoch of Nazism and Stalinism or in drawing on it, often relied on un homme moyen sensuel—the luckless particle swept up in the process, or the worm from whose eye the titanic, forbidding edifice could be squintingly, even cringingly, scrutinized. Kafka's Joseph K was a prototype; Orwell's Winston Smith was given autonomy as a character only to have it very annihilatingly taken away from him. (Rubashov, in Darkness at Noon, was more of a Miltonian figure, flung from the heights of power yet still pitilessly judged by the standards of his former comrades.)
Almost a decade ago, in Germany, the diaries of Victor Klemperer were published. It became evident at once that this was a nonfiction event that quite eclipsed the journals of Anne Frank. Here was a middle-aged academic, converted from Judaism to Protestantism, who had decided in full maturity to keep a record of every feasible day (and some inconceivable ones) of the "thousand-year Reich": an enterprise that occupied him from 1933 to 1945 and filled two large volumes titled I Will Bear Witness. Superbly translated by Martin Chalmers, these appeared in English in 1998 and 1999, and gave rise to a very widespread critical and historical discussion about the Hitler period. Reading them, I noticed that at the end of the war—and after narrowly surviving the obliteration of Dresden—Klemperer had opted to stay in "East" Germany, and to identify himself with what became the German Democratic Republic. Given the attachment to liberalism and skepticism that he had demonstrated throughout his diaries of the Nazi years, and given also his addiction to journal keeping, I felt sure that he would have kept up his solitary labor on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and that this work would one day surface. And now it has, in the form of The Lesser Evil, a fourteen-year personal journey through the academic bureaucracy and party-state institutions of the GDR. It ends a few months short of Klemperer's death, in 1960.
It is a disgrace that this book has not so far found a publisher in the United States, and I hope that readers will be able to bypass the bookstores and publishers and acquire copies by other means. (Phoenix Books is based in London; Trafalgar Square Books, of Vermont, is the U.S. distributor.) With this third volume we now have what is almost unique—a firsthand and intimate account by somebody who "survived" both versions of ideological dictatorship at close quarters, and who was in an unusually strong position to take, and to compare, notes. If American book publishers wish to give the impression that they cash in on Holocaust-related books before allowing their interest in Central Europe to lapse, then by this act of negligence they are well on their way to succeeding.
For all that, it is effectively impossible to begin a discussion of The Lesser Evil without reviewing some of the context and character of the preceding volumes. Klemperer was born in 1881, to the family of a rabbi in what was then Brandenburg and is now part of Poland. (To anticipate a question: the conductor Otto Klemperer was a cousin.) The father, an Orthodox Jew, switched allegiance to Reform Judaism when he moved to Berlin, and his sons "completed" this trajectory, it might be said, by converting to Protestantism. Victor took up the study of French Enlightenment literature, was an energetic literary journalist, married a Protestant musicologist named Eva Schlemmer, served in the German Army in World War I with pride but without great distinction, and in 1920 secured a post teaching Romance languages and literature at Dresden Technical University. Thus when National Socialism came to power, in 1933, he had some reason to hope that his conversion, his academic position, his marriage, and his war record would give him a degree of immunity.
I should add, in all fairness and objectivity, that Klemperer also decided that nothing would induce him to emigrate: he would remain a German at any hazard. But the consuming interest of the hundreds of entries that he was later to set down is this: it took him quite a while to appreciate just how futile this trust in partial immunity would prove. Not that he had any illusions about the nature of the Nazi Party, for whose propaganda and bombast he invariably expressed loathing and contempt. It was more that he had difficulty crediting the ghastly, inexorable fashion in which everything was taken from him, and from his wife. His marriage, position, and war record did, in fact, confer some rights on him: even the Nuremberg "race" laws made some grudging exceptions for those married to "Aryans." But this postponement only made him feel more keenly the deep-seated and protracted sadism of the "cleansing" of Germany. One day it would be that he could not ride at the front of the tram or use the university library, the next a ban on Jewish ownership of typewriters or automobiles. Then it would be the imposition of the Yellow Star, or the forced use of "Israel" as a patronymic on official cards and papers. Then Jews were kicked off the tram altogether, and always there was fresh trouble about the shops that could be used or the rations that could be claimed. Eventually came expulsion from his university post and from his home, and a confinement in ghetto housing that became more and more obviously the anteroom to deportation; and then the only terminus of deportation. There is a horrid fascination in reading this day-by-day chronicle as it unfolds, along with each cuff on the head and gob of spittle, because we know what's coming, and he is only beginning to guess.
I'll select an ostensibly trivial instance that is somehow appallingly eloquent. The Klemperers were childless (thank heaven, one thinks—as they must sometimes have thought), and Victor and especially Eva had become devoted cat lovers. A time came when the magazine The German Feline began to publish articles exalting the authentic German cat over the suspect and degenerate "breeds" that had been allowed to creep in. Then Klemperer was informed that he could no longer make donations to the fund for the prevention of cruelty to German cats. Then all Jews in the Reich, and all those married to them, were told that they would have to surrender all pets, because dogs and cats and birds should live only in pure Aryan homes. Of this, in May of 1942, Klemperer minutes, about the couple's beloved tomcat, Muschel,
I feel very bitter for Eva's sake. We have so often said to each other: The tomcat's raised tail is our flag, we shall not strike it … and at the victory celebrations Muschel will get a "schnitzel from Kamm's" (the fanciest butcher here) …
Unless the regime collapsed by the very next morning, we would expose the cat to an even crueler death or put me in even greater danger. (Even having him killed today is a little dangerous for me.) I left the decision to Eva. She took the animal away in the familiar cardboard cat-box, she was present when he was put to sleep by an anaesthetic.
Banish your sentimentality (and I have left out the most heart-touching passages): Is there not something fabulously grotesque about a regime that in the midst of total war will pedantically insist that Jews and their spouses either euthanize their own pets or surrender them to the state for extermination?