Survivor

Victor Klemperer's meticulous diaries of daily life under East Germany's "soul-smashing" Communists reveal a man trying to convince himself not that the system was wrong but that it was right

By Christopher Hitchens

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?

But even as the book is a bitter rebuke to all those who doubt or deny the methodical nature of the Nazi elimination policy, it is also a reproach to some of the more facile elements of the Goldhagen thesis, as put forth in Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996). Far from being made the object of hatred or violence by his fellow citizens, Klemperer is constantly being brought up short by astonishment at random—or even planned—acts of generosity or solidarity. Cuts of meat or fish are offered to him in rationed stores. Tram drivers abuse the Führer for his benefit. The man supposed to supervise the forced labor of elderly Jews gives repeated work breaks and takes every opportunity to express sympathy for the conscripts and disgust for the authorities. A worker passes by and says, "Chin up—the scoundrels will soon be finished." This persists even into the heavy Allied bombardments. Klemperer's friend Jacobi is invited into an air-raid shelter that's off limits to wearers of the Star with the words "Come on in, mate." When Jacobi says, "But you mustn't say that," the worker responds loudly, "We're all mates—and soon we'll be able to say it out loud again." If there is hope, it lies in the proles … Klemperer awards credit for this, and often mentions the exemplary behavior of communists and socialists, but nonetheless retains a certain reserve. Where are all the other Germans? Are they, as he suspects, in hiding somewhere?

Never much—or at all—interested in Marxism, he also manifests an abiding distrust of the Zionism to which so many of his fellows are drawn. To him, the point is to maintain his right to be a liberal German. He abuses Theodor Herzl in the roundest of terms, as a mirror-image race theorist and nationalist who would deny this same right in another insidious way. And he shrinks, as a good Voltairean should, from Martin Buber's religiosity ("makes me downright ill"). There cannot have been many victims in 1942 who told their diaries that they planned an essay titled "Pro Germania, contra Zion from the contemporary standpoint of the German Jew."

Most arresting of all, however, is Klemperer's decision to compile a lexicon of what he calls Lingua tertii imperii ("the language of the Third Reich"), in which he notes and analyzes the rhetorical giveaways of the regime. This LTI notation becomes a subtext of the book, and puts one in mind even more forcibly of the diary kept by Winston Smith. As in Nineteen Eighty-four, it often involves noticing propaganda claims, about production at home or victories on far-off fronts, that are simply too loud and too immense to be believed. Then there is the Nazi habit of collectivizing races or nationalities, so that it's always "the Jew" or "the Englishman," with individuality doing duty for a mass. To say nothing of the use of words—"fanatical," for instance—as extra-strong positives. Klemperer develops a way of reading the newspapers so as to notice that when slightly tepid terms are employed, things must be going really badly for German armies in North Africa or Russia. (His guesses are usually correct.) With some satisfaction he examines the death notices in the press and counts up how many of them are accompanied by a swastika or some other Nazi rune, and how many simply announce a fallen son. After the war was over, Klemperer published his essays on LTI as a separate book, which had considerable success in both Germanys.

The Klemperer we come to know is a shrewd man, somewhat impatient with others and somewhat insecure, and fairly honest with and about himself. In one of his entries about the death of the cat, for example, he confesses that he resents his wife's giving a lavish piece of veal (the meat ration for some days) to the condemned Muschel as a farewell treat. By the time this third volume opens, we are accustomed to the sharp insights into motivation and character, and to the equally acute ear for falsity and pretension, that have helped him survive. We have also been introduced to an absolutely magnificent woman in Eva, herself a one-person refutation of the Goldhagen slur on the German character. It seems never even to have occurred to her that she could have saved herself by divorce; she had been condemned to join one of the last trains rumbling east toward the killing fields with her husband when the skies opened over Dresden, in 1945, and the Nazi authority went up in smoke. (She had loved the city, as had Victor, but said that her heart had hardened after the murder of little Muschel.)

In one of his diatribes against Herzl, Klemperer says that the man had an almost Bolshevik arrogance. From this and many other asides and observations it is quite clear that he was not in any sense a Communist; indeed, it's fairly plain that he was a relatively apolitical supporter of the old Social-Democratic Party. Yet his decision to take out a party card with the Communist Party (KPD) follows very shortly after the collapse of Hitler and the arrival of the Red Army. The Klemperers get their old house back, are offered compensation and many apologies (there are some mordant entries on the latter), and are able to have a tomcat again. But Party membership was not required for any of this.

A mixture of motives can be discerned. First, Klemperer feels that the most valiant anti-Nazis were the KPD and the Soviet Union. (That this conclusion involves some rewriting of history goes without saying.) And the VVN—the official association of victims of Nazi persecution, which he wishes to join—is quite clearly a Party front. But there is more to it than that. Deep down, and despite some memorable experiences to the contrary, he has ceased to trust the German people. In his mind, only a very strong regime will prevent the resurgence of anti-Jewish hatred that he regards as inevitable. This thought poisons even his better moments.

Historical context apart, Klemperer's journals can be read for their own sake as a gnawing meditation on the disappointments of life and the irrevocability of choices. He is intensely aware at all moments, perhaps because of his consciousness of being a "survivor," that death is only a breath away. He is one of the great kvetches of all time, endlessly recording aches and pains, bad dreams, shortages of food and medicine, snubs and humiliations. And, like everyone else, he wants everything both ways. In particular, he wants East Germany to be an open democracy with a real intellectual life, while insisting that all manifestations of reactionary and racist spirit be pitilessly crushed. This double-entry bookkeeping is something that he usually has the courage to confess ("between two stools" becomes his preferred cliché) even when he knows that the contradiction is not resolvable. Thus, while hailing the Red Army and the intransigent Party even in the earliest post-Nazi days, he is beginning to take notes for a successor study of lethal jargon, to be called LQI, or The Language of the Fourth Reich. Here's an example, from a commissar-type critique he receives of one of his books—which, he is informed, must, "taking account of all objectivity, of all devotion to scholarship, nevertheless above all be couched in such a way that it meets all the demands of our new democratic educational reform, which of course mutatis mutandis also applies to the universities." It continues, "Revolutionary times must on occasion make do with considerable abridgements in order to accentuate the political line more strongly." To that gem of what the French call la langue du bois Klemperer appends the single instinctive word "Revolting!" He adds that "class-consciousness" in this form is the counterpart to race-consciousness under the previous regime before reflecting, "Not quite as poisonous."

Oscar Wilde's objection to the socialism he professed—that it would take up far too many evenings—has never been better materialized than by Klemperer's record of soul-smashing monotony and conformity. He dares not refuse to attend meetings of the Kulturbund, because this deadening outfit is a meal ticket. But once you are on one committee … His acute sense of time wasted is intensified by his no-less-acute sense that he hasn't much time left.

The page-turning quality of the first two volumes isn't as urgent in The Lesser Evil, because although we know what is coming, we also know, at least, that it can and will be survived. When the workers of Berlin mount a revolt in 1953, Klemperer is only peripherally involved and gives the regime the benefit of the doubt while distrusting its propagandized explanation. One can feel the erection of the Wall coming on, even as one notices that Klemperer both does and does not want the segregation of Germany and the absorption of the east by the Soviet bloc. He died in February of 1960, just before that consummation of the Cold War forced so many of his compatriots to flee or go into internal opposition. It's doubtful that he could have nerved himself to do either thing; indeed, by then his nerve had gone. But toward the very last of the entries he says something that he hasn't said to himself before—namely, that the conduct of the East German security services is of a "Gestapo" type. For a childless man, also, he shows special insight in noticing how gruesome is regime propaganda when directed at infants. This is an LQI entry from May of 1959, taken from an East German newspaper interview, in which "Colleague Schubert, day nursery teacher at the 12th Primary School," said,

With some groups in our nursery we have got to the point that the children are already working independently and learning leadership … From lunchtime, under the supervision of a nursery teacher, the children themselves take over. Thus we try to teach leadership to our worker and peasant children; because one day they will be in charge of the state.

Without pausing over the accidental absurdity of the second sentence, Klemperer simply notes that this is "purest Nazism, in even worse German!"

My Winston Smith analogy is obviously inexact in one way, in that during the Nazi period Klemperer was an axiomatically identified public enemy with no hope of concealing himself, and during the Communist years he was a man trying to convince himself not that the system was wrong but that it was right. His utter failure in this attempt is eloquent nonetheless, and amounts to a very strong and useful condemnation at a time when a movie of fatuous nostalgia for the GDR—Good Bye, Lenin!—can exert extensive box-office and critical appeal in the United States, and when former Stalinists and neo-Nazis are competing with each other to make a statist "One Nation" appeal in the eastern Lander of the Federal Republic.

In 1951 Eva Klemperer died; one is happy to know that she was to the last consoled by her new cat. Within a short time Victor had taken up with another woman, named Hadwig Kirchner, who likewise agreed to share his disappointments and struggles—and to put up with his evidently difficult personality—but whose deepest desire was that he agree to marry her within the Catholic Church and thus prevent her having to choose between him and holy communion. This he eventually agreed to do, so long as it could be arranged that nobody would know of it. One has the feeling that he would have made this a condition even in a state system that did not frown on religion. These journals are not the diary of a nobody, even though they were composed by a man who greatly feared that verdict. They are, rather, the life story of a man who in a time of diseased delusions tried—and failed—to live as if even comforting illusions were unnecessary.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/12/survivor/303614/