Read Victor Klemperer
An Essay on Victor Klemperer’s I Shall Bear Witness
10/5/10, History 3270, Dr. Steinhoff
History is fleeting. Each and every generation either rediscovers or pushes farther from its scope of attention the ideas and the events of the past. In the vast storehouse of history’s files – there is one subject that many would like to see forgotten while others struggle for its continued remembrance: the historical legacy and personal affects of the Nazi party’s anti-Semitism in Europe. If a student or professor presents in a casual and summary fashion the legacy of anti-Semitism, then the story runs the risk of either being boring, dissociative, or even much worse – wrong. The people and events of World War II face this same dilemma. Like so many other events of history, they run the risk of becoming very commonplace and overly familiar to the reader. And insofar as they can be found to be taking on these qualities – they lose value. And in losing value – they lose relevance. Once relevance is lost – any needful truth is lost to the generation in question. One strong tool, in the fight against this loss, is Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness 1933-1941, A Diary of the Nazi Years.
Klemperer’s diary serves the mission of preserving both the record and the understanding thereof in three distinct ways. The first is that serves to ‘humanize the revelator’. In Klemperer, we see a real person with whom we potentially find ways of connecting with – and in connecting with him; we are able to bring his story closer to not just into our memory, but also into our hearts and minds. The second is that it provides crucial information in regards to the formative and influential experiences and emotional content for the individual in question. This is crucial in the case of Klemperer, especially because he is the author of numerous scholarly works and a full and deep appreciation and understanding of his works cannot be made absent an analysis of the author’s own influences and life experiences. The third, and perhaps the most important, comes through the power of the first two: that a purchase is found in the attention of the audience in terms of finding traction with the people of the story and their personal lives and the content thereof.
The average American, living in typical circumstances, cannot begin to objectively imagine what it was like for the Jewish population of Germany to live under Hitler. A subjective self-identification can potentially be approximately rendered, but outside of a Gestapo agent banging on your door and searching your house for hours (276) – the fear and the constant dread of death (5), otherwise, is merely an academically-posited, mental exercise which is not all that unlike going to see a horror movie; once frightened by the cinematographers grip upon our attention – we can easily retreat from the dark confines of the theater and return to a harmless if not busybody life: back to nothing less and nothing more.
Klemperer’s diary, however, provides us with a record of the daily thoughts of a man living in the midst of massive political upheaval; one that unlike scared theatergoers could – he could not walk out of. Once we allow Klemperer’s writing of his day-to-day life to have access to our attention, we find we can’t either – and this is a step along the path to being genuinely shaken out of our potential sense of academic malaise. It shakes us in that we read his often pained words about the ever increasing systematic oppression of all those who are not German (133). If we have ever cared about doing our own job with excellence, then we are shaken when we are confronted with his conviction that life in the German university, as he knew it, was no longer about true scholarship (32) but more so seemingly only about how one fit under the German’s eugenic chart (133). If we have ever enjoyed a sense of comfort in how to do our jobs, then we are confronted by his own struggle to continue to study (50) and we can almost hear the screeching and bawling (41) of politicians who care nothing for us, nor for what we desire to do and the lives that we have hope to live. Klemperer offers us a street level view of the political goings on in the 3rd Reich, even as Hitler’s street thugs get anybody and every body to vote their way – all the way down to the crazy forest witch – who with along with their heavy hand upon her – votes for the NSDAP (219). Amidst this madness, Klemperer see himself as yet still connected with his country (9) and painfully sees it in the throes of a “national idolatry” which, in his words “goes to pieces” for him (248).
If Klemperer is the narrator of a movie, then he serves to guide us from merely being paranoid – to being literally, genuinely terrified, as each and every day brings more atrocities (13). He shows us the escalating terror of what it is like to be a Jew under the hand of the Nazis. His fear grows. If we listen and allow it to affect us – so does ours. Eventually – as he tells us – he is scared enough to be almost expectant of the eventual accusation of a previously unimaginable horror: the idea of expecting to find a dead child placed in his garden (252) for mere purposes of framing him is yet another step into an ever-deepening terror of the soul and mind.
Klemperer’s diary is suggestive of an experience that is never really “good” in any sense of the term. It does not start out, describing any type of favorable kind of life under the Nazis. Very early in his diary, he describes himself has being “gripped by the fear of death” (5). We are provided some degree of insight into the apparent political system – or at least as it appears to Klemperer – as he shares with his diary that he suspects that Hindenburg is merely a puppet (8) and that he that Hindenburg’s shuffling gate is reminiscent of his own father’s condition after his debilitating stroke (8). There is hope, expressed in the early pages. “Thank God I’m alive,” he writes – alluding to the preservation of his job (12) due to his service in the German army (12). This is, however, little comfort, as he testifies that everything that he considers to be un-German “flourishes here”, (11) as if to speak of his shame in what is rapidly enveloping and transforming of the country that he loves. He hears other speaking of moving far eastward, but a move to Palestine holds no interest for him and his wife (23). Their hearts remain in Germany.
The steadily growing power of the Nazi anti-Semitic polices are like a shadow that gradually spreads over Germany and the regions ruled under it. What begins as fear, such as Klemperer’s fear of dismissal from his teaching post (6) almost always finds footing in reality, as he finds that to be an eventual reality (119). There is an ever-increasing sense of fatality (108) and a sense that there is a kind of national-existential immolation taking place (93). What starts off as accusations – such as the idea that when a Jew writes in German, he is obviously by nature of the act lying (15) – escalates to methodically placed snaring and purposefully devious taunting and entrapment of Jews (128). Klemperer finds the behavior of other Jews to be repugnant (33) just as he does many of his fellow Germans. The oppression makes it difficult for the Jews to conduct business and to engage in the things that they like to do – for as Klemperer repeats often, it gets harder and harder for him to study (50). Even though Klemperer and many of his fellow Germans are distraught to the point that they feel that everything is lost, and that the nation is literally “Tapping in the dark” and scaring itself (77), Klemperer displays an indomitable spirit, as he is able to utter an occasional “Hurray, I’m still alive” (185) and finds solace in the simple things, such as drinking tea (92). Klemperer illustrates the divide between the way that Jewish and non-Jewish artistry is viewed (72) as though everything is now about “zoology and business” (13). He makes reference to the fact that Jews such as himself constantly have to prove themselves (82) merely because of their ancestral makeup (133). All through the process of discrimination, there are those who resist and those who are merely “blinkered fanatics” (41). Klemperer reserves his greatest vitriol for those in academia who have gone along with the Nazi agenda (185). To the Germans, Hitler claims that he is not a dictator, but that he as only “simplified democracy” (156). Some Germans accept this – whereas others don’t. Klemperer’s words are always saturated with an ever growing sense of both despondency and terrible uncertainty (74).
Because of the nature of Klemperer’s work in terms of it being a diary, it offers an insight into the very personal world of Klemperer, not just as a person – but also as a scholar functioning under extraordinary and profoundly oppressive circumstances. When studying a scholar, it is important to learn not just about his thought – but also the shape and frame of the experiences under which both they and their thoughts were developed. Future scholars studying Klemperer’s works, especially his book on the Nazi’s use of language (208) – will find a wealth of information for their studies. For instance, Klemperer, very early on, expresses his fear in regards to how long he will be able to keep his post (6). How hard it is to study under the rule of the Nazis (50, 169), his disgust with the intellectuals who have supported them (185), as well as his street-level view of the ongoing political rhetoric both he and his fellow Germans were constantly bombarded with (128). His insistence that those who ought more so know better by way of their education be punished more, is telling of his belief in the presumed strength and the ‘filter-from-absurdity’ that he feels an education should beholden one to. In this way, he is speaking ‘beyond the text’ of what he has written to us, his readers. This brings up another important issue: that of a critical or discursive/postmodern interpretation/unpacking of Klemperer’s works.
In this sense, the work of Klemperer provides us with more then just his own words, even more then the content of what would be referred to as his ‘chosen content’. A critical or postmodern analysis of his work takes us beyond the frame that he has built for us – that of his world – and places our hand within his hand, even as he writes to us – and allows us to feel and experience that which he was immersed in and was driving him both as a writer, a person, a Jew – and even a German. This ‘third space’ is more readily accessible, the more intimate we become with Klemperer’s life and what it felt like for him to be in it. The intimacy and rawness afforded by the intrinsic nature of it being a diary, greatly enhances the capability of gaining further access into the content which lies beyond merely what he intends to tell us – but also the larger content of the text as it came to be in the final form of its actual content: both the content of what he tells us willfully and directly and that which he tells us both inadvertently and unintentionally. By this nature, we have a larger scope to explore and unpack; as opposed to the intrinsic sterility of a document that gives no insight into the intents, emotions and life-forming experiences of the author; such as when Klemperer tell us how it is literally torturous to study Rousseau (169). This poverty is replaced by a richness present in his diary, which also serves to both anchor our attention and broaden the scope of its value to us both in terms of identifying with the author (for the sake of personally appropriating the importance of the history), but also its worth in more academic, histo-analytic dimensions.
In this sense, if we engage in a study of Nazi history and its anti-Semitism, then Klemperer’s diary provides a profound insight into not just the content of both it and related books, but the process and the pain that was experienced by Klemperer in the writing of them. When we read where Klemperer tells us that the rejection of his book on Voltaire (181) was even more painful to him then his dismissal from his teaching post (181), we are confronted with the author’s own love and – for lack of a better term – his ‘literary midwifery,’ that he endured in the ‘conception and birth’ of his books. But more then just affording us a deeper, potential understanding of his books – we are shown the more mundane aspects of his life as well – which, in terms of understanding and creating a treatment/understanding of Klemperer as a scholar and literary figure – are equally, if not more so greater in the sum of their importance. Reading about the “mystery tours” that he and his wife took (30) in their efforts to escape the war-like stresses exerted upon them, as well as the boldness required and the fear induced by the driving lessons (150) that he undertook to take in 1936. He tells us of how his car “eats him up” (159), how it “rules” him (160), but gradually becomes more enjoyable (161), and even recalls the accident that they eventually have with it (177). In this way, his car, ironically, provides I road to a great potential depth of further understanding of Klemperer and both scholar, Holocaust survivor, and human being. He speaks to us more then he consciously intends. This is one of the valuable literary dynamics that the diary-format potentially possesses.
Just as the essence of a diary can potentially expand the ‘textual content’ of a given text – it can also potentially constrain it. By nature of it being a diary, it is almost completely subjective – and in losing or lacking a degree of objectivity, it must be considered as thus in the totality of its acceptance and/or judgment by the scholar and non-academic alike. Granted, Klemperer’s diary takes place in Nazi Germany, and so when he makes mention of pondering “dramatic measures with poison” (140) we see both a humor and a deadly, if not bitter, hopelessness echoing out of the text. But we have correlating historical evidence to support the objective presuppositions implied by the content of what Klemperer is telling us. But we could easily take the same diary-format and transpose it into a different set of historical circumstances. How would the diary of the infamous so-called “Unabomber” be considered? Would it likewise have scholarly value? Would we find a suitable and justifiable understanding or acceptance of his deeds from within it? Or what if a diary were found of one of the 9/11 terrorist attackers? We would be treated to each respective author’s interactions and subjective presuppositions about their worlds that they inhabit and how they felt about our own. Could one argue for a justifiable consilience? Or would such a work be automatically deemed hopelessly and irredeemably reprobate? Would that judgment be an ironically fascist-like decision in and of itself? Perhaps it would be possible to approach it academically, albeit accounting for its obviously culturally-mediated, dissonant aspects. Regardless, we do in fact have clear-cut, openly accepted and objective truths that correlate and support the subjectivity of Klemperer’s work – but outside of that, many will argue that the format can and often does lose strength and credibility after a certain points.
It will not suffice to merely tell forthcoming generations that the anti-Semitism of the Nazi party was wrong. We must find a way to open up the lives of those who lived through it, and find a way to make their experiences a place that finds a way to root themselves in our hearts, whereby their experiences are shared with us – and we feel that they become understandable and relevant to us.
In his diary, Klemperer pens the words piccolo mondo moderno; Italian for ‘small, modern world’. Even today, as the magic of technology and science becomes ever more dazzling – the modern world bears much resemblance to Klemperer’s. It is shrinking – and the pain and brutality and once seemed a world away, is again seemingly striving to confront us in our own back yard. Klemperer’s diary is an important tool to remind us that the struggles of anti-Semitism and eugenic ideology are relevant topics still for us today. They have to be. We have to maintain the relevance of them. Otherwise the lessons of Klemperer’s experience will have to be painfully relearned by forthcoming generations.