David Cesarani

Tormented At The End

The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945-1959


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REVIEWING THE FIRST volume of Victor Klemperer’s daries, covering the years 1933-41, I compared him to Victor Meldrew and suggested that the sheer bloody-mindedness of this grumpy, middle-aged man attained nobility when pitted against the Third Reich. His determination to continue his academic research after being dismissed from his university job was admirable. Given the risks of discovery, his quarrying and recording of Nazi rhetoric for a study of how the regime subverted and debased language was awesome. His self-pity that a converted Jew who was a German patriot, and an anti-Zionist to boot, should suffer from racial anti-Semitism was understandable and his vacillation over his identity was poignant.

Unfortunately, in this third and final volume Klemperer is no longer automatically on the side of the angels and there is nothing immedate to counterbalance his personal weaknesses and political havering. Whereas under the Nazis his fate was in the hands of others, now he makes choices and has to bear the consequences. In retrospect, as he was drnly aware at the time, he made the wrong choice. What continues to make his diary compulsive reading is the insight it offers into the reasons why a man who was otherwise so perceptive and principled falls in with one of the most venal regimes imposed on astern Europe by the victorious Soviet Union. In this sense it is a fitting companion to Czeslaw Milosz’s The Cavtive Mind.

Klemperer’s diary also offers a superb window on life in Soviet-occupied Germany in 1945-9 and the early vears of the German Democratic Re~ublic. His hankness about the abysmal conditions renhers his later decisions all the more striking. He excoriates the Russian authorities for allowing Red Army troops to plllage and rape while systematically looting German industry. As late as 1947 he is warned not to travel on the autobahn at night for fear of highway robbers. When he arrives in the Baltic citv of Grefiwald in 1948 he is advised to stav out of the town centre after dark, when it becomes the preserve of marauding bands of Soviet sailors. His diary is a litany of complaints about the shortage of food, fuel, and power. Even though he is a registered Victim of Fascism, and hence privileged, his rations are paltry. For five months in early 1948 he is condemned to live in accommodation without a functioning bath or hot water. As a result he develops serious scabies.

The appalling way the Russians treated the population reflected badly on the German Communist Party (KPD), which naturally aspired to power. Klemperer supports the KPD as the surest scourge of former Nazis, but every atrocity and indignity perpetrated by the Russians hinders its electoral path to government. He regards this as doubly serious because, in his eyes, the Russians and the Communists are the surest safeguard against a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

One of the most curious features of this diary is the sensitivity which Klemperer displays towards residual Judaeophobia and his assumption that a return to Hitlerism is just around the corner. He is anxious lest the presence of Jews in positions of authority be perceived as the ‘triumph of the Jewish spirit of revenge’. He fears that a production of Nathan the Wise to mark the revival of theatre in Dresden will provoke a backlash. There is even a danger, he thinks, in becoming the ‘triumphal hub’ of the village of Dolzschen, to which he returns with his wife Eva. When former Nazi Party members beseech him for testimonials that will get them through denazification tribunals, he is torn between helping deserving cases and seeming vengeful by refusing others.

Paradoxically, Klemperer defends the Russians and joins the KPD because he sees them as the sole bulwark against anti-Semitism. The worse conditions get and the more the population grumbles, the more he feels he has to wave the red flag. He dismisses a move west (made by an increasing number of his colleagues) because he believes that the democratic Allies are half-hearted about denazification. Instead he throws in his lot with the Communists, and in return for a kind of security, prestigious appointments, royalties, honours, and a car, travels the road of intellectual self-degradation.

His choice is perplexing not only because his fear of anti-Semitism seems so exaggerated, but because he is still capable of startling insights into the corruption of power and language – this time perpetrated by the USSR and the GDR. As early as June 1945 he contemplates a study of the language of the Fourth Empire to complement his study of dscourse in the Thlrd Reich. Once again he collects examples of propaganda and readily compares Hitlerism to Stalinism. He dubs the rhetoric of World Peace Day ‘Old Goebbels merchandise’, a phrase that could have earned him the attention of the Stasi if it had been publicised.

Sadly, however, there is a hypocrisy and a cynicism about Klemperer, too, which make him suited to the bunch that dominated the culture and politics of the GDR. He is desperate for recognition, to get a university chair, to win the National Prize. To achieve this he is willing to suck up to third-rate hacks like Johannes Becher, head of the Kulturband, even while he denigrates them in the pages of his diary. He notes the instances of popular protest against the Russian occupation, the purges and the disappearances, expresses a twinge of conscience, and then moves onto the next meeting. His vacillation becomes unbearable for the reader.

In June 1953, after Soviet tanks crush a popular uprising in Berlin and other cities, he buys the lie that it was a ‘Fascist adventure’. Astonishmgly he declares, ‘To me the Soviet tanks are like doves of peace.’ Yet a few months later he asks himself, ‘where does my conscience stand in relation to the Party?’ In 1959, a few weeks before ill health silenced hlm, he writes: ‘Why do I not publicly recant?’ A very good question. In his otherwise excellent introduction, Martin Chalmers suggests that it is excessive to expect an old man, who had lost and suffered so much, to forgo the privileges bestowed on him by the East German regime. This smacks of apologetics: it is tragic that Klemperer failed to live up to the liberal and democratic principles he enunciated and defended so courageously for the duration of the Thd Reich.

Perhaps it all goes back to his rabbinical father and Jewish roots. His allegiance to the KPD and the GDR was driven partly bv fear of anti-Semitism. while his lust for recogmhon &as propelled by the memdry of the stern patriarch, whose judgemental presence recurs throughout the book. As a portrait of a flawed human being, these diaries represent g madcent achievement. It is sad that they end-with the flaws uppermost, but perhaps this is the last victory of Klemperer’s epic candour.

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