The Books: I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, by Victor Klemperer

Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:

Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, by Victor Klemperer

The journals (there are three volumes in all) are written by a Jewish man, an intellectual, a professor, living in Dresden, Germany, who was married to a Christian German woman. At first, Klemperer was exempt from persecution because of his marriage, but as the 30s went on, the gloves came off in Germany and these journals (which he kept at great risk to himself) take us step by excruciating step through those terrible years. The journals are incredibly detailed and terrifying first-hand accounts of the rise of the Nazis. Hindsight, as we all know, is 20/20, and people often make ignorant statements (“Why didn’t the Jews just LEAVE” – first of all, like it’s easy to just freakin’ leave your country, your HOME) based on either a misunderstanding of history or a misunderstanding of what it is like on the ground. These journals tell you what it was like on the ground. It helps that Klemperer is an acute observer, not only of his own country’s politics and laws, but of its language, and the hijacking of that language by the Nazis. The journals are an example of that old metaphor involving a frog in a pot of boiling water. If you heat it up gradually, the frog will not perceive the exact moment he should jump out. And then, when it is finally too hot, it is too late to escape. This is what happened to the Klemperers. They had no desire to move to Israel (like many of their friends did), they had no desire to move to America – besides, they had no contacts in these places. They were also elderly. How would Klemperer, a professor, get a job in a foreign country when he didn’t speak the language?

The journals are phenomenal and I recommend them without question. They are vivid and awful documents of the culture in Germany at that time, and its upheavals.

As the noose tightened, as their options dwindled, as their freedoms were slowly but surely taken from them … he kept to his self-assigned task: that he would bear witness.

He somehow, somehow, maintains a cold analytical eye. As he loses his job, as his financial problems mount, as his circumstances are reduced – he makes up an enormous project for himself, which he calls THE LANGUAGE OF THE THIRD REICH. This is an incredibly detailed analysis of the hijacking of everyday language used by the Nazis (they turned words like “work” and “father” and “soil” into terrifying concepts). It is what Orwell describes so perfectly and chillingly in 1984 and his great political essay “Politics and the English Language”. When language becomes meaningless – when you rip the words from their meanings, and deny people the right to use words however they wish – then you have fascism, totalitarianism. Without WORDS, people cannot THINK. Limiting language limits thought. Klemperer documents every example of this linguistic phenomenon that he can find, analyzing, interpreting. To me, that is the best part of the book. His deconstruction of the Nazi language. (Recently, the fruits of his labor was finally published – Language of the Third Reich: LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii. Amazing book.)

Victor Klemperer felt (and was) deeply German. His German identity was stronger for him than his Jewish identity. And his love of the German language is what, for me, sets this book apart from other memoir/diary-type books. His love of the language of his country, the language of Goethe and Thomas Mann, was destroyed by the Nazis and it will take generations for the Germans to re-claim some of that heritage.

Klemperer noticed this, as it was happening, and as he lost his house – his job – his future – as he and his wife were resettled into smaller and smaller houses, occasionally imprisoned, harassed, persecuted. He kept scribbling down examples of this “Language of the Third Reich”, it is his main contribution. Klemperer and his wife survived the Dresden fire-bomb – and still: he kept these teeny notes of paper, locked away with various German friends, containing all of his notes about the destruction of the German language, and the German nation.

An unbeLIEVable read. An incredible eyewitness documentation. Not only of the increasing power of the Nazis, but of the destruction of a language.

Here is an entry from April, 1938.

Excerpt from I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, by Victor Klemperer

April 10, Sunday afternoon

The “election” today, the “Day of the Greater German Reich”. Yesterday evening pealing bells for a whole hour, mixed in with them, a roaring sound, evidently the radio transmission of the Vienna or Berlin bells. In addition the smoky red of the torchlight processions over the city, lights in windows even up here in our lonely place.

For some days now divine right has been given ever more prominence. Again and again in the newspaper: He is the instrument of Privdence – the hand that writes “no” will wither – the sacred election …. Large facsimile copies everywhere of the assent of the Austrian bishops. We think he will have himself crowned Emperor. In Christian fashion as the Anointed of the Lord. That made me for the first time ask myself the question, why the proclamation of the Emperor in Versailles (since Wilhelm I was truly a believer after all) took a completely secular form, as a purely political act. It’s not the answer (Wilhelm only felt himself to be King of Prussia by God’s grace, for him the Imperial title was an embarrassing political matter), that’s not what I find interesting here, but the question surfacing after I had taken the fact for granted for almost fifty years. I now so often ask myself questions about things (e.g., of a linguisting nature) that I took for granted for fifty years. The main thing for tyrannies of any kind is the suppression of the urge to ask questions. And it is so easy to do. If I, a professor, schooled in thinking all my life, have not asked myself so many and such obvious questions in the course of fifty years, how should the people hit on asking questions? One hardly even needs to force them to do the opposite.

On Thursday we had our spectacles checked by old Professor von Pflugk. We had not been to see him for a long time because he never sends a bill. He always receives us with cordial friendliness. It was the day after a Goebbels speech in Dresden (“The Conqueror of Berlin – our doctor – addresses 20,000 comrades of the people – tumultuous reception.” That and similar in the headlines). Pflugk glanced into the empty waiting room, took each of us by the arm, bent down and whispered, before anything else had been mentioned: “There was a patient here who saw Goebbels yesterday. In the midst of the silent, listening crowd someone shouted ‘Do you know what you are? You are scoundrels, all of you are scoundrels!’ Then two men seized him by the throat and dragged him out. For God’s sake don’t pass it on!” — In the evening I passed it on, of course, and, of course, told Natscheff in the lending library in just the same whisper. ‘We are a center of agitation here,” he told me, “you can’t imagine all the things people say here!” And immediately thereupon to a customer entering: “Heil Hitler!” — Pflugk then grumbled and complained vigorously. He had not been allowed to accept an invitation to the ophthalmologists’ congress in Cairo, he’s not trusted. He hears and sees so much that is dreadful and so much dissatisfaction. I said: “And on Sunday you’ll get your fifty million votes.” He, with emotion: “But I have to.” That’s just it: Everyone has to; half of them have been made stupid, and no one believes the ballot is secret, and everyone trembles.

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5 Responses to The Books: I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, by Victor Klemperer

  1. Marianne says:

    I remember reading one volume of his diaries, years ago! I remember being deeply moved. Klemperer’s diaries, with their absolute honesty (I remember, at one point, he was obssessing about a cat, and there were quite a few ridiculous domestic squabbles with his wife), made me see how individual the war experience was: of course, there was this one huge atrocity called the HOLOCAUST, with its millions of victims, but each fate had to be experienced individually, and without diaries like Klemperer’s, we wouldn’t have seen that.

    Thank you for reminding me about Klemperer. I was so moved.

  2. Paul H. says:

    Richard Evans in his three volume history of the Nazis (starting with the gripping “The Coming of the Third Reich”) draws heavily on Klemperer to illustrate the way in which the Nazis subverted then strangled German democracy. I hadn’t read the diaries them selves, but I’ve now added it to my Amazon wish list. I wasn’t aware of Klemperer’s linguistic work. Will have to check that one too.

    Also how awesome is the name Professor von Pflugk? Right out of Dr Strangelove.

  3. sheila says:

    Paul – while any eyewitness account is fascinating, what is really unique here is his linguistic project that he kept going under unbelievably difficult circumstances. I’m a language buff anyway (uhm – cows in Anglo-Saxon??) and he was, while it was happening, able to see the hijacking going on. His observations are incredible – and the book that he finally published on the subject (which has now been republished) is well worth a look!

  4. sheila says:

    Marianne – Ha, yes his relationship with Eva got a little bit tiresome. Lots of squabbles and complaining about their health, as I recall. I haven’t read the third volume yet – it’s enormous, and takes them through after the war ended.

  5. Marianne says:

    Well, all long marriages get tiresome, why should the war make people any less inclined to squabble :-)

    In fact, the personal anxieties made me appreciate the enormity of his effort, all the more. There’s a kind of heroism in just living.

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