For Holocaust Remembrance Day: Bear Witness

On May 27, 1942, a desperate and isolated Victor Klemperer, feeling the vice of Nazi terror closing in around him, helpless to stop it, declared in his journal: “I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!”

Victor Klemperer was a Jewish man who lived in Dresden with his German wife. His marriage kept him safe-(ish) for a time, but with the Nazi rise to power he lost his job, his livelihood, his community. The vice closed in on him. To stay or go was a constant question, but he and his wife were elderly, not in good health, and pretty isolated.

There are two volumes published of Klemperer’s journals, covering the tumultuous years of 1933 – 1945, titled I Will Bear Witness:

I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941
I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years

These books are essential reading. Klemperer and his wife did survive the war, but, remember: they lived in Dresden, so they had to survive the massive fire-ball as well. Keeping a journal – critical of the Nazis – was such a dangerous act that Klemperer had hiding places for it. He would pass off pages of it to German friends who hid them under floorboards. He broke the journal up into pieces, so that if there was a raid, only 1 or 2 pages would be discovered, not hundreds. Imagine the dogged determination of this man. Considering Dresden’s fate, it is incredible these journals survived the maelstrom at all.

Klemperer was an academic and an intellectual. Once he lost his job he had nothing to do, nowhere to go (the libraries, the universities now closed to him). So he set his mind and his attention to observing the approaching terror. He tried to analyze it AS it was happening. This is one of the reasons why these journals are so extraordinary. To keep your head – mostly – when an entire State – your own State, the place you call home – wants to kill you and your kind – and to decide, during the very worst of it: “Okay, so let’s try to analyze HOW they are doing this and WHY it works so well” – Well, it’s a hell of a thing. One way he kept himself sane was by analyzing how language – in newspapers, speeches, etc. – changed on almost a day to day basis. How the “newspeak” of the Nazis filtered down out of the political realm into ALL realms – advertisements for dances, for sporting matches, obituaries. Klemperer pored through newspapers, keeping a running tally, taking notes on shifts in language, wondering what it might signify, what was REALLY being said. The murderous dictatorship had so co-opted language that there was no language left for outside of the belief system. That’s how propaganda works. It’s a Bell Jar. Klemperer kept lists of words and terms and phrases beloved by the Nazis, and this list he referred to as “Language of the Third Reich.” (or, in its Latin initials: LTI, another way to ward off detection should his pages ever be discovered in a midnight raid). He hoped that maybe – one day – when the nightmare was over – he would publish his observations in a book. (And he did. Voila: Language of the Third Reich: LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii. In my opinion, that book is one of the most important books about propaganda ever written.)

Here is the entry in Victor Klemperer’s journal on March 10, 1933.

“Hitler Chancellor. What, up to election Sunday on March 5, I called terror, was a mild prelude. Now the business of 1918 is being exactly repeated, only under a different sign, under the swastika. Again, it’s astounding how easily everything collapses. What has happened to Bavaria, what has happened to the Reichsbanner, etc. etc.?

Eight days before the election the clumsy business of the Reichstag fire — I cannot imagine that anyone really believes in Communist perpetrators instead of paid [swastika sign] work. Then the wild prohibitions and acts of violence. And on top of that the neverending propaganda in the street, on the radio, etc. On Saturday the fourth, I heard a part of Hitler’s speech from Konigsberg. The front of a hotel at the railway station, illuminated, a torchlight procession in front of it, torchbearers and swastika flag bearers on the balconies and loudspeakers. I understood only words. But the tone! The unctuous bawling, truly bawling, of a priest. —

Yesterday the dramaturge Karl Wolf dismissed “by order of the Nazi party” — not even in the name of the government — today the whole Saxon cabinet, etc., etc. A complete revolution and party dictatorship. And all opposing forces as if vanished from the face of the earth. It is this utter collapse of a power only recently present, no, it’s complete disappearance (just as in 1918) that I find so staggering. Que sais-je?”

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7 Responses to For Holocaust Remembrance Day: Bear Witness

  1. Brooke A L says:

    Sheila, I’m so glad you wrote about this book – I’ve never heard of it, but glad you introduced me. I’ve been taking a history course on German history from 1871 to the present since September, and we’ve been discussing the Nazi regime for the last three classes. The last class we read an article about the Nazification of Christmas, because of course they Nazified everything. It was like a conflicting pastiche of long-held German romanticism/paganism, Christian xmas, and Nazi racism and ideology. Of course it is bizarre and makes no sense, but they found a way to make it overtly and subtly exclusionary while rewarding the haves and posturing as some altruistic father xmas’s. I also have to write a paper on that book I recommended you, Defying Hitler, and in light of this post, I think you will really enjoy it. He offers invaluable insight on how it all came to be. I still can’t get it out of my head. I underlined and starred so many sentences.

    Oooh also, I almost forgot…. we are reading Dispatches in my 20th Century history class (from a global perspective). After reading your post about it last year I mentally put it on my reading list, but it turns out I have to read it anyway so it’s a win-win. We have just read the first seventy pages, but I am looking forward to the rest. We also just finished Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Another important book for today. Again, so many passages I underlined, such great writing. An extraordinary person.

    • sheila says:

      I’m excited you’ll be reading Dispatches! You can smell the pot-smoke and jungle rot in his prose.

      // but they found a way to make it overtly and subtly exclusionary while rewarding the haves and posturing as some altruistic father xmas’s //

      Yes, the propaganda had to filter down TOTALLY. I think you will devour Klemperer’s books. The journals are horrifying since it’s this “slow creep” – everyone felt what was coming, particularly the Jews – but it was still a shock to the system. To keep your wits about you – like he did – to keep up his project of analyzing the language in the newspapers still published – a project he assumed he would die before completing – is just so admirable.

      Survival in Auschwitz. Wow. I think of the portraits of I think 3 fellow prisoners, maybe 4 – and how it was not “obvious” who would survive in the camps. Or who would – not “thrive” but adjust to the new rules. The law-abiding honorable ones on the outside didn’t fare as well as the ones who “got it” that it was now the law of the jungle. Of course, everyone died in the end anyway – but it was such interesting observations about the human personality under such extraordinary pressures.

  2. Brooke A L says:

    Sorry, I’m so glad you wrote about these books, plural. So lucky that we have them.

    • sheila says:

      We really are! It’s a miracle they survived! also that he actually did put it all into a scholarly linguistic book after the war – just fantastic.

  3. Clary says:

    Hi Shelia
    I’m also grateful you wrote about this book, it doesn’t matter how many years have passed, it’s always important to know how totalarianism works. How demented publicity can be printed in the public mind, in small ways even stronger than in the big announcements, because they permeate without too many filters: in language, in films, at the grocery.
    About his extraordinary feat of keeping the journal and distributing it a few pages at a time, I’m reminded of another feat of documenting horror, the Emil Ringelblum Archive, where he appointed a group at Warsaw Guetto to record how life was there, and the thousands of pages were hidden in milk cans. After the guetto was destroyed, some cans were found, with poetry, diaries, all kind of documents, concert invitations, etc. Wikipedia says some of the can are buried under the Chinese Embassy at Warsaw, but who knows?
    Thank you for showing us the many directions of your gaze.

    • sheila says:

      // After the guetto was destroyed, some cans were found, with poetry, diaries, all kind of documents, concert invitations, etc. //

      Incredible. I don’t know about that archive – I will check it out.

      It’s so important to keep your wits about you – I feel like that’s what Klemperer was doing. That’s what the people in the Warsaw Ghetto were doing. as well as saying: “We were here. This is what happened to us. Remember us.”

  4. Patsyann says:

    “Unctuous bawling”…my god.

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