Victor Klemperer, the German-Jewish academic who chronicled everyday life in Hitler’s Germany


Victor Klemperer was a German-Jewish academic whose survival of the Hitler years made possible his unique and irreplaceable testimony. Through 1931-1945 he kept detailed diaries of daily life in Dresden. There were sketches of a few friends who became Nazi enthusiasts. Those he wouldn’t meet again. Some turned from Hitlerism to Communism, and Klemperer found them misguided. A few others, like himself and his wife Eva, quietly held out against the ideological pressures of the era. How did they manage it? Eva was Aryan, but even so. Both it seems survived by the skin of their teeth.

By 1934 the professor of Romance studies at the university of Dresden succumbed to raising his right arm in greeting and saying ‘Heil!’ to colleagues. But he swallowed the name of Hitler. He and Eva bravely voted ‘no’ in the August 1934 plebiscite when the Führer asked the German people to accept him as what he had already declared himself to be, Germany’s absolute leader. He would be Chancellor and President, now that the old and infirm outgoing President Hindenburg, for months reduced to a puppet figure, had finally died.

Victor was by the way a cousin of the famous classical music conductor Otto Klemperer, magnificent interpreter of Beethoven, who had already fled Nazi Germany. Victor, with his constant money worries and his deep attachment to his job and his way of life, stayed. His early diaries are full of political and personal worries as he comes more and more under Nazi pressure. From year to year they spell out in rapid succession how Victor loses his job and his right to use libraries. When the Klemperers are confined to a succession of ‘Jew Houses’ their story seems to demonstrate something of what Hannah Arendt meant when, in connection with the Nazi phenomenon, she wrote of  ‘the banality of evil’. As the days and years pass we watch how this once affluent bourgeois couple, who for much of the early diaries are building a house and motoring about in a new car, are forced into humiliating racial house arrest under a regime that despises them. It is a story that deserves dramatic treatment in its own right, not least because of its unradical, unheroic beginning in ordinary middle-class affluent life.

The Klemperers’ Nazi persecution ends dramatically the night the Allies bomb Dresden, one of Germany’s most beautiful and historic cities, southeast of Berlin. After this so-called Baedeker Raid (the Nazis had long been targeting historic city centres in England) Dresden burned all night. In the small hours the no longer young Klemperers became separated and thought the other one lost. Still they survived to live out the natural span of their

Dresden, where Klemperer was reinstated at the university postwar, was in eastern Germany, and so after 1945 their new country became the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). That’s why the diaries for so long remained unknown. All through the Communist years Klemperer’s 5,000 typed pages lay untouched in Dresden’s Saxony Regional Library (Sächsische Landesbibliothek). The collapse of Communism in the East Bloc late in 1989 finally gave historians access. A first edition of the 1933-45 diaries appeared in 1995, and a revised and annotated second edition in 1999. The material was so important that translations immediately followed. Klemperer’s companion study of the language of the Hitler years, Lingua Tertii Imperii, came out in English in 1997, and the abridged diaries edited by Martin Chalmers in 2000. The postwar diaries have since also appeared.

My topic here is only the first German volume of the diaries covering January to December 1933-34, and all the translations that follow are mine. I’ve been reading it to feel my way into the daily life of a German university academic with a liberal political disposition and a sharply critical mind, as he witnesses his country’s culture of the last century and a half crumble overnight. In his view, and no one would think he was exaggerating, his countrymen have become beasts. The very first word of the first entry, on Saturday 14 January 1933, leaps from the page. Rektorwahl, it says.  A new Rektor (the prominent representative position known in English universities as that of the Vice-Chancellor) is to be elected at Dresden University. It’s a stitch-up, Klemperer reckons, but not yet one that favours a Nazi candidate. For that the German universities will have to wait another two months, for Hitler’s full accession to power. But for anyone who knows the period it’s exactly what that word Rektorwahl unwittingly anticipates. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer, the first Jewish Rektor of a German university ever, was poised to be dismissed from his post in Hamburg and chased out of the country in April 1933. Meanwhile his great philosophical opponent Martin Heidegger would become Rektor in Freiburg am Breisgäu in May, joining the Nazi Party along the way. Heidegger would remain German, but at the price of never returning to the university to teach and being posthumously outlawed by the liberal world. Such were the fates of university professors in Germany. They either chose, and in Heidegger’s case made a colossal error,  or they had their position chosen for them, by their ethnicity.

It was in this climate that Klemperer kept a record of the daily press, and the gossip, and his wife’s troubled health, and the declining numbers of his students – on some days just two or three. The diaries are a gripping, if sometimes repetitive compilation of life stories, daily events and whatever this consummate intellectual is trying to find time to write and read. He was a passionate lover of the French eighteenth century. The climate of fear forces him to know who he is. On 9 July 1933 he writes: ‘For my part I can see ever more clearly what a useless creation of High Culture I am, unable to live in more primitive environments. [The names of friends and colleagues] can find their bread here and there and somehow reinvent themselves in the practical sphere. But I by contrast can’t even be a language teacher, I can only lecture in intellectual history, and only in the German language and in a wholly German way. I have to live here and die here.’

I want to know how that German High Culture collapsed, in detail, and how philosophy, and philosophers, were caught in the disaster. ‘Jews should write Hebrew, not German,’ says a poster Klemperer spots on the wall of the Student Building at the University (April 25, 1933). ‘When they write German they lie.’ In fact, as the Nazis would find to their irritation, the German culture they claimed as their own was being maintained through the brilliant expertise of German Jewish scholars in every field. In the forefront of philosophy and the higher journalism were Cassirer, for instance, and the even better known names of the philosopher Edmund Husserl, the philosopher, sociologist and musicologist Theodor Adorno, and the journalist and essayist Siegfried Krakauer. Walter Benjamin, with his essays on literature, and on the new media, his memoirs and his street pictures, was emerging as a German genius sui generis. Klemperer for his part is left staring at the poster on the wall. ‘I make a note of only the most brutal things, just fragments of madness, in which we are immersed over and over.’ Almost every day as he takes in the latest news he speculates whether Hitler’s power can last, for how long, and whether, as his neighbours think in ’33, the French might come to Germany’s rescue. It is a time of febrile uncertainty, in which, as if in times of greater normality, Eva, a talented concert pianist who has given up her career, is simply chronically ill with her nerves, and the childless couple with their two cats decide on a house-building project in the countryside which might help her pull through.

It’s in these times that Klemperer also turns his observations on his fellow Jews, and not always with sympathy.

15 September, 1933: ‘The position that Gerstle has taken up displeased me. He seems almost to have reconciled himself with the situation, at least he was divinely respectful, declaring Hitler a genius; he didn’t want to underestimate his opponent and considered the present state of affairs evidently by far not the worst of the awful states of affairs possible, etc.’ The same Gerstle offends again on 9 October, along with friend Blumenfeld who declares that ‘one can’t live off wish-dreams’ and ‘must keep one’s feet on the ground of facts.’ The wife of a third acquaintance, ‘ an eternal silly goose’, has been so taken in by the newspapers and the radio that she can only ‘parrot’ statements about the ‘system which had to collapse and has now been overcome.’ ‘Eva’s bitterness is even greater than mine,’ Klemperer notes. ‘National Socialism, she says, more precisely: the way the Jews are behaving towards it, is making her anti-semitic.’ For the Klemperers all Germans have a duty to hate Hitler (22.10.1933) and never for an hour to let that hatred sleep. A year later and Victor is furious this is not what is happening at all: ‘What I hate above all is the specific Jewish pessimism with its amiable self-certainty. [It’s the] ghetto mentality, freshly awoken. We get kicked, that’s how things are. If only we could get on with our business, and [if only] no pogrom comes. Better Hitler than someone worse! Recently an evening with Mrs Schnaps was awful in this way. And the Blumenfelds are in their element with it and think just the same.’  (30 December 1934)

Still, the problem is this monstrously irrational and murderous National Socialism. The Germans, with their great Kultur: how could they turn on the Jews like this? How could they fall prey to a regime of illiterates and a demented leader? One of Klemperer’s persistent themes is the general atmosphere surrounding Nazism, of dumming down coupled with a vicious anti-intellectualism and a campaign against higher education. Can culture, can spirit (Geist) ever fight back, he wonders at one point. As university students are diverted from learning into ideological campaign work and academic timetables are curtailed to make way for more ‘sport in the service of the Reich’ (9 October 1933 and 9 November 1933) he concludes that the Nazis, as they continue to defame the values of intellect and of higher education, count on the primitivism and the stupidity of people  (1 August 1934) to make a stupid insensitive Germany happen. His question, the question German historians would have to ask themselves for decades to come after Hitler’s defeat, is, already formulated on  14 July 1934: how can a European people do this? And the mass slaughter of the Jews is yet to come.

Another theme of the diary of the first two years is the similarity between Hitlerism, Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism and Zionism. Repeatedly Klemperer notes the similarities between totalitarian regimes. He is also no friend of Palestine, the future Israel, where friends are emigrating. ‘Anyone who goes there is exchanging nationalism and narrowness for nationalism and narrowness. It’s a land of immigration for capitalists. It’s said to be about the size of the province of East Prussia. Inhabitants: 200,000 Jews and 800,000 Arabs.’ (9 July 1933)

Since I’m trying to feel my way into the daily German life that was the backcloth to a huge upheaval in German philosophy, I can’t help noticing where Klemperer overlaps with thinkers in almost all camps. (Even Heidegger observed the stupidity of the Nazis which repelled him.) Klemperer is a liberal, but there is more to the German crisis than adhering to a recognized political position. There is for instance the day he sits down and starts reading Ernst Cassirer’s last published work in Germany, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which will quietly echo his own consternation and misery that German culture, the creation of Goethe and Schiller and Kant and Lessing, came come to this. In a different vein his constant monitoring of the ideological misuse of the relatively new medium of the wireless, of the newspapers and of the propaganda machine that uses the techniques from marketing and advertising, has to remind us of Benjamin and Krakauer. Krakauer had been making similar observations in Frankfurt until he lost his job at the Frankfurter Zeitung after March 1933. A culture which couldn’t withstand ideological manipulation by a dictatorship was also the exact jumping-off point for Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’. Adorno and Horkheimer had meanwhile been studying mass media and totalitarianism in both Germany and  America for years when they wrote, in 1944, their Dialectic of Enlightenment. Like Benjamin and Adorno and Horkheimer the refined and learned Victor Klemperer, who published books on Voltaire and Montesquieu and many other eighteenth-century French literary themes, felt himself ‘entdeutscht, innerlich entwürdigt und ganz resigniert’ (5 April 1934). With the rise of Hitler he’d had ‘his Germanness taken away, he was inwardly degraded and completely resigned.’ As these terrific minds fell to different fates, the new philosophy in the making, much of it now written in flight and in exile, was poised to change the twentieth century once it recovered from war.

Intellectually the philosophers had to make up their minds with regard to Germany’s great Enlightenment inheritance. It was specifically the German Aufklärung they addressed, which Cassirer had newly defined. The Aufklärung meant two hundred years of progress in European thought in which the individualism of the Renaissance came to coexist in productive tension with the rigour of the scientific spirit and a new historical conciousness. Through Leibniz and Kant this tension was finally resolved, Cassirer suggested, in a modern, progressive doctrine of individual freedom and dignity. This was  German Idealism in its classical (Kantian) form, and Cassirer saw it as a kind of philosophical maturing of Protestantism to serve a new spiritual secularism. The German Enlightenment, he rightly noted, had retained, within the scope its rational inquiry many of the psychological, moral and spiritual concerns that had once been the province of the church, and that made it less one-sided than the more mechanistic and materialistic versions of the Enlightenment that happened in France and England.

Cassirer and Husserl would retain their faith in this liberal European German spirit they believed offered a great universal example of what a modern civilization could be. They felt that the German mind was at its finest when it was European, in contrast to the primitive nationalism to which it had now regressed. Klemperer in his diaries was perhaps more pessimistic, wrapped up in his own fate, trying to stay alive while he watched a great culture disappear. But one feels all these men of the 1920s and 1930s were expressing something that Europe still struggles to hold on to today.

For Benjamin and Adorno,  German Jews of a younger generation, however, there was simply no chance of a return to the cultural past. Even as Benjamin was working out how to move on from Idealism, and considering what comfort he might find for himself in a specifically Jewish spirituality, he was on the run from the Nazis and killed himself rather than be captured on the Franco-Spanish border. Adorno and Horkheimer had prudently left for America six years earlier, and Columbia University was providing a home for the Frankfurt School of Social Research, even as, in 1940, the Klemperers were being ghetto-ized in Dresden. The direction in philosophy the Frankfurt School would stimulate would call itself critical theory, and much of the trauma of the era would feed into a postmodernism that undermined the persistent Europeanism of the old humanists.

It is an extraordinary story, to follow German philosophy at once at a theoretical level and at the same time on the level of everyday life in the Hitler years, and continuing postwar, and it’s the work I’m embarking on this year. In time I’ll be reading all the Klemperer diaries. Victor kept them almost until his death in 1960, aged 79. This is the first therefore of a several essays to come.

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