Book review: Victor Meldrew goes to hell

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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE Victor Meldrew in the Third Reich. Imagine a grumpy middle- aged man with a frail wife, tormented by a sense of failure, worried about money, and bothered by real or imagined slights from colleagues. Imagine that very "English" cussedness turning into resilience, defiance and resourcefulness: the "Dunkirk spirit". Then you have another Victor: this one a professor of languages at the Dresden Technical University, coming to terms with Nazi rule in Germany.

Klemperer was the son of a Reform rabbi, but like his brothers converted to Christianity. He served Germany in the Great War, a true patriot. He married a non-Jew and settled down to a life in service of Kultur. His experiences, chronicled in his diary, answer many questions about the way German Jews responded to Nazi persecution, and why so many stayed to the bitter end.

Until Hitler's foreign policy triumphs in 1935-6, Klemperer was convinced the regime would collapse. Surveying the international outrage that greeted the boycott of Jewish shops he concluded "the Jewish business... will sink them". After Hitler engineered a massacre of rivals in July 1934, seen by historians as the consolidation of his power, Klemperer observed "They cannot survive this blow". It seemed unbelievable that Germans could swallow the twaddle dished up by Goebbels.

Not until 1937 did Klemperer accept with horror that "Hitlerism is after all more deeply and firmly rooted in the nation... than I would like to admit". This was crushing because it excluded him from the German people: "my inner sense of belonging is gone". But where else could he live? The practical obstacles to emigration were insuperable.

Klemperer only seriously considered emigration after the pogrom in November 1938. By then destinations such as Lima appeared attractive. But never Palestine: "In what way are the Zionists different from the Nazis?" He clung to a 19th-century idea of civic nationalism that accorded Jews equality with other citizens. In 1939 he defiantly declared "Liberal and German forever".

Assisted by his wife, Eva, he "dug in". He was dismissed from his job, so he worked on his publications at home. They took his telephone, so he bought a car to be able to travel and stay in touch with the diminishing circle of friends who would meet with a "non-Aryan". The company of anti- Nazi Catholics made up for the colleagues who cut him dead. Banned from the public library, he found a friendly bookseller.

The more the Nazis throw at him, the more he grows in stature. One cannot help admiring a man who coolly deals with the "council gardener" who (only in Germany) inspects the lawn for weeds and convicts him of horticultural turpitude. If the regime manufactured Jews, as he bitterly noted, with its petty acts of oppression, it also endowed them with nobility. "This sadistic machine simply rolls over us", but each time he picked himself up, dusted himself off and went back to his writing.

Klemperer's diary offers a superb evaluation of the mentality and conduct of ordinary Germans. The local policeman was apologetic when engaged in official acts of harassment. Party members who were courteous during business dealings simultaneously uttered anti-Jewish platitudes. Despite his isolation he always had "Aryan" contacts who supplied food or tobacco. They were hardly "willing executioners".

Only twice was he the victim of verbal abuse, each time from youngsters. During a spell in jail for breaching the blackout regulations, he was treated quite properly, even though he was being victimised on racial grounds.

Yet the noose of regulations tightened. In May 1940, the Klemperers were forced into a "Jews' House" in central Dresden. Though denied telephones, news about ghettos in Poland reached them. Indeed, the inhabitants of the "Jews' House" seemed to know more about the impending invasion of Russia than did Stalin. In August 1941, Jews were banned from buying tobacco and from emigrating. The former hurt Klemperer more than the latter. Soon, terrifying information arrived about the deportation of German Jews to Poland; but now there was no way out.

The imposition of the Yellow Star was shattering. Yet on one of his trips into town, marked as a Jude, he noted expressions of amity in the eyes of strangers and recorded: "There is no doubt that the people feel the persecution of the Jews to be a sin."

These diaries record Jews and Germans at their best and their worst. Klemperer is a brilliant guide to hell whose fastidious attention to civic virtues and human decency, analytical lucidity and candour exemplify the European culture the Nazis wanted to destroy - but never could.

The reviewer is Director of the Wiener Library and Professor of Modern Jewish History at Southampton University

David Cesarani