Books: Not like Otto

I SHALL BEAR WITNESS: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1933-41, trs Martin Chalmers Weidenfeld pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
VICTOR KLEMPERER was born in 1881, the youngest son of a rabbi whose Judaism was so liberal as to approximate Protestantism. Indeed, the eldest son Georg, a noted surgeon, once described himself as "the son of a country cleric" without too much violence to the facts. With doctor and lawyer older siblings, and a conducting cousin called Otto, Victor was something of a family disappointment. He dropped out of a school to export trinkets to English seaside resorts, resuming his studies at university by specialising in Romance languages and literature, an unwise career move in a culture which associated French with rationalist superficiality.

For years Klemperer worked as a freelance writer and journalist. Following service in the Great War, he qualified as an academic, taking up a chair in Romance studies at the Technical University in Dresden, an undistinguished post he held until his compulsory dismissal in 1935. Both his war service and his marriage to an "Aryan", the musician Eva Klemperer, enabled him to avoid deportation until the dying days of the war, a fate he narrowly eluded when the British incinerated Dresden, unintentionally allowing the Klemperers to flee. Long convinced of the fundamental identity of Communism and Nazism ("both are materialistic and tyrannical, both disregard and negate the freedom of the spirit and of the individual"), Klemperer nonetheless resumed an academic career in East Germany, where in 1960, aged 79, he died of a heart attack.

Although there are other diaries kept by Jewish people persecuted by the National Socialists, Klemperer's are the most detailed and revealing we have. Written concurrently with such projects as a history of 18th- century French letters, Klemperer's account aimed to record feelings, moods, transient fears and hopes, as well as the quotidian indignities to which he and his wife were subjected. His samplings of the bastardisation and brutalisation of language under Nazism were also working notes for a future study of the dictatorship's obsession with acronyms and neologisms, which subsequently appeared as Lingua tertii imperii, a title itself sardonically abbreviated to LTI. Thus, on 12 September 1934 he noted:

When he spoke to youth in Nuremberg, Hitler also said: "You sing songs together." Everything is aimed at deafening the individual in collectivism. In general pay attention to the role of radio! Not like other technical achievements: new contents, new philosophy. But: new style. Printed matter suppressed. Oratorical, oral. Primitive - at a higher level.

Apart from the pervasive fear, Klemperer's diaries are essentially a commentary on the shocking realisation that to imagine "the 20th century and Mitteleuropa was different from the 14th century and Romania" was a "Mistake". Although Klemperer "truly always felt a German", he was forced to recognise that "Everything I considered un-German, brutality, injustice, hypocrisy, mass suggestion to the point of intoxication, all of it flourishes here."

His views on whether this was acquired or innate oscillated rather more than those tempted to use his diaries to prove either case acknowledge. If on the one hand he wrote that: "the friction between Jew and Aryans was not half as great as that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers and employees or between East Prussians, for example, and southern Bavarians or Rhinelanders and Bavarians. The German Jews were part of the German nation, as the French Jews were a part of the French nation," he also wrote: "I believe ever more strongly that Hitler really does embody the soul of the German people, that he really stands for `Germany' and that he will consequently maintain himself and justifiably maintain himself. Whereby I have not only outwardly lost my Fatherland. And even if the government should change one day: my inner sense of belonging is gone."

He was witheringly contemptuous of "the people's chancellor" with his unctuous, revivalist-preacher manner, but at the same time ready to recognise that the democratic Weimar Republic had failed precisely in this respect: "the Republic was all too Protestant; it relied far too much on the intellect and despised the senses, it overestimated the people. With the present government the opposite is the case, and it exaggerates this opposite to the point of absurdity." With Klemperer, there are morals for everyone, even when these are uncomfortable for conventional opinion.

But Klemperer's diaries are not primarily concerned with the political currents of the day, let alone with dissecting the German mind or national character. They are a prosaic record of lectures delivered to audiences diminishing to single figures long before his peremptory dismissal in May 1935. Painstakingly typed "SOS calls" winged their way, along with his CV and list of publications, to ever more improbably exotic locations. Replies were few. He bravely learned to drive when no longer young, eventually savouring the experience, until in December 1938, the driving licences of Jews were revoked on the grounds that Jews were "unreliable", while their presence on motorways was an affront, since these were "built by German workers' hands". Other distinguishing features of a comfortable middle-class life were erased. Being over 46 years of age, the Klemperers' cleaner of 11 years' standing was theoretically entitled to stay in their employ - there was little risk of "racial defilement" - but the woman was told that "your son will not get his promotion in the Labour Service, and your daughter ... will lose her post, if you do not give up this work" and so she left.

With the public space polluted by noxious anti-Semitic posters and beastly rantings, the interior space was no longer sacrosanct. First came policemen seeking Klemperer's wartime sabre or a souvenir bayonet long lost in the attic; then Gestapo men rooted around in his library to "safeguard", ie confiscate, valuable first editions. In April 1940, the Klemperers, he now officially dubbed Victor-Israel, were forced to sub-let their villa and move into two rooms in a multiple-occupancy "Jews' House". Close proximity bred endless fractious scenes between the occupants. Eva slid into apathy and depression, mechanically playing incessant games of patience instead of music or reading. "She looks very pale, has lost weight. I am deeply depressed." She had lost three stone, he one, through a combination of worry and poor food. In July 1941, Klemperer spent a week in prison for offences against the blackout, an experience which prompted moving reflections on their 37 years of married life.

Release brought no relief. In mid-September 1941, compulsory Stars of David had to be worn on the outer clothing, each star costing a small fee. Klemperer plucked up the courage to venture out in this attire, on foot, since Jews were banned from trams. The ambiguities of German attitudes to Jews now had a symbolic focus. Hitler Youth urchins cried out: "A yid, a yid!" But in a nursery where Klemperer went to purchase sand for Muschel the cat, a workman said: "You, mate, do you know Herrschmann? - No? - He's a Jew too, porter like me - I just wanted to say: It doesn't matter about the star, we're all human beings, and I know such good Jews." And Klemperer's comment? "Such consolation is not very cheering either. But which is the true vox populi?" Together with the next volume covering the period of "deep war" and racial extermination, the Klemperer diaries advance both our intimate understanding of the Third Reich and how that last question might be answered.