As Europe comes together again, one last look back

The division of Europe began at the very moment of Germany's defeat in May 1945
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As we celebrate the unification of Europe with the admission of eight former Soviet Bloc countries into the European Union and sing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", let us cast one last backward glance. The division of Europe began at the very moment of Germany's defeat by the Allies in May 1945. I have been reading a moving account of those days, the diary kept by Victor Klemperer, published in an abridged English edition by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Klemperer, a former professor of French literature, was one of the few Jews to survive 12 years of Nazi government. He lived in Dresden until the city was fire bombed.

The day before the destruction of Dresden in February, 1945, Klemperer received news that most of the remaining Jews were to present themselves early in the morning wearing working clothes. They should bring hand luggage and provisions for two to three days' travel. No allowance was made for old age or youth "not for seventy, not for seven". Everybody understood it would be a death march.

Klemperer and his wife, Eva, who was not Jewish, sat down for coffee in the evening "very weary and depressed". Then an air raid warning sounded. "If only they would smash everything up" remarked one of their friends. Suddenly the cellar window bust open and outside "it was bright as day". Someone shouted "incendiary bomb, we have to put it out". The burning of Dresden had begun. But rather than undertake their deadly journey, the Jews who survived could escape.

A few days later, Klemperer wrote that "I am again and again concerned about the double danger". On the one hand, the bombs and the approaching Russians; on the other hand the yellow star which Jews were compelled to wear prominently. Hesitantly he took it off. To do so was an offence punishable by death. But with the star he would immediately be picked out and killed. So the Klemperers began a dangerous journey towards Munich.

Germany had not yet lost the war. Hitler proclaimed once again that he intended to rout the "Jewish-Bolshevik plague". Goebbels said on the radio that "we shall coldly and calmly put a rope round the neck" of anybody who tries to sabotage us. The Klemperers were told that a peasant had removed a bazooka from his house and thrown it into the river. The mayor and his assistant interceded for the peasant but the SS hanged all three for betraying the interests of the fatherland.

Yet a few days later, on 30 April, Hitler committed suicide. On the same day, Klemperer wrote: "we know nothing at all ... no electricity current ... no wireless. We have not yet seen Americans face to face, neither tanks, nor men, nor decrees." They were worn out by the misery of their situation. Then finally, on 2 May, they found an American unit outside a village church. They pressed on to Munich more cheerfully. But there they were to be disillusioned. Everything was destroyed. "A blue-grey thundery sky contrasted with the grey-whiteness of the ruined city." Klemperer began to think that a Last Judgement was imminent. The Americans were "continually racing through the dust, the ruins, the sound of the storm".

It was these cars, he added, which made the picture of hell complete. "They are the angels of judgement."And he added: "we the liberated creep along on foot, we stoop down for the (Americans') cigarette ends, we, who only yesterday were the oppressed, and who today are called the liberated, are likewise imprisoned and humiliated". He rejoiced in God's vengeance on the henchmen of the Third Reich, yet he found it "dreadful now to see the ... avengers racing through the city which they have so hellishly wrecked".

The Klemperers turned back towards Dresden even though it had been taken by the Russians. It was, Klemperer wrote, almost a crazy enterprise to want to cover 200 to 250 miles more or less on foot. Some 13 days later they crossed into the Russian zone. Then sitting in an inn waiting for transport to Dresden, a Russian captain came up to speak to him. A Baltic German translated. When had Klemperer "come to Germany"? It took a long time before he could get the Russian to understand that his family had been living in Germany for 200 years.

Back in Dresden, the Klemperers found their house not much damaged. After much indecision - Russia? the USA? Democracy? Communism? Unpolitical? Professor Emeritus? - they made up their minds. They joined the Communist Party. Klemperer was able to resume the career from which he had been forcibly "retired" in 1935. But later that year he finds himself gazing up at a picture of Marshall Stalin. "It could just as well be Herman Goering" he commented.

The division of Europe had commenced. The appropriate music is another Beethoven work, the opera Fidelio, the end of the first act when the prisoners emerge from gaol, full of hope, blinking into the sunlight, only shortly afterwards to be sent back to their dark dungeons again.

Comments