Diary of the Nazi Years

I’m reading the 1933-1945 diaries of Victor Klemperer, a German academic of Jewish descent. Though a Christian for practical purposes, Klemperer’s “ethnic” Judaism and his detailed, personal writing make his writing compelling.

I read this for the same reasons that I’ve read the diaries of Anne Frank (Holocaust victim), Willy Reese (German solider on the Russian front), and Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (Prussian aristocrat).

I read it for the same reasons I read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the diaries of Josef Stalin’s daughter.

I read it for the same reasons that I’ve read the diaries and memoirs of conscientious objectors, anarchists,  civil rights martyrs, and labor agitators.

If, dear reader, you’d like to see a list of books I’ve read, you can do that here: GoodReads

Klemperer is 52 in 1933. He’s a veteran of brief frontline service during World War I and a career academic who focuses on Romance languages. His wife, Eva, is in poor health and much of the entries from 1933-35, aside from the horror of Hitler’s easy ascension to power, focus on Klemperer’s exhaustion in trying to be both caregiver and academic.

He hates cleaning out the “cat box” but he and his wife nonetheless find joy in their tomcats. They dream of moving out of their apartment and into a home of their own but are continually caught up in financial and legal struggles.

Adolf Hitler, 44, was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 by President Hindenburg. Hitler had lost to Hindenburg in the Presidential election in April 1932 but the Nazi party itself continued to win pluralities in the Reichstag (German parliament), and so Hindenburg was convinced by others to appoint Hitler.

In February 1933, Hindenburg ageees to suspend some civil liberties after communists (the primary opponents of the Nazi party) supposedly set fire to the Reichstag. Klemperer, in his entry for 10 March 1933, is hardly convinced:

Eight days before the election the clumsy business of the Reichstag fire-I cannot image that anyone really believes in Communist perpetrators instead of paid Nazi work. Then the wild prohibition and acts of violence. And on top of that the never ending propaganda in the street, on the radio, etc.

The March elections result in the Nazis still being unable to gain a majority in the Reichstag despite their use of paramilitary intimidation and violence in the days preceding the vote.

Still, the Nazis gain more seats than any other party. Klempeper notes that the Nazis promise that “no harm will come to loyal Jews. Directly afterward the Central Association of Jewish Citizens in Thuringia is banned because it had criticized the government in ‘Talmudic fashion’ and disparaged it” (10 March 1933).

On 23 March  1933, the Enabling Act is passed in the Reichstag, granting Hitler the ability to enact laws without input of the parliament. The repression of communist parties had already begun by this point, and the Nazi paramilitary SA and SS are present to intimidate members of the Reichstag before and during the vote.

Hindenburg signs this decree.

On May 13, Klemperer writes that he and Eva met with a man named Tannenberg who they hope can help them in securing money to build their dream home.

Tannenburg tells them that he joined the Nazis before the seizure of power but that he now:

…sees mismanagement, ill-feeling, catastrophe can no longer be far away. He condemned the lack of proportion of the anti-Semitism, he maintained that only the subordinate leaders were still using it for incitement, at the top they were already tryting to calm things down…

Despite the atmosphere in Germany, the Klemperer’s are constantly hosting friends. One friend, Jelski:

…now 67, has retired and is taking a cure in Johannisbad. I had an impression of considerable senility. Out of a certian contrariness and childish pleasure in dispassionate objectivity, he sympathizes with Hitler. After all he has achieved a great deal for the nation as a whole, he is a ‘demon’ – of course, the racial ideology is wrong, but the Jews are not blameless (13 June 1934).

President Hindenburg dies on 2 August 1934, and Hitler very quickly combines the offices of President and Chancellor into one office: Führer (German for “leader”).

Klemperer writes:

…everything is completely calm. Our butcher says indifferently: ‘Why vote first? It just costs a lot of money.’ The people hardly notice this complete coup d’etat, it all takes place in silence, drowned out by hymns to the dead Hindenburg. I would swear that millions upon millions have no idea what a monstrous thing has occurred (4 August 1933).

Rumors of Hitler’s imminent fall from power punctuate entries from 1933 to 1935. Later in his entry from 4 August 1933, however, Klemp admits that they had “always placed hopes in the Reichswehr (German defense forces); Johannes Köhler had told us long ago, as a confirmed rumor, that it was only waiting for the imminent death of Hindenburg to act. And now it calmly gives its oath to the new ‘Commander-in-Chief…”

This pattern repeats throughout Klemperer’s diaries from this period: the hope that the League of Nations, the German Army, another political party, etc. will be an obstacle to Hitler’s opportunistic but not incredibly cunning rise to power.

Klemperer’s friend, Dember “says we all have an ’emigrant mentality,’ we hope for deliverance from abroad, i.e., for German defeat, invasion, etc.” (30 June 1934).

On that same day, Hitler orders the murder of SA leadership by the SS, fearing that the SA had become too powerful. While at first this infighting seems to promise Hitler’s downfall, it becomes apparent that this is not the case.

Another instance of hoping against hope occurs when Klemperer, now living in the “dream home” with Eva, greets an old friend, an opthamalogist, passing by in street who tells Klemperer that “all his patients, from the most various circles, are as incensed as he. He no longer believes it will last long” (4 November 1934).

Again, on 20 November 1934, the Klemperer’s have afternoon coffee with friends who are “all embittered, all convinced that it is coming to an end, each one knows of jokes, rumors, and preparations.”

Still, by December, there seems to be more pessimism.

No one feels certain of his own opinion. Everyone feels a need to exchange opinions, because nothing at all can be learned from the newspapers anymore. Most repulsive to me is the specific Jewish pessimism with its self-satisfied composure, the ghetto spirit reawakened. They’re kicking us, that’s just how it is. If we can just get on with business and if there’s no pogrom. Rather Hitler than someone worse! (30 December 1934)

Some Jews are leaving for Palestine, though Klemperer has an interesting take on Zionism and the idea of the Jewish homeland, writing: “I cannot help myself, I sympathize with the Arabs who are in revolt there, whose land is being ‘bought.’ A Red Indian fate, says Eva” (2 November 1934).

At another point Klemperer writes that “anyone who goes [to Palestine from Germany] exchanges nationalism and narrowness for nationalism and narrowness” (9 July 1934).

For his own part, Klemperer sees no opportunity for himself abroad. He “cannot even be a language teacher, only lecture on the history of ideas, and only in German and from a completely German perspective. I must live here and die here” (9 July 1934).

One of the most lasting impressions I have from reading 1933-1935 is that no one is a Nazi, yet everyone is a Nazi.

People don’t much care for the goofy salute, the goofy patriotic songs, the goofy-mustached dictator. And yet –

On 30 December 1934, Klemperer writes that one of his students has a brother who is in the SS:

“And why the SS?”

“He has to be part of something, every Tom, Dick and Harry is in the HJ (Hitler Youth), so in his mounted section he has his own horse and learns how to ride.”

“Is his heart in it?”

“Not a bit of it…but he has to.”

March 4, 1935: “The people obviously anti-Nazi, but infinitely timid and reserved. The general political mood: a dull yielding, a despondent waiting without hope.”


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