I Will Bear Witness:
A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941

519 pages,
ISBN: 0375756973

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Deutsche Frage - Legislating Race in the Third Reich
by Norman Ravvin

As it seems to do every few years, the Holocaust has returned to public consciousness following three troubling developments.

The threat of class action suits against the largest German industrial corporations has led to the creation of a substantial fund to compensate slave labourers. This covers a different category of victim than has received reparations to date; in this case, large numbers of Poles, Jews, and other camp inmates are entitled to receive monies for being forced to work under terrible conditions in support of the German war effort. Public and political responses to the plan have generated a good deal of ugly rhetoric in Germany.

On a less weighty, but still unsettling, note, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful has just won the Academy Award for best foreign film. (It was nominated in the best film category as well.) One has to come to terms with the baffling popularity of this film-made by a great comic artist-which suggests, however light-handedly, that it might have been a nifty idea to joke one's way through internment in a concentration camp. There are moments in Life is Beautiful that are reminiscent of Hogan's Heroes, when Germans are made to look like hapless buffoons, and Benigni's character, through his superior sense of fun, seems to rule the camp.

In Germany, a quieter phenomenon, which has had an impact on North American readers, is the popularity of Victor Klemperer's I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years. Klemperer, a literary scholar and academic of some renown in prewar Europe, was a Dresdener Jew whose marriage to a non-Jew gave him certain protection in the early years of the Nazi regime. In short order, the Diary gives us a sense of the power of humour as a tool of rebellion under Hitler: in 1934, a non-Jewish acquaintance of Klemperer's was sentenced to ten months in prison for telling a joke depicting Hitler in conversation with Moses.

Klemperer's Diary opens as the author is in danger of losing his teaching post, and he and his wife, Eva, watch with growing alarm as friends and relatives emigrate to England, South Africa, Latin America, and the United States. Here the Diary offers a portrait of the early years of Hitler's rule, which most of us know little about: the years when the Nazi regime was consolidating power, when the outcome of their Jew-baiting, their war-mongering, their assault on all forms of German democratic society, was still unclear.

Klemperer's reaction to these early years are characteristic of a particular kind of German Jew: he is unwilling to accept that his threatened dismissal might be based on his "non-Aryan" heritage, and he dwells instead on the way that new educational edicts have caused the enrollment in his courses to dwindle. He is insistent that his Germanness cannot be denied by Nazi edict, and he is angry and uncomfortable when Nazism causes some of his friends to embrace their Jewish identity. Of one confidant he writes that he was shocked at "the extent to which everything German has fallen away from her and how she can only, and wants only, to look at the whole situation from a Jewish standpoint. `You may persuade yourself that you are German-I can no longer do so.' Then the horrible ghetto oppressiveness."

Klemperer has no sympathy for colleagues and friends who embrace Zionism, since for him, those "who want to go back to the Jewish state of A.D. 70 (destruction of Jerusalem by Titus), are just as offensive as the Nazis. With their nosing after blood, their ancient `cultural roots,' their partly canting, partly obtuse winding back of the world they are altogether a match for the National Socialists."

I quote from these irascible sections of Klemperer's Diary because they are indicative of the writer's extremely troubled sense of his own identity. It is only when racial laws have changed his life-proscribing practice by Jewish professionals, banning "extra-marital intercourse between Jews and `Germans'"-that he admits that "the Jewish dream of being German has been a dream after all."

The tenacity with which Klemperer holds to his sense of his German identity, and his disgust with the efforts of Jews to realign themselves with Jewish causes, put the popularity of the Diary in Germany in a suspicious light. Klemperer's translator, Martin Chambers, tells us in his preface that since 1995 the Diary has become "for the German reading public at large... one of the key works through which the Third Reich and the murder of the Jews is understood." Like Anne Frank's diary and the play based upon it, Klemperer's writing is a curious text from which to understand "the murder of the Jews". Like Anne, Klemperer writes at a remove from the actual acts of murder, and views himself as Jewish only when the Nazis give him no other choice.

What can we learn from I Will Bear Witness? As its translator says, it chronicles "the progressive elimination of every private space..., the step-by-step humiliation of Jewry and the abuse in the streets." Klemperer is also an acute reader of acts of bad faith, of illogic, and of self-mystification, which friends and strangers alike resort to in an attempt to accept Germany under Hitler. Again and again, acquaintances suggest that the only alternative they can imagine to Nazism is Bolshevism, which they view as more barbaric than their home-grown brand of tyranny.

Klemperer's love of language leads him to catalogue Nazi abuses of language and the effect of propaganda on the national consciousness. He is quick to compare Hitler's speechifying to the "voice of a fanatical preacher"; in Goebbels' propaganda, he hears a parody of the "language of the Gospels"; and in the everyday speech of passersby, he recognizes the ways in which Nazi language influences German attitudes.

There is a great deal of attention paid in the Diary to both Klemperers' health complaints, to Eva's desire at all costs to finish a little house they are building on the outskirts of Dresden, and to the awful luck and momentary exhilarations brought about by the purchase of their first car. Klemperer, it seems, never stops bumping into fence posts, stalling out on busy streets, and running out of notoriously expensive gasoline. Eventually, the Klemperers are forced to rent out their house and move into a "Jews' House", where the remaining Jews in the area are forced to room together.

Eva and Victor survived the fire bombing of Dresden and stayed on in Germany after the war. Victor Klemperer died in 1960, having led a productive scholarly life, and was buried in Dölzschen, the suburb of Dresden where he and Eva weathered the assault on the Jews of Europe.

This is by no means a typical European-Jewish life of the war years, and one might argue that it is an odd example by which to try to grasp the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. The Diary depicts the life of a thoughtful, at times self-pitying, scholar under great emotional strain, whose modesty and attachment to his homeland made it impossible for him to imagine leaving. In early 1936, thinking of a successful brother who has fled to America, Victor Klemperer takes a dim view of his own state of affairs: "Georg has emigrated to Boston... Me he left alms of 6000M in the summer (because he had promised Father!) and then he brushed me aside. He evidently considers me dishonorable because I am staying in Germany. I shall probably never see him again. He is over seventy, and I have a poor heart... I shall be the last of our family here and shall perish here. I can do nothing else." 

Norman Ravvin teaches English at the University of New Brunswick. His most recent books are A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory and Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish.


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