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Monday, February 16, 2009

Reading List: I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 1

Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 1. New York: Modern Library, [1933–1941, 1995] 1998. ISBN 978-0-375-75378-7.
This book is simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.

Despite his conversion to protestantism, military service to Germany, exalted rank as a professor, and decades of marriage to a woman deemed “Aryan” under the racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, Klemperer was considered a “full-blooded Jew” and was subject to ever-escalating harassment, persecution, humiliation, and expropriation as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. As civil society spiralled toward barbarism, Klemperer lost his job, his car, his telephone, his house, his freedom of movement, the right to shop in “Aryan stores”, access to public and lending libraries, and even the typewriter on which he continued to write in the hope of maintaining his sanity. His world shrank from that of a cosmopolitan professor fluent in many European languages to a single “Jews' house” in Dresden, shared with other once-prosperous families similarly evicted from their homes. His family and acquaintances dwindle as, one after another, they opt for emigration, leaving only the author and his wife still in Germany (due to lack of opportunities, but also to an inertia and sense of fatalism evident in the narrative). Slowly the author's sense of Germanness dissipates as he comes to believe that what is happening in Germany is not an aberration but somehow deeply rooted in the German character, and that Hitler embodies beliefs widespread among the population which were previously invisible before becoming so starkly manifest. Klemperer is imprisoned for eight days in 1941 for a blackout violation for which a non-Jew would have received a warning or a small fine, and his prison journal, written a few days after his release, is a matter of fact portrayal of how an encounter with the all-powerful and arbitrary state reduces the individual to a mental servitude more pernicious than physical incarceration.

I have never read any book which provides such a visceral sense of what it is like to live in a totalitarian society and how quickly all notions of justice, rights, and human dignity can evaporate when a charismatic leader is empowered by a mob in thrall to his rhetoric. Apart from the description of the persecution the author's family and acquaintances suffered themselves, he turns a keen philologist's eye on the language of the Third Reich, and observes how the corruption of the regime is reflected in the corruption of the words which make up its propaganda. Ayn Rand's fictional (although to some extent autobiographical) We the Living provides a similar sense of life under tyranny, but this is the real thing, written as events happened, with no knowledge of how it was all going to come out, and is, as a consequence, uniquely compelling. Klemperer wrote these diaries with no intention of their being published: they were, at most, the raw material for an autobiography he hoped eventually to write, so when you read these words you're perceiving how a Jew in Nazi Germany perceived life day to day, and how what historians consider epochal events in retrospect are quite naturally interpreted by those hearing of them for the first time in the light of “What does this mean for me?”

The author was a prolific diarist who wrote thousands of pages from the early 1900s throughout his long life. The original 1995 German publication of the 1933–1945 diaries as Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten was a substantial abridgement of the original document and even so ran to almost 1700 pages. This English translation further abridges the diaries and still often seems repetitive. End notes provide historical context, identify the many people who figure in the diary, and translate the foreign phrases the author liberally sprinkles among the text.

I will certainly read Volume 2, which covers the years 1942–1945, but probably not right away—after this powerful narrative, I'm inclined toward lighter works for a while.

Posted at February 16, 2009 23:47