On the Eerie Prescience of a Nazi-Era Diarist
Victor Klemperer and Relearning the Lessons of History
On May 27, 1941, Victor Klemperer found himself ensnared in a familiar paradoxical loop. As the diarist sat down that evening to chronicle the news of the day, he displayed an alarming comfort with discomfiting events. Three days earlier had marked the one-year anniversary of his forced relocation to a Judenhaus in Dresden, Germany. From there, he’d kept up with reports detailing the German navy’s recent victories over the Allied fleet in Greece. Klemperer worried that a subsequent attack on Norway might give the Nazis a foothold for a successful invasion of England. Yet, while this prospect certainly troubled him, it was by no means shocking. As he would later describe the feeling: “It is not only the word ‘impossible’ that has gone out of circulation, ‘unimaginable’ also has no validity anymore.”
Lucky for Klemperer and his modern admirers, this numbness did not permeate his artistic life. While reading of Hitler’s victories that May evening, he also revisited entries he’d written in his diary as a different German army had contemplated retreat from Vilna, Lithuania in 1918. In doing so, he stumbled into the sort of metacommentary that would dominate post-modern literature in decades to come. “How much I had forgotten,” he wrote of his own words. “How immensely important are precisely the details of such a time! For the sake of my Curriculum I must make notes even now, I must, no matter how dangerous it is.”
In this moment, Klemperer seems to have isolated the three interlocking lessons from his work that would later define his legacy: the past informs the present; human memory is frail and fallible; and the only way to mitigate the discord between these truisms is to chronicle current events in granular detail. He also came to realize that a diarist’s work accrued value exclusively through hindsight—a prescient epiphany that would encapsulate his own afterlife. Decades after his death, Klemperer rose to fame in a flash, faded soon thereafter into historical niche, only to reemerge in recent years like a phoenix out of a second set of ashes.“It is not only the word ‘impossible’ that has gone out of circulation, ‘unimaginable’ also has no validity anymore.”
Indeed, in a literary century rife with reappraisals, few 20th-century writers rode a wilder wave to prominence than did Klemperer. Born to Jewish parents on October 9, 1881 in Landsberg an der Warthe—then part of Prussia, now Gorzów, Poland—he married a Lutheran in 1906 and converted to Protestantism in 1912. These events combined to protect him throughout World War II—barely. During the conflict, Klemperer frequently and narrowly avoided deportation, a miraculous turn that culminated with his survival of the infamous Dresden bombings of February 1945.
Though he later attained a small amount of acclaim for his 1947 monograph on the language of the Third Reich—LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen—Klemperer’s diaries remained unpublished until 35 years after his death, when in 1995 the German publishing house Aufbau-Verlag printed two volumes covering the years 1933 to 1945. Both became bestsellers, enticing Random House to issue English translations of Klemperer’s diaries in 1998 and 1999. American critics reacted enthusiastically. Peter Grey, in his review for the New York Times, declared the diaries a collective masterpiece, referring to Klemperer as “one of the greatest diarists—perhaps the greatest—in the German language.” Similar reviews praised Klemperer for his astute and quotidian portrayal of life under a fascist regime.
“It was deemed to be a very valuable resource,” Richard Bernstein, who also reviewed the diaries forthe Times, recently told me. “It brought the experience of the rise of the Nazis and the Nazis’ takeover of power to a personal level. Klemperer got down to a much more day-to-day experience that really showed what it was like to live through those times, in a very concrete way. He provided an intelligent voice from within the Beast.”
Amid the economic and cultural buoyancy of the 1990s, Bernstein says, Klemperer’s diaries tapped into readers’ morbid curiosity about a past-tense world. The horrors therein served as a startling contrast to a post-Cold War society then patting itself on the back for having avoided the sins of previous generations. “There was certainly a touch of self-congratulation in how much better we were today than they were then,” he says of the appeal the diaries held during this era. “We do that in a lot of areas of life. Because we’ve learned some lessons from history, we think that if we had been the actors of the time we would have been somehow different. But we probably wouldn’t have been.”
As modern historians and literary critics once again turn to Klemperer for context, their motivations have shifted. Whereas Klemperer was thought to peer through a 20th-century microscope, he now holds up a transgenerational mirror. According to the historian Benjamin Hett, author of The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimer Republic, a growing fear has emerged recently that the years Klemperer chronicled are no longer historical apparitions.
“As someone who wrote a book about the Reichstag fire,” Hett told me, “I noticed soon after the 2016 election this event was suddenly rediscovered, and there was a lot of commentary on how we might expect a Reichstag fire from Trump and what form it might take.” Over the past year and a half, he added, this conversation about the probability of a single cataclysmic event has transformed into a larger one about “how democracy broke down in Germany in the early 1930s, why the Nazis emerged as the winners out of this breakdown, and what that might mean for us in the 21st century.”
Similar conversations are also occurring in Klemperer’s native Germany. As Chancellor Angela Merkel struggled to form a coalition during the 2017 elections, and as center-left and center-right parties lost traction within an increasingly polarized electorate, the German press reignited debates about the fall of the Weimer Republic—specifically the degree to which today’s climate echoes the pivotal years in which Hitler dismantled pre-existing power structures. According to Hett, Klemperer has reemerged as “one of the most important and often quoted sources” on such concerns largely because of “his penetrating intellect and cool objectivity in trying to understand the Nazis and his fellow Germans.”
Much of this acclaim stems from his keen insights into language and propaganda. Throughout 1933, between detailed accounts of his professional struggles and anecdotes about his peers fleeing to Palestine, he devoted several diary entries to analyzing how the Nazis successfully sold Germans on authoritarian rule. According to Peter Fritzsche, a historian at the University of Illinois, Klemperer’s methodology is what makes his fascination with language so interesting. “He shows how quickly and extensively the Nazi spirit made in-roads among Germans whom he assumed were liberal and law-abiding and attached to the values of the West,” Fritzsche told me. “But he is also interested in being able to live among Germans in a post-Nazi future and this structures the entire way he ‘observes’ Germans.”
In November 1933, Klemperer detailed how Hitler cast himself as a messiah for working-class Germans amid his successful efforts to disqualify oppositional parties during the first elections of his chancellorship. Days before the election, the diarist quoted a speech from Joseph Goebbels in which the propaganda minister proclaimed, “During the thirteenth hour, Adolf Hitler will come to the workers.” Noting that this language came directly from the Gospels, he tagged this narrative “The Redeemer comes to the poor.”
Simultaneously, Hitler positioned his enemies, including former allies, as establishment politicians hellbent on undermining German values with their internationalist agenda. On the morning before the elections, Klemperer recorded a summary of Hitler’s speech from the previous night. “I know no intellectuals, bourgeois, proletarians,” he quoted the chancellor as saying,
only the people. Why have millions of my opponents remained in the country? The émigrés are ‘scoundrels’ like the [Strasser] brothers. And a couple of hundred thousand rootless internationalists—interruption: “Jews”!—want to set nations of millions at one another’s throats . . . I only want peace, I have risen from the common people. I want nothing for myself.
Klemperer also devoted several earlier entries to the weaponization of nationalism in this period. On July 1, for example, he paused his narrative to note an alarming speech given by Goebbels the night before:
July 1, Saturday. Language Note: Goebbels in the Political Academy on June 30 (formal lecture therefore) on Fascism (approvingly therefore): “The Fascist Party in Italy has brought into being a huge organization of many millions which includes everything, popular theater, popular games, sport, tourism, hiking, singing, and is supported by the state with every resource.”
Having already noticed the use of the phrase “protective custody” to describe the detaining of undesirables, as well as the designation of Hitler as “the people’s chancellor,” Klemperer noted that Goebbels embedded his support of Italian fascism within a sweeping embrace of nationalism and an acknowledgment of the connective sinew between culture, identity, and the “total state.” Like modern liberals still reeling from July’s Helsinki meetings, Klemperer was fascinated by the willingness of Hitler’s supporters to embrace a foreign government, as well as their susceptibility to autocratic rhetoric. “He views [these supporters] as stupid, possibly corrupt, but not basically criminal,” Fritzsche says. “Therefore, he views them as having been poisoned—poisoned by promises, superlatives, grandiosity, ubiquity. He doesn’t reflectively ‘deconstruct’ Nazi propaganda or messages, he simply observes that sometimes people seem to be listening, and sometimes not.”
According to Bernstein, the dire lessons modern Americans might draw from Klemperer’s records are increasingly hard to ignore as the current U.S. president similarly gauges the public’s amenability to fascist ideals. Twenty years ago, readers of Klemperer’s diaries were confident that a post-NATO, post-Cold War society couldn’t possibly retreat into old and destructive patterns; the same work now serves as a warning post for a once unfathomable future. “With the passage of time we’re in danger of forgetting the possibility of demagogues,” Bernstein says, “the charismatic but mendacious individual providing easy answers. We said ‘never again’ with a certain confidence that it wouldn’t happen again. Maybe now, we can’t be so confident.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that after a decade of disregard by the mainstream media, Klemperer’s name has emerged in recent articles at several prominent publications and left-wing magazines—most of them meant to elucidate the early vestiges of authoritarian rule. Notably, the former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani quoted Klemperer extensively in her bestseller The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (published in July). Kakutani uses Klemperer’s books to draw direct parallels between Trump’s bumper-sticker racism and Hitler’s normalization of extreme rhetoric. She also used the diarist’s insights into Nazi behavior to contextualize Trump’s one-upmanship—most pertinently with a classic quote pulled from LTI, in which Klemperer predicted how a typical Nazi would recount a hypothetical elephant hunt. Upon returning from Africa, the diarist wrote, he would no doubt proclaim that he’d “finished off the biggest elephants in the world, in unimaginable numbers, with the best weapon on earth.”
Klemperer seems to have understood how such passages might resonate with future generations. Though he could not have foreseen the exact nature of our contemporary crises when he had his epiphany about hindsight in May 1941, he clearly believed his work had value should it—and he—survive the war. This served as motivation even as his optimism teetered. Indeed, nine months later, as German soldiers began searching Jewish homes for evidence of conspiracy in Dresden, he refused to stop his work. “Always the same seesaw,” he famously wrote on Feb. 8, 1942. “The fear that my scribbling could get me put into a concentration camp. The feeling that it is my duty to write, that it is my life’s task, my calling. The feeling of vanitas vanitatum, that my scribbling is worthless. In the end, I go on writing anyway . . . ”
Two months removed from some of the most important elections in modern American history, millions of would-be watchdogs should be glad he did.