Monday, February 28, 2011
The Lesser Evil (1945-1959)
So sitze ich denn zwischen allen Stühlen. Tagebücher 1945-1959
von Victor Klemperer (Berlin, 1999)
Victor Klemperer (1881-1960)
The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, painfully written during the Nazi period and throughout the Second World War by a Jewish outcast in Dresden, must be regarded as one of the most important documents of the twentieth century. Klemperer had been professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technische Universität in Dresden since 1920, having distinguished himself as a teacher and as a scholar, with several publications to his name. He was an expert on French Literature, and particularly on Voltaire, but had written extensively on Montesquieu and Corneille. In 1933, he lost his academic status, and thenceforth began his desperate struggle for dignity and survival amid the horror of Nazi rule, which is all faithfully and extensively memorialized in the Diaries. He survived ultimately because he was married to an Aryan woman, Eva Schlemmer, a Protestant from Königsberg, and because his final deportation date, along with that of the few remaining Jews in the city, coincided with the destruction of Dresden, on the 13th and 14th of February , 1945. Only 198 Jews, all married to non-Jews, were left in Dresden in January 1945.
Klemperer's diaries were published between 1995 and 1999 as Tagebücher (Berlin, Aufbau). They were an immediate literary sensation and rapidly became bestsellers in Germany. An English translation has appeared in three volumes: I Will Bear Witness (1933 to 1941), To The Bitter End (1942 to 1945) and The Lesser Evil (1945 to 1959). This last one, the subject of this review [for the earlier diaries see my blog entry of October 7, 2010], was entitled by Klemperer So sitze ich denn zwischen allen Stühlen. Tagebücher 1945-1959 (Berlin, 1999), which means ‘so I sit then in between all the stools.’ After the Holocaust, and living in Communist East Germany, this metaphor was meant to elicit his recognition that he had become unable to feel comfortable within any particular political, ideological or even ethnic, identity. His true identity was bound to a world that had passed. The English translation is significantly entitled “The Lesser Evil” to deflect opprobrium from the fact that Klemperer never contemplated leaving Communist East Germany.
The Lesser Evil provides an invaluable account of life under Communism in Eastern Germany from the perspective of a pre-bellum European intellectual. This last installment of the Klemperer diaries differs from the two previous volumes in the significant absence from it of the terror of impending deportation and assassination. Hardship and discontent, despite success in his professional ventures, a growing alienation from his wife Eva, and doubts about his commitment to the East German state are persistent themes in Klemperer’s diary entries of the 1945-1959 period, but the horror of Nazism is now absent, and hence an underlying tone of world-weariness and even boredom suggest themselves in its stead. Even his late-blossoming passion for the young Hadwig Kirchner (1926-2010), a student whom he married in 1952 after the death of Eva, is often subsumed in feelings of guilt, regret and melancholy.
Victor Klemperer and Eva (geb. Schlemmer) in 1940
"No twenty-year-old can be half as hungry for life," wrote Klemperer in June 1945. The diary entries accumulated under the title of The Lesser Evil begin shortly after his return to Dresden and to the home in Dölzschen he had been forced to abandon by the Nazis. Even as he began to organize this new record of his life, he had already entitled it So sitze ich denn zwischen allen Stühlen, “so I sit between all stools.” I believe this phrase accurately reflects how Klemperer generally felt after the war about his life, about his social and academic status in post-war Germany, and about his temperament and ideology in an unfamiliar new age. I believe therefore that this important document must be viewed from the perspective that the title itself provides for us. Klemperer was left sitting uncomfortably, perched between stools, as a scholar, as a Communist, as a liberal, and as a Jew.
Central Dresden after the bombing attack of February, 1945
Klemperer’s city of Dresden was devastated by the war. After years of hunger and hatred, years in which the people had turned against one another with loathing and contempt, cast off all modalities of civilization, eyed each other with fear and suspicion, and persecuted the Jews amongst them with a virulence that outdid that of other German cities, including Berlin, Dresden was utterly devastated by the American firebomb attacks of February, 1945. Klemperer witnessed the final destruction with an equanimity born of resentment and hatred of the Nazi regime, as well as from an elevated sense of justice and requital.
View of Dresden after the bombing attacks of February, 1945
Victims of the firebomb attack, 1945
Monument to Martin Luther in front of the ruins of the Frauenkirche, Dresden, 1945
Amidst the rubble and the hunger of the aftermath, Klemperer was guided by a determination to foresee, and to act to forestall, any possible return or reaction, or any attempt to revert to the all-too possible domination of Nazism. The specter of Fascism was all about him; not for an instant did he believe that it was eradicated. The hatred expressed by the German population towards the conquering Russians was a sign of surviving Nazi sentiments. The Red Army therefore became in his mind a guarantor of his life and liberty, as well as of his restored status as an intellectual and a scholar.
The Liberal Scholar
The following diary entry is illustrative of Klemperer’s ambiguities:
8th March , Monday forenoon. In bed.
“Finished Feuchtwanger’s Goya. Final chapter [. . .] weaker. But the thing as a whole is once again magnificent. F. is not merely ‘humanist’ in the GDR [German Democratic Republic] sense but also entirely humane. He knows all about politics and the social, but also about the absolutely human. And he knows everything that goes to make up a single human being. He is a sceptic like Anatole France and like him believes in progress. I was probably under something of a delusion as far as my adherence to the Party [KPD] was concerned. In the end I am liberal. And also the Barbusse quotation, every scholar is a Marxist, even if he himself does not yet know it, is only partly right; in the very last analysis people like us are liberal.”
Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958)
Lion Feuchtwanger, a German author, was a fugitive from the Nazi regime who died in exile in Los Angeles in 1958. His novel Goya, oder der arge Weg des Erkentniss (translated as Goya: This is the Hour) was published in 1951. Klemperer met Feuchtwanger after the war and developed a great affection and admiration for him, which is reflected in their correspondence. It is clear from the diary entry quoted above that Klemperer admired what he saw as Feuchtwanger’s humanistic liberalism, a philosophy he believed they both shared. The reference to ‘humanism’ in the GDR sense, is a genuflection to propaganda. The humanistic ‘liberalism,’ Klemperer is truly referring to, as he understood it, was characterized by a commitment to tolerance, to individual freedom, certainly at least in the intellectual realm, and to a humanism which had served as a goal, if not an achievement, of bourgeois Europe, and which can be adumbrated by reference to Kant’s doctrine that human beings ought never to be treated as a means to an end, but only as an end in themselves.
This shared ideal of bourgeois liberal humanism causes Klemperer, in the diary entry cited above, to immediately question his own commitment to the Communist Party of East Germany, - is every scholar truly a Marxist, even if he doesn’t yet know it? His response is that this assertion is only “partly right.” The humanistic thrust of Marxism can become compromised by the power of the State. Klemperer therefore highlights the contradictions in his position within the German Democratic Republic, as a functionary and official of the regime, and as an intellectual and scholar in the Academy as well. In the aftermath of the war, Klemperer had joined the party without much hesitation. As an intellectual and scholar whose identity had been intimately bound to Germany and to the German University, as well as to German Kultur and its language, his sudden and appalling collapse into outcast status during the Nazi period had left him with no illusions about the capacity of a capitalist state to safeguard the survival of democracy and individual freedom. He had no trouble articulating these doubts and fears, and hence no ambiguities about endorsing the Communist rise to power in Dresden after the war. He did not doubt that the Red Army would prove to be the best bulwark against the resurrection of Nazism, whose specter he discerned all about him in the hearts and minds of the people around him.
Flag of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)
In the East, as Germany awakened from the nightmare of the war, the Western Economic Union, the so-called “Bizone” of U.S. and English Western Germany, was generally regarded as a ‘collaborator’ regime. It was referred to as "Vichy," based on a comparison with the French government of the non-occupied zone that had collaborated with the Nazis. The reason for this lay not only in that the West seemed to be much more tolerant of ex-Nazis, whom they failed to prosecute, waived investigations on its suspects, forgave many, but also in that it was the collaboration of a German government, run by the Christian Democrats, with the American occupation, which meant capitalism, oligarchy, and an alien culture. As well, there was a clear consciousness of the extent of anti-Semitism in Bavaria and the antipathy of the Bavarians towards the Russian conquered Eastern zone.
GDR stamp: Twentieth year anniversary (1969)
The bright colors and smiling faces represent the joyful sense of
progress and confident optimism which the Communists had anticipated
at the end of the war. By 1969, the image becomes a mockery of those hopes.
In the East, instead, it was generally felt that, even though the Red Army was robbing the Germans of their infrastructure, stealing everything from boilers to rail lines and scientists (which latter the Americans were also doing in the West), they had nonetheless a greater appreciation for the old German culture, and did not intend to threaten it with extinction, as was the case in the West. These were sentiments that Klemperer shared with other officials and intellectuals working for the East German regime. The East German intellectuals, and the East Germans involved in politics, in the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) the Socialist Unity Party, in particular, and the Kultur Bund (Cultural Union), and other such organizations, were truly “victims of Fascism,” Jews, such as Klemperer himself, as well as exiled or imprisoned Socialists and Communists, a very different composition from that of the Western political and intellectual leadership. It followed logically from the ideological posture of the Soviet Union that it would favor those who had been victims of Fascism, whereas in the West the effort was to rebuild Germany as a buffer against the Soviets, with the cooperation of any existing political elements.
These considerations informed Klemperer’s decision to become an official of the East German regime, and to refuse to contemplate departure to the West at any time until his death in 1960. This is not to say that he was untroubled by the characteristics of a regime which, long before the building of the notorious Berlin Wall, showed signs of dogmatism, paranoia and brutal authoritarianism. His diary entries show a preoccupation over allegations that the Russians had stolen half of Poland and had compensated the Poles by giving them German Silesia, and that they were depriving the socialists of any freedom of expression, in contradiction to the Marxist materialist philosophy they espoused. He had contempt for the large military parades organized by the Red Army, and for the ubiquitous iconization of Stalin in portraits and statutes that reminded Klemperer of the cult of Hitler and of Herrmann Göring. In time, his dislike of the East German regime grew apace, but he never considered exile, and he was contemptuous of fellow academicians who defected to the West to enhance their careers and their prestige.
To his liberal humanism and his academic and scholarly past, grounded in the Wilhelminian Gymnasium, can also be attributed his criticism of the educational policies of the East German regime, as illustrated in the following diary entry:
9th May, 7 p.m. Friday 
“On Saturday, 3 May, in Berlin alone for the Advisory Committee and back immediately. The new curricula entirely tailored to the training of teachers, to the ten-year school, to Marxism, factory, de-intellectualisation. I said and had it minuted: Romance Languages and Literatures as a University subject was thereby extinguished, we were practically giving instruction at a teacher-training college, it would be more honest if we taught at a college and did not call ourselves professors. No one contradicted, Rita said, she had said it all at the crucial ministerial and Party meeting, but we had to acquiesce. It was a kind of mourning session. I also said: as in the SU [the Soviet Union]. On the visiting cards of their scholars there is only ‘Academician’. Only within the Academy are they scholars. Universities are mere secondary schools, are not mentioned. […]”
Surely this criticism is equally applicable to the intended development of the American Universtiy at that very same time. The technologization and specialization of the work force that it visualizes and forecasts, the de-humanization of the individual, to be cast in the role of expert or systems-manager for service in the industrial state, is no different than the designs for the new University of California which were articulated in Clark Kerr’s California Master Plan for Higher Education, published in 1960. Klemperer’s is a critique grounded on liberal humanism, and is antagonistic equally to all of the forces that were shaping the post-war world. It left him sitting uncomfortably between the ill-fitting stools of communism, capitalism and modernity.
Nor was Klemperer any more comfortable as a Jew in post-war Germany. After all, why was he a Communist? One of the most important issues in his last diaries is his taking of a political position on the far left, after a lifetime of liberal conformism and academic isolationism, accompanied by an ambition to serve the state as a member of the government or, at least, of the political establishment in the Communist GDR. It is most necessary to keep an open perspective on this matter because the emergence of the GDR was a gradual process which took on aspects no one had imagined as the process evolved. We tend to think back towards the mid-1940’s as if the creation of an independent communist state in East Germany was a necessary and inevitable outcome. But it was not so, and there were causes for this development which can be traced to the early post-war years, and which gravely agitated the mind of Victor Klemperer as they unfolded.
East German currency
As stated above, one key reason for Klemperer’s decision to join the Communist Party, and I leave aside here the question of political choices in the post-bellum city of Dresden, was the fact that the Communists took the side of the victims of Nazism, the workers and the Jews, as well as other persecuted minorities, whereas the ‘Western’ parties, and the West in general, appeared to be indifferent to them. Or, worse, they appeared to be making concessions to ex-Nazi officials and turning a blind eye to their criminal involvement and engagement with the former regime, due to an opportunistic need to bolster the political right against the possibility of any revolution coming from the East. The presence of the Red Army in Berlin, and throughout the eastern Länder, as well as developments in the eastern European countries, raised the fear of a triumph of socialist and communist tendencies in the open democratic society which was being born in Germany. The fear of revolution drove the United States to suspend its process against Nazi functionaries, or at least tone them down, and begin a ‘bygones be bygones’ policy to strengthen the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in the West against what was increasingly seen as the communist threat from the East.
The Kurfürstendamm, symbol of American influence in West Berlin
Throughout the unfolding of these political events, Klemperer had to confront his ambiguous feelings towards his Jewish ethnicity. Whereas he had always rejected his Judaism during the war, and felt that it was an alien identity imposed on him by the Nazis in the same manner as the Yellow Star he was forced to wear on his clothing, he now believed that in Germany, among the Germans, he would always be a Jew, and hence imperiled. His antipathy towards the West derived from his fear that capitalism would not safeguard his identity as a Jew and that the triumph of the West would result in further persecutions. As well, his antipathy towards Zionism and the newly-created state of Israel derived from its identification in his mind with American hegemony as well as with the implicitly nationalistic overtones of the project. He had no use for the underlying ‘blood and soil’ ideology of the Zionists, and persisted in thinking that he himself could never be anything other than a German, despite the fact that Germany had once rendered him an outcast.
This is all very evident in Klemperer’s diary. He shows a growing antipathy towards the West, towards Americans and Americanism, which is not only determined by cultural interest, or cultural incompatibility, but also from a fear that Nazism is not dead and lies in waiting in the West, for a continuation of its persecutions against socialists and Jews.
Klemperer was clearly aware of the stifling atmosphere in the East, of the growing hegemonic power of the Kremlin in domestic German politics, of the darkness of the Cold War struggle that was just beginning. He speaks of the “dreadful shortcomings in the intellectual sphere,” in reference to the censorship and ideological shoe-horn that bears down on him. “. . . intellectually we are just as barbaric and fanatical as the Nazis. So say nothing, efface oneself, wait . . .” [27th. January, 1951]. But underlying his decision to embrace this system despite its shortcomings is a fear for his own personal survival. He receives a well-meaning letter urging him to abandon politics and concentrate exclusively on scholarship, because “politics eats its own children,” and he writes “That’s what I thought, too – and then the devil Hitler came and got me. And he’s not going to get me again.” [24th March, 1951].
“I am the one-eyed King of the GDR”
September 13, 1951 Diary entry.
Caspar David Friederich, Wiesen bei Greifswald (1822) Klemperer was Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Greifswald University in 1947-48. The painter Caspar David Friederich was a native of Greifswald.
Victor Klemperer became a distinguished cultural and academic figure in East Germany after the war. He was also elected as a delegate of the Kultur Bund (Cultural Union) in the Parliament (Volkskammer) of the German Democratic Republic in 1950. Most of the scholarly works he had written prior to the war were published as original or revised editions during this period, and he became famous overnight after the publication of his treatise on the language of the Third Reich, LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (1947) [The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologist's Notebook], which is his most respected publication today.
Despite these achievements, a litany of self-doubt and self-deprecation runs through Klemperer’s last diaries. In these last years of his life in East Germany, he saw himself as a less than competent scholar, referred to himself as a “journalist,” rather than as a scholar, and believed that his status in the Academy was due to the fact that the better minds had fled to the West, hence his characterization of himself as the “one-eyed King of the GDR” in 1951. . . . "I do not believe in the value of the things that I fight for."
His description of himself as a “journalist,” which is repeated very often, is based on a critical evaluation of his work as an historian of French literature. He had started out as a journalist in the early post-WWI period. But even after years of scholarly achievement, he believed that he only “reported” on French literature, and did not sufficiently analyze it. He felt he knew little philosophy, and often complained about his difficulties in grasping the Hegelian intricacies of Marxist theory, a body of thought he was obliged to master as he ascended the ladder of the Communist bureaucracy. He was in awe of Erich Auerbach’s book Mimesis, for example, compared himself unfavorably with its author, and, after completing his reading of the book, faulted himself for a lack of knowledge. ‘What all could I have done with that erudition!’
It is extraordinary to consider Klemperer’s effort and activities after the war to get back into the academic community and into the government of the Eastern zone. He refers to himself constantly as being powered by vanity, ‘Vanitas, vanitatum.’ This passionate ambition leads him initially to Greifswald as a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, ‘a SED prof.’ he says dejectedly (referring to his appointment to the chair by the Socialist Unity Party), and later to Halle and Berlin. He is throughout very pessimistic and self-critical. He considers himself a ‘war-profiteer,’ in the sense that he would not have achieved anything were it not for the fact that East Germany was left “empty” by the devastation of the war. And there is also his longing for youth, for the Erotic that will eventually lead him to marry a young student admirer, after the death of Eva. The other side of this coin is of course his great guilt for Eva’s rather sad last years, before her death in 1952. He points out how Eva had none of the fear of death, of nullity, and ambition that he has, and a lot of the decisions made for both of them by Klemperer in these years are motivated by his ambition, and turn out to be against Eva’s best interests.
The ambition and the regret for youth were a reaction to the years he had lost during Nazi persecution. He compensated thus for the time of obscurity and of disability, the dark hours when there was nothing to anticipate but death. Thus the fifteen years of his life after the war became a titanic effort at a recuperation of lost time. The outcome was bitter-sweet. He enjoyed moments of great happiness that he later recollected, but the memories were bathed in melancholy. He witnessed more than he grasped. In the epoch of his final triumphs there was no longer any vestige of the liberalism and civility of his youth. "His" Germany, the land of poets and thinkers, a land of light and grace, had passed forever. He ceased writing in his diary many months before his death. He would not see the Berlin Wall go up. On New Year's Eve 1959, he wrote: "Germany is sort of like a scatter-brained earthworm cut into two pieces. Both parts squirm around, both are contaminated by Fascism, both in their own way."
Victor Klemperer died of a heart attack on Feb. 11, 1960 in Dresden.
Klemperer Monument in Halle