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

by Victor Klemperer
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043

Critics overwhelmingly praise Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933–1941 for its accessible style, its compelling story, and its historical significance. Peter Gay of New York Times Book Review comments, ‘‘To read Klemperer’s almost day-to-day account is a hypnotic experience; the whole, hard to put down, is a true murder mystery—from the perspective of the victim.’’

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Because Klemperer never intended his diary for publication, critics find that it rings true. Omer Bartov of the New Republic observes, ‘‘Klemperer’s diary has the immediacy and the poignancy of unedited notes written in the thick of experience.’’

That Klemperer dreamed of writing his memoirs but feared they would never be completed is ironic given the global audience his diary has reached. The character of Klemperer himself is, in fact, part of the book’s appeal. Critics commend him for his humanity, integrity, courage, and insight. Gay notes that Klemperer’s ‘‘observations, including pitiless self-examinations, are unblinking; his re- flections are remarkable for their precision and their penetrations.’’

A Publishers Weekly reviewer finds that Klemperer’s understanding of the ramifications of the rise of Nazism has ‘‘the kind of clarity that usually comes with hindsight.’’ As well, commenting at length on Klemperer’s character, Bartov writes:

What is remarkable about Klemperer’s diaries is that he has clearly understood the nature of the Nazi regime and the extent of the public’s support for Hitler, but refuses to modify his view that those who brand him un-German are themselves un-German. . . . He thus remains the only true German in a country that denies his right to exist there. . . . For all his refusal to accept the realities of his situation, for all his doubts, his terrible loneliness, his terror and his delusions, Klemperer displays remarkable courage in the face of an inconceivable material and psychological catastrophe.

In a review for the Nation, Silvia Tennenbaum commends Klemperer as a diarist, noting that the title of the book:

says it all. Never has a victim observed his victimization with greater insight. Never has a victim described the apparatus of state-inflicted persecution with greater fidelity. Never has the isolation of living in a world that wishes one’s people dead been rendered with greater pathos. Every act of cruelty as well as every gesture of kindness is scrupulously recorded.

Literary and historical scholars value I Will Bear Witness as a treasure of Holocaust literature. As a first-hand account of what it was like to be in Nazi Germany, the diary provides crucial details about the nuances of Jewish persecution. Tennenbaum goes so far as to proclaim, ‘‘Nothing I have read before made the years of Nazi terror so real.’’ In addition, Gay is quick to note ‘‘even the reader familiar with Holocaust material must be gripped by these pages.’’ As well, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly calls it ‘‘one of the most important [diaries] to come out of Nazi Germany.’’ The reviewer adds that the diary’s historical contribution is its record of the ‘‘insidious progress’’ of policies that reduced the status of Jews in German society.

Richard Bernstein of New York Times Book Review praises the book as a diary that is ‘‘full of pain and anger, but also full of shrewd observations on the nature of the Nazi regime and the quality of the response of the German people to it.’’ Furthermore, in Commentary, Daniel Johnson praises the diary as a great work that is among the most readable and revealing first-hand accounts of Nazi Germany. As well, Bartov summarizes Klemperer’s contribution to Holocaust literature:

What we have in this extraordinary book, then, is a view of German society under Nazism by the perfect insider who is rapidly transformed by the regime’s ideology and its internalization by the population into the ultimate outsider, a Jew in a racist, violently anti- Semitic land which succeeds in bringing about the social death of its Jewish citizens before it condemns them to physical annihilation.

Comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary are inevitable, but critics are quick to note how fundamentally different the two accounts are. A reviewer for Time calls Klemperer’s diary ‘‘richer and more profoundly disturbing’’ than Frank’s diary. Crediting both diaries as valuable and insightful, Johnson points out what he sees as the core difference between the two diaries: ‘‘It is Anne Frank’s childish naivete that lends her journal its unforgettable charm, and her fate that renders it unbearably poignant; by contrast, the relatively happy end of Klemperer’s war is less obviously tragic.’’

Bernstein acknowledges that while the two accounts show how Nazi rule was experienced by individuals, Klemperer’s diary is, after all, that of ‘‘a sophisticated, assimilated, cosmopolitan, middle- aged man striving to maintain self-control and dignity as the only world he knows crumbles around him for no reason.’’ Concurring, Tennenbaum finds that Frank’s sentimental diary is read tearfully and hopefully while Klemperer’s diary is not at all sentimental in its unblinking look at every ‘‘shocking’’ detail. She concludes that Klemperer’s diary ‘‘allows no tears but breaks our hearts instead.’’

The diary contains lessons that can be appreciated by virtually any reader. Bartov is especially drawn to the lesson of human nature’s tendency to overlook wrongs committed against others, as long as the danger remains distant. He explains,

The world that we see through Klemperer’s eyes is a world in which most (though not all) Germans gradually turned their backs on the Jews, excluding them from their midst partly out of prejudice or conviction, partly out of fear and opportunism, and partly out of indifference and moral callousness.

Other critics find in Klemperer’s diary a warning to the present against the repetition of the past. Johnson concludes his review with the following observation:

Truly to immerse oneself in this modern classic is to find oneself wondering, and not for the first time, whether the mentality of national self-deception and willful ignorance that it so brilliantly depicts will ever, like the ideology of National Socialism, fade into history.

Finally, a reviewer for Newsweek remarks, ‘‘The overwhelming theme of Klemperer’s diary is that it can happen here: modern society can plunge into brutality. Day by day, he shows precisely how.’’

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