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

by Victor Klemperer

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Historical Context

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Hitler’s Rise to Power Anne Frank and her family were in hiding from June 1942 to August 1944. World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945, involving the United States, Japan, Russia, and most of Europe. While the causes of the war are complex, historians agree that without Hitler’s regime, there would have been no World War II at that time.

Following World War I, Hitler began to develop his idea of a master Aryan race. This vision included enlarging Germany by overtaking neighboring countries. The National Socialist Party, or Nazis, believed in a totalitarian government that would, in theory, fairly distribute wealth and provide full employment.

Faced with economic hardship and political uncertainty, Germans were responsive to Hitler’s impassioned speechmaking. Hitler maintained that radicals and Jews were to blame for Germany’s problems, adding that the Aryan race was naturally superior and, thus, destined to rule the world.

In 1933, Hitler became the chancellor of Germany, and, contrary to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (which ended World War I), Hitler began to build his military. Because these efforts went unchallenged by other European countries, Hitler’s war machine was soon well armed. This rearmament created jobs, restored the economy, and stoked national pride, which increased public acceptance of Hitler.

Armed with a strong military, Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and set his sights on Poland after France and Britain declared war on Germany. The Allies, however, had not been strengthening their militaries, so they were no match for Hitler’s forces. In 1939 and 1940, Hitler invaded Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. In 1941, he broke his pact with Stalin and invaded Russia.

Hitler’s social design involved banning all other political parties, censoring publications that were not pro-Nazi, and forbidding interaction between Jews and Aryans. Increasingly restrictive measures against Jews followed; they were forbidden to hold public office, teach, practice law or medicine, work in the press, or run businesses. Property was seized, fines were imposed, and emigration was stifled. The Nazis had lists of all Jews in each area and forced them to wear identifying yellow stars.

These measures were the reason that Anne Frank’s father moved his family to Holland when Hitler came to power in 1933. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was absolute, and the Nazis engaged in the systematic killing of ‘‘undesirable’’ and ‘‘inferior’’ segments of the population that included not only Jews, but also gypsies, the mentally retarded and disturbed, and homosexuals. The Nazis viewed these groups as subhuman and often made them work under harsh conditions so that the regime could capitalize on their labor before killing them.

When defeat of the Nazis was imminent, they continued to kill as many prisoners as possible before the Allies could liberate their camps. At the end of the war, six million Jews had been killed, a number representing two-thirds of the world’s Jewish population at the time.

Persecution of German Jews As soon as Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, he began enacting laws that would empower his regime and limit the civil liberties of the people. These limitations were especially strict for Jewish citizens. In February of 1933, Nazi officials declared boycotts on Jewish businesses; the next month violence against Jews and their businesses intensi- fied when the Nazis announced that the German police would no longer defend Jewish citizens or their property. Soon, Jewish judges and lawyers were pulled from cases before being forced to retire.

In April, Hitler enacted laws that would reduce the legal rights of Jews and thus pave the way for harsher persecution. Four hundred laws were enacted to seriously limit the...

(This entire section contains 1015 words.)

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freedom of German Jews. Jews could not sit on juries, professional Jews such as lawyers, doctors, and dentists were no longer allowed to practice, university enrollment was reduced, and attendance at cultural events was forbidden.

In September of 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted, which prohibited marriage between Jews and non-Jews, made extramarital relationships between Jews and non-Jews illegal, limited Jews’ ability to hire female domestic help, and prohibited Jews from flying German flags. Hitler summarily blamed all of Germany’s problems on the Jews, even as the Jewish population began to dwindle. Once he had reduced their status, he instituted more drastic solutions to what he called the ‘‘Jewish Question.’’

Once the Nuremberg Laws were in place, the elimination of Jews became a top priority in the regime. On November 9, 1938, an event known as Kristallnacht (‘‘the night of broken glass’’) took place. It involved the destruction of two hundred synagogues and a thousand Jewish businesses. In addition to the irreparable property damage, many Jews were beaten and killed.

Because other countries were unwilling to allow German Jews to immigrate, Hitler began forcing Jews to move to ghettoes. This would be the transition step to his ‘‘final solution.’’ Reinhard Heydrich, an SS leader, organized the Einsatzgruppen, an elite killing squad created for the sole purpose of massacring Jews. However, Heydrich soon found that his squad could not kill people as fast as he would like, and there was a danger to the sanity of the members of his elite group.

The next step was to starve as many of the people in the ghettoes as possible, while using others to construct concentration camps. Many of these laborers were literally worked to death; the lifespan of laborers forced to work on building Auschwitz was only three or four months.

Once the concentration camps were complete, Nazi officials devised very efficient means of genocide. Soon, Jews from all over Europe were transported by train to the concentration camps, where most would meet their deaths. Once they arrived, their heads would be shaved so German manufacturers could use the hair. Any valuables had to be surrendered to the officials at once.

The numbers are staggering. In two months’ time in 1942, three hundred thousand Jews from Warsaw were gassed at Treblinka. On one day in July of 1944, officials at Auschwitz killed 34,000 prisoners. In all, 750,000 were killed at Auschwitz, and one and a half million died in Maidanek. By the end of the war, the Nazis had murdered six million Jews.

Literary Style

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Detailed Entries Klemperer’s diary is full of minute details about his private life, the books he is writing, and the events occurring in Nazi Germany. These details are what give the diary its historical significance as well as its human dimension. At times, however, readers may find the level of detail a bit difficult to absorb. While the reactions of people to the Third Reich are fascinating, the recurring lists of his and Eva’s ailments, as well as notations of the amount of money spent on cat food and of what plants and shrubs have been purchased for landscaping, can seem a bit mundane.

Klemperer had been an avid diarist since the age of seventeen, and it is clear that by the time he reached his fifties, he was not at all self-conscious in his entries. He wrote for himself, not for posterity, which is why the entries often contain minute detail about topics that are of little interest to the reader. They do, however, provide insight into Klemperer’s personality and show him to be an ordinary man.

The details about the rise of Nazism, on the other hand, are both intriguing and historically important. Because Klemperer refuses to accept the Third Reich, he is affronted by its appearance in every aspect of his life. He sees it as the reason he is forced to retire from his position as a university professor, and he also sees it in toothpaste packaging; its pervasiveness horrifies him.

On March 22, 1933, for example, he notes, ‘‘A young man with a swastika comes into the school on some official errand or other. A class of fourteenyear- olds immediately begin singing the Horst Wessel Song [a Nazi song].’’ Other images serve as ‘‘signs of the times,’’ such as when Klemperer receives a cat magazine displaying a swastika or when, in 1935, the Nazis try to create German names for the months.

Later, the realities of ever-present Nazi power take on a more sinister quality. Klemperer explains on September 18, 1941, that when one person in the Jewish ghetto visits another, he or she rings three times. He adds, ‘‘That has been agreed, so that no one catches fright. A simple ring could be the police.’’

Blend of Formality and Informality Klemperer’s writing is formal in tone but informal at times in content and sentence structure. His diction and vocabulary frequently remind the reader that he is an academic and that he is accustomed to speaking and writing in a lofty, cerebral manner.

He relates the progress of his book on eighteenth- century French literature, and he includes new observations for his study of language in the Third Reich. Such writing is familiar to him, so it finds its way into his personal writing. When discussing his friends, he often describes their fundamental philosophical differences or his close observations as to why he admires or respects them. In such cases, the content is centered on analytical thinking. In these ways, Klemperer’s diary is formal.

In other ways, the diary is quite informal. Because Klemperer did not intend the diary to be published, he was comfortable writing incomplete sentences that nevertheless expressed a complete thought. An example is in the March 27, 1933, entry: ‘‘The Köhlers depressed and cautiously gritting their teeth.’’ On July 20, 1933, he simply notes, ‘‘Political situation bleak,’’ and on July 14, 1934, he writes, ‘‘The terrible uncertainty.’’ Such phrases and incomplete comments fully express Klemperer’s state of mind at the time of each entry.

In addition, he writes about domestic details such as his love for his cats, the latest gossip about a friend, or Eva’s swollen ankle. Together, the formal and informal elements of Klemperer’s diary provide a full portrayal of the man behind the diary.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Germans often keep private diaries in which they can express their true opinions and feelings. Fear of discovery is a risk, and many diaries are self-censored by using pseudonyms, euphemisms, and vague references.

Today: In the United States, freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right enjoyed by all citizens. Americans freely criticize the government and its institutions.

1930s: Klemperer writes on March 17, 1933, that some German papers are permanently banned while others are sometimes banned for a few days. Government control of the press becomes an important means of influencing public opinion and maintaining support for the regime.

Today: Freedom of the press is protected by constitutional law in the United States. No matter how extreme the point of view, anyone has the right to print a newspaper expressing it. This freedom extends to harsh criticism of the government and its officials.

1930s: On April 20, 1933, Germany celebrates the Day of the Nation, the Fuehrer’s (Adolf Hitler’s) birthday.

Today: In the United States, influential leaders do not declare their birthdays national holidays. Only a few such birthdays are recognized in the United States, and each of these birthdays was declared a holiday after the honored person’s death as a tribute to that person’s life and contribution. Americans recognize Martin Luther King Day (to honor the birthday of the civil rights leader) and President’s Day (to honor the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln).

1930s: Klemperer’s annual salary as a professor of Romance languages and literature at Germany’s Dresden Technical University is the equivalent (according to today’s foreign exchange rates) of $4300.

Today: Primarily because of inflation, but also due to increased cost of living and various other economic and cultural differences, the average annual salary of a U.S. professor of Humanities or Liberal Arts is around $65,000.

Media Adaptations

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I Will Bear Witness was adapted for the stage by Karen Malpede and George Bartenieff and premiered off-Broadway in the 2000–2001 season. It was presented as part of the ‘‘Classic Stages / New Visions’’ series (see the Web site: http:// www.nypost.com/theatre/031201a.htm). The oneman show, directed by Malpede and starring Bartenieff, is scheduled to be performed at theaters around the world. For example, The Vassar College’s Jewish Studies Program will present I Will Bear Witness at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House (see the Web site: http://www.vassar.edu/ relations/011107.klemperer.html); I Will Bear Witness is also scheduled to be performed at the Ko Fest (see the Web site: http://www.kofest. com/performances).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bartov, Omer, ‘‘The Last German,’’ in New Republic, December 28, 1998, p. 34.

Bernstein, Richard, ‘‘How the Little Things Add Up to Horror,’’ in New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1998.

Brady, Philip, Review, in Times Literary Supplement, January 24, 1997, pp. 27–28.

Gay, Peter, ‘‘Inside the Third Reich,’’ in New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1998.

Johnson, Daniel, ‘‘What Victor Klemperer Saw,’’ in Commentary, Vol. 109, No. 6, June 2000, p. 44.

Review, in Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1998, p. 65.

Review, in Time, November 30, 1998, p. 126.

Shapiro, Laura, Review, in Newsweek, Vol. 132, No. 20, November 16, 1998, p. 84.

Tennenbaum, Silvia, Review, in Nation, November 16, 1998, p. 12.

Further Reading Hahn Beer, Edith, The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust, Rob Weisbach Books, 1999. In this memoir, the author recalls her experience as a Jewish woman acting the part of a Christian wife to a Nazi officer. Although her husband knows about her true heritage, he keeps her secret. When he is sent to Russia, she becomes a strong, independent woman who is able to save herself and her infant daughter under the most dangerous circumstances.

Klemperer, Victor, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1941–1945, translated by Martin Chalmers, Random House, 2000. This is the second volume of Klemperer’s wartime diary. It relates the events leading up to the end of the war, including Klemperer’s summons for deportation, his and Eva’s escape from Dresden, and the end of the war.

———, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, translated by Martin Brandy, Athlone Press, 2000. Klemperer’s study of the language of the Third Reich is described in his diary. Today, this study is considered one of the most important of its kind in researching the Third Reich.

Schleunes, Karl A., The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933–1939, University of Illinois Press, 1990. Schleunes provides a detailed account of the development of the Nazi regime with regard to their policies toward the Jews prior to the mass executions that took place in concentration camps. Originally published in 1970, this book opened the way for additional historical studies of the Holocaust.


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