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

by Victor Klemperer
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1207

Disillusionment
From the beginning of the diary, Klemperer expresses profound disillusionment with Germany and with his own life. He is disheartened at the way Hitler has assumed power and at how the German people welcome him and believe what he tells them.

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On May 13, 1934, Klemperer expresses his disappointment with his fellow Germans:

The masses let themselves be talked into believing everything. If for three months all the newspapers are forced to write that there was no World War, then the masses will believe that it really did not happen.

Klemperer finds the Nazi regime to be ‘‘un- German,’’ and he is disturbed by the ways he sees people in his own circle of friends and colleagues changing to suit the regime.

Klemperer is tormented by his deep love of his country and his complete powerlessness to save it. On March 20, 1933, he writes,

I think it is quite immaterial whether Germany is a monarchy or a republic—but what I do not expect at all is that it will be rescued from the grip of its new government. I believe anyway that it can never wash off the ignominy of having fallen victim to it. I for my part will never again have faith in Germany.

He adds on April 3rd of the same year, ‘‘Everything considered un-German, brutality, injustice, hypocrisy, mass suggestion to the point of intoxication, all of it flourishes here.’’ Similarly, on February 21, 1935, he notes, ‘‘The sense of justice is being lost everywhere in Germany, is being systematically destroyed.’’ Klemperer’s sense of identity is wrapped up in his patriotism, as evident in this comment from the March 30, 1933, entry: ‘‘In fact I feel shame more than fear, shame for Germany. I have truly always felt a German.’’

At the same time, Klemperer feels ongoing helplessness in his personal and professional life. He agonizes over his health, Eva’s health, money, his career, and his writing. On May 15, 1933, he confides, ‘‘I have given up thinking about things. I feel it’s all coming to an end.’’ On June 17 of the same year, he asks, ‘‘Does it make any difference at all what I spend the remainder of my time doing? Just do something and forget oneself.’’

On his birthday, October 9, 1933, he writes,

Birthday wishes: To see Eva healthy once again, in our own house, at her harmonium. Not to have to tremble every morning and evening in anticipation of hysterics. To see the end of the tyranny and its bloody downfall. See my Eighteenth Century finished and published. No pains in my side and no thoughts of my death.

He immediately adds, ‘‘I do not believe that even one of these wishes will come true for me.’’ Klemperer also feels increasingly alone as people around him either leave the country or adopt the new ways. What was once a vibrant social life for the Klemperers becomes a life of quiet disappointment.

He continues to write as an outlet, but at times, even this practice is insufficient. He remarks on November 25, 1938, ‘‘I completely lack the peace of mind to write.’’ Still, he manages to complete a lengthy entry.

Perhaps the greatest despair and loss of control experienced by Klemperer is the day when he must wear the identifying yellow star. On September 15, 1941, he writes, ‘‘I myself feel shattered, cannot compose myself.’’ Five days later, he writes, ‘‘Yesterday, Eva was sewing on the Jew’s star, I had a raving fit of despair.’’

Political Divisiveness
As Hitler’s leadership gains momentum in Germany, Klemperer finds himself increasingly at odds with those around him. He is quick to express his opinions and finds himself so infuriated with others that he ends relationships. This happens partly because of the fundamentally incompatible points of view being expressed and partly because Klemperer loses respect for people who readily accept the new ideology rather than resist conformity by thinking for themselves.

On March 17, 1933, Klemperer writes about a visit from Johannes Thieme, a young man who came to stay with the Klemperers in 1920 and called them mother and father for a while. Klemperer writes:

Thieme—of all people—declared himself for the new regime with such fervent conviction and praise. He devoutly repeated the phrases about unity, upwards, etc. . . . He is a poor swine and afraid for his post. So he runs with the pack. . . . [H]e is absolutely at the mercy of every influence, every advertisement, everything successful. Eva already realized that years ago. She says, ‘‘He lacks any sense of judgment.’’ But that he would go so far . . . I am breaking with him.

In reviewing the year 1933, Klemperer writes about how he has lost two friends due to political differences. His entry on December 31 reads,

This is the characteristic fact of the year that has come to an end, that I had to break with two close friends, with Thieme because he is a National Socialist [Nazi], with Gusti Wieghardt because she became a Communist.

In April of the following year, he writes that his friend Grete shocks him because she has allowed everything German about herself to fall away and instead takes a completely Jewish point of view of things. Klemperer is unable to understand how anyone can separate such core pieces of his or her identity, and it disgusts him.

Preoccupation with Death
While reading Klemperer’s diary, readers may be struck by his casual references to his own death. Although he says he feels horror at death, his tone indicates otherwise. For example, on July 20, 1933, he writes, ‘‘But there are countless people who have the strength for some kind of simple belief (or unbelief). I only have the quite childish horror of the grave and of nothingness—no more than that.’’

Klemperer seems preoccupied with the deaths of men his age and makes a point of noting their names, ages, and causes of death. On July 20, 1933, he reports, ‘‘Frau Blumenfield’s brother, the missionary preacher, was here for a visit with his wife, fell ill suddenly and died very quickly after an unsuccessful gallbladder operation, fifty-four years old.’’ At the time of this entry, Klemperer was 52.

On June 11, 1935, he comments on an obituary: ‘‘Heiss died on May 31. The obituary notice shook me, not because I loved him, but because the man was my generation, barely five years older.’’

The historical context of Klemperer’s preoccupation with death is important because during the years covered in this volume of his diary, the mass extermination of Jews was not yet in force. In addition, because of the censored press, it is unlikely that he knew the full extent of the violence being committed against Jews throughout Germany. Thus, his preoccupation with death is not an indication that he has resigned himself to dying at the hands of the Third Reich but an indication that he is simply resigned to dying soon.

His feelings about his own death arise from his declining health and his general sense of hopelessness. Klemperer is depressed throughout 1933–1941, so the threat of death is not met with the same sense of dread and panic that a man with a full and happy life would feel. On September 27, 1934, he casually remarks, ‘‘But my first year of retirement will begin in 1935, and soon after that I shall be buried.’’

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