It probably isn’t helping my spirits to be reading the breathtaking I Will Bear Witness by the Dresden diarest Victor Klemperer, and I know for a certainty that it isn’t elevating my estimation of the biped species. Klemperer was a Jewish convert to Christianity married to an Aryan who nonetheless under the Nuremberg laws fell into the wrong racial category. He risked his life and that of his wife by keeping a daily account of the petty and major horrors with which the Nazi regime tormented them while slowly crushing and finally exterminating the city’s few remaining Jews.
Depressing stuff certainly but also utterly gripping both for the devastating portrait of a society in the clutch of official dementia as well as for Klemperer’s nuanced sketches of his doomed peers and the assorted psychopaths, fellow-travelers, moral cowards and occasional decent folk around them. Given what he describes, even the fact that he can put pen to paper day after day is miraculous.
Klemperer was a scholar before being ousted from his posts and deprived of his property, and he occupies his agonizing days studying the few texts at his disposal. One of his principal intellectal queries is about the nature of Naziism, its language and its origins, and although those details are largely kept to a separate text, his insightful observations on the topic sometimes enter his diary entries:
"Nation of dreamers and pedants, of cranky overconsistency, of nebulousness and the most precise organization. Even cruelty, even murder, are organized here. Here spontaneous anti-Semitism is turned into an Institute for the Jewish Problem. At the same time, all intellectualism is rejected as Jewish and shallow."
The overwhelming sensation is of a screen of civility ripped away, the fragile good sense of a society surgically excised by the Nazi clique, which has tapped into the broader polity’s historical prejudices and let loose every resentment, every demon. We tend to think of Naziism in mythic terms, as Evil made flesh, but the quotidian reality Klemperer describes is all too familiar, of recognizable bipeds awarded absolute power over others and encouraged, then forced, to stamp the spirit and the life out of the scapegoated class by millimeters, employing the travesty of a faux legality and recorded in triplicate.
The bracingly instructive effect of reading Klemperer’s precious testimony is to remind us how entirely ordinary the Holocaust was in many of its essential aspects and to reduce the distance between ourselves and the machinery of the great crimes of the modern age. It doesn’t take much to put people at each others’ throats, and we scoff at the ever-creakier checks on the power of state at enormous peril to ourselves.