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A German Jew's Soviet ending

The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945-59, Abridged and translated from the German edition by Martin Chalmers, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 638 pp., $40

September 05, 2004|Edmund Fawcett | Edmund Fawcett is a contributor to several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

The diaries of Victor Klemperer from the Nazi period were a phenomenon when published a decade ago. A German Jew married to a non-Jew, Klemperer kept from 1933 to 1945 a scrupulous record of hardship and persecution, which astonishingly he survived. His writing was not stylish -- this pedantic, self-doubting professor of 18th century French literature took pride in avoiding literary effects. Nor had he Berlin gossip to share, shut away as he was in provincial Dresden. What he had were powers of observation, human integrity and a rage to get it down, to bear witness. With a minimum of self-pity, he conveyed the enormity of what was happening through its unrelenting everydayness. He used the close shot to give us the big picture. Klemperer was simply one of the century's great diarists.

So it is strange, though perhaps not surprising, that his postwar diaries have met with less acclaim. They too are an extraordinary and indispensable record, but of a different, more complex kind. "The Lesser Evil" brings us Klemperer's final years as a Communist in East Germany. His gifts as a diarist and his prickly shrewdness remain. But we are no longer following a morally straightforward story of resilient, uncompromised victimhood; the focus now is on the murkier terrain of Cold War Germany, and on complications within Klemperer himself.

He could have left. He could have followed his few surviving friends to the West or to Palestine. The Berlin Wall did not go up until 1961, the year after his death. Instead he chose to stay, a "German to the last," as he calls himself. Without believing the Soviet catechism, he joined the KPD (the German Communist Party), won back the teaching post from which the Nazis had fired him and rose to become a notable of sorts in the Stalinized apparatus of East German culture. At this distance it makes little sense. But neither did Klemperer's shattered world.

Readers of the previous diaries, "I Shall Bear Witness: 1933-41" and "To the Bitter End: 1942-45," will have left Klemperer and his wife, Eva, as they return on foot in June 1945 to their beloved house in a small township on the edge of Dresden, now in ruins from Allied bombs and under Soviet control. "The Lesser Evil" opens, after a week's pause, with the Klemperers reinstalled. (His editors, not Klemperer, broke his life into volumes.) The grocer whom the Nazi mayor made a compulsory tenant after forcing them to live in communal Jewish housing has fled. The manuscript of Klemperer's diaries, hidden by a friend, proves to be safe. But the "all-too-beautiful fairy tale" lasts less than a month. Food is short. Soon trees disappear from parks for fuel. Everyone jostles for favors from the Soviet occupiers. To his disgust, Klemperer is visited by ex-Nazis who beg him, as an accredited victim of fascism, to attest to their good behavior.

As hope returns with nothing yet to show for it, home life passes in Beckett-like bleakness. Klemperer, now in his mid-60s, has a bad heart. Eva is depressive, ill and near collapse. She has no shoes, and for a concert at the Staatskapelle must borrow a neighbor's. Their cat is blind. Eager for a full professorship, Klemperer makes a calamitous move to the University of Greifswald, by the Baltic Sea, lured by the promise of a car and a house, which turns out to be an unheated slum. Guiltily, he sums up the year 1947: Before, Nazis were to blame for his wife's misery; now it's his fault.

Professionally, the news is less grim. Back in Dresden he lectures, writes, administers. Students adore him. Honors, posts and professorships pile up. He even gains a seat in the Volkskammer, East Germany's toothless parliament. His path-breaking study of Nazi corruptions of language, "LTI" ( for Lingua Tertii Imperii), published by Aufbau in 1947, wins him some fame. (Published in English as "The Language of the Third Reich" by Athlone in 2000, it is surprisingly topical: Nearly all its complaints can today be leveled at political and corporate spin.)

Not that achievement fortifies Klemperer's fragile ego. Whenever he is at risk of feeling pleased with himself, his perfectionism pulls him up. "You are a war profiteer, you owe your success solely to the emptiness of the Eastern zone," he writes. The youngest of four brothers, he was used to living in their shadows; two died before Hitler came to power, but Georg, a prominent neurologist who treated Lenin, left for America in 1935 and lived to preside over a clan of successful progeny. Victor's cousin, the renowned conductor Otto Klemperer, also prompts envious reflection on his own mediocrity. Were Victor not as strict in judging others, self-punishment of this kind could grow wearing; as it is, the Rodney Dangerfield side of his character works as comic relief.

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