Victor Klemperer did not set out to become Germany’s foremost chronicler of extremist discourse. The talented philologist, born to Orthodox Jewish parents in 1881 in a small town in present-day Poland, first pursued an academic career. He studied in Berlin, Geneva, and Paris, earned a Ph.D. in German literature, got a teaching post in Naples, completed a Habilitation (the requisite advanced German post-doc degree) about Montesquieu and eventually, in 1930, received a professorship at the Technical University in Dresden. By middle age, Klemperer had taken full advantage of the opportunities that early 20th-century Europe offered talented members of its intelligentsia and upper classes.
In 1933, however, at the age of 52, Klemperer lost his post. He was not disliked—far from it—but as the Nazis began to implement their policies, one of their first steps was to remove Jews from Germany’s civil service. Klemperer’s conversion to Protestantism years before carried no weight, nor did his outstanding record as an academic, of course. Being a Jew, Klemperer had to go.
Thus began Klemperer’s second life: as a resident of Nazi Germany living—surviving—under increasing persecution. Klemperer could have emigrated in 1933 and for some time after. Like many German Jews, however, he felt fully German—patriotically so. He had fought in World War I and was proud of his service. Why would he leave his country? Many other Jews felt similarly, accepting the increasing restrictions placed on them—including the ban on company ownership, the mandatory display of the Star of David on one’s clothes—in the belief that it couldn’t get any worse, that a turn for the better was just around the corner. This mindset is masterfully described in Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel Maus.
So many things seem obvious after the fact, but we live in snapshots, without a full view of where the plot is leading us. How to distinguish between alarmism and well-considered vigilance? What is a slippery slope? Erik Larson’s 2011 book In the Garden of Beasts chronicles the life of the American Ambassador in Berlin in the early Hitler years. Protagonist William E. Dodd, an intelligent, even-keeled professor from Chicago, struggled to grasp the full meaning of political change in Germany in those days
So it was, too, with Victor Klemperer. The erudite German patriot stayed put. His marriage to his beloved wife Eva, an Aryan German, afforded him a small degree of protection: The Nazis categorized German Jews married to Aryans as “privileged.” Indeed they were, although this did not preclude risk, cruelties, and humiliation. The Klemperers were compelled to sell their car, fire their housekeeper, and put their family cat down when laws restricting the property rights of Jews were introduced.
As his own role in society plunged from celebrated professor to conscripted factory worker in a brigade of “privileged” Jews, Klemperer—unfailingly supported by Eva—kept diaries describing his daily life. Until 1987, they collected dust in a Dresden library. That year, however, a young East German journalist named Uwe Nösner published excerpts from the diaries, which he had painstakingly transcribed from some 16,000 pages of Klemperer’s handwriting, occasionally aided by Klemperer’s widow. The book gained attention, followed by worldwide fame for a new version of the wartime diaries published in German in 1995, and subsequently in English under the titles I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End.
Klemperer wrote another valuable book which endeavored to take stock of his time: Lingua Tertii Imperii—Notizbuch eines Philologen (The Language of the Third Reich). Published in 1947, it is based on notes Klemperer kept during the war years. In it, Klemperer describes his life as a German Jew under the Nazis—but especially the Nazis’ use of language.
The language of the Third Reich was thorough and pedestrian at the same time. Jews had a “J” stamped on their documents and ration cards, and in interactions with authorities they lost even more of their personal identity. Records Klemperer:
In official interactions I’m referred to as ‘the Jew Klemperer’; when I have to present myself at the Gestapo office there are repercussions if I don’t announce quickly enough: ‘Here’s the Jew Klemperer.’
Why was it that a regime with immense power would bother with menial rules like forcing Jews to always announce themselves as “the Jew”? As Klemperer put it: Hitler “knows that he can only expect loyalty from those who exist in the same state of primitivity as he, and the easiest and surest way to keep them there is the nurture and legitimization and, so to say, glorification of the hatred of Jews.”
In Hitler’s Germany linguistic habits shaped attitude and culture, and eventually acquiescence to a system of segregation and dehumanization. The language of the Third Reich was corrosive, and contagious. Forced to repeat “the Jew Klemperer” enough times, one thinks of that person not as Victor Klemperer but as “The Jew.” The Jews were in effect deprived of their name, and in turn of their humanity.
At the “Jew house” in Dresden where the Klemperers lived, the Jews labelled themselves according to the “privileges” the government granted them. Some had the right to use public transport; they called themselves “travel Jews.” Others lacked the right to use public transport and had to walk; they became known as “walking Jews.” Klemperer reports that when a fellow Jew from Dresden had been brought to a concentration camp, a notice would appear on his door: “The Jew [name] lived here.” That meant, Klemperer explains, that the postman didn’t have to bother locating the person’s new address. The post office instead returned the letter to the addressee with a stamp saying “addressee has migrated.”
For Hitler Jews had a function, of course. They served as part of a larger aim to control and dominate. “If the Führer had succeeded in the intended destruction of all Jews,” wrote Klemperer, “he would have had to invent new ones.” The Aryans needed an opposite pole to rally against, on their path to unmatched German greatness.
Demagogues and authoritarians need enemies. They use language to distort, manipulate, and corrupt discourse; to direct, control, and oppress. Stalin, the Kims in North Korea, Mao, East Germany’s Communists—the dehumanization of opponents and designation of dissidents as “enemies of the people” is a common dominator. Autocrats rule by secret police and by controlling politics and courts. Yet they also believe in the power of language, education, and inculcation.
In Germany today, Björn Höcke of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) draws condemnation when he talks about the Federal Republic finding itself at an existential crossroads. To some ears this sounds like Hitler, who proclaimed in early days that the German nation faced extinction if it failed to act.
Is it alarmism or vigilance to worry in the United States today about political operatives who announce America’s “Flight 93 moment,” a situation so dire that we must rush the cockpit and risk death or reconcile ourselves to certain demise? Michael Anton calls for action against “alien cultures,” “spiritual sickness,” and “existential despair.” This does not sound like the language of democracy, of compromise and tolerance. President Trump, meanwhile, often calls media “the enemy of the people” and has dubbed critics, including the FBI, “scum.” On the other side, Democrats call Trump a dictator, scream treason, and label individuals “traitors” who deign to switch political parties.
Does any of this matter? Is it all harmless rhetoric, and just show? A real dictator is able to harness media and courts and school textbooks, to mandate (and outlaw) utterances to define his reality. But Klemperer’s work warns us to take any form of linguistic degradation seriously. A minimal level of social trust, nurtured by daily habits and informed by responsible rhetoric, is necessary to sustain any democracy. Liberal democracies descending to organized name-calling present a perilous state of affairs.
Toward the end of the war, when it was clear that Germany was losing, one of Klemperer’s fellow “Jew house” residents—a former fur merchant—knocked on the door of the apartment that the Klemperers shared with several other families. “Do I have permission to enter?” the guest asked. “Since when are you so polite?” one of the flat’s residents responded. “Now that the end [of the war] is approaching I will have to get used to speaking with my customers again, so I’ll start immediately with you,” the guest responded. With the Nazis’ demise in sight, people could return to civilized discourse. They first had to want to, of course.
As for Klemperer, having survived the Third Reich, he and Eva opted to remain in Dresden as it became part of the Soviet Occupation Zone and subsequently the German Democratic Republic. Klemperer joined East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (the SED). Until his death in 1960, Klemperer remained a loyal, idealistic, and hopeful citizen of communist East Germany. If this involved some contradiction and cognitive dissonance, Klemperer held fast to his principles in other ways. In 1955, he published an essay with the title “Verantwortung für die Sprache,” (“Responsibility for the Language,”) where he criticized SED leaders’ use of “linguistic Nazism” in their speeches.
Klemperer once reflected:
For my own part I have never been able to understand how he [Hitler] was capable, with his unmelodious and raucous voice, with his crude, often un-Germanically constructed sentences, and with a conspicuous rhetoric entirely at odds with the character of the German language, of winning over the masses with his speeches, of holding their attention and subjugating them for such appalling lengths of time.
How to see the fuller picture and take measure of these trends in the moment? Sometimes change is sudden and dramatic. Not infrequently, though, it’s gradual, incremental, and difficult to assess fairly. Klemperer’s life and work ought to remind us that responsibility for the language is a duty that applies to everyone, that to worry is hardly a sin—while complacency, at least in some circumstances, can lead to very dark places indeed.