Review of Victor Klemperer, The Lesser Evil

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Review of Victor Klemperer, The Lesser Evil: Diaries 1945-1969
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Witness to History

The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945-59


translated by Martin Chalmers (London: Weidenfeld and

Nicolson, 2003), 637 pages, L25

George W. Liebmann



ictor Klemperer, an academic philologist and student of French literature,

is credited with having given us, in the two previously published

volumes of his diaries, the most vivid portrait of the Hitler era, 1933-

45. Though of Jewish heritage, he survived that time partly because of the

indulgence shown to veterans of the First World War, and the successful political

maneuverings of the non-Jewish wives of Jews. When this temporary

reprieve was revoked, he was spared shipment to Auschwitz only by managing

to escape with his wife in the confusion following the bombing of Dresden. His

diaries, with their vivid depiction of the gradual tightening of political screws

and changes in public opinion, are the longest

and most detailed depiction of Nazism to

appear in English. They are rivaled in insight,

so far as this reviewer has managed to discover,

only by two shorter works by persons

also standing in an exceptional relationship to

the regime, in their case as members of the

minor aristocracy: Marie Vassilnikov’s



(1998) and Friedrich Reck-


Diary of a Man in Despair


This third volume, on Klemperer’s fourteen

years after the war as an academic and

ornament of the East German Communist

regime, may be even more valuable than its

predecessors: its cinematographic equivalent is

Marcel Ophul’s great film about collaboration

in France,

The Sorrow and the Pity (1971).


lemperer’s book begins with a fleeting reference to the interregnum

between the collapse of the Hitler regime and the consolidation of

occupation, which resembled the utopian period of high political

involvement and local initiative that Hannah Arendt found to be a stage in

almost all revolutions, generally succeeded by lassitude, apathy, and the professionalization

of politics.

At the end of the war, Klemperer found himself transformed within weeks

from a hunted pariah into a man from whom recommendations and indulgences

were sought, recognized by the Russian occupiers as a “Victim of

Fascism.” From the outset, Klemperer feared that the privileges and positions

accorded the few remaining Jews would lead to a revival of antisemitism. Of

some thrusting fellow survivors, he observes, “Poor dears, adventurers,

declasses, no harmless angels to be sure, but in many respects decent and

open-hearted people.”

Klemperer saw in the Russian propaganda of the time an echo of “the language

of the Third Reich” on which he had written a treatise while in captivity.

When he chooses to join the Communist Party (KPD), having once called him-

One would eliminate contingencyfee

contracts between private attorneys

and state governments. These contracts

invite abuse because they create strong

financial incentives to sue unpopular

parties. Certain attorneys suing the

tobacco industry on behalf of state governments,

for example, received the

equivalent of $8,000 per hour, twentyfour

hours a day, seven days a week, for

forty-two months. The dissenting judge

on the panel that awarded the fees

summed up his reaction in one word:


A final idea worth mentioning concerns

class-action lawsuits. If a citizen of

one state sues a citizen of another, the

plaintiff may file suit in federal court,

even if the claims are based on state law.

But if any citizen in a class-action lawsuit

is from the same state as any defendant,

federal courts are barred from hearing

state-law claims. Consequently, attorneys

for class-action plaintiffs usually have

many states to choose from when they

file suit. Normally, they always opt for

those known to be plaintiff-friendly.

That’s great for plaintiffs but bad for

justice. One congressional proposal would

transfer class-actions to federal court if

“any member of a proposed plaintiff class

is a citizen of a state different from any

defendant.” This proposal makes sense

and should be adopted if it can ever get

past the Democrats in Congress who are

beholden to the trial lawyers.

The bottom line is that there are

multiple ways to tweak the legal system

to make it operate closer to the way it

would if judges, lawyers, and juries were

more restrained. But all of these devices

are imperfect and artificial. Ultimately,

the proper functioning of any legal system

depends on the integrity of those

who work within it. When it fails, it is

because we as a people, we as a polity,

have not had the strength of character to

maintain the sense of personal responsibility

that is integral to “a system of laws

and not of men.”

Until individual responsibility is

resuscitated in the legal realm, the title

of the book that inspired this review puts

the matter succinctly. I pay. You pay. We

all pay.

David Lips

is a research fellow at the

Hudson Institute and a member of the

Indiana Bar. He has J.D. and M.B.A.

degrees from Duke University and was in

private practice for five years, specializing

in employment law and personal injury



W I N T E R 2 0 0 4 73


self a democrat, he considers that “the

KPD is needed.” “The Church so

shamefully let me down,” he says.

Seeking a position in the new society,

he declares a desire “to make some

contribution to the reconstruction of

my Fatherland. . . . No matter what

has happened to me, I do have no

other.” In his application to join the

party, he declares, “In my opinions

and as a voter, I have stood by the liberals

. . . without any alteration to this

inclination. . . . Only a very resolute

left-wing movement can get us out of

this calamity and prevent its return. . .

. Only in the KPD do I see the unambiguous

will to do so.”

Klemperer believes that a complete

purge of ex-Nazis is needed to

prevent a recrudescence of the regime

and of antisemitism. Recalling the

failures of the Weimar regime, he

reproaches the Communist Party for

not “proceeding determinedly enough

in [purging ex-Nazis who work in]

school posts and the civil service” and

favors exclusion not only of those

implicated in the concentration

camps, but of party officers, judges

and lawyers, and majors in the


, all of whom he considered

complicit in the crimes of the


Nonetheless, he is horrified by the

Soviet expulsions of Germans from

East Prussia, and by the looting of

industry by the Russians: “We shall

never get on our feet again, I shall get

a tiny salary or old-age pension, that

will be all. . . . I feel more divided than

ever. If I were not a Jew, I would put

myself in [the]

Freikorps [like the disillusioned

ex-soldiers who supported

right-wing military formations after

World War I].” Yet he remains fearful of

the Germans. “What will happen to us

few Jews if the Allies withdrew? . . . I

tend ever more to view East Germany

as a federal state of Soviet Russia.”

With regard to the original Russian

plan for the East German education

system, Klemperer is dismayed that

there is not enough emphasis on purging

the former teachers. He initially

favors the elimination of academically

selective schools to achieve this, noting

that “the educational standard will naturally

suffer as a result: this was the

lesser evil for the moment.” He was

soon to abandon this view.

Klemperer’s account of 1946

notes the beginnings of Sovietimposed

broadcast censorship and of

the summary carrying off of 10,000

scientific workers to Russia. By

January 1947, it is forbidden to

import newspapers into the Russian

zone of Berlin. “Cold, pain, hunger,

frost fills 95 percent of my thoughts. .

. . The inner vacillation between journalism

and scholarship the other 5

percent.” His academic self-confidence

is shaken by the appearance of literary

critic Erich Auerbach’s


“He knows Latin, Medieval Latin, Old

French, Hebrew. . . . what would I have

been able to achieve if I possessed

such resources?”


e views the Russians as

“obliging and good-natured,

but industrially and organizationally

unable to cope.” Yet he maintains

a jaundiced view of West

Germany, where “denazifications [are]

the most popular article on the black

market.” He reminds himself: “Always

remember, you are a war profiteer,

you owe your successes solely to the

emptiness of the Eastern Zone.” He

deplores the departure West of the

intelligentsia, yet “I still believe that

[the Communist] cause regarded ideally

is the better one and regarded

practically is in the long term the winning


He finally receives a university

appointment, in East Germany’s

newest and smallest university, on the

Baltic coast at Greifswald. A promise

to him of decent housing is not kept,

and he and his wife survive a bitter

winter in a house with frozen pipes

during which he is unable to bathe

from October to April and in which a

case of scabies prevents him from

using the public baths. “There is no

life in Greifswald, we are buried


He comments on the changing

manners and ethics of the time, in

which, because of the threat of currency

reform, the rule is, “Don’t accumulate

any money, just don’t give

away any material assets.” “All these

women, without men, on their own

feet, morally quite free, with their

trousers, their cigarettes, their children.

. . . If I could write novels!”

By 1948, he notes the predicament

of a student forced by the

Russian secret police to spy on fellow

students. “Our advice: wait and see.”

“The day the Russians withdraw,

we are dead people. . . . I do not

believe in the worth of the things I

espouse. To be sure, however, the idea

of Marxism is pure.” His doubts about

the regime are crystallizing: “a seaside

holiday with time to reflect is not the

thing for 66-year-olds with angina and

without religion . . . I shall not change

horses. I do not know whether they

possess the ultimate truth, and I certainly

do not know whether they will

win.” An obligatory course in

Marxism is introduced in place of the

former general philosophy course. By

this time, all trade in books with the

West is blocked. Nonetheless, he still

holds to the view that “we do not

need to throw out all the bourgeois

academics, but where someone seriously

impedes us, he has to go.”

Yet he is still clear-sighted about

changes in the East. “Now the word is


. Not quite as poisonous

[as race loyalty] but it does not have

anything to do with scholarship

either.” He notes the revival of academic

ceremony: “the revolution

appropriates tradition, the Soviet

Union glorifies Tsarism”; “No one conquers

anymore, everyone liberates;

the armies of the peoples’ democracies

do it, the partisans did it, the

West wants a crusade in order to liberate

the Balkans.”

He is made a member of the East

German parliament, but is shocked by

the end of the secret ballot at elections,

and he learns of mysterious disappearances

of people. He writes,

“Politicians . . . are an inferior species.

And politics eats its own children.

That’s what I thought too—and then

the devil Hitler came and got me. And

he’s not going to get me again.”


n 1951, at the age of 70,

Klemperer is made a professor of

Humboldt University in Berlin. His

wife, who had followed him into the

party, dies, and in the following year, he

falls in love with and marries one of his

students, who at twenty-five is barely a

third his age. Hadwig is a clear-sighted

young woman from a Catholic background;

his movement away from the

party begins to accelerate.

When he reaches his seventy-fifth

birthday, a large event for Germans,

he receives only two congratulatory

letters from the West, one of them

from France. “It is egoism, more than

anything else, that binds me to the

GDR. If the

Volkskammer really is the

supreme authority . . . what is the

party, what the central committee,




what the Politburo, what Staliniculus

Ulbricht [a satiric reference to Walter

Ulbricht, the GDR’s leader from 1953-

1971]? And why the game with parties,

when only one rules—my temporarily

suppressed liberalism is

showing ever more strongly through

the layer of red make-up.”

To a priest who defends West

German chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s

Catholic policy of forgiveness to repentant

Nazis, he rejoins, “Your ethics is

also mine, except that I cannot apply

love thine enemy to bloodhounds.” He

continues to be obsessed by a possible

Nazi revival: “we cannot get rid of

Fascism, here in a somewhat more

Asian, in the West in a somewhat more

European form. In Bonn one is

allowed to be in opposition and gets

two or three years in prison; here one

absolutely has to keep one’s mouth

shut and gets ten years’ hard labour.”

He detects parallels with Nazism’s

“agitation against belief, youth initiation,

struggle against ideological coexistence.”

When the regime finally

abolished food rationing in 1958, he

notes that it was the last government

in Europe to do so. He repents once

having supported capital punishment

in the


He finally is granted a French visa,

and visits France and Italy with

Hadwig, finding them “a little threadbare,

filmed too often.” Because of his

memories of the world before 1914,

this trip was not the epiphany for him

that it was for Mikhail and Raisa

Gorbachev, who visited France and

Italy at about the same time.

Nonetheless, “I can no longer completely

reject [the free world]. Nor can

I ignore [Arthur] Koestler,” whose


The God That Failed, by disillusioned

Communist writers,

appeared at about that time. “Is one

really a little more free there [in the

West]? Immoral in a different way to

make up for it.” He is also influenced

by “Catholic France, living, believed

Catholicism, against that, no communism

will make headway.”

Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin’s

crimes Klemperer finds “quite dreadful

and disillusions me completely.” He

sees in the French Chamber of Deputies

“a bit more democracy than in our

state, where the parliament is completely

superfluous. . . . The whole

West-East split increasingly gets on my

nerves and in the long run the fact that

it also to some extent runs through my

own house cannot be ignored.”

In late 1958 Victor and Hadwig

visit China, an experience which both

breaks his health and ends his faith in

Communism. “In the course of the

afternoon it became clear to me that

Communism is equally suited to

pulling primitive peoples out of the

primeval mud and pushing civilized

peoples back into the primeval mud. In

the second case, it is not only stultifying

but debasing as well, in that in

every way it trains people to be hypocrite

. . . fully acknowledging the

prodigious achievements here I have

finally become an anti-Communist.”

This has seldom been better said.


qually penetrating are his and

Hadwig’s joint reflections on

Israel and the Arabs: “Today’s

refugee camps in Egypt, like those in

West Germany, were ‘conserved injustice,’

deliberately conserved as political

propaganda. Auschwitz is the very last

pit of hell. But the Jews [in Israel] are

in the penultimate circle of hell—precisely

as Jews they shouldn’t be there.”

In his last months, he asks: “Why

am I content with remaining silent and

am even afraid of disapproved silence?

For Hadwig’s sake. It is hardly likely

that I will be harmed. But if the

promised pension were taken away

from her?” He recalls that he once

found incomprehensible an article in a

Western newspaper declaring that “the

older [DDR] university teachers were

either idiots or had been bought—in

the case of Klemperer both were true.”

Victor Klemperer died in February

of 1960. It is a melancholy thought

that the tightening of the screws continued

for another thirty years, culminating

in a society of informers, the

most broken society in Eastern Europe

save Albania, whose end confirmed

Klemperer’s insight that the government

rested entirely on Russian bayonets.

He had not compromised his

teaching; by the end he had to resist

demands that he delete from his book

on eighteenth-century France the sentence,

“Rousseau would hardly have

agreed with Robespierre.” One of his

students found him warm and witty.

“Across his figure and his work there

lies like a shadow the gentle danger of

being forgotten. But anyone who has

ever read one of his texts, or even

experienced him in person, will find

this danger absurd and the shadow

barely perceptible.”

This is not the chronicle of a consciously

heroic figure, though in a way

Klemperer was one in that he retained

his independence of private judgment

and had an existential drive producing

the chronicle, written for the desk

drawer, that is his most significant monument.

He portrays himself as

Everyman, buffeted by idealism and

opportunism, the instinct for survival

and the instinct for distinction, the desire

for revenge and that for a better world.

There are some very contemporary

lessons in this book. First is the

capacity of individuals to accept and

tolerate incursions on their liberty

when they are introduced gradually, a

theme also of Klemperer’s first two

volumes. Second is the primacy of

means rather than ends in politics, a

point that Hadwig grasped instinctively

and Victor late, if at all. Third is

the extent to which fear of alien rule

can transcend material self-interest, a

lesson we are today relearning in Iraq.

Fourth is the folly of economic and cultural

boycotts, of losing sight of the

fact that disapproved states are inhabited

by a myriad of diverse individuals,

like the Gorbachevs and Klemperers,

whose perceptions of the world will

influence the future of politics. Fifth is

the importance of appreciating the

mixture of motives from which all people

act, an appreciation which carries

with it the insight once voiced by Chief

Justice Hughes, a view which rejects

the pretensions of “nation-builders”:

There is no lack of schemes for

the regeneration of society,

schemes not infrequently of a

sort which would not be needed

by a society capable of freely

adopting them. The construction

of a theoretical paradise is the

easiest of human efforts. The

familiar method is to establish

the perfect or almost perfect

state, and then to fashion human

beings to fit it. This is a far

lighter undertaking than the necessary

and unspectacular task,

taking human nature as it is and

is likely to remain, of contriving

improvements that are workable.

Klemperer’s three volumes covering

twenty-six years are not the only

riches he has left for us. His muchpraised

autobiography covering the

years 1881-1918 and describing the

run-up to and effect of the First World


War is as yet unpublished in English; the same is true of his

diaries on the decomposition of German society during the

Weimar years, 1918-1932. The third volume of his diaries,

like its predecessors, is ably translated and accompanied by

exhaustive but unobtrusive endnotes. Only one criticism is

in order. Although Dr. Hadwig Klemperer is credited in the

second volume with deciphering the diaries and preparing a

typescript, no small task, since all three volumes in English

are abridgements, we are not told what became of her; if living,

she would today be about seventy-five years of age.

George W. Liebmann

, a Baltimore lawyer and recently a

Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, is the author of

Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution,

Fairness and Equality

(Praeger, 2000) and Six Lost Leaders:

Prophets of Civil Society

(Lexington Books, 2001).


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