Saturday, January 28, 2017

On Reading Klemperer's Diary In These Times

Soon after the election I decided to spend more time reading things from the past that could give me insight into our current situation. One of those books was I Will Bear Witness, the diaries of Victor Klemperer from the years 1933 through 1941. When I read it in December it was a shocking wake-up call, thinking about it now after a week of Trump in office it seems five times as relevant.

Klemperer was a professor of languages living in Dresden. He was a Jew by birth, but converted to Christianity and married a Christian woman. He had served in the German army in World War I, and had a deep devotion to the German nation. His conversion, marriage, and war service would all shield him from deportation, and the day he was supposed to report to the authorities was the day of the infamous Allied firebombing of Dresden. That gruesome act actually saved his life.

Two things struck me most about the diary, and I cannot stop thinking about them. The first is the initial reaction, for about a year or so, to the seemingly chaotic and extremist rule of the Hitler regime. Klemperer records political discussions with his friends, many of whom think Hitler will just be a flash in the pan. Klemperer himself thinks for awhile that the military will step in and put a stop to the madness. That never happened, of course. After that initial confidence that the nation will not tolerate a man like Hitler, Klemperer then slides into despair over this regime becoming permanent.

I am seeing variations of what Klemperer wrote about. Plenty of smart folks seem to think that this chaos will bring down the Trump regime in short order. They predict that since Trump is an unhinged madman, he will eventually bring about his own destruction. If only that were so. When power-hungry, paranoid madmen take power they don't just give up when they fail, they hold onto power that much harder. Only other people can step in and put a stop to it. We can't just sit on the sidelines and expect the autocrat to topple without anyone doing the pushing. That mistake was already made by too many people in the election.

The second thing that struck me in Klemperer's diary was the reaction of ordinary Germans to the situation. To be sure, many tried to help him out, but he ended up losing his job pretty quickly without a protest by his "Aryan" colleagues. One scene stuck with me especially. Klemperer lost his job just as he and his wife were building a house, and thus had to pay for everything from his pension, accrued both from his university and from his veteran status. One day his pension check was significantly lower, and he went to the government office to settle the matter. He discovered that his pension had been cut because up to that point he had not been listed as a Jew in his pension paperwork. Once his Jewish status was discovered, his pension was cut.  Klemperer was so upset by this that he related the story to a German stranger, something he normally would not do.

The man had two responses. The first was one of ignorance: "I didn't know things like that were being done to the Jews!" But soon after expressing sympathy he sort of just shrugged his shoulders, feeling that the government must have had its reasons for doing what it was doing. That willful blocking of empathy for the victims of an autocrat that bystanders to oppression support is something I have been seeing plenty of today. There are lots of "good Germans" out there in America. They might even feel something for the families broken apart and refugees sent to their doom. But they will shrug their shoulders and turn their backs and plug their ears so that the cries of the drowning don't disturb them. All we can do is to fight and scream loud enough that they can't pretend that they can do that.

Unless we truly take responsibility for what happens in our society instead of waiting for someone else to, our future is darkest midnight.

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