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Vox populi and antisemitism: Victor Klemperer on the selective “empathy” of Germans towards Jews in the Third Reich

Arvi Sepp
Traduction de Yarri Kamara
Cet article est une traduction de :
Vox populi et antisémitisme : Victor Klemperer sur l’« empathie » sélective allemande envers les Juifs [fr]


This paper aims to analyse the representation of the “empathy” of a part of the German people towards German Jews under National Socialism in the diaries Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten (1933-1945) by the philologist Victor Klemperer [in the English edition: I Shall Bear Witness to the Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1933-1945]. The contribution takes a twofold perspective: on one level it explores Klemperer’s ethnographic writing processes, and on another level, it delves into the opinions and discourses which circulated under the Third Reich. In his diaries, driven by the watchword vox populi, the diarist meticulously assembled a variety of sources of information—opinions, actions, jokes, rumours, anecdotes, official and unofficial messages, etc.—that could reveal the “mentality” as well as a certain “empathy” of Germans towards persecuted Jews, in order to philologically capture patterns of thought and behaviour, attitudes and sentiments of the people. Victor Klemperer’s diaries bear strong resemblance to a field notebook on ideology, self-image and “empathy,” however ambiguous and selective, of a part of the “ordinary people” towards the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. The contribution will show the ideological and social foundations of these perceptions that led the diarist to believe in the existence of “German empathy” even during the Shoah.

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1This contribution aims at analysing the representation of the “empathy” of the German people towards Jews under National Socialism contained in the diaries Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten (1933-1945) written by the German Jewish philologist Victor Klemperer (1995) [in the English edition: I Shall Bear Witness to the Bitter End. The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1933-1945]. The paper has a double-perspective: on one level, it explores Klemperer’s ethnographic writing processes, and on another level, it delves into the opinions and discourses which circulated under the Third Reich. In his diaries, driven by the watchword vox populi, Klemperer assembled with meticulous care a variety of sources of information—opinions, acts, jokes, rumours, anecdotes, official and unofficial messages, etc.—that could reveal the “mentality” and, in particular, the “empathy” of German society. Klemperer thus sought to capture, in a critical manner and with philological methods, patterns of thought and behaviour, as well as attitudes and sentiments commonly found in the “simple people” (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 361 [20/6/1937]).

2Klemperer who was faced with a growing tension between an ideal and the reality of the Nazi regime while living under the Third Reich, sought to reposition himself using intellect. He pushed himself to hear the voice of the people in its plurality, even if that was a difficult task given the restrictions on freedom of expression. Social diversity, press freedom and the separation of powers characteristic of constitutional democracies had been abolished under the Nazi regime, as all sectors of society were brought to heel.

3In observing the vox populi, Klemperer was interested in the attitude of the German people towards the Jewish community, and more generally towards National Socialist policies. He also wanted to find the right way to characterise and assess popular sentiment about the military, political, economic and social situation of the Third Reich. Moreover, Klemperer tried to gauge, in a well-documented manner, the extent of “empathy” that Germans felt towards the persecuted Jews. In his notes, the concept of “empathy,” even if he does not use it explicitly, appears to be characterised essentially by two components: cognitive and affective. The cognitive component is apparent in situations where his interlocutors seem to understand the feelings, thoughts and wishes of the victim, as well as the discrimination to which the latter is subjected. The affective component, for its part, involves compassion and feeling a sense of solicitude for the victim as a Jew, such as demonstrations of concern or of pity.

4Klemperer undertakes a detailed of analysis of hundreds of extracts of dialogues, and numerous descriptions of varied actions to determine the extent to which Germans showed enthusiasm for the war, were critical of leaders, or were intimidated, indifferent or resistant. He cites with the greatest precision possible the source of his notes, often in the form of dialogues accompanied by comments on visual expression, body posture, intonation and tone of voice, regardless of the ideological conviction of the person quoted. These types of information for Klemperer hold scientific value; he points out that they “constitute the material of my research project on the Third Reich” (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 137 [30/12/1934]).

5This scientific orientation bears striking similarities with oral history approaches, which also focus on individual lived experiences. Klemperer conducted his philological work with the material that was accessible to him during Nazi dictatorship. His notes are shaped by ethnographic writing techniques. Ethnographic methodology does not focus on collecting representative data, but rather on inventorying individual attitudes and mentalities. Opinions and discourses during the Third Reich focused substantially on the opinions Germans held towards Jews. The opinions of wide categories of the German population are central in many of the entries: “It has now become a sport (only a Jewish sport?) to gage the mood of the people. In restaurants. In shops” (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 597 [9/6/1941]).

6Klemperer’s reflections on the vox populi and antisemitism are analysed in this paper from two angles: that of the social history of daily life under Nazism, and that of the study of perceptions, individual experiences and the thorny question of German “empathy” towards the persecuted Jews.

Vox populi and antisemitism

7Klemperer tries to assess the extent to which the German people adopted the doctrine of antisemitism, and how much of German behaviour was shaped by fear or conformity with Nazi requirements. With regard to the place antisemitism held in Nazi ideology, Klemperer asserts that “the Jewish question [...] is the alpha and the omega” of National Socialism (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 385 [29/5/1943]). The author alternates between noting a uniform vox populi (hostile to Jews) and showing the nuanced opinions of a multitude of voces populi. For example, a 1943 entry reads:

Voces populi: Going to Katz’s, an elderly man says passing by: “Judas!” In the corridor at the social security. I am the only wearer of a star pacing in front of the occupied benches. I overhear a worker say: “We should prick them. They would disappear!” Is he speaking about me? About the stars? A few minutes later, the man is called [...] I sit in his spot. An elderly woman next to me whispers: “What a mean man! May be one day, what he wishes on you will happen to him. Who knows? God will judge!” (p. 483 [7/2/1944])

8It is through these daily experiences that Klemperer attempts to read the state of mind of the German people, which is revealed to be extremely heterogeneous in his diary entries. The entries pay particular attention to the norms and values that influence behaviour, on what the German people knew about the persecutions, as well as their different ways of thinking and feeling, without pronouncing a blanket condemnation of Germans. The author also attempts to assess as precisely as possible what he calls “faits nouveaux” [in French in the original], or new facts (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 212 [19/8/1942])—each sign of recognition, each expression of solicitousness, and each manifestation of rejection of the persecution of Jews—all the words which, according to him, mark clear opposition to the state’s hostility towards Jews. Quite frequently, the author who himself wore the Jewish star, received expressions of sympathy in shops (1995b, p. 331 [18/2/1943]; 1995a, p. 677 [4/10/1941]). In addition to acts of helpfulness, courtesy and kindness, non-Jews sometimes addressed Klemperer as an ideal interlocutor to safely speak about war problems and criticize the Nazi regime, as is described in the scene below in a streetcar:

In the front section of the number 5, as it was emptying going towards Zschertnitz, the driver, a man in his forties wearing a war medal: “Here we are, on the path to glorious times, isn’t that so? – It’s not going to lasttwo more years, maximum fourthings will change... Your badge is a good thing: we can know who we are dealing with, we can confide!” Then a new passenger mounted, and the driver shut up. (1995a, p. 673 [25/9/1941])

9Stigmatisation through the wearing of the Star of David, deeply humiliating for Klemperer, is transformed into something positive by the tram driver; but at the same time the incident shows a fundamental absence of empathy for the critical plight of the Jewish population. Klemperer pays a price for this conversation, as well as all other “embarrassing” expressions of criticism towards the regime by some Germans (Klemperer, 1947/2001, p. 113): a member of the community under persecution, Klemperer is reduced to the role of a surface onto which the lived world of the driver can be projected; the suffering of people who like Klemperer are forced to wear the star is ignored and denied.

10In 1940, seven years after the antisemitic boycott of 1 April 1933, five years after the introduction of the Nuremberg racial laws, two years after the April 1938 pogroms, and one year after the threat of extermination was openly expressed in Hitler’s speech at the Reichstag on 20 January 1940, Klemperer met with an official in the Office for Retirement Pensions, who seemed friendly at first glance. Klemperer describes his painful predicament—forced expropriation, arrest, forced retirement, prohibition from leaving the residential zone of the town—but observes that his interlocutor is “blind” to the plight of the persecuted:

He did not know that they had taken my house, that I could not leave Dresden, that I had been arrested, etc. etc. I thought you were a soldier from the front... Can you not live in another place where it would be easier to be forgotten?... Can you not receive your pension abroad? He was sincerely horrified. All while being fully indoctrinated by National Socialism: “How this has affected you! But you have to admit that the Jew has done enormous harm to us... We initially miscalculated your taxes, we did not know that you were a Jewexcuse me.” [...] “But that’s going to change nowthere is no doubt about our victory.” I expressed a slight doubt, which shocked him greatly, and was very imprudent on my part. (1995a, p. 554 [27/9/1940])

11The official’s surprise may in part be due Klemperer’s social status as a professor. In his commentary on this passage, Slavoj Žižek (2005, p. 243) suggests that the official expects Klemperer, who is in fact a true victim of the regime, to identify with the survival of the very system that is attempting to exterminate him: he asks Klemperer to be an accomplice to the project “responsible” for the Shoah. “Tact,” “courtesy” and words expressing “regret” of the consequences that this system would have on Klemperer as a person, as the two passages above show, may also serve as a shield behind which to hide the icy rejection of the other, in this case “the Jew.” The diarist also records acts that contrast with the superficial and ambiguous friendliness of the official: expressions of disinterested sympathy and solidarity with Jews, acts which were strictly forbidden after the introduction of the Star of David:

  • 1 Not everyone approved of Jews being obliged to wear the Star of David, as can be gleaned from var (...)

Frau Reichenbachthe Reichenbachs were our guests last night as well guests of Kätchenrecounted that a man greeted her at the door of the shop. I wondered if he had mistaken me for someone else. – No, I don’t know you, but we are going to greet you more often now. We are a group “who greets the Jewish star.”1 (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 688 [24/11/1941])

12Klemperer’s analysis of the vox populi often leads him to reflect on the meaning of his “Germanity” [Deutschtum], which he continues to consider as the humanist counterweight to fascism and antisemitism. That is why he regularly takes the side of Germans, and unlike many other Jews, does not indistinctly associate them with National Socialism. Doing this, Klemperer hopes to nuance the idea of innate German hate, without however minimising the problem of antisemitism among the German people (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 379 [20/5/1943]).

13In Klemperer’s record of the vox populi, the first key moment takes place after the institution of the “Jewish star.” The badge resulted in an aggravation of incitements of hatred against Jews, and from then on Klemperer took note—often verbatim—of each anti-Jewish aggression. The individual reactions observed in some cases involved deliberate acts, attacks in the form of insults, humiliations and intimidation against Jews stripped of their rights (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 28 [19/2/1942]; p. 65 [18/4/1942]; p. 75 [28/4/1942]). Klemperer, however, attributes the attitudes of antisemitic aggressors to their lack of education and their credulity, not to their malice. In his notes on antisemitic behaviour, he records numerous acts of hostility towards Jews by German children and teenagers, which lead him to conclude that antisemitism is above all a sign of intellectual and moral immaturity:

Coming back from the cemetery through Fiedler Street, I passed in front of a big school [...]. Often the pupils run out in groups, and the same thing always happens to me: the biggest pass by me with no incident, while the younger ones make fun of me, shouting out “Jew” and other things of the kind. It is thus the young ones who have been inculcatedin the elder children, there is no more effect. (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 313 [17/3/1943]; p. 286 [3/12/1942]; p. 422 [23/8/1943])

14Only in his worst—and rather rare—moments of discouragement, does Klemperer conclude that National Socialism, in its quest for order and minutiae is profoundly “German,” that it is “specifically Germanic and typical” (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 393 [18/1/1938]), underscoring with resignation “that at its base National Socialism is a German cancer” (1995b, p. 209 [17/8/1942]). The diarist uses this medical metaphor in other moments too to express his disappointment and reassess his former belief in the “non-German” nature of the Nazi regime (1995a, p. 4 [13/7/1933]; p. 143 [12/9/1934]; p. 210 [21/7/1935]; 1995b, p. 84 [11/5/1942]) in light of the current situation and his state of spirits: “I can no longer believe in the absolute non-German essence of National Socialism; it is an excrescence born of German soil, a carcinoma from German flesh, a strain of cancer, just as there exists a Spanish flu” (p. 140 [23/6/1942]). As one of Klemperer’s Jewish bedfellows of misery points out, this deep-seated anti-Jewish ideology did not augur well at all for the future: “Things will never again be right for us in Germany; antisemitism has always been there, but now it is too deeply rooted” (p. 370 [4/5/1943]).

The selective “empathy” of Germans

15Victor Klemperer reveals the coexistence of singular “empathy” for one person—for example—himself—and blindness toward the cruelty of the Nazi regime. Thus, when one of his non-Jewish acquaintances, Elsa Kreidl, who lends him books, offers him coupons for potatoes and coffee and sings praises about her Gestapo tenant, Klemperer observes that she is only blind to the “atrocities” of the persecution:

Her tenant, a Gestapo commissioner. He is really a good person, but now he must handle Jewish affairs, he does not let his officials commit any exactions. – Does Madame Kreidl really not know that to get such a post, you must have proven yourself? Does she not know what kind of atrocities are committed? Does she not know that she is fraternising directly with her husband’s assassins? (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 375 [10/5/1943])

16Day after day, the antisemitic ideological codification was felt more and more concretely and led to tangible aggressions (Lüdtke, 2006, p. 51). It is in this context that Klemperer in his notes addresses one of the crucial questions for the history of the Third Reich: to what extent were Germans antisemitic? Despite the racial hostility that Klemperer feels in his own flesh, he tries to pick himself up with every small sign of recognition, every encouragement, and to thus ensure the continuity of his own German identity. However, despite this desire for biographical continuity, it is important to remember that we are dealing with a life journal, and Klemperer’s position changes with time as does his relationship to “Germanity.” While at the beginning of the diaries, he rarely questions “Germanity,” later he presents himself as the last representative of a “Germanity” that the National Socialist regime has destroyed, and later still, he conceives of “Germanity” as the intellectual cradle of antisemitism.

  • 2 On attitudes among German people towards antisemitism, see notably chapter 4 in David Bankier’s The (...)

17David Bankier (1992) notes that the motives and behaviours of German society were complex and influenced by both practical and ideological factors.2 While the majority of the population disapproved of open violence and persecution, some measures, such as the eviction of Jews from the civil service, were accepted. Despite repulsion towards pogroms in most sections of German society, there was hardly any criticism of the legal reinforcement of repression as was contained in the Nuremberg laws (Büttner, 1992, p. 77). It was rare that Nazism was rejected on ethical principles, and there was little indignation over the violation of humanitarian values (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 264 [16/5/1936]). Faced with this practical consent of the German people, Klemperer expresses his incomprehension and his chagrined loss of hope in an eventual collapse of the system: “In politicis, I am gradually losing hope: Hitler is indeed elected by his people. [...] there is so much lethargy and so much immorality and above all stupidity in the German people” (p. 340 [27/3/1937]; p. 410 [25/5/1938]; p. 417 [27/7/1938]; p. 422 [2/9/1938]).

  • 3 This tendency to excuse the German people, which Nathan Stoltzfus (2001, p. 547) also highlights in (...)
  • 4 National Socialist German Workers Party.

18The author reproaches Germans for their lack of conscience in front of the injustice of persecutions that have become very concrete; for Klemperer this is mainly a result of the sophisticated propaganda of the regime. In long passages,3 Klemperer thus excuses the German people for their adherence to National Socialism, saying that they are “too enslaved and numbed by idealist and nationalist lies” (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 191 [3/4/1935]; p. 459 [22/1/1939]), “drunk” (p. 22 [12/4/1933]) and “intoxicated” (p. 525 [16/5/1940]), and that precisely for this reason they are “so stupid as to believe everything” (p. 378 [12/9/1937]). In Klemperer’s view, the National Socialists presented psychopathological symptoms: “The NSDAP4 is very clearly even more a party of the mentally ill than it is a party of criminals” (p. 229 [11/11/1935]). With this perspective, he highlights the very particular receptivity of Germans to the vision of the world presented by National Socialism, and characterises the attitude of the German people towards the regime as a type of collective psychosis, a “mental illness” or a “social malady” as shown by his use of lexical terms such as “stupor,” “intoxication” and “hysteria” (p. 11 [17/3/1933]; p. 43 [28/7/1933]; p. 113 [13/6/1934]; p. 122 [14/7/1934]).

19This way of seeing things may be explained by Klemperer’s habitus as someone from a bourgeois and educated family background. As an intellectual, when reason no longer triumphs, he views the state of things under National Socialism as a pathological. At times he expresses his dismay at the ease with which civilians lets themselves be manipulated: “What is abominable, is that a European people has handed itself over to a gang of mentally sick people and criminals, and it continues to support them” (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 122 [14/7/1934]; p. 378 [12/9/1937]; p. 133 [4/8/1934]; p. 459 [22/1/1939]; p. 624 [23/6-1/7/1941]). The manner in which he emphasises “the childish side of the psyche of the people” (p. 106 [13/5/1934]) arises no doubt from the image that Klemperer had of himself as an educated individual capable of critical discernment. In his view, German society was suffering from a deficit of education: “79 million [...] simplicitates in Germany” were easy prey because they lacked the capacity for critical thought (p. 533 [11/7/1940]).

20Klemperer adheres to the theory of Machiavellian manipulation: the German people followed Hitler because of psychological and linguistic reasons. Klemperer’s reasoning starts from the principle that it was the unprecedented and “non-German” propaganda that allowed National Socialists to “seduce the masses and keep them under their yoke for a terribly long period of time” (Klemperer, 1947/2001, p. 73). National Socialist language spread like an “epidemic” against which Germans could not defend themselves, as it was impossible for them to develop “antibodies.” The philologist sums up the main thesis of his critique of the linguistic dimension of this infection in the following terms: “Hitler’s shameless rhetoric [was able to] produce such a considerable effect [...] precisely because it attacked, with the virulence of a new epidemic, a language which had until then been spared, because it was fundamentally not very German at all” (p. 75). Klemperer depicts the Third Reich as an entity completely hostile to the individual, in which human self-conscience was to be erased and replaced by an organic community of people. Nazi totalitarianism rejected bourgeois individualism as a symptom of the decadence of the Weimar age: in the totalitarian system, the individual was entirely collectivised and therefore cancelled as a person (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 75 [31/12/1933]; p. 144 [14/9/1934]; p. 564 [10/12/1940]).

  • 5 Klemperer exonerates the German people—and especially so the German working class—“on the whole” of (...)

21Klemperer notes how some Germans manifested their discontent after Jews were marked with the Star of David, and himself records such signs when they occur: reassuring passers-by, polite officials, generous shopkeepers, helpful friends, acquaintances and even strangers offering him “small consolations of the voce populi” (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 351 [16/4/1943]); consolations that allow the author to preserve his “feeling for Germany” (p. 224 [25/8/1942]). Because of such signs of sympathy and politeness—which were punishable—from isolated German citizens at a time when the Shoah was reaching its pinnacle, Klemperer arrives at the conclusion that the people are not really antisemitic. For him, the German people were scared of revolting against the National Socialists mainly because of the Gestapo’s tyranny and the practice of denunciation, as he himself observed in 1941: “Everybody is scared of being suspected of sympathy towards Jews”5 (1995a, p. 578 [20/2/1941]). Klemperer then asks a question which appears deeply paradoxical: “The regime’s partisans must be somewhere, National Socialist propaganda must be at work somewhere” (1995b, p. 186 [27/7/1942]). Given the supposed “sympathy towards Jews” and the disapproval of marking with the Jewish star from (numerous) fellow citizens he encounters, Klemperer affirms: “There is no doubt that the people view the persecution of Jews as a sin” (1995a, p. 677 [4/10/1941]).

22In actuality, the anti-Jewish consensus of the German people, as suggested by Bajohr and Pohl (2006, p. 10), was not, for the vast majority of Germans, a consensus in favour of the extermination of Jews. As a general rule, antisemitism was not in any way motivated by a personal desire to murder. The majority of the perpetrators of crimes and a considerable section of Germans who were not directly implicated, had interiorised the image of the Jewish enemy without necessarily adopting hostile, impolite or aggressive behaviours towards Jews. The antisemitic discourse against the “international Jewry,” as a theoretical construction, was not necessarily enacted in direct contact with a Jewish person. On this, the Austrian Jewish historian Walter Grab recalls the attitude of an anti-Jewish prosecutor named Lichtenegger, a former classmate with whom he had been friends in primary school. During an antisemitic tussle—a humiliating “friction”—Grab suddenly understood that his former classmate must deeply hate him as a representative of the “Jewish race,” but yet did not wish him any harm, as a sympathetic classmate:

And this former classmate, Lichtenegger, sees meand recognises me as much as I recognise him. The recognition is unpleasant and embarrassing for him. I understand in a flash: I sense that it is not me, that is, the Jew he knew, whom he wanted to humiliate, but the anonymous Jew, the Jewish caricature invented by Nazi racial madness. The “Jew” is vermin to be crushed, destroyed, but Grab the schoolmate whom he had known as a friend, is not concerned. (Grab, 1989, p. 49)

23The respect and politeness shown towards real Jews, which Klemperer considers as signs of “sympathy towards Jews,” or even anti-Nazism, could coexist with an antisemitic attitude founded on ideology and adhesion to the NSDAP. For Klemperer, the persecution of Jews thus corresponds to a fatal chain of events, which under the impetus of National Socialism, dragged the German people into a blinding folly. The personal behaviour of the individual, in such circumstances, is both de-subjectivised and de-moralised, which makes difficult any definitive response to the question of guilt. Klemperer often meets members of the Party, who behave in a totally “acceptable” manner towards him, like the high-school teacher Rudolph Zaunick:

Zaunick [...] approached the car the other day, as we were on Bismarckplatz. Party insignia. Could easily pass without taking note of us, could at the most greet us. Party insignia! But approaches with a joy that seems sincere. How am I... Warm handshake and a sorrowful departure. Party member! (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 362 [20/6/1937]; p. 246 [11/2/1936]; p. 366 [13/7/1937]; 1995b, p. 504 [12/4/1944])

24The philologist tries to soften the shock of finding out that many of his acquaintances are Party members, by supposing that they did not have any choice. His hypothesis that party membership was not incompatible with “philosemitism” was built on the idea of an all-powerful elite with totalitarian power. Hitler, like Hamelin the pied-piper, dragged Germans into a miserable hole against their will, with his rhetoric and propaganda which were “foreign to all that Germany represented”—this is one of Klemperer’s key ideas. Thus, a Land Library (Landesbibliothek) employee in Dresden, a member of the NSDAP, was “certainly not a Nazi” but had undoubtedly been subjected to pressure, according to Klemperer’s hypothesis (Klemperer, 1995a, p. 407 [10/5/1938]).

  • 6 Klemperer, who was a victim of the persecution of Jews, sometimes gave the impression of being indu (...)

25His love for Germany made the philologist somewhat blind to the civilisational drift that the German people had embarked on before the start of the war. He somewhat idealises “ordinary” Germans who, for him, have been led into error by “non-German” National Socialist leaders (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 83 [11/5/1942]). Lower and middle-ranking NSDAP members are requalified as victims terrorised by the regime. In a paradoxical reversal of the executioner-victim dialectic, the outlawed Jew, Klemperer, offers absolution to perpetrators—antisemites, supporters and Nazis of all sorts—without them having to recognise their own guilt.6 One finds a similar inversion of the logic of persecution in the work of Elisabeth Katz, who experienced misfortunes similar to the author’s; a touching testament of their faith in the altruism of their fellow German citizens. Frau Katz, who was deported to Riga in 1942 where she was murdered (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 265 [27/10/1942]), one year before the tragic event asserted: “Every Jew has their Aryan angel” (1995a, p. 653 [21/7/1941]).

26Klemperer considers himself a representative of humanism: free, open to the world, and liberal; in an almost sacred gesture, he minimises the faults of his fellow “Aryan” citizens who have strayed from the straight and narrow. It is thus that Klemperer, for example, affirms the “innocence” of Richter, the building manager, despite his clear collaboration in prosecution processes and the “distance he takes” from the persecuted individual:

  • 7 In The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust, Carolyn J. Dean (2004, p. 96-100) offers a penetra (...)

He [Richter, A.S.] was horrified“The pigs! The dogs!”when I told him about our fortunes, he wanted toI refusedoffer me shaving soap. .. “And yet, I have to take my distance from you,” “Of course, Herr Richter, you have a wife and a child, you are completely innocent.” [...] I said to him that I, like him, was certain that collapse was imminent but that I feared there would be a general pogrom before the debacle. He did not contradict me, he took his leave with a sort of tender solemnity; as if I were leaving for the Russian front.7 (1995b, p. 241 [11/9/1942])

27Klemperer may not have been sent to the Russian front, but as a Jew he could easily have been sent to a concentration camp during the Shoah. Richter, the “German,” and Klemperer, the “Jew,” were anything but equals in Nazi Germany, but the latter continued to consider himself as belonging to the German community. It is his attachment to this belief that gives him a unique psychic force of survival under the Third Reich: following the psychological subtext of Klemperer’s observations, it was not he who was humiliated, because he had a true faith and anchor in true “Germanity”; it was the others—the silent majority and the perpetrators, the deceived and the renegades, who dishonoured and desecrated Germany and German values and virtues.

  • 8 Klemperer always distinguishes among representatives of the administrative and police apparatus, me (...)

28Klemperer interprets the apparent formal deference of officers, policemen, party members and official collaborators, under the process of Aryanisation and persecution, as an implicit internal resistance against the regime and its obsessive antisemitism.8 Hannah Arendt, on the contrary, suggests in Eichmann in Jerusalem that it was precisely the normal character of such people—though of course the extent of personal implication varied depending on the levels of responsibility and leadership held—that was the worrying sign of an unconscious erosion of moral universals, preventing any examination of conscience. Crime was legalised under the Third Reich and thus became the norm. People like Adolf Eichmann lost the sense of what was inhumane in evil, with the catastrophic consequences that we are aware of (Arendt, 1990, p. 425).

  • 9 The expression “all too human” refers to the “normality” of Adolf Eichmann which is associated with (...)

29According to Arendt, being “all too human”9 is what makes it is possible to choose between good and evil in various situations. Feeling understanding became a normal phenomenon for the majority of the population under the Third Reich and thus became banalised and deproblematised. The banality of the building manager, Richter’s indirect collaboration with the system of persecution was in effect expressed by his kindness and politeness, which masked his own role in the system.

30In my opinion, it is in effect an error to apply without nuance—as we regularly read in scholarly publications on Klemperer (Frei, 1997, p. 97)—the term “kindness” to the various manifestations of sympathy and encouragement that Klemperer encountered during this period. The typical executant of the processes of persecution and extermination often was neither fanatic nor sadistic, but, according to Arendt (1990, p. 543), a “bourgeois,” defined as an ordinary man who, due to the evaporation of public virtue, focused exclusively on his private existence, “ready to sacrifice all—beliefs, honour, dignity—at the slightest provocation.”


31Klemperer’s personal diaries are a source of historical knowledge, not of truth. To do justice to the inherent contradictions of the book, in my opinion, it must be treated with care and ponderation, taking a critical perspective towards its sources. In effect, Klemperer oscillates in an ambivalent manner between a growing belief in the “innocence” of the German people and in their “infamy” with regard to their implication in Hitler’s regime. At times, Klemperer wants to believe that Germans do not approve of the consequences of the antisemitic policies, at times he explains why they adhere to Nazism. His journals running from 1933 to 1945 neither confirm nor infirm the controversial thesis of collective guilt of the German people; rather they demonstrate that guilt and innocence coexisted and were even often intermingled. The diaries, which sometimes counter the accusation that the German civilian population was antisemitic, can be considered at odds with critical historical science; the latter historiography defends the idea that the Shoah was accomplished with the complicity and approval of German civilians, whose attitude was largely characterised by “passivity and conformity” (Steinbach & Tuchel, 1994, p. 11).

32The acuity of the micrological approach used allows Klemperer to limit recourse to abstraction and systemic approaches. The author rather creates an archive, in which he stocks information; strictly speaking, it is not in the diaries that the assessment and analysis are undertaken (or at least to a lesser extent). Using the instrument of verbatim, Klemperer develops a writing strategy that enables a textual construction of social polyphony. The diaries become a polyphonic stage of writing the quotidian. Mentions of “empathy” may be present, but much less so than notes on Nazi indoctrination. Klemperer’s diaries thus bear a strong resemblance to a field notebook on ideology, self-image and in particular, on “empathy” of the “ordinary people” towards Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.

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1 Not everyone approved of Jews being obliged to wear the Star of David, as can be gleaned from various articles by Jews and non-Jews in German newspapers. On this topic, see for example Andreas-Friedrich, 1986, p. 82 [19/9/1941]; Haecker, 1949, p. 243 [13/9/1941].

2 On attitudes among German people towards antisemitism, see notably chapter 4 in David Bankier’s The Germans and the Final Solution (1992, p. 67-88).

3 This tendency to excuse the German people, which Nathan Stoltzfus (2001, p. 547) also highlights in his commentary on Klemperer’s diaries, changed in 1945, as Klemperer fled through Bavaria, towards a condemnation of the passivity of the German people and an assertion of their collective guilt.

4 National Socialist German Workers Party.

5 Klemperer exonerates the German people—and especially so the German working class—“on the whole” of hostility towards Jews; their guilt is transferred in part to the National Socialists, and in part towards a few isolated informers: “I always observe in the men and women workers a behaviour towards Jews that is fully comradely, impartial, and often downright cordial. Of course, there is always an informer or a traitor somewhere among them. But that does not, on the whole, change the fact that they are certainly not anti-Semites” (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 387 [4/6/1943]). The author constantly emphasises the goodwill and sympathy of non-Jewish workers and employees in businesses (p. 372 [5/5/1943]; p. 437; p. 455 [11/12/1943]; p. 469 [5/1/1944]) where, for instance, Klemperer benefits from free meals and supplementary food rations.

6 Klemperer, who was a victim of the persecution of Jews, sometimes gave the impression of being indulgent towards “ordinary” antisemites because, in the end, they could not be held responsible for the “process of intellectual regression of the people” of which they themselves were victims. In a revealing passage from 1944, for example, one reads: “This man, who without doubt is not a Nazi, certainly believes that Germany is in a position of legitimate defence, in an imposed war and fully in the right, he certainly believes, at least to a large extent, in the culpability of the ‘international Jewry’, etc., etc. The National Socialists may have erred in the conduct of the war, but certainly not in their propaganda. I must always remember Hitler’s words, he does not speak for professors” (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 498 [19/3/1944]).

7 In The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust, Carolyn J. Dean (2004, p. 96-100) offers a penetrating analysis of this passage in Klemperer’s diaries. Richter is presented there as a typical example of the complicit spectator: he has normalised the imminent death of Klemperer and has therefore erased him both as a human being and as a German citizen. Henry Ashby Turner Jr. (1999, p. 389) arrives at a completely different conclusion, considering Richter as a perfect example of the well-intentioned official at the service of National Socialism.

8 Klemperer always distinguishes among representatives of the administrative and police apparatus, members of the SS, the SA and the Gestapo, who for him were violent, brutish and merciless; he calls them the regime’s guards and torturers, and unrepresentative of the German people (Klemperer, 1995b, p. 75 [28/4/1942]; p. 153 [3/7/1942]). Klemperer underscores, for example, the difference between the police and the Gestapo in the following manner: “The police are always polite, always in emphatic opposition to the Gestapo” (p. 189 [29/7/1942]).

9 The expression “all too human” refers to the “normality” of Adolf Eichmann which is associated with a way of submitting to “laws,” that is to the orders of the Nazi state. Nonetheless, as Claude Lanzmann shows in Le dernier des injustes (2015), Eichmann was not as “normal” as Arendt thought. He was characterised by a particular level of perversity and sadism.

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Arvi Sepp, « Vox populi and antisemitism: Victor Klemperer on the selective “empathy” of Germans towards Jews in the Third Reich »Hybrid [En ligne], 10 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2023, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Arvi Sepp

Arvi Sepp studied German philology, sociology and literary theory at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the Université Catholique de Louvain, Humboldt-Universität Berlin and Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen. He is a professor of German culture and literature and translation studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). He is also a visiting scholar in German Jewish literature at the Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Antwerp. He has published several papers on German literature, minority literatures, translation studies and literary theory. He is the author of Topographie des Alltags. Eine kulturwissenschaftliche Lektüre von Victor Klemperers Tagebüchern 1933–1945 [Topography of the Everyday. A Cultural Studies Reading of Victor Klemperer’s Diaries] (Fink, 2016), among others. He has won several academic prizes, including the Tauber Institute Award (Brandeis University, USA), the Jacques Rosenberg Prize of the Auschwitz Foundation (Brussels) and the Fritz Halbers Award (Leo Baeck Institute, New York, USA).

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