Victor Klemperer

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Victor Klemperer
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S90733, Victor Klemperer.jpg
Born (1881-10-09)9 October 1881
Landsberg an der Warthe, Brandenburg, Prussia, Germany,
today Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland
Died 11 February 1960(1960-02-11) (aged 78)
Dresden, East Germany
Occupation Professor
Spouse(s) Eva Klemperer née Schlemmer (1882-07-12-->–1951)
Hadwig Klemperer née Kirchner (1952–1960)
Parent(s) Wilhelm Klemperer
Henriette Klemperer née Frankel

Victor Klemperer (9 October 1881 – 11 February 1960) was a diarist whose journals, published in Germany in 1995, detailed his life under the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic. His journals covering the period of the Third Reich have since become standard sources, and have been extensively quoted by Saul Friedländer,[1] Michael Burleigh,[2] Richard J. Evans[3] and Max Hastings.[4]

Early life[edit]

Klemperer was born in Landsberg an der Warthe (now Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland) to a Jewish family. His parents were Dr. Wilhelm Klemperer, a rabbi, and Henriette née Frankel. He was brother to the physicians Felix Klemperer and Georg Klemperer (who both also consulted Vladimir Lenin), cousin to the conductor Otto Klemperer, and first cousin once removed to Otto's son, the actor Werner Klemperer.

Victor Klemperer attended several Gymnasien. He was a student of philosophy, Romance and German studies at universities in Munich, Geneva, Paris and Berlin from 1902 to 1905, and later worked as a journalist and writer in Berlin, until he resumed his studies in Munich from 1912. He completed his doctorate (on Montesquieu) in 1913 and was habilitated under the supervision of Karl Vossler in 1914. From 1914 to 1915, Klemperer lectured at the University of Naples, after which he became a decorated military volunteer in World War I.[5]

In Nazi Germany[edit]

The Maxim Gorki Street No 16 in Pirna, where the resistance was hiding his diaries with success.

Despite his conversion to Protestantism in 1912 and his strong identification with German culture, Klemperer's life started to worsen considerably after the Nazis' seizure of power in 1933.

Klemperer's diary, which he kept up throughout the Nazi era, provides an exceptional account of day-to-day life under the tyranny of the Third Reich. Two of the three volumes of his diaries that have been published in English translations, "I Shall Bear Witness" and "To the Bitter End," concern this period. This diary also details the Nazis' perversion of the German language for propaganda purposes in entries that Klemperer used as the basis for his postwar book LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii.

Chiefly, Klemperer's diary chronicles the daily life of restricted Jews during the Nazi terror, including the onset of a succession of prohibitions concerning many aspects of everyday existence, such as finances, transportation, medical care, the maintenance and use of household help, food and diet, and the possession of appliances, newspapers, and other items. He also gives accounts of suicides, household searches, and evacuations of friends, mostly to Theresienstadt. In one entry written in May 1942, the Klemperers are forced to put down their household cat, a tomcat named Maschel, because of a restriction as to Jews' ownership of pets. In addition, the diary hints at the profound paucity of information Klemperer and his fellow victims had available to them concerning the nature of atrocities being conducted in places such as Theresienstadt following transports and evacuations.

From 1935, under the Nuremberg Laws of Citizenship and Race, Klemperer was stripped of his academic title, his job, his citizenship and his freedom, and he was eventually forced to work in a factory and as a day laborer. In some passages, Klemperer writes of being forced, despite his bad heart, to shovel snow. Since his wife, Eva, was "Aryan," Klemperer avoided deportation for most of the war, but in 1940, he was rehoused under miserable conditions in a "Jews' House" (Judenhaus), where he was routinely questioned, mistreated, and humiliated by the Gestapo. In the diary, the much-feared Gestapo is seen carrying out daily, humiliating, and brutal house searches, delivering beatings, hurling insults, and robbing inhabitants of coveted foodstuffs and other household items.


Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city
Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France

On 13 February 1945, the day preceding the night bombing of Dresden, Klemperer assisted in delivering notices of deportation to some of the last remaining members of the Jewish community in Dresden. Fearful that he too would soon be sent to his death, he used the confusion created by Allied bombings that night to remove his yellow star, join a refugee column, and escape into American-controlled territory. He and his wife survived, and Klemperer's diary narrates their return, largely on foot through Bavaria and Eastern Germany, to their house in Dölzschen, on the outskirts of Dresden. They managed to reclaim the house, which had been "aryanised" under the Nazis.


After the war, Klemperer became a significant cultural figure in East Germany, lecturing at the universities of Greifswald, Berlin and Halle. He was a delegate of the Cultural Association of the GDR in the GDR's Parliament (Volkskammer) from 1950 to 1958, and frequently mentions in his later diary his frustration at its lack of power and its largely ceremonial role.

Klemperer's diary was published in 1995 as Tagebücher (Berlin, Aufbau). It was an immediate literary sensation and rapidly became a bestseller in Germany. An English translation of the years spanning the Nazi seizure of power through Klemperer's death has appeared in three volumes: I Will Bear Witness (1933 to 1941), To The Bitter End (1942 to 1945) and The Lesser Evil (1945 to 1959).

In 1995, Victor Klemperer was posthumously awarded the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis for his work, Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten. Tagebücher 1933–1945.


In 2000, Herbert Gantschacher wrote, together with Katharina and Jürgen Rostock, the documentary play Chronicle 1933-1945 using original documents from the biographies of Robert Ley and Victor Klemperer. The first performance took place in 2000 in the documentation centre at the planned "Strength Through Joy" beach resort Prora on the island of Rügen in Germany.[6]

In 2003, Stan Neumann directed a documentary based on Klemperer's diaries, La langue ne ment pas (Language does not lie), which considers the importance of Klemperer’s observations and the role of the witness in extreme situations.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See: Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-39 Harper Perennial, 1998 ISBN 978-0-06-092878-0 and Nazi Germany and the Jews: the Years of Destruction, 1939-45 Harper Perennial, 2008 ISBN 978-0-06-093048-6
  2. ^ See: The Third Reich: A New History Hill and Wang, 2001 ISBN 978-0-8090-9326-7
  3. ^ See his "Third Reich Trilogy", The Coming of the Third Reich Penguin, 2005 ISBN 978-0-14-303469-8, The Third Reich in Power Penguin, 2006 ISBN 978-0-14-303790-3, The Third Reich at War Penguin, 2009 ISBN 978-1-59420-206-3
  4. ^ See: Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, Doubleday, 2011 ISBN 978-0-30-7957184
  5. ^ Because of this decoration he was not dismissed by the Nazis from his professorship immediately after April 1933, but two years later.
  6. ^


  • Klemperer, Victor, I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933-41, translated by Martin Chalmers, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998
  • Klemperer, Victor, To the Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1942-1945, translated by Martin Chalmers, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999
  • Klemperer, Victor, The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1945-1959, translated by Martin Chalmers, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003
  • Victor Klemperer, Early life at the Aufbau-Verlag website (German)
  • Victor Klemperer Kolleg, Berlin (German)
  • Bartov, Omer, "The Last German", in The New Republic, 1998-12-28, pp. 34+ (scholarly overview of Klemperer's diaries by a professor at Brown University)

External links[edit]