I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-41
By Victor Klemperer
Random House, 1998, 519 pp.
My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin
By Peter Gay
Yale University Press, 1998, 240 pp.
Hitler's Exiles: Personal Stories of the Flight from Nazi Germany to America
Edited by Mark W. Anderson
New Press, 1998, 354 pp.
Three recent volumes look at what Nazism meant for its victims. The most impressive is Klemperer's story, revealing a remarkable man who sought sanity through his literary work, his autobiography, and his diary. A Jew converted to Protestantism, he taught French literature at Dresden Technical University from 1920 until his dismissal in 1935. His chronicle is fascinating, providing a meticulous account of a gradual descent into a hell composed of restrictions, humiliations, and exclusions. Amid growing isolation, he shows how Jews were deprived of resources, rights, and hope, especially after emigration became nearly impossible in 1939. Despite everything, Klemperer always saw himself as a German -- or rather, as a German ex-nationalist and an anti-Zionist who opposed a Jewish state because he feared it would re-create nationalist excesses. His fascination with the language of the Third Reich and his account of a week in jail are particularly gripping. Although a few neighbors and students showed sympathy, his portrayal of general German attitudes is full of intense indignation -- and certainly not so different from Daniel Goldhagen's thesis, despite what Martin Chalmers says in his informative preface.
Peter Gay's memoir recounts his years as a young Jew in Hitler's Germany and his attitude toward his native country after emigration in 1939. Gay and his family felt as German as the Klemperers and did not suffer much in the first five years of Hitler's rule. It was not until Kristallnacht in November 1938 that staying in Germany became unthinkable, Gay argues. One of his primary motives for writing this memoir was to explain why so many German Jews did not leave as soon as Hitler came to power. Gay leaves us with an account full of nuance and ambivalence.
In contrast, Hitler's Exiles is a collection of personal stories of Germans (not all Jews) who fled the Third Reich, offering a kaleidoscopic view of the changes in their lives after 1933 and the formidable obstacles blocking escape from Germany. It also provides varied and searing accounts of the pain of exile. Sometimes the destination countries, such as France, treated the emigres badly, and integration often proved difficult and incomplete. The editor who brought together these diverse pieces deserves gratitude for producing a book that vividly illustrates the human side -- and the bitter costs -- of diaspora.