IT CAN sometimes seem that history is a series of missed opportunities. Lenin, facing the gargantuan task of building a new society from the backward Russia, knew that “the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism.”
The savagely repressed 1918-19 German revolution in the wake of the country’s defeat in WWI was certainly one of those moments when our modern world could have been shaped very differently.
Not that Victor Klemperer, in this hitherto unpublished Munich diary of the period — including his reports to a conservative Leipzig newspaper depicting the chaos of the evolving crisis — would have agreed.
As an academic philologist at Munich University, he came into contact with many of the leading figures whom he describes in detail, if subjectively, and he reports the confused situation with almost amused detachment.
Although admiring the “unquestioning heroism” of the doomed Sparticists, facing the ruthless White terror of overwhelming numbers of the Freikorps troops which were largely made up of the demobbed officer class, he had no time for either the revolutionaries nor sympathy for the Munich bourgeoisie, viewing the struggle as a tragi-comedy if not a “farce.”
Having pragmatically converted from Judaism for professional reasons, Klemperer was keenly aware of the growing currents of anti-semitism within the bourgeoisie.
Herein lies the irony of his personal history. The magnificent three volumes of his later diaries, covering his precarious daily existence in Dresden from the nazi seizure of power, through the war and finally his time as a prominent academic in the GDR, undoubtedly comprise the most vivid and intimate portrayal of the mid-20th-century German nightmare.
Thankfully, Klemperer and his diaries narrowly survived. But the talented commentator, who could view with Olympian detachment the earlier political traumas which led inevitably to the Hitlerian hell he later suffered personally, came to understand that “one cannot be a mere bystander when one is German.”