Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck translated from the German by Paul Rubens NYRB Classics (2013) Originally published in 1947. 264 pp
This extraordinary series of sporadically-made Third Reich era diary entries is a triumph in each possible respect. It can be recommended without reservation as an indispensable document to anyone with even the slightest interest in Nazi Germany or in totalitarianism, in theory or in practice, within which category it bears the stiffest of comparisons to the work of George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, or Czeslaw Milosz. I go further. If, like Evelyn Waugh, you find that quality of prose is the only reasonable measure of whether or not something is worth reading irrespective — or even in spite — of subject matter, Diary Of A Man In Despair is a total success on those terms too. Moreover, it demands to be read for the courage it took to write, as its discovery would have been ample to get the author killed. To take a pencil and underline memorable passages or things you might like to point out to someone else could easily leave less than half of it untouched. As a literary achievement it takes hatred, insults and invective, as The New York Times said, to the level of art. It shows what such virtues as decency and love of freedom, an enquiring mind and scepticism towards those in authority can achieve, especially when one is unrestrained by an editor to satisfy or readership to sate. Friedrich Reck must have known that he could well have been writing for a readership he would never encounter. Although the Nazis got him in the end, the diaries indeed survived. A morally conscious individual who finds even vague inspiration in Bulgakov’s cry of ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’ is implored to read this book.
The grandiosity of Reck’s opposition to the Nazis is made all the more impressive by his fitting exactly the sort of category of man out of which the party did rather well. He was an inflexible conservative, a monarchist and reactionary who was unconvinced about the merits of democracy. His Catholicism was devout and he was equally convinced that Satan existed. His aristocratic snobbery towards the “termites” and “ants” who constitute “mass-man” is at times self-parodying. We begin in May 1936 with a borderline abusive yet somehow touching reminiscence about Spengler, a writer and friend who has recently committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. A couple of anecdotes conclude in his being described as “truly the most humourless man I have ever met,” a theme which brings us for the first time to Hitler and the Nazis:
. . . who who have every prospect of dying of a wretchedness compounded by their own deep-rooted humourlessness and the dreary monotony of public life, which, under their domination, has taken on the rigidity of a corpse and is now in its fourth year of suffocating us to death.
There is some early optimism espoused here, as it forecasts the regime’s collapse. By July 1936, however, when Reck next makes an entry, we are in Munich, “appearing almost foreign.” And the German people have, he says, “every prospect of losing whatever remains of our freedom of movement, and thus of becoming completely the prisoners of this horde of vicious apes.” He provides his version of how Hitler came to power and the subsequent descent into “unutterable misery.” President von Hindenburg, who (to greatly simplify complicated matters) gave ascent to Hitler’s demand for the chancellorship, gets off rather lightly and is excused — as Reck “will not judge a dead man” — as one “who did not have the stature for the position he was given.” And we gain an insight into the sort of government Reck would prefer: an autocratic one, at least for the time being, because “the Germans as they now are need a master,” though naturally not the “forelocked gypsy type we have been given to lead us.”
Two entries in and we know the Nazi dictatorship is at the controls and that Reck hates it, yet is forced by the regime’s nature to keep his counsel in public. But what of the way in which this was borne out in everyday life? What of the daily horrors and indignities visited upon those who the Nazis, for whatever spurious reasons, did not like? What of the impact on public life? Even prior to the wartime entries, Reck gives us dozens of examples. There is Willi Schmid, a music critic who is killed in the Roem putsch — “through oversight — you might say, unfortunate confusion of identity” — by a gang of Nazi thugs who murdered every Schmid they could find in the phone book until they were certain they had the one they wanted. “This,” Reck tells us with a sigh, “is known as being better safe than sorry.” A doctor confides that most of the athletes heading to the 1936 Olympic Games are impotent, stuffed full of drugs in order to win medals, and prove Aryan superiority. We learn that “everywhere in the hotel corridors one sees in front of doors the repulsive jackboots of the newly promoted officers with their sergeant’s faces.” He recounts shaving in his Munich hotel and hearing a thud. On investigation he sees “a man lying in the street, legs spread wide, skull cracked and brains in a pool of blood on the pavement.” It emerges that the man was an SS officer who drank himself stupid and jumped from a high window because he was under investigation for taking part in a plot against Hitler. Reck comments on rigged votes and “shabby, wan, ridiculous” Berlin as an austerity programme is imposed before war, leaving . . .
. . . the menus (to) offer little, the wine is even more questionable than usual, the linen is of doubtful cleanliness. The coffee is miserable, there is no petrol for the taxis, and since repairmen have been drafted for work on fortifications, the hotels are in a sorry state.
By March 1938 and anschluss with Austria, Reck can see that the “half grown louts” of the Hitler Youth and SS, with their “ethical defect,” are glorying in “the inevitable Second World War.” There are some lessons here for those present-day appeasers who think the way to tackle terrorism is self-flagellation and the performance of desperate contortions designed not to reverse its proliferation but to avoid any possible risk of offending anyone’s religious sensibilities.
What did they do? They stood by and watched, and thus made impossible any resistance from inside Germany. What are they doing now? They are standing by and watching, preoccupied with figuring out a way to avoid irritating Herr Hitler — and so making any resistance even more impossible.
And with war, Reck simultaneously laments and forecasts Germany’s devastation.
I am a German, I encircle this land in which I live with all my love. . . . I tremble for each tree and each wood that disappears, for each silent valley that is devastated. . . . A man must hate this Germany if he is to love it.
Part of what adjoins Reck to what is familiar of the period to present-day readers are major events which are alluded to. Already mentioned are anschluss and the Roem putsch, but in December 1938 we see Kristallnacht, for which Reck blames the “limping haberdashery salesman” Josef Goebbels. It is plain that many Jews were amongst Reck’s friends, at least until they had all left Germany, and although no reference is made to this in the diaries he employed a Jewish secretary for much of his working life. “Dictators must stage a new fireworks show every five months in order to maintain the allegiance of the canaille,” Reck posits. We receive the story of a Jewish lady who was denounced by a Nazi supporter who coveted her smart two room Munich apartment. Refusing to move and aware that this was sufficient for imprisonment or worse, “she turned with an urgent plea for a quick-acting poison” to a Doctor, who, convinced of the hopelessness of the situation, gave her the cyanide with which she killed herself. “Her denouncer,” says Reck, “had grown impatient and was at her door at the time.”
In July 1938 we receive a few diverting passages about the first round knock-out suffered by the reluctant Nazi darling Max Schmeling at the hands of Joe Louis in their heavyweight title rematch in New York. Reck revels in it, having “sat until the dawn of this warm summer day to hear the outcome of this fight. When we heard that the entire drama over there had been played out in two minutes, we broke into laughter.”
These glimpses of optimism and good cheer more or less disappear as war begins and Reck’s outlook progressively worsens, though the ability to be funny never dissipates. It is a considerable aspect of Reck’s craft that he is able to be amusing about the most serious of matters; he visits the Austrian city of Villach, where “a man in a well-cut suit is almost enough to stop the traffic” and where the hotel “has the smell of the Balkans about it.” As for Hitler, he is “an effigy of Bismarck who would certainly have had to go to bed for four weeks if he had ever tried to eat just one of Bismarck’s breakfasts,” a “vegetable Genghis Khan,” “the Chief Eunuch,” “a head waiter closing his hand around a tip,” and a “poor dung face.”
It is as war begins that the comparisons with Orwell can be made more specifically than generally, especially when Reck sarcastically discusses the Nazis bringing “new glory to the German language.”
And when they are told that their German is the German of the latrine wall and the pimp, they turn very nasty indeed, and roar that they are soldiers, and that this happens to be how soldiers talk, and if you don’t believe it, you can find out in a concentration camp.
A further obvious comparison is to be made when Reck discusses downed American pilots who are only saved from being pulled apart by the mob by a German soldier “who declared he would not allow it and waved his gun as a warning, which saved these defenceless men from this indignity.”
You really have only to scratch the surface of your average non-bourgeois to find understanding that good old substance of human decency and that inborn aversion to the actions of canaille.
One is put in mind here of the passage in Orwell’s Looking Back on the Spanish War when he recounts being unable to pull the trigger on a fascist he had in his rifle sights when he saw that his foe had his trousers round his ankles.
The only remaining glimpses of optimism as the Nazis, by now “drunk with victory,” swept all before them in the early period of the war are drawn from what Reck takes as evidence of a secret desire on the part of his fellow Germans to see the back of them too. The failure of the attempt to assassinate Hitler in November 1939 leads Reck to optimistically — and wholly inaccurately — surmise that “there are, I think, probably no more than a thousand native Munichers who are not dejected that the attack failed.” This does raise one of the two major questions posed by this book; how many people agreed with Reck? If one is to take Orwell’s portrayal of totalitarianism in Coming Up for Air, wherein:
. . . the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader until they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke.
Then the answer must be quite a lot of people. Reck may have been being optimistic, which he himself betrays by his frequent descriptions of the oafish Nazi supporters he encounters amongst ordinary people. As the war deepens and “the monster has been given the evil tidings of Stalingrad” there are more indications of dissent, encouraging Reck that “a dirty end, in shame and degradation and the mocking laughter of the rest of the world!” is at hand. This February 1943 entry, not that it is evident that Reck knew it, followed by a few months the execution of Otto Hampel, whose production with his wife of anti-Nazi postcards was the basis of the story in Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. It cannot be, then, that Reck opposed the Nazis alone, but the evidence that Orwell’s depiction of the public attitude in a totalitarian state is one that tallies with the Germany of the day is hardly abundant. An exception, however, is demonstrated by Reck’s impossibly moving tribute to “the first Germans of a great rebirth of the spirit,” Peter and Sophie Scholl, who “departed from this life quietly, and gravely and with wonderful dignity” by the blade of the guillotine after they were found guilty of producing anti-Nazi literature.
The second key question bound to be asked is how much of this account is accurate. On this point there is evidence of exaggeration, or at least of Reck’s susceptibility to gossip. He makes reference to a “Reich Office for Ethics in Business Operations” which never existed, and alleges the January 1940 suicide of Unity Mitford, a fanatically fascist upper class English harridan with a Hitler fetish who in fact died of natural causes in 1948. Hitler is said to have “a complete harem of young girls,” something for which there is no evidence. These, however, amount to minor blemishes in an environment in which the only available news was nothing but exactly what the Nazis required you to hear. The argument over Reck’s accuracy is adumbrated by Richard J. Evans in the book’s afterword, to which the best contribution is Ernst Niekisch’s, who “didn’t believe a word (Reck) said . . . but just let him be, enjoy it, he lies so beautifully!”
Anthony Powell said of Reck’s beloved Dostoyevsky that his prized qualities were “the ability to be at once grotesque yet classical, funny and at the same time terrifying.” Combine this with Nadine Gordimer’s view was that one should try to write posthumously, which Christopher Hitchens later took to mean “as if constraints of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and . . . intellectual opinion did not operate,” and you have a pretty fair simulacrum of Reck’s substantial craft. He must have known he was writing what would not be read until either he or the regime was dead; the resulting joyous abandon with which he launches his attacks could scarcely epitomise this spirit any better.
Driven as I am by my own inner necessity, I must ignore the warning and continue these notes, which are intended as a contribution to the cultural history of the Nazi period. Night after night I hide this record deep in the woods on my land . . . constantly on watch lest I am observed, constantly changing my hiding place.
It ends miserably. Though the Nazis did not discover Reck’s manuscript, he was denounced, arrested, and eventually sent to Dachau concentration camp, where he died of typhus before the Holocaust, the worst Nazi horror of all, was made visible to him. This savage coda heightens the impression that although one can hope to read a book which makes a more profound impression this, or indeed any other year, perhaps one may not expect to.
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