Friedrich Reck was a self-proclaimed conservative who, while the Nazis held power in Germany, longed for the days of monarchy, of order and nobility. He saw the Nazis as a horde of vicious apes and, over the course of eight years, put his life in danger as he kept a kind of journal of hatred and lamentation, cursing the Nazis and the German people for allowing such a brutish force to destroy what was once a great nation. Arrested in 1944 and executed (or did he simply die in a concentration camp) in early 1945, his diary was only published posthumously as Diary of a Man in Despair (Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten, 1947; tr. from the German by Paul Rubens, 2000). A fascinating historical document, it is also a great piece of literary, declamatory art.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

The book begins with an entry in 1936. Its first line: “Spengler is dead, then.” It’s been three years since Hitler took power, and Reck still cannot believe such a weak, short, mouse of a man could be leader of Germany. Spengler was a philosopher who in the early 1930s refused to accept Nazi ideals; he was a man Reck looked to for solidarity in his quest to delegitimize Hitler and return Germany to what it should be. But now Spengler is dead, Spengler, who was a bulwark, a force, a true “man,” the exact opposite of the diminuitive Hitler:

I still remember our first meeting, when Albers brought him to my house. On the little carriage which carried him from the station, and which was hardly built with such loads in mind, sat a massive figure who appeared even more enormous by virtue of the thick overcoat he wore. Everything about him had the effect of extraordinary permanence and solidity: the deep bass voice; the tweed jacket, already, at that time, almost habitual; the appetite at dinner; and at night, the truly Cyclopean snoring, loud as a series of buzz saws, which frightened the other guests at my Chiemgau country house out of their peaceful slumbers.

As the book continues, Reck becomes more and more disheartened, more and more pessimistic about the future of Germany. At first, thinking some foreign aid would stop this experiment in barbarism early he soon sees “the inevitable Second World War.” He can’t stand the fact that it is his own people causing such destruction:

My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brain over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself to be dominated by the street-corner  idlers of yesterday, but actually, height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its shame for the shame that it is.

I found the book fascinating throughout. Reck is perhaps not our perfect hero, but his principled and dangerous stand against the Nazis is heroic and poignantly written down in this book he had to keep buried to avoid capture and execution.

Besides being a fascinating piece of history, a first-person account from the ground (a perspective that does cause Reck to get a number of details wrong, but that also exemplifies just how chaotic the time could be), the book is also a magnificent piece of poetry. One could liken many passages to Psalms, and I thought many times of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah as he mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and his people as well as connecting the tragedies to their own faults and hoping, almost beyond hope, that somehow things might be recovered:

You threaten all who oppose you with death, but you forget: our hatred is a deadly poison. It will creep into your blood, and we will die shouting with joy when our hate pulls you down with us into the depths.

Let my life be fulfilled in this way, and let my death come when this task is completed! This promise has come out of the heart of the people you are now striking, and I set it down, at this moment, since it applies to you as well as to us:

If you banish God from the earth, we will meet him under the earth. And then we, the underground men, will sing a song to God, who is joy . . .

We know how this ends before we begin the book, but that doesn’t lessen the power of the last few chapters in 1944 when Reck still has no idea how or even if this terror, which he hoped would be quashed soon after it began, will end. Still, the book somehow ends on a jubilant note of relief and hope, and then we simply see the empty pages beyond the last words. An important book that must be read.

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