Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Book Review: My Opposition

In 1933 Friedrich Kellner seemed to be on wrong side of history. A forty-eight year old civil servant living in the German city of Mainz and a veteran who had fought for Imperial Germany in the First World War, Kellner was a Social Democrat who had been loud in his opposition to the Nazis as the party rose to power in the 1920s and 1930s. When the Nazis won control of the government in 1933, it was clear they would take no time in settling scores with their opponents. Rather than waiting for retribution, Kellner, accepted a new job as the administrative manager of the courthouse in the small town of Laubach and took his wife Pauline and seventeen-year-old son Fritz to live there.

In Laubach Kellner kept a lower profile, and although he was known to dislike the party his position with the court gave him some protection from harassment by party enthusiasts, of which the town had many. Their son Fritz fell in with a Nazi supporting crowd in Laubach, and as Kellner feared that a war was coming, he succeeded in arranging Fritz's emigration to New York in 1935. There, Fritz would continue his Nazi sympathies but also eventually marry a Jewish immigrant woman with whom he had three children (including the editor of Freidrich Kellner's diaries, Robert Scott Kellner) and join the American army in 1943.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Friedrich Kellner began to keep a secret diary, chronicling events and the opinions about the war expressed by coworkers, family, and neighbors. He also included clippings from many German newspapers and official statements. This diary is what has now been published as My Opposition: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner, A German against the Third Reich, out last month from Cambridge University Press. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy, though due to time constraints I only finished the book this last week.

We often read in history books statements about what people knew and thought during historical events. What's particularly interesting reading an extensive diary account such as this is seeing precisely what a German man with his eyes open (ordinary in all senses other than being anti-Nazi) saw and thought as events unfolded. The following are some themed collections of bits that caught my attention.

On the actions of the Western powers in the lead up to the war:

"April 16, 1940: How much different it could have been in Europe if the cowardly North American people had shown themselves to be more heroic? How can a people be so shortsighted and tell themselves, 'I sit on an island, and do not concern myself with the rest of the world'? Did it really not come to mind Hitler would not be content with a poor Europe but intended -- no matter what -- to go where there was still something to rob and steal? Do the Americans really not see that?"

"May 11, 1940: Mr. Chamberlain finally resigned from office. With that, an unbelievably pathetic nincompoop has finally disappeared. Now the crackpot Nazis will be shown what it is like to become an enemy of the entire world. It will cost many victims until reason slowly awakens our memories to what was better in the past. This will be a harsh lesson for a generation that has become so crazy. If only they can be cured, then these victims will not have died without meaning."

"May 29, 1940: The carnage will eventually come to an end, but the Western powers will carry the historical guilt for not promptly providing the most intensive preventative measures against Germany's incessant politics of aggression. Possibilities existed, but no actions were taken. Spineless policies do not change the mind of a tyrant. The sharpest means would still be too mild. Where is the English fleet?"

Reactions to the invasion of Russia:
"June 23, 1941: The people's opinion! Such opinion does not come from within the individual. This is formed "from on high" and implanted in a person's brain. From now on I will record more of what is being said around here so I can be in a position later to offer a picture of the German people's state of mind.

Frauline Helga Elbe, 18 years old: 'It is completely fine with me that we attacked Russia, otherwise they would have attacked us. Two years ago they took territory we had conquered.'

Court Judge Dr. Hornef is depressed about the war spreading.

Court Bailiff Brunner: 'We will not have an easy task with Russia, and the war will no longer be ended this year.' Brunner has become a skeptic."

"June 28, 1941: A woman said: 'On Sunday (when the war began against Russia) I had some hesitation, but today things appear favorable. Unlike the former war, we now have allies, and so far everything has worked out well.
This war will end quickly when the Russians in the interior rebel.'

Thus spoke the lady with the Prussian accent. Always the same song. We have had good luck, so we can covet more. Without much ado, war will cover the entire world -- precisely because 'so far everything has worked out well.' Such is the German: not a single feeling for the fate of other people. The entire world can be demolished if only he -- the magnificent German -- can live on the debris.

Worthy contemporaries, how will it be if the page is turned and we stand against a singularly strong Russia, one the defends itself stubbornly? Then will I contemplate your stupid faces. Never in the entire history of mankind have a people been more deserving of punishment than the Germans -- for boundless arrogance."

Even in the fall 1941, almost a year before the building of the extermination centers such as Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, and while Auschwitz was still just a camp for Russian POWs, word of mass killings of Jews in the East was getting back to ordinary Germans.

In the following year, he also mentions the deportation and murder of local German Jews. People knew.

"October 28, 1941: A soldier on leave here said he personally witnessed a terrible atrocity in the occupied part of Poland. He watched as naked Jewish men and women were placed in front of a long deep ditch and, upon the order of the SS, were shot by Ukrainians in the back of their heads, and they fell into the ditch. Then the ditch was filled in as screams kept coming from it!!

These inhuman atrocities are so terrible that even the Ukrainians who were used for manual labor suffered nervous breakdowns. All soldiers who had knowledge of these bestial actions of these Nazi subhuman beings were of the same opinion that the German people should already be trembling in their shoes because of the coming retribution.

There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts. Of course, in the case of retribution the innocent will have to suffer along with them. Ninety-nine percent of the German people, directly or indirectly, carry the guilt of the present situation. Therefore we can only say this: Those who travel together, hang together."

"December 15, 1941: It is reported that in some areas Jews are being transported somewhere. They are permitted to take a little money and about 60 pounds of baggage. The Nazis are proud of their animal protection laws.  But the suffering they cause the Jews proves they treat Jews worse than animals. This cruel, despicable, and sadistic treatment of the Jews that has lasted now several years -- with its final goal of extermination -- is the biggest stain on the honor of Germany. They will never be able to erase these crimes."

"September 16, 1942: In the last few days the Jews from this region have been removed. The families Strauss and Heynemann were taken from Laubach. I heard from a reliable source all the Jews were taken to Poland and murdered by SS brigades.

This cruelty is horrible. Such atrocities will never be able to be erased from the book of humanity. Our murderous regime has for all times besmirched the name "Germany." It is unfathomable for a decent German that no one can stop the activities of these Hitler bandits."

On the entrance of the US into the war:
"December 9, 1941: A lady from Dusseldorf, quartered in Laubach with the Frey family, expressed her feelings about the war the Japanese have instigated in the Far East: 'Is it not wonderful, this new war?'

There are many examples of this brutal Aryan to be found in the warmongering Germany. They believe the war in the Pacific will take a load of Germany."

"December 12, 1941: Hitler and Mussolini have declared war on the USA! With my attitude it is not necessary to add a commentary to this. Whom God wants to destroy, he first strikes with blindness.

Any objective or normal person, even one favorable toward Germany, would have to conclude these declarations will prolong the war. In face the war can only end in the total defeat of the Axis members (Germany, Italy, and Japan). However, if anyone supposes the majority of the German public agrees with me on this, he is in for a disappointment."

As the war progresses and things begin to turn against Germany, Kellner writes repeatedly about about how the punishment of the guilty is necessary even at the expense of the innocent, and about how he hopes that Germany will be forced to utter and unconditional defeat in order to prevent people from inventing another "stab in the back" myth about how Germany could have won the war had they simply tried with all their vigor.
"August 13, 1942: English airplanes attacked Mainz in the night of August 11-12. ... We just received a registered letter and a telegram from Mainz. 'Everyone is well. Katie' At least the worry about relatives is over. Katie described what occurred in broad strokes. According to her, it must have been a horrible night. It is really sad the nice ones also have to suffer. But those who were happy about the air raids on England cannot be punished brutally enough. The German people have to feel firsthand what war means. Until now they could wreak havoc and bring death and destruction to foreign countries with impunity."

"September 17, 1942: ... How and where will Hitler come to an end? I do not want to be a prophet on this point. Hopefully Hitler remains alive up to the final destruction. The storytellers must be denied their material because it is clear they would use an early death as an excuse for the bad ending: 'If only Hitler had not been killed, we never would have lost this war.' That would be the leitmotiv of all the history falsifiers. 'With Hitler into the abyss.' that is what I wish for the German nation."

[In response to the failure of the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler] "July 27, 1944: By the way, I welcome the rescue of the Fuhrer because for tactical reasons he must remain alive to the bitter end. It must not be used as an excuse in the future. He must remain until there is no more way out, until Providence itself would not be able to come to his side to help him."

Sometimes, you can see the bitterness which eats at Kellner at what the Nazis have done turning his own reactions rather heartless. This helps show, I think, the ways in which evil can corrupt even those who oppose it.
"December 10, 1943: Sometimes a person is inclined to believe there is no prevailing heaven. But from time to time people see there is indeed revenge. The Party boss, Julius Weber, had to have a leg amputated in the First World War, but that was not enough of a warning for him -- he still could not be an enthusiastic lover of peace. So he dedicated himself to Adolf Hitler, although Weber knew the nation's seducer would do everything to start an even more tremendous world war. For his deeds, Weber has the single most fitting award: two sons killed in battle. But that is how the heaps of medals can be handed out at receptions. And there is the satisfaction of having provided actual sacrifices for the Fuhrer. Heil Hitler!"

This is a fascinating primary source document for those who want to get a view into life on the home front of Nazi Germany. Kellner is an astute observer, and if you have a basic knowledge of the war's chronology, his is so meticulous on reporting the news that you will have no difficulty knowing where you are in events. The other people in his town (particularly his anti-Nazi friends, including his wife Pauline, herself an anti-Nazi who is occasionally threatened by party enthusiasts) do not pop out that much in the narrative. In the introduction, the editor suggests that Kellner may have avoided saying too much about his friends for fear of the consequences that would fall upon them if his secret diaries were discovered. He repeatedly includes snippets from newspapers reporting the conviction and execution of men and women found guilty of listening to enemy broadcasts and making disparaging remarks about the Nazi government. These might almost serve as warnings to himself of the fate he would clearly face if his notebooks were discovered.

Being a diary, and not a history book or novel, there's not a big sum-up finale. The diaries trail off as American troops near Laubach. Kellner himself was sick at times, and at others was forced to spend many days traveling for his courthouse work. His few entries after the liberation of the town are happy with hints of grimness: many of the town's Nazis have not been sufficiently hounded from public life. Now everyone claims to have opposed Hitler, and we know from the prior 400 pages that this simply was not true. Kellner was mostly isolated in his opposition to the regime.


bearing said...

“Whom God wants to destroy, he first strikes with blindness.”

It’s probably not correct to say so, but my inclination is to say “Indeed.”

Foxfier said...

Wondered how long he lived-- died in the 70s-- but in the course, found out what happened to his son.

Joined the Army.

Worked at a POW camp in France, since he could speak German.

Died and was buried there.

Anonymous said...

Because of the danger of openly opposing the regime, possibly there were other secret opponents of the Nazis of whom Kellner was unaware.

Foxfier said...

Good point-- especially as he didn't exactly scream it from the roof tops.

Possibly "the guy who came here right after the Nazis came into power" was regarded with some suspicion.

Talk about something that makes me glad we have guns.....

Darwin said...

The son's story is an interesting one which seemed too long to lay out in the review which was already looking like being long. Super short version: It sounds like he was a bit of a bad hat. He abandoned his wife when he went into the army (and she eventually left the kids in a Jewish children's home and went off to make her own living) and took up with a French woman with whom he had a daughter. He was also in and out of the black market, was in trouble the army for bad behavior at times, and died under suspicious circumstances.

The editor tracked down his grandparents in Germany when he was in the US Navy in the '60s, at which point his grandfather gave him the diaries.

Foxfier said...

Glad he got to meet his grandfather, at least.

NancyJS said...

Yet, blaming it all on the Brits & Americans? What of the many Germans he talks about who supported Hitler's rise? (Sigh) ... someone else's fault...

Darwin said...

I don't think that he blames the Brits and Americans for Hitler's rise at all. Indeed, he's pretty vociferous in his condemnation of fellow Germans for supporting Hitler.

But I did think it was interesting and worth quoting that he saw the Brits and Americans as world leaders whom he blamed for not having shut down Hitler from the outside when they had the chance. That runs counter to the neo-isolationism of some modern authors.

Foxfier said...

I did sigh a bit at the whole "how terrible they didn't do anything" comment, but it's OK because the guy in Nazi Germany. I'd be awful upset if I thought someone could stop it and didn't, too.

I do notice modern authors seem to split their time between blaming American (and sometimes UK) involvement for the world wars happening at all, and blaming them for not getting involved early enough to stop everything. Sometimes in the same article.....

Darwin said...

Yeah, I guess I can see that.

Being a supporter of intervention, I was struck by it as a "see, see, he agrees that isolationism was the wrong answer" sense.

Foxfier said...

*wolfish smile* I tend to be on the side of "do something," too, but my idea of doing something is generally along the lines of arming the victims, so they can defend themselves and whatever supplies I bring*. Enabling them to defend themselves, rather than making them depend on whoever is on my side.

For obvious reasons that mostly boil down to human nature and war being ugly and lasting longer than a massacre, this gets a lot of...attention...from most sides. So I think I get a pretty good selection of responses that I disagree with, and reflexively raise an eyebrow at pretty much either viewpoint.

* generally as part of a much more involved, long-term project, oddly enough based off of talking (read:listening) to my dad and his ideas on actually helping farmers in other countries, rather than the current "come in, do a bunch of stuff and then drop them" method

Foxfier said...

Short version: if I was in the traditional "go back in time and kill Hitler" type story, I'd probably be delivering truck loads of weapons and ammunition to camps and ghettos instead of attempting assassination.