Book Review 405: My Opposition; The Diary of Friedrich Kellner
MY OPPOSITION: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner, edited by Robert Scott Kellner. 493 pages, illustrated. Cambridge, $34.99
It seems improbable that a World War II diary published as late as 2011 could have caused a sensation, but it did in Germany. Now that Cambridge University Press is publishing an abridged English translation, we can see why.
Friedrich Kellner documents what we have all along believed must have been the case, that ordinary Germans were aware of the murders in Poland and Russia, and from as soon as they began.
They just didn’t care then and had every incentive to pretend that they were shocked by later revelations.
The stories of the Kellner family and of the diary’s very long wait for publication are as interesting as the diary, but I will not go into those details.
The focus is on Friedrich Kellner, although it ought also to be on his wife, Pauline, who shared his socialist politics, moral convictions and courage. Unfortunately, not so much is known about her.
Also, the editor, Kellner’s American grandson, does not tell us (if he knows) how the Kellners managed to listen to foreign radio all during the war. That was a hanging/shooting offense, as were distributing enemy leaflets and defeatist talk, both of which the Kellners also were guilty of.
They knew the danger. Kellner often pasted newspaper clippings about Germans who had been executed for defeatism.
The diary is not intensely personal. Kellner deliberately made it that way, intending primarily to leave a record of his own opposition to Hitlerism and of Germany’s indifference. He several times estimates that 99 out of 100 Germans supported Nazism.
This is a crucial point, because at this distance there is a strong tendency to emphasize the resistance to Hitler. There never was any.
Kellner’s brave but — as he himself acknowledged, ineffective — resistance was unusual. The so-called resistance that led to the July 20, 1944, bomb plot was mythical.
Its adherents did not, with few exceptions, object ot Hitlerism, only to Hitler personally. They were mostly aristocrats who were offended by Hitler’s low birth, uncouth accent and manners. But they merely intended to replace him with someone more like them. It was never a part of their plot to give up Germany’s conquests or new status as the dominant power in Europe.
Hitlerism without Hitler was all they stood for. And when it came to it, they didn’t even stand for that. They might as well have, since most were hanged from meathooks anyway.
They could have had honorable deaths, but in the end theirs were merely sordid.
The Kellners somehow survived though without much praise until the publication of the diary. There is now a FriedrichKellner Strasse in Laubach, the tiny (population 1,800) town where the Kellners lived during the war.
They fled there to escape their reputation as socialist activists, and while some of that seems to have followed them, life in a tiny village was less tense than in a big city. The Nazis in Laubach tried their best to get Kellner, but their best was not good, and it seems the village Nazis lacked some of the ruthlessness of the urban kind.
However that may be, Kellner maintained through all six years of the war the white-hot resentment he felt for Hitler and Hitlerism. Unlike many Germans who disliked this or that aspect of Hitlerism but were stymied by nationalism, Kellner, the socialist, had no problem wishing for Germany’s defeat. He lamented her victories.
He recognized that in defeat Germany would pay a heavy price and that he and Pauine would also have to pay. It is the essence of his heroism that they accepted that fate.
Friedrich Kellner was the first in his family to get a white-collar job, a fact he was always aware of, and he hoped that his grandchildren would rise even further into the rarified world of the intelligentsia.
He himself had only a gymnasium (high school) diploma, but it was a good education, supplemented, as was often the case in those times, by self-education under socialist auspices.
He was born in 1885 and fought in France until wounded. Throughout the diary he vents the disgust of the frontline old soldier for the dilettantes in politics, and he also (unusually) scorns the ineptitude of the generals. For him, Rommel was just a general who retreated and retreated.
In 1920, he and Pauline formally withdrew from the Lutheran Church, disgusted by its behavior during the war.
His profession of court administrator (he was a manager, notary and record-keeper, what we would call a clerk of the court) kept him in contact with more educated men, but they were not as clear thinkers as he was. Throughout the diary he scorns the failure of the German educated class to recognize Hitler for what he was.
In particular, Kellner recognized early that Nazism meant murder of Jews. He wrote about extermination as early as October 1939, before extermination was a policy.
Soon enough, he would hear from many sources, including stories told by soldiers on leave and letters from his senior court colleagues who were sent to Poland, about mass murders. He learned about what sounds like the famous murders at Babi Yar almost as soon as it was over (though it is possible from his description that what he was hearing about was one of the mass executions outside Riga.)
Hadamar, where the Nazis murdered thousands of sick and mentally incapacitated people, was not far from Laubach, and Kellner was aware of those killings, too. He was able to discern something just be studying obituaries in the newspapers.
Throughout the diary, as he kept excoriating the Allies for their slowness in coming to free Germany from its regime, he makes remarkably astute projections about the military situation. He was only an ex-private but he had a good head on his shoulders.
And a temper. It was remarkable that he managed to keep that head.