Klemperer, Victor (1881–1960)

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Romance-language philologist of Jewish origin.

Victor Klemperer was born on 9 October 1881, in Landsberg an der Warthe (now Gorzów Wielkopolski). He was the eighth child of a reform rabbi but converted in 1912 to Protestantism. He attended a humanistic gymnasium in Berlin and served an apprenticeship at the same time. In 1906 he married the pianist Eva Schlemmer. While working as a freelance writer, he studied German language, romance languages, and philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Munich, Geneva, and Paris and earned his doctorate in 1912 and his habilitation (qualification to teach in a university) two years later, both in Munich. After a short employment in Italy he volunteered for the German army from 1915 to 1918, where he served in the artillery and later as a military censor in occupied Lithuania. In 1919 he obtained a position at the University of Munich, and in 1920 became professor of romance languages at the Technical University of Dresden. During the 1920s he published widely on French literature and philology. He died on 11 February 1960, in Dresden.

Because of his Jewish origins, the Saxonian government in Dresden fired Klemperer in 1935—the culmination of two years of discrimination he had experienced at the university. Restrictions against Jews gradually made it impossible for him to continue any kind of work; he was even not allowed to consult libraries. Instead, he studied Judaism. But he avoided severe persecution because of his marriage to an "Aryan"—what the authorities considered Mischehe (mixed marriage). Nevertheless, both he and his wife had to leave their house in 1940 and move into different, ghettolike "Judenhäuser" in Dresden. From October 1941, Klemperer was obliged to wear a Star of David on his clothes; from 1943 he was periodically recruited to forced labor. After the heavy bombardment of Dresden in February 1945, both the Klemperers had to leave city. Hiding in Bavaria, Klemperer avoided deportation, as the "mixed marriages" partners of Jewish origin were scheduled to be deported during the last weeks of the war.

Klemperer's diaries extensively not only document but also analyze German anti-Semitism from 1918, especially at the universities, and the years of anti-Jewish persecution from 1933 on. They show the everyday consequences of administrative oppression, like loss of position and property, periodical police searches in his house, and the decline of health resulting from mental stress and disadvantaged supply. More depressing appears the gradual social isolation of persons of Jewish origin, even if they were Christians, in German society after 1933 and in Klemperer's bourgeois milieu. After some years, most of his friends had abandoned him. The diaries give detailed evidence on the knowledge of average Germans about the radicalization of the anti-Jewish policy, including mass murder and extermination camps in eastern Europe. Yet they also demonstrate that not all Germans condoned these policies.

After the war Klemperer returned to Dresden and joined the reestablished Communist Party in November 1945 because he regarded the communists as the only political force to prevent Nazism. He became leading council member of the Kulturbund (Cultural Union), an association concerned with cultural and educational affairs that was gradually taken over by the communist United Workers Party (SED). From 1950 to 1958, in his function as Kulturbund leader, he also became a member of the East German pseudoparliament Volkskammer. Klemperer returned to the University of Dresden but also taught in Greifswald (1947–1948) and from 1948 in both Halle and Berlin. After the death of his wife in 1951 he was remarried a year later, to Hadwig Kirchner. During the 1950s he became more and more critical of the repressive political development in the German Democratic Republic, but—as after 1933—did not intend to emigrate.

Klemperer became famous first by his early book on Nazi language, LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen (The Language of the Third Reich: LTI,Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist's Notebook), which appeared in 1947. The posthumous publication of his 1933–1945 diaries in 1995 brought greater popularity, as the diaries were regarded as a literary sensation in Germany. His life under Nazism was even made the subject of a German television film. Klemperer had written diaries since he was seventeen years old, all of which were published subsequently after 1989. His notes from 1933–1945 became probably one of the most quoted diaries of Nazi victims because of their power of observation and distinguished style.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Nazism .


Aschheim, Steven E. Scholem, Arendt, Klemperer: Intimate Chronicles in Turbulent Times. Bloomington, Ind., 2001.

Heer, Hannes, ed. Im Herzen der Finsternis: Victor Klemperer als Chronist der NS-Zeit. Berlin, 1997.

Jacobs, Peter. Victor Klemperer: Im Kern ein deutsches Gewächs: Eine Biographie. Berlin, 2000.

Klemperer, Victor. I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1933–41. Abridged and translated from the German edition by Martin Chalmers. London, 1998.

Dieter Pohl