Thanks to the JCRC at Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, this week we are highlighting a new book for advanced readers, “My Opposition: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner, A German Against the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2018). This is an unflinching secret diary kept by a mid-level German official from 1939-1945 and documents an ordinary German’s awareness of the escalation of the genocide. Discovered and translated by diarist’s grandson.
Review in the Guardian by Richard J. Evans
“Adolf Hitler,” wrote Friedrich Kellner in his private diary on 17 December 1942, “is the most cunning criminal of all time … He is the bloodiest tyrant filled up with cruelty and unremitting hardness. He, who seduces, inveigles, lies to, and cheats the nation, has won millions of adherents and makes them into fanatical fighters for his heresies, which are nothing other than a conglomerate of ideas stolen from other fanatics.” Throughout the war, Kellner continued to confide to his diary his moral outrage at the crimes of the regime and his contempt for the gullible Germans who accepted them and believed in Hitler’s lies.
Who was this remarkable man? Born in 1885, he was a junior court official and active Social Democrat in the Rhenish town of Mainz during the Weimar Republic. The Social Democrats were the real mainstay of German democracy during the 1920s, but despite their millions of adherents proved unable to resist the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Thousands of their officials and representatives were arrested and imprisoned, and to escape persecution, Kellner moved to Laubach, a small town in Upper Hesse, scarcely more than a village, where he became administrator of the local courthouse. Here his socialist sympathies were not known. Laubach turned out to be a hotbed of nazism. No wonder Kellner thought all Germans were either knaves or fools. Had he lived in a working-class region such as the industrial Ruhr, with its legions of former communists and Social Democrats, he would doubtless have been able to record a more varied picture of people’s views.
Kellner had no illusions about the Nazis’ use of terror and coercion to keep people in their place. “A harassed, tormented, intimidated and extremely subjugated people,” he wrote in September 1939, had to suffer “terror without equal … The decent German has hardly any courage left to think, let alone to speak.” Kellner himself felt he had to exercise “extreme caution” in voicing his own views. He was reprimanded by the town’s former mayor for greeting him on the street with a “Good Day!”: “You say ‘Heil Hitler’, young man!”
Kellner’s opportunities for opposing the regime in any practical way were non-existent, though he did discourage his colleagues from joining the Nazi party, distribute leaflets dropped by allied planes during the war, and discreetly pass on what he heard on the BBC to selected colleagues. His opposition was of necessity almost entirely confined to the pages of his diary, which he kept to demonstrate to future generations the criminal nature of the Nazi regime during the war it had so wantonly unleashed.
This is not a diary in the conventional sense of the word. What Kellner did was to take extracts from the press, stick them in his book and comment on them at length from his own point of view. This material is reproduced in the original German edition, making a volume of more than 1,000 pages. Meanwhile, the English translation keeps just enough of the extracts, together with Kellner’s handwritten notes, to give a flavour of the diary’s character. As a result the narrative is rather repetitive, as Kellner is constantly commenting on the stupidity of the Germans and the evil of the Nazis, and his moral indignation, admirable in itself, becomes rather tedious.
His views on the war were certainly far from the naive optimism of the people among whom he lived. “My wife and I belong to the few Germans who, from the beginning, were convinced of a German defeat.” At the start of the war, people were declaring the British would be defeated in a few weeks. “In general,” he noted by August 1943, “the mood is not rosy”, though it was “difficult to assess how most feel because too few express their opinion unreservedly. Fear still guards the forest.” A few months later, indeed, he recorded the denunciation by an innkeeper’s wife of a former court bailiff in Laubach for making insulting remarks about Hitler, a crime for which he was sentenced to three years in prison. This was only one of the many injustices he was unable to prevent.
Early in the war, he penned an 18-point list of the regime’s crimes, including “persecution and extermination of the Jews”, as well as massive corruption, the suppression of free speech, and disrespect for people’s religious convictions. Gleefully, he recorded the sentences meted out to party officials caught embezzling state or party funds. With disgust he captured the refusal of a shop assistant in a grocery store to serve an elderly Jewish woman: “I am a National Socialist and I do not sell to Jews.” By October 1941 he was noting reports from soldiers on leave of “inhuman atrocities” on the eastern front, “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!” He recorded the deportation of Laubach’s Jewish residents in September 1942 (“a dark chapter in the history of mankind”) alongside newspaper cuttings advocating the elimination of the Jews from south-eastern Europe. Nor did he remain in ignorance of the mass murder of people with mental health issues being carried out on the direct orders of Hitler: “Supposedly incurable patients,” he noted in June 1941, were being brought to the nearby psychiatric hospital at Hadamar to be murdered.
He was rightly dismissive of the attempt to blow up Hitler at his field headquarters on 20 July 1944 (“an amateurish enterprise. A revolution can be promising only on the broadest basis. A revolution only of officers is a stillbirth”). With some justification Kellner considered that “for tactical reasons he must remain alive to the bitter end. It must not be possible for his death to be used as an excuse in the future.” At the end of the war, enough was known locally about Kellner’s political sympathies for him to be appointed deputy mayor of Laubach, and he played a leading role in reconstituting the Social Democratic party in the town. Before long, however, he withdrew from public life, resuming his career in the judicial administration until he retired. Before he died in 1970, he showed his diary to his American-born grandson Robert Scott Kellner, who has devoted a large part of his life to transcribing, publishing and translating it. How he did this is a fascinating story in itself, and the diary’s publication in English is a tribute to his persistence and dedication. Reading it is a reminder that not all Germans under the Third Reich were Nazis; some at least managed to retain a sense of decency and human values.
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