The Lesser Evil


I just read a review of The Lesser Evil: Diaries 1945-1959, by Victor Klemperer. The review first appeared in the Atlantic in December 2004 and was written by Christopher Hitchens. The review I read appeared in Hitches’ book of collected essays published in 2011 entitled, Arguably. The Lesser of Two Evils follows Klemperer’s two volume magnum opus, I Will Bear Witness.

Victor Klemperer, a German Jew who converted to Protestantism, kept a diary throughout the Nazi era. He was a professor and taught literature at Dresden Technical University. He thought by converting to Protestantism he would escape the racial persecution perpetuated by the Third Reich. He was wrong. In his diary Klemperer provides an account of day-to-day life under the tyranny of the Third Reich. He and his wife Eva barely escaped being transported to a concentration camp to endure the final solution when allied bombers appeared overhead and completely destroyed Dresden. Klemperer and his wife also narrowly escaped immolation in the flames that consumed the German city by the firebombing conducted by allied forces. After the war he chose to stay in East Germany.

Klemperer’s diary chronicles the daily life of restricted Jews during the Nazi terror. He chronicles in minute details the regulation by the Nazi’s of all aspects of everyday life including many petty humiliations such as being first restricted to riding at the back of the bus and then to not being allowed to ride the bus at all. These small humiliations reminded me of what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.”

One particular petty humiliation struck me as especially cruel. German Jews were not allowed to keep pets. Only those of the pure Aryan stock were thought to suitable for such a privilege. Jews were ordered to turn in their pets to be euthanized or to kill them themselves.

Klemperer and his wife had a tomcat they adored named Muschel. He describes in painful details in his diary the final acts of preparing and delivering the beloved cat to be euthanized. His wife Eva gave Muschel a special veal treat as a kind of last supper which came from their own food ration. This story is just heartbreaking and illustrates the pettiness and the banality with which the Nazis would stoop even in the middle of wartime to perpetuate their madness. The euthanasia of pets cannot be far removed from the depravity of the wholesale slaughter of human beings by gassing them to death in the gas chambers in German concentration camps.

Living in East Germany after the War Klemperer continued to keep his diary. This resulted in the book released for publication in 2004 called, The Lesser Evil: Diaries 1945-1959.

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