Diary of a Man in Despair

Diary of a Man in Despair



The Pequod Review:

Between 1936 and 1944, the East Prussian novelist Friedrich Reck maintained an extraordinarily perceptive diary of his day-to-day experiences under the Third Reich. Reck would die in 1945 in the Dachau concentration camp but his memoirs were later discovered and would be published in 1947 as Diary of a Man in Despair. Reck's diaries include a lot of rumors and exaggerations of various political events, but his anger as Hitler rose to power is chilling and prophetic:

March 20, 1938: Nobody is moving to stop this before it is too late. It almost seems that they prefer to stand back and wait until the cobra breaks out.

But I foresee a day when the nations will regret their cowardly passivity. The cost is beyond measuring; but they will have to pay, someday. In this first great breach of the peace, the criminal has been let go unpunished and is thus made to appear more powerful than he is. And as he is made more powerful, we, who are his last opponents inside Germany, are made weaker and more impotent.

Are we, and all who think like us, to run into the machine guns of a Nazi army which, thanks to the lethargy of the governments, now has Austria’s guns as well? I put the question now, and see the day coming when I will ask it a second time: after the inevitable Second World War. If five years ago, at the time of the so-called Assumption of Power, the European nations had taken action — everything would have ended with a police raid, with the gang being hustled off to jail by the collars.

But what did everyone do? They stood by and watched, and thus made impossible any resistance from inside Germany. What are they doing now? They are standing by and watching, preoccupied with figuring out a way to avoid irritating Herr Hitler — and so making any resistance even more impossible. In time to come, you will be able to do certain things: you will be able to punish those who with their wretched political deals made possible that infamous day in January 1933; and you will be able to punish the military and industrial men-behind-the-scenes. But one thing you will not be able to do: you will not be able to make the whole nation, in extenso, responsible for a regime which you — yes, you — have strengthened. You have broken our internal resistance through political lethargy, and you are nevertheless demanding of an unarmed people that they do what you, with your mighty armies and the most powerful navy in the world, do not dare.

There will come a day when you will come face to face with this reproach, and this accusation.


December 1938: I rack my brains trying to discover the meaning of this persecution of the Jews which Goebbels has instigated. At a time when this regime still urgently needs peace, surely this must call forth the deadly enmity of the whole world and make war inevitable. I cannot find the motivation, not even when I try to imagine myself a Nazi, and follow what I would imagine would be his train of thought.

I know that dictators must stage a new fireworks show every five months in order to hold the allegiance of the canaille. . . . This is what drove Napoleon III from Sevastopol to the Chinese Expedition, to Magenta, Solferino, Mexico, and finally, Sedan.

All this is incontrovertible, and might well explain the events of 9 November, if it were not for the fact that Hitler is also thereby bringing war down on himself — a war which he must certainly avoid if he is not to dig his own grave.

I discussed this with L., hard-working official at the Foreign Ministry, who simply laughed at me and my complicated analyses. His explanation of everything was Hitler’s sudden fits of rage; now playing Artaxerxes, Hitler at once begins to roar when he does not immediately get his way, throws himself to the floor, and bites the carpet.

This is the reason, then, if L. is right, for all this misery and this immeasurable shame. But I wish to cite two cases, which took place before my eyes, so to speak. The first concerns a niece of Sonnenthal, the actor, who was driven from one refuge to the next, until finally, deathly tired, and beyond wanting to live any more, she simply walked up into the mountains on one of the first freezing nights of this autumn. After days of searching, we finally found her: she was dead.


August 1939: We are on the threshold of a second world war, in which again all of geography will be against the Germans, and which will derive from the Bismarckian state. And I am quite sure that such a war, declared by the eternal Prussian as it will be, is lost before the first shot is fired. We will not be able to talk about better days until we have before us the outlines of the coming catastrophe. This perspective we will have only when we are sitting atop the relatively small pile of rubble which will result from the relatively short war to come — a war which is inevitable, and which will break out soon.

There has been an ongoing debate about the culpability of ordinary Germans in the rise of Nazism, but Reck presents a more complicated story:

November 1939: I am writing this in Munich, which is still reeling from the attempted assassination [of Hitler] in the Bürgerbraukeller. The newspapers are weeping crocodile tears about the "cowardly, murderous gangsters" who dared attack the "greatest German of all time." But there are, I think, probably no more than a thousand native Munichers who are not dejected because the attempt failed. The journalists joke cynically about their own articles. The official version has it that Otto Strasser placed the bomb for the British Intelligence Service. This has produced loud laughter. No one doubts that the whole display is a bit of pyrotechnics set off by the Nazis themselves. The fireworks cost nearly a dozen lives, but they serve to whip up hatred against the English and to provide Herr Hitler with the halo of a martyr.


October 30, 1942: And so we continue to vegetate in our life of shame, our life of dishonour, our life of lies. And our protest, at least the protest of our cowardly bourgeoisie, is in the retelling of old jokes about the regime, while their remaining days are spent swallowing propaganda...

Literally everything is believed today, if it is printed, or broadcast, or publicly proclaimed under official auspices. If Herr Göring suddenly, and with the requisite blare of trumpets, proclaimed one of his hunting dogs King of Bavaria, I really believe that the same people who only yesterday were so proud of their differentness vis-à-vis the north German ant heap, and so jealously guardian of their own special characteristics, would shout hurrah and bow down.

There is some eerie, impending thing in the air, the whole physical structure of our lives seems to have broken down under the weight of these never-ending lies. For the last nine years, since the coming of Hitlerism, the summers have been concepts on a calendar only, and have drowned us in rainfall like the original Flood. Year after year, the vintages have failed. The botanists say that certain plants which normally bloom in the autumn now come up in spring, while there are spring-blooming plants which now emerge in late autumn. I have heard from zoologists on the Eastern Front, in the northern Caucasus, that tropical snakes formerly native to India are now to be found in the vicinity of the Volga, on the threshold of Europe. Thus, everything is out of joint, the usual order of things has been overturned. And what is this plague that now afflicts Germany, but a disgusting symptom of the same thing?

This is a unique and absorbing history-from-below account of Nazi Germany.