Stunning Diary Reveals How Much Ordinary Germans Knew About the Holocaust

On my last German book tour for my memoir My Germany I was reminded of what a rich book culture that country has when I browsed in crowded book stores at the train stations, and studied billboards–yes, billboards–for all kinds of books, not just thrillers.

And speaking at Justus Leibig University in Giessen north of Frankfurt, I heard about a remarkable diary that had just been published in German and is finally available in English from Cambridge University Press.

The devastating book by Friedrich Kellner is the diary of a court clerk in a small German town in the western state of Hesse. The German title translated as All Minds Are Clouded and Darkened; the author’s own title was My Opposition (Mein Widerstand), which is how it’s appearing in English.

This diary makes it very clear that despite any claims to the contrary, ordinary Germans during the War knew a great deal about what was being perpetrated in their name upon the Jews and every other victim of the Nazis. It’s simply not true that people did not talk about what was happening, or were so terrorized by the Nazis that they were completely blind to events around them, or silenced. Conversations on these subjects may not have been public, but they were widespread.

Kellner asked questions, read newspapers carefully, kept clippings, listened to what others were saying, and composed a stunning portrait of what was really going on in Germany before and during the war. Without difficulty, he learned about killings of those deemed mentally unfit. He learned about the real fate of Jews being shipped “to the East.”

He was remarkably prescient in foreseeing post-war denial: “Those who wish to be acquainted with contemporary society, with the souls of the ‘good Germans,’ should read what I have written. But I fear that very few decent people will remain after events have taken their course, and that the guilty will have no interest in seeing their disgrace documented in writing.” The diaries go from the beginning of the war in 1939 to just past its end and offer an unparalleled entrance into the years of Nazi destruction.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Tracking a Quote To Its Surprising Source

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians or anyone he thought deserved his scathing wit. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

Clement Attlee 1945My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one. I seem to recall her also crediting Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” She may have been referring to Spiro Agnew.

I could be wrong about her target and even her crediting Churchill, but for years I’ve thought that the line was his.  I’m wrong.  When I recently looked for the source, the brilliant line didnt show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a highly tangential Churchill connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”  You’re wondering about the connection?  His opponent is played by an actor named Churchill.  I know, that’s a stretch.

But the line’s political lineage isn’t just fictional.  It goes a few decades further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit:

On one occasion, when a Democratic colleague “was rash enough to quote Henry Clay’s line about rather being right than president,” Speaker Reed shot back the assurance that, “The gentleman needn’t worry. He will never be either.” Harry Truman’s oft-quoted line that “A statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years,” is actually a direct steal from Reed’s earlier, more polished quip that “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.” Reflecting on his chances of winning a long-shot bid for the presidential nomination in 1896, Reed said of his fellow Republicans, They can do worse. And they probably will.”

Reed did more than quip, though: he sped up action in the House by ending what was in effect an institutional filibuster (too bad he never made it to the Senate).

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz write that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. TR put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

So many of our current politicians fit that description, don’t they?  Too bad we don’t have more wits like Churchill, Reed, or Teddy Roosevelt around to put them in their place.

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.