BERLIN (Reuters) - The newly published diary of an indignant small-town official in Nazi Germany has stirred the sensitive debate over how much ordinary Germans knew of atrocities committed under Hitler, creating a wave of interest at home and abroad.
The diary of Friedrich Kellner “‘All Minds Blurred and Darkened’ Diaries 1939-1945” came to prominence thanks to the intervention of the elder former U.S. President George Bush.
Filled with scathing commentaries on events, newspaper clippings and records of private conversations, Kellner’s 940-page chronicle gives an insight into what information was available to ordinary Germans.
Kellner, a mid-ranking court official who was in his mid-50s when he started writing, vents his anger at Hitler, hopes his country will be defeated in the war and laments reports of mysterious deaths at mental homes and mass shootings of Jews.
“These diaries ... represent a towering refutation of the well-worn refrain of so many Germans after the war — ‘We knew nothing of the Nazi horrors’,” Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants said.
Kellner was a Social Democrat who refused to join the Nazi party and his perspective offers a unique view, say historians.
Born in 1885, Kellner was the son of a baker. He fought in World War One and became a government employee in the district court at Laubach, a western town largely sympathetic to Nazis.
“The decisive thing is that he is not an intellectual, he is an ordinary employee sitting in the provinces who reads the newspapers. He is full of anger about what is happening,” said Sascha Feuchert, head of the Research Unit for Holocaust Literature at Giessen University, and editor of the volumes.
One of the most chilling entries comes on October 28, 1941:
“A soldier on vacation here said he witnessed a terrible atrocity in the occupied parts of Poland. He watched 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 with dirt even as he could still hear screams coming from people still alive in the ditch.”
“...There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts.”
That an occurrence like this was the talk of the town as early as October 1941 shows what information was available.
“Kellner realised there was more to be seen than was being shown. That is some proof that it was not impossible, maybe not even so difficult to see through things,” said Feuchert.
Personal conversations, news reports and keen observation convinced Kellner the Nazis were committing terrible crimes.
On September 16, 1942, he wrote: “In the last few days Jews from our district have been removed. From here it was the families Strauss and Heinemann. I heard from a reliable source that all Jews were taken to Poland and would be murdered by SS brigades.
“This cruelty is terrible. Such outrages will never be wiped from the history of humanity. Our murderous government has besmirched the name ‘Germany’ for all time.”
Kellner also wrote a great deal about the crazed ambition of Hitler that would lead to defeat. Noticing a lack of reports about German losses, he made his own calculations on the basis of death notices and came up with a figure of 30,000 per month.
“That may not be the right figure, but the point is he realises the losses are extreme and he concludes that the war cannot be won. This is very striking,” said Feuchert.
Kellner, realising Germany was heading for turbulent times, set out to record them. He read newspapers from the Voelkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party mouthpiece, and Das Schwarze Korps, the SS newspaper, to local papers from all over the country.
“The purpose of my record is to capture a picture of the current mood in my surroundings so that a future generation is not tempted to construe a ‘great event’ from it (a heroic time or something similar),” he wrote on September 26, 1938.
“I fear 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.”
Kellner, who never pretended to hold Nazi views, was under surveillance and questioned by officials several times.
“My grandfather was determined, at great risk to his life, to provide future generations with a weapon of truth against any resurgence of Nazism and totalitarian impulses,” Robert Martin Scott Kellner, Friedrich’s grandson and joint editor of the diary, told Reuters in an email exchange.
Documents show Kellner came close to being sent to a concentration camp but was careful enough not to let the Nazis get hold of proof against him. “If his diaries had been found it would have been over,” said Feuchert.
In 1940, one Nazi official wrote: “If we want to apprehend people like Kellner we will have to lure them out of their corners and let them incriminate themselves. The time is not ripe for an approach like the one used with the Jews. This can only take place after the war.”
After the war, Kellner helped decide which local Nazi party members should be barred from professions and public office. In the late 1960s he gave the diaries to his grandson in the United States who faced an uphill battle to get them published.
“I had no idea it would take over four decades to fulfil my promise. Publishers throughout the United States and Germany did not want to take a gamble,” said his grandson.
Eventually the chronicles caught the eye of Bush, who put them on exhibition at his presidential library in Texas in 2005.
That sparked interest in Germany and Feuchert and a team of colleagues started five years of research, verifying Kellner’s sources and conversation partners before publication.
The appearance of the diaries, 15 years after a major controversy over U.S. academic Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” has revived a debate on how much Germans knew about the Holocaust. Goldhagen argued that many more Germans were complicit in carrying out Hitler’s plan to exterminate Jews than had previously been acknowledged.
In the last few years, some focus has shifted to Germans’ own suffering, with documentaries and books on subjects from the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden and the rape of German women by Soviet troops to expulsions of Germans from central Europe.
Kellner’s diary features on Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper’s “recommended reading” list. The publishers, Wallstein, are on the third print run, indicating unexpectedly strong demand with about 6,000 copies sold and an English translation planned.
Der Spiegel weekly compared the diaries to those of Jewish academic Victor Klemperer, whose account of the climate of hostility and fear in the Nazi years is widely used in Germany as a teaching text on the Third Reich.
“These magnificently edited volumes ... belong in every German library and if possible every book shelf — next to the diaries of Klemperer,” wrote Der Spiegel.
Reporting By Madeline Chambers; Editing by Peter Graff