Category: Non-fiction

Friedrich Kellner
Vernebelt, verdunkelt sind alle Hirne. Tagebücher von 1939-1945
[Darkness and fog have choked their minds Diaries, 1939-1945]

Non-Fiction

Review

​On 25 September 1942 Friedrich Kellner pasted a newspaper article into his diary; it reported triumphantly that ‘dejudaization’ of south eastern Europe was proceeding according to plan. It mentioned 65 000 Jews who had already been “deported in transports” and 18 000 others who were still “waiting for transports”. In his diary Kellner articulates the obvious question in one word, written in neat Sütterlin script next to the article, the question not asked by the majority of the German population because – despite persistent assertions in the post-war Federal Republic to the contrary – they had already guessed the answer and their implicit responsibility: “Where?”

Kellner, born in 1885, was critical of Hitler from the start. Shortly after the end of World War II he joined the SPD and during the Weimar Republic warned publicly of the threat posed by this rapidly growing “movement”. After the Nazis seized power in 1933 he was one of those who felt obliged to keep their heads down – but he didn’t disengage his brain. Shortly before Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, beginning the war which would cost many millions of people their lives, Kellner began recording his disgust for the regime and the blind obedience of the population in a diary. Throughout the six years of the war, till May 1945, he wrote almost every day, using up ten diaries with a total of 900 pages.

In terms of historical significance this textual legacy is equal to the diaries of Victor Klemperer, the professor of the Romance languages who was banished to a ghetto house by the Nazis and only narrowly escaped their murderous intentions. Unlike Klemperer however, Kellner was neither a classical intellectual nor a direct victim of persecution. As a lowly civil servant at the court in the provincial town of Laubach in Hesse he did not have access to insider information. His unrelenting criticism of National Socialism was made from the perspective of an ordinary citizen. And it is the ordinariness the diaries which make them particularly interesting. Kellner demonstrates what people could potentially have known, depriving everyone who had barricaded themselves behind the supposed ignorance of the ordinary man of their alibi.

Significantly, Kellner’s record documents how anyone able to think clearly, whose moral compass still functioned at all, must surely have been able to see through the propaganda, with which the system was essentially debunking itself. Kellner became almost manic, cutting articles out of daily papers and weekly magazines, reports sometimes so ideologically distorted and blatantly contradictory that the critical commentaries Kellner wrote alongside them seem superfluous.

By June 1941 at the latest, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the eyewitness accounts of people who had witnessed the mass murders on the eastern front had been disseminated among the general public almost as widely as the whitewashed news reports. In late October 1941, Kellner cites the words of a soldier on leave, who had witnessed a massacre in Ukraine: “He had seen how naked Jewish men and women were lined up in front of a long, deep trench and shot in the back of the head by Ukrainians on the orders of the SS then fell into the trench. The trench was filled with earth. There were often still cries coming from inside the trench!!”
The bestial pursuit of ‘eugenic’ policies within Germany, above all the murders of people with mental and physical disabilities undertaken systematically by the National Socialists from 1938 onwards, were also no secret to the general population. One of the ‘mental asylums’ equipped for these extermination programmes was located at Hadamar, close to Kellner’s home town. He first expressed his suspicion that this institution was in no sense dedicated to the wellbeing of its patients in June 1941. “Deaths at the Hadamar Asylum have been increasing recently.”

A month later there was another entry relating to events at the nearby ‘clinic’. The institution’s bureaucrats had had made an ‘error’. They had discharged one of the children to return home, but forgotten to remove the name from list of planned ‘fatalities’, with the result that the parents still received a letter informing them of their child’s death and stating that an urn containing the ashes of the deceased would be delivered shortly. Kellner immediately recognised what lay behind this discrepancy; it was irrefutable. “Deliberate, premeditated killing had been exposed.”

Alongside Nazi Germany, he was also critical of the allies, who he accused of dealing far too hesitantly with Hitler, concerned more with protecting their own interests. As a veteran soldier Kellner was a discerning judge of military strategy. Following the German forces’ defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43, it was clear to him that the Nazi regime would perish in the fight against the rest of the world.

Aside from their uniqueness as historical testimonies, Kellner’s chronicles are also of immense psychological interest. Despite his immunity to the Nazi ideology he was certainly not likeable in every respect. His astuteness, at times visionary, sometimes gives way to self-righteous, stubborn naivety, above all in the later notes.

The desultory, highly reproachful tone of his commentaries on the resistance campaigners centred around Graf von Stauffenberg, who paid for the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944 with their lives, is particularly interesting. As if suppressing a niggling unease about his own reticence, or dissatisfaction with his own ‘solely’ passive resistance, Kellner dismisses Staffenberg’s act of unparalleled bravery as a “botched endeavour”, and restates his opinion – extremely strange by this stage of the war – that Hitler should be kept alive “till the end”, so that no-one would be able to present him as a hero afterwards.

This is not in any way to deny, however, that Kellner himself demonstrated admirable courage by persistently writing his diary, which would have cost him his life had it been discovered. In the mid 1960s he was finally given credit for this by the Federal Republic; a retired justice inspector now receiving a pension, he was awarded compensation for the promotion which he was denied due to his refusal to conform during the Third Reich.
Kellner died in 1970 and it was decades after his death till he was truly vindicated. For complicated family reasons his diaries found their way initially to the USA where, sixty years after the end of the war, they caused a sensation. After six more years a German publisher has finally been found for them. The ten notebooks have become two heavy volumes, superbly edited and with helpful commentaries. Kellner felt unable to fight the Nazis himself, and wanted his diaries to be “a weapon for future generations to use against the repetition of such atrocities”. His wish has lost none of its currency. 
Marianna Lieder

By Marianna Lieder, 18.09.2012

​Marianna Lieder works as a freelance journalist and literary critic for publications including the Tagesspiegel, the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Literaturen. She has been an editor at Philosophie Magazin since 2011.

Translated by Steph Morris