I want to look back at a dire turn of last century, and a remarkable book that recalls it. In Berlin recently my wife and I visited the German War Resistance Memorial Center, housed in former Wehrmacht offices in what today is called the Stauffenbergstrasse, honoring Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of a group of high-ranking officers who plotted the failed assassination attempt against Hitler in July 1944. The Resistance Museum faces a somber stone courtyard where leaders of the plot, having been rounded up in its aftermath, were summarily executed by firing squad.
Inside, the exhibit sorts the German resistance into broad streams: religious figures; left-wing or socialist agitators; intellectuals and artists; the military; and assorted others. Some of the names here will be well known to Commonweal readers, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller, or the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, whose circle of Munich students, known as The White Rose, published leaflets condemning the dictatorship, and paid for it with their lives. Others are less well known, like Edith Wolff, a philosophy student who led an underground Zionist movement that hid Jews during the war; arrested by the Gestapo, she survived in a series of prisons and concentration camps. (If you don’t happen to be headed to Berlin any time soon, the well-designed website offers links to the histories of these groups and concise biographies of their members.)
The motives of the Stauffenberg conspirators were patriotic and prudential, rather than moral; convinced that the war was lost, and that Hitler, fanatically refusing to accept that fact, would push Germany to total ruin, they planned to quickly sue the Allies for peace, hoping to get relatively favorable terms. The conspiracy reflected the ambivalence of the aristocrat class toward Nazism and Hitler. The officer ranks of the military were dominated by aristocrats, and while many of them had opportunistically aligned themselves with the Nazi Party and its priorities, others refused, expressing contempt for Hitler and a shocked disbelief at the calamitous political turns that had delivered the German people into his hands.
I was reminded of this by delving back into Diary of a Man in Despair, the journal of Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen, a Prussian aristocrat and landowner. From 1936 to 1944 Reck kept a secret diary (he hid it, he writes, in the woods of his property near the Chiemsee in Bavaria), chronicling the rise of Hitler and the devastation of Germany. That devastation eventually included the destruction of war, but only after Nazi rule had already destroyed what Reck perceived as both the sanity and the soul of his country.
Reck was no liberal, and his red-hot critique of fascism is launched from a solidly anti-democratic platform. A steadfast monarchist -- friend and supporter of the Bavarian Crown Prince Max -- he believed in the superiority of the landowning class and its way of life, and the profound pessimism of his book anticipates the demise of that class and the rise of the “mass society” (Spengler, Dostoevsky and Ortega y Gassett are Reck’s touchstone writers), of which Hitler and his movement are portrayed as the apotheosis. Reck’s lament is for a society “adrift, torn loose from the old moorings” of church and caste and about to be tethered to the priorities of consumerism, technology, the “mass man,” and the titans of industry whose power Reck mocks and dreads.
In Reck, class hauteur coexists with a capacity for acute political and moral judgment. He refers to the Nazis as “dirty little bourgeoisie who cannot rid themselves of the feel of the dog collars they wore only yesterday;” Himmler is “this person of strongly middle-class antecedents and the appearance of a bailiff” and Goebbels “the limping haberdasher;” the history of the Third Reich, he scoffs, will be called The Revolt of the Mailmen and the Schoolteachers. Yet he is clear-eyed about the amorality of “this regime, born in chicanery, blackmail and swindle,” and its “thin sauce of ideology covering lewdness, greed, sadism and fathomless lust for power.” Incredulous that such a gang of thugs has come to rule Germany, at one point he wonders, dismally, whether history might “be determined by some frightful law decreeing periodic draining of a psychic abcess.”
Perhaps most fascinating to readers today will be Reck’s appraisal of Hitler, whom he met on several occasions. The Prussian aristocrat regards the Austrian interloper with boundless contempt, and as the years pass, he strives in his journal to outdo himself in devising inventive insults for him: “a streetcar conductor;” “that forelocked gypsy type we have been given to lead us in our hour of need;” “the Chief Eunuch;” “this dangerous gorilla;” “this Neanderthal man who has gotten loose from his chain.” Recalling a 1920 visit by the Hitler to the villa of Reck’s friend Clemens von Franckenstein, Reck depicts the young demagogue as a rude houseguest, not conversing but preaching and bellowing (“the servants thought we were being attacked, and rushed in to defend us”) while making a notably dreary impression (“With his oily hair falling into his face as he ranted, he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook.”) But Reck’s appraisal of Hitler went well beyond such mockery. Writing in 1936, at the height of Hitler’s power, he concludes that the Führer “basically hates himself, and his opportunism, his immeasurable need for recognition, and his now-apocalyptic vanity are all based on one thing – a consuming drive to drown out the pain in his psyche, the trauma of a monstrosity.”
In the middle of this journal, as war looms over Europe, Reck describes a tantalizing encounter with Hitler years ago, shortly before his accession to the chancellorship. “This was in the fall of 1932,” Reck writes, “as the fever began to take hold of Germany.” The story continues:
Friedrich von Mücke and I were dining at the Osteria Bavaria in Munich when Hitler entered and crossed the restaurant to the table next to ours – alone, by the way, and without his usual bodyguard. There he sat, now a power among the Germans... [Hitler] felt himself observed by us, and critically examined, and as a result became uncomfortable. His face took on the sullen expression of a minor bureaucrat who has ventured into a place which he would not generally enter, but now that he is there, demands for his good money “that he be served and treated every bit as well as the fine gentlemen over there.”
There he sat, a raw-vegetable Ghengis Khan, a teetotaling Alexander, a womanless Napoleon, an effigy of Bismarck who would certainly have had to go to bed for four weeks if he had ever tried to eat just one of Bismarck’s breakfasts... I had driven into town, and since at that time, September 1932, the streets were already quite unsafe, I had a loaded revolver with me. In the almost deserted restaurant, I could easily have shot him. If I had had an inkling of the role this piece of filth was about to play, and of the years of suffering he was to make us endure, I would have done it without a second thought. But I took him for a character out of a comic strip, and did not shoot.
I took him for a character out of a comic strip, and did not shoot: what a burden of subsequent history hangs on that confession! Of course, it was the same error so many establishment Germans made in the 1920s, dismissing Hitler as a mere clown who had pranced onto the stage of history and would soon prance off. He did not, of course; and from experiencing casual social superiority in a restaurant, Fritz Reck was reduced to recording the ruin of his country in a secret book, pouring out pessimism and despair as the clown-cum-dictator destroyed Germany. Reck’s journal chronicles the corruption of the justice system and the routine use of terror (he grimly notes the number of beheadings each week in Berlin and Vienna); the crass displays of jewelry, caviar and other luxury goods plundered from Paris; and the rampant militarization of daily life under the Nazis. Though himself a former military officer, Reck felt repugnance at this development; he mocks the April, 1939 celebrations of Hitler’s birthday, describing Berlin’s hotels as “flooded with the various storm, overstorm, tornado and hurricane troopers which Germany has at its disposal,” and noting that “their hideous boots were visible in front of all doors.” Writing at the end of summer 1939, as Germany prepared to invade Poland, Reck reflects with disgust “on this thick-witted mob and its bovine roar; on this failure of a Moloch to whom this crowd was roaring homage; and on the ocean of disgrace into which we have all sunk.”
It is remarkable that at precisely those moments when most Germans were gloating in triumph, Reck repeatedly experienced shivers of dread and doom. “I have no doubt that immeasurable suffering is coming,” he writes as Hitler invades Poland. “But I also have no doubt... that today the great monster signed his own death warrant.” Germany, he writes a few weeks later, “is now completely drugged on its own lies. The cure will be more awful than anything ever seen before in history.” In October 1940, as German armies overrun one country after another, he condemns “the psychosis of nationalism” and “the greed and inordinate desires of people gone berserk with success.” And in September 1941 he warns that “No good can come of this cloud of victories, with the stink of crime; no good to a country whose foundations are propaganda and treason.” All along he senses the awful reckoning to come, describing the “drunkenness on a mass scale beyond measuring, which will be followed by the most horrible morning-after the world has ever known.”
Reck possessed the rare ability to alchemize dread, despair and revulsion into a kind of exalted and pitiless eloquence, a veritable poetry of loathing. “I hate you,” he writes in the summer of 1941, addressing Hitler directly.
I hate you waking and sleeping; I hate you for undoing men’s souls, and for spoiling their lives; I hate you as the sworn enemy of the laughter of men... [I]t is God’s deadly enemy which I see, and hate, in you.
In every one of your speeches you make a mockery of the Spirit, which you have silenced, and you forget that the private thought, the thought born in sorrow and loneliness, can be more deadly than all your implements of torture. You threaten all who oppose you with death, but you forget: our hatred is a deadly poison. It will creep into your blood, and wel will die shouting with joy when our hate pulls you down with us into the depths.
Let my life be fulfilled in this way, and let my death come when this task is completed!
It was not quite to be. In October 1944, following indiscreet comments at a public meeting, Reck was denounced, arrested and taken to Dachau, where he died of typhus the following February, less than three months before the end of the war. His book was published posthumously in 1947.
Seven-plus decades later we are at a crucial moment vis-à-vis World War II, our access to it passing day by day from the lived memory of eyewitnesses into the collective memory of history. Reck’s caustic chronicle of daily life under Fascism deserves to be better known. With its immaculate moral revulsion and powerful appeal to conscience -- and written at a time when the revelation of such sentiments would have earned their author a quick death -- it is the most vivid example I know of what the Germans call “inner exile.” Unlike the figures memorialized in the War Resistance Center, Reck did not actively oppose the Nazis; but through his prose he heroically maintained a fixed point of moral sanity amid mass madness, preserving for posterity a set of moral recognitions by which others of his era can be measured and judged. His pages turn despair and loathing into prophetic witness, and reveal an unshakable faith in what is right. “Of all the things that have ever been asked of life,” Reck wrote, “just one remains: that in the hour of martyrdom, a man be able to bring forth out of himself the strength that comes from having kept faith with the truth.”