One needs a strong stomach to get through Victor Klemperer’s unflinching diary recounting the events of 1919 in Munich. For those unfamiliar with German history, revolution hit Germany in the wake of the First World War. Increasingly, German servicemen, including my grandfather and many other family members, were realising both that Germany was responsible for the war, with its huge loss of life, and that the leadership under Hindenburg and Ludendorff was making no attempt to move towards a negotiated peace, even though it was clear Germany had lost.
The anti-war movements took to the streets shouting “Peace! Freedom! Bread!” Mutiny among sailors spread like wildfire and reached Munich in November 1918.
Under huge pressure, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the Reich Chancellor Prince Max von Baden passed his office to the chairman of the Majority Social Democratic Party, Friedrich Ebert. Meanwhile, Karl Liebknecht, a delegate from the independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, was proclaiming the “Free Socialist republic of Germany”— he was soon to be murdered, a political assassination immortalised by the artist Kaethe Kollwitz.
The guns fell silent. But Hindenburg and Ludendorff did not sign the armistice — they left that to the centrist politician Matthias Erzberger, who finally signed it, though it was non-negotiable and highly punitive towards Germany. Seen as a traitor by many, he, too,was assassinated in 1921.
It is against this background that the academic and journalist Victor Klemperer — a rabbi’s son, and a Protestant convert — wrote his reports for the newspaper Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten.
Many of these reports went unpublished. But Klemperer’s vivid writing, and his later accounts of life under the Third Reich, which he survived in a Judenhaus in Dresden, make him one of the most important contemporary historians of the Nazi period and before. And much of what was to come is reflected in these accounts. For here we have the Prime Minster in Munich, Kurt Eisner, of Jewish descent, just like Klemperer himself. As is Dr Levien, the leader of the socialists (Spartacists). who claims not to be a Russian Jew.
Eisner is described as a “delicate, tiny, frail, stooped little man”, and “a mediocre spent man… He does not look especially Jewish…” a man who describes himself, to Klemperer’s total astonishment, as “a visionary, a dreamer, a poet.”
Klemperer cites endless examples of antisemitism, at first with astonishment, later with horror and foreboding. But among them all, and the cries of “Jewish pigs”, one example stands out. It comes from the English wife of the Anglicist Josef Schick. She argued that all women had to stick together — there was no difference between German, French and English women: “No, no one had the slaughter on their conscience but the Jews alone, who were the only ones to profit from it.”
This account needs to be read for itself, and its dramatic descriptions of chaos and political madness. But it also needs to be read as a harbinger of the future — and attitudes that shaped German acquiescence in, and belief in, the violent antisemitism of Nazi ideology.
For it is everywhere here, in 1919.
Munich 1919, translated by Jessica Spengler is published by Polity (£20)
Baroness Julia Neuberger is Senior Rabbi at West London Synagogue