It would be easy to let the title of this book put you off it: Diary of a Man in Despair, does not sound as though it’s going to be an entertaining read, but I share the view of Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations that this is an “extraordinary document”, a “unique testament” to the horrors the Nazi dominance in Germany in the 1940s.
I suppose one might ask why anyone would want to read a book like this – it’s not going to “entertaining” in any sense of the word, but my interest is in trying to understand how whole nations and communities can go so completely off the rails that they lost all sense of human values. Anyone who reads books like this must wonder how they themselves would cope if the political systems of our own country changed and a Fascist regime came to power (British readers might want to beware the current anti-immigrant rhetoric!). Reck gives an example of how one could behave, remaining true to oneself despite the immense pressure to conform.
I have collected a few books on A Common Reader which detail the lives of those Germans who opposed Nazi rule, but none is quite as vivid as Friedrich Reck’s diary (which was eventually going to bring an awful punishment on the head of it’s writer). At the end of the book an Afterword by the historian Richard J Evans (author of the magesterial Third Reich trilogy) quotes the extremes Reck had to go to keep this explosive diary from secret, “Night after night I hide this record deep in the woods on my land . . . constantly on watch lest I am observed, constantly changing my hiding place”. Later on he took to burying it in a tin box in a field.
Reck’s hatred of the regime was so pronounced that eventually in 1944 he was denounced and sent to Dachau Concentration Camp where he was shot in the back of the neck. His diary was not the cause of his downfall, but merely a letter in which he complained about monetary inflation which was robbing his royalites of any value. The charge of “insulting the German currency” seems a very minor accusation when compared with the contents of the secret diaries buried in his field.
Friedrich Reck was a writer, well-known in Munich as a raconteur, mixing in literary and journalistic circles. While there is some doubt about his aristocratic credentials he owned an estate in East Prussia which he inherited from his father. Nobody can doubt the intensity of Reck’s deep aversion to Hitler and his gang of criminals who rose to wreak such havoc across Europe and beyond. His aversion to Adolf Hitler developed into an almost Biblical level of hatred, reminiscent of the Old Testament prophet Jermiah railing against the iniquities of Jerusalem:
I have hated you in every hour that has gone by, I hate you so that I would happily give my life for your death, and happily go to my own doom if only I could witness yours, take you with me into the depths. When I let this hate free, I am almost overcome by it, but I cannot change this and do not really know how it could be otherwise. Let no one deprecate this, nor fool himself about the power of such hatred. Hate drives to reality. Hate is the father of the action. The way out of our defiled and desecrated house is through the command to hate Satan. Only so will be earn the right to search in the darkness for the way of love.
Despite passages like this, the book is a fascinating read. It is full of anecdotes and conversations such as when the composer Pfitzner complains that the theatres are neglecting German works and are still performing operas by Verdi, “the composer of brutal and blood-soaked works”, while his own music was met with laughter by the orchestra members who had to perform it. In another vivid word picture, Reck tells us how he saw a well-known aristocrat in the second-class waiting room of the railway station, “tearing with Gargantuan zeal into his rost ribs of beef and sauerkraut, fat dripping from his mouth”.
Reck also knew or met many well-known people including Unity Mitford who he describes as “a type somewhere between archangel and a model for toilet soap”.
The diary opens in May 1936 and in the first entry he writes about the death of the historian Oswald Spengler, who despite the evidence of his masterly work Decline of the West was given to “epicurean inclinations and his passion for the rich sauces and incomparable culinary skills of his sisters who kept house for him”. The Nazis hoped to be able to show that Spengler had come round to their way of thinking but this was not to be, despite the efforts of the editors of their newspapers, the “one-time school teachers with peculiar records and army lieutenants of the First World War who have done nothing since”.
This begins a theme which Reck returns to again and again: the Nazis were very unimpressive people who gave opportunities to other low-achievers to move into positions of power over others which they had often longed for. Reck has only the utmost contempt for Hitler himself, observing him gliding by in a car one day,
a jellylike, slag-grey face, a moon-face into which two jet-black eyes had been set like raisins . . . so sad, to unutterably insignificant, so basically misbegotten in this countenance that only thirty years ago . . . such a face on an official would have been disobeyed as soon as its mouth spoke and order – and not merely by the higher officials in the ministry: no, by the doorman, by the cleaning women!
As the war begins, Reck prophesies only doom for Germany and the regime that leads it. He is adamant that there are many with views the same as his, that only those who can profit from the rise of Nazism support it along with the mass of people who sheep-like look to a great leader to end their troubles. Knowing that the Germans will be criticised in the future for their lack of resistance to Hitler, he points out that “the resistants have died unknown in filthy bunkers”. Later on we see that executions of dissenting voices have risen to such a degree that there are sixteen guillotines working in Germany and they operate at full capacity throughout the day. It becomes impossible to utter the slightest negativity about the progress of the war without arrest soon following, for the nations has become full of people who are keen to denounce others in order to bolster their own position.
By 1943, the population has become largely disenchanted with the regime. The retreat from Russia showed the vast scale of the loss of life and few families have not seen casualties and fatalities. When The Allies land in Africa in 1943, Reck reports that “everyone seems glad about the decisive change in the course of the war, which meant the defeat of his own country”. The whole town was exhilerated “as though everybody had drunk a bottle of champagne”. Before long, the keenest supporters of the Nazi party begin to be less demonstrative and the districts chief Nazi called a meeting at which he pleads with the people to stop threatening to burn down his house, since “he had after all, only been carrying out orders from the Party”.
Regrettably things get considerably worse for Reck, and gradually all his friends are arrested and many people disappear without trace. Whole families are sent off into the night, and then in October 1944 Reck himself is arrested and accused of making light of the Peope’s Militia (which he had refused to join due to having angina pectoris) and also organising a demonstration of women protesting the removal of crucifixes from public buildings. Although Reck was released (and thus able to describe this event in his diary), alas, there are no more entries and we know that he was re-arrested and despatched to Dachau.
The Afterword tells us that the Dutch writer Nico Rost saw Reck shortly before he died, “standing before me weakened by hunger and trembling with nerves, in grey linen trousers that were far too short for him, and a green Italian military coat with a missing arm, miserable, ill, starving and old”.
This is altogether a remarkable book and I can only agree with the quote from the New York Times on the cover, “It is stunning to read, for it is not often that invective achieve the level of art, and rarer still that hatred assumes a tragic grandeur”.
The book is published by the New York Review of Book Classics and is translated by Paul Robens. It contains 8 pages of original photographs of Friedrich Reck which make for very interesting viewing.
A highly-regarded ex-colleague Peter McShane has left a comment below this article referring to the excellent review in the Guardian by Nicholas Lezard.