A diary for the future

Friedrich Kellner, a non-Jewish civil servant involved in the resistance, lambasts actions of ordinary Germans during WWII.

Friedrich Kellner 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Creative Commons)
Friedrich Kellner 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Creative Commons)
Writer Johannes Gross neatly captured Germany’s relationship to its Nazi history when he wrote, “The resistance to Hitler and his kind is getting stronger the more the Third Reich recedes into the past.” Gross’s sharp aphorism was a commentary on the mushrooming resistance to Nazism during the decades following the Allied defeat of the Hitler movement. The tiny segment of German resistance fighters during the Holocaust, including justice inspector Friedrich Kellner, would have felt affinity with Gross’s biting irony.
Kellner died in 1970, but his ten diary notebooks have survived.  Last year, a two-volume definitive edition of the diaries, titled "Vernebelt, verdunkelt sind alleHirne" (All the minds are clouded and darkened), was released, prompting a literary and media sensation over his scathing critique of ordinary Germans during World War II who contributed to the destruction of European Jewry and Western civilization.
In his home situated in a rustic neighborhood close to the imposing campus of Texas A&M University, Dr. Robert Scott Kellner, Friedrich’s grandson, explains to me the significance of his grandfather’s literary and political legacy.
“My grandfather told me that he wrote the diary for future generations, to give them a weapon of truth against any resurgence of Nazism and anti-Semitism, against terrorists and totalitarianism,” recalls Kellner, who prefers to be called Scott. And, according to Friedrich, those “future generations” need to have the intellectual and political tool kit to fight “against their own Nazis.”
August Friedrich Kellner was born 1885 in the town of Vaihingen an der Enz in the southern German state of Baden- Wurttemburg. His father, a baker, moved the family to Mainz when Friedrich was four years old. He would spend the next 43 years in Mainz before relocating to Laubach in January of 1933 – shortly before Adolf Hitler maneuvered himself into the German Chancellery.
While Germany and European capitals are busy this month with a steady stream of Holocaust commemoration events, albeit largely disconnected from new forms of genocide seeking to obliterate Jews, Friedrich’s aim was a kind of awareness through action.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 has morphed into a fluffy ritual to honor the victims of Nazism. The 70th anniversary event commemorating the House of the Wannsee Conference meeting in 1942 – the site just outside Berlin where the leading Nazis planned the extermination of European Jewry – took place this month in Berlin and mirrored the apolitical nature of the January 27 event.
One would be hard-pressed to find European politicians and speakers at Holocaust remembrance events making connections between the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the security of the Middle East (particularly the Jewish state) and the West. President Shimon Peres was an anomaly when he spoke in the Bundestag about the Iranian threat at the January 2010 Holocaust remembrance event.
Scott said that his grandfather “hated that US president Franklin Roosevelt stayed neutral for two years” before entering World War II in 1941. In a diary entry six months before the Japanese invaded the US military base at Pearl Harbor, Friedrich wrote, “Now is a unique chance for England and America to take the initiative. But not only with empty promises and insufficient measures. If America has the earnest will to throw its entire might into the fray, it could tip the balance for a return of peace.... At the height of their insane power the German people certainly cannot be brought to reason with words.”
Friedrich continued, “Only tremendous force and the commitment of all war materials can bring the wild steer to reason. I will admit that at least some men in the world are now energetically working for the good of humanity, but up until now the statesmen – through unbelievable short-sightedness – have neglected or failed their duty. Mankind, awaken!” The dialectical interplay between past events and the future weaves its way through the more than 900 pages of diary entries and the grandfather-grandson talks on Scott’s visits to the small west German town of Laubach.
Friedrich wrote over 70 years ago: “Even today there are idiots in America who talk nonsense about some compromise with Germany under Adolf Hitler. Those are the most atrocious dummies. Churchill said once that whoever feeds the crocodile would be eaten.”
Fast forward to 2012 and Scott says that is “a quote that is absolutely relevant for today. Just substitute Iran for Germany and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Adolf Hitler.”
Imagining how Friedrich Kellner would have reacted to genocidal threats from Iran’s clerical regime, Scott told me his grandfather would have urged Western governments to “send bombs to take out Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and would have applauded George W. Bush for taking out Saddam Hussein. He would have applauded President Barack Obama for attacking Gaddafi.”
Friedrich, who was an active member of the Social Democratic Party, was a man of action as well as a man of the pen. “Uniteagainst the destroyers of peace,” Kellner wrote in his diary as early as 1941. According to a list Friedrich made about his active resistance, he distributed Allied leaflets that were showered on German towns and cities urging capitulation to usher in peace. Friedrich kept some samples of the Allied literature. One flyer noted that defeat would not enslave the Germans; rather, “Hitler’s war has enslaved the German people.”
The risk to Kellner’s life was extraordinary.
His diary contains entries about people being executed for merely reading the anti-Nazi pamphlets. Kellner’s wife, Pauline, steadfastly rejected attempts to conscript her into Nazi women’s organizations.
Her resistance triggered a judge in 1938 to open a formal investigation into Pauline’s ancestry to ascertain whether she had Jewish ancestry in her family.
In an undated entry to his diary, Friedrich wrote, “Yes, she is most definitely courageous. The reader will understand when I propose here that a monument should be erected to my brave Pauline.”
Kellner showed no sympathy in his writings for soggy engagement and diplomacy with fanatically anti-democratic regimes.
“My grandfather would say there are idiots in the world who are talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but what is needed is to actually assassinate him and destroy all the armaments in Iran,” says Scott, who is quick to add that his grandfather was in no way an advocate of jingoism. “Although this sounds like my grandfather was a warmonger, he was not. He was a realist who very much wanted peace, but he knew it was the most fragile part of civilization and had to be protected. He knew there would always be other men who preferred power to peace.”
Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” The toxic combination of Iran’s nuclear ambitions coupled with eliminatory rhetoric has positioned Iran to be the first country since Nazi Germany to threaten a new Holocaust against Jews. Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said in 2001 that “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.”
It is one of the paradoxes of modern Germany that its leaders traditionally reject military options to topple violently repressive regimes determined to destroy vulnerable minority populations. The application of spectacular levels of violence, both Western and Soviet, eradicated Nazism and its sister forms of fascism in Japan and Italy. Modern Germany is, however, largely fixated on dialogue and wedded to pacifism as the remedy for international conflict and genocide. It is a strategy of inaction.
All of this helps to explain German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision not to join NATO forces last year to dissolve Gaddafi’s blood-soaked attacks on prodemocracy supporters. Germany’s top UN diplomat abstained, as did totalitarian China and authoritarian Russia at the UN Security Council vote to impose a noflight zone over Libya to protect its civilian population.
Friedrich Kellner’s razor-sharp analytical abilities helped him differentiate between futile wars and meaningful military engagement. Scott highlights a diary passage from 1943: “I left the Evangelical church because it and a great part of their pastors behaved un-Christian during the war years of 1914 to 1918. They promulgated constantly in word and writing a peace by force, and they did that in the leading Christian circles. Also, in this war you can observe again the church in Germany does not take a position against the terrible abominations that were committed against the Jews.”
The First World War, in which Friedrich fought in France and was wounded, was juxtaposed with Germany’s ongoing annihilation of the Jews during the Second World War. Hitler’s perverse ideology attributed the defeat of Germany in WWI to European Jewry.
Scott narrates his grandparents’ resistance against Nazism with a sort of boundless enthusiasm of pride. His passion is understandable. Take the example of Kristallnacht, which resulted in a wave of state-sponsored violence against German Jews on November 9, 1938. Scott explains to me in great precision how his grandparents complained to the authorities that not enough was being done to stop the burning of the synagogue and Torah scrolls. Police officials subjected both Pauline and Friedrich to an interrogation.
The police reaction was hardly surprising in a town of 1,800 with a 60 percent Nazi voting rate.
Friedrich and Pauline also went to great lengths and risks to help the German Jewish family of Julius Abt, his wife Lucie Heynemann Abt and their infant son John Peter to flee in 1935 to the US.
While German historians and journalists have long engaged in esoteric and highfalutin debates about what average Germans knew about the Holocaust during WWII, Friedrich was crystal clear in his prose as early as 1939 about lethal anti-Semitism as part of Hitler’s war machinery. “Pursuit and extermination of the Jews” was how Friedrich described the inner workings of the Nazi regime.
A mere two years later he noted in agrisly confirmation of his analysis of German anti-Semitism, “A soldier on vacation here reported as eyewitness a terrible atrocity in the occupied parts of Poland. He has 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 closed and from the ditch you could still hear screams.”
He continued, “These inhuman atrocities are so terrible that the Ukrainians who were used as tools suffered nervous breakdowns. All soldiers who had knowledge of these bestial actions of those Nazi sub-human beings were all of the opinion that the German people should already shake in their shoes because of the coming retribution. There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts.”
It would take the publication of US political scientist Daniel J. Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners in 1996 to jolt the Federal Republic out of its lumbering denial about lethal anti-Semitism motivating ordinary working-class Germans to advance the Nazi movement.
Goldhagen’s thesis captured how “eliminatory anti-Semitism” was not only integral to the inner circle of the Nazis, but permeated German civil society.
Perhaps German society’s refusal to embrace responsibility for the Holocaust in the post-war years coupled with the widespread rehabilitation of ex-Nazis in all professional walks of life contributed to the clinically depressed – borderline suicidal – state in which Scott found his grandparents in the 1960s.
When I ask Scott if he agrees, he says yes, adding “that, combined with the suicide of their son several years earlier.”
Scott’s father, Fred, was the Germanborn son of Friedrich and Pauline. He married a Jewish New York woman, Frieda Schulman, and Scott was born in the Bronx in 1941.
What prompted a middle-aged non- Jewish civil servant and his wife to intervene and resist the persecution of Jews? Scott said, though his grandparents had not known any Jews during the many years they lived in Mainz, it was a very simple matter for them: they believed in “right and wrong.”
Scott has turned the latter years of his life into a project to codify the writings and thoughts of his grandfather. His crowning achievement might very well be the influence he is now having in Germany.
In October, the influential German weekly magazine Der Spiegel praised the Kellner diaries as a “superb” account of German fascism. Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education, which provides educational material to combat anti-Semitism and promote democracy, issued in January an inexpensive one-volume paperback edition of the diaries.
While the German reviews, including the two-page Der Spiegel article, are understandably focused on the historical account in Friedrich’s groundbreaking diaries, the future-orientated passages of his notebooks have yet to be grappled with in Germany. In light of the Iranian nuclear threat, totalitarian China, the rise of an authoritarian Russia, fanatical Islamic movements and regimes, there is no shortage of new manifestations of fascism.
Home-grown Nazism remains a serious problem in the Federal Republic.
Germany continues to be Iran’s most important European Union trade partner, with bilateral trade hovering close to 4 billion euros each year. Germany’s Bundestag, including Ruprecht Polenz, the Christian Democratic Union party head of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee, welcomed in June a delegation of Iranian lawmakers. The Holocaust denial and lethal anti-Semitism articulated by Iran’s Parliament is the mirror image of Germany’s neo-Nazi party, the NDP.
To again invoke the German writer Johannes Gross (1932-1999), there is growing civil society opposition to any leftover vestiges of Nazism in the Federal Republic, but German resistance to Iran’s modernized version of totalitarianism is scarcely grounded in civil society and among deputies in the Bundestag.
When Friedrich writes about resistance to “their own Nazis” in a post-Holocaust world, it is not too much of a stretch to internalize a democratic fight against the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Iran’s revolutionary Islam, and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Germany’s posture toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and Tehran’s genocidal threats against Israel’s Jews might very well have been, for Friedrich, the litmus test of a post-Shoah Germany that has learned from its history and takes the business of combating terror movements seriously.
As Friedrich wrote over 70 years ago: “If one looks over the present conditions, a feeling of dread comes to the thinking person.”
The writer is the European Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.