“…I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself to be dominated by the street-corner idlers of yesterday, but actually, the height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its shame for the shame that it is.”
While casting about in October for a work to read for German Literature Month, I abruptly realized I was holding one in my hands, a book I’d first read last winter but had kept close by as a reference - every page seeming to offer a memorable line - and also as a kind of presence I’ve been unwilling to let depart. Frederich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen’s Diary of a Man in Despair (Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten) consists of entries composed between 1936 and 1944 while their author observed, from among Munich’s cultural elite, the perpetrators of Nazism and their devastating impact. Though the catastrophic consequences of Nazism should not by any reckoning remain an unfamiliar story, the prolonged howl of indignation in Diary of a Man in Despair yanks one out of complacent assumptions, and its incisive depth of insight and penetrating far-sightedness give Reck-Malleczewen’s testament a chilling contemporary relevance.
Translator Paul Rubens - with enviable restraint, as this is a book for which additional commentary is likely superfluous - provides but a bare introduction to the author, which I supplemented with other sources to gather a few details. Born to a noble Prussian family, Reck-Malleczewen attended medical school then settled near Munich to pursue a literary career. Due in part to being a respected member of the upper class, he survived the first 10 years of the Reich well-positioned to observe firsthand its architects. He recounts incidental encounters with Goring, Himmler, Goebbels and even Hitler himself, unforgettably described as possessing “a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins.” Unable to confine his disgust to his journal, which he carefully buried on his estate after each entry, Reck-Malleczewen also resisted in small public ways - continuing to say “Grüss Gott” (God Bless) instead of “Heil Hitler,” walking out of a theater of nationalists applauding Nazi barbarities – that culminated in a charge of disparaging German purity. Arrested in October 1944, he was executed at Dachau on February 16, 1945. Diary of a Man in Despair appeared in Germany in 1948; Rubens’ translation came out in 1970. New York Review Books will reissue the book this month.
A conservative allied to Germany’s disappearing nobility, Reck-Malleczewen directs much of his outrage at the Nazis’ destruction of class order and social institutions. His conviction in his understanding of the institutional and psychological origins of Nazism, and in the inevitability of its failure, lends Diary of a Man in Despair a similar faith in humanity - despite the horrors perpetrated by its members - as one finds in Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Taking a Freudian view that things “generally buried in our subconscious” had been brought to the surface as in “the blood-cleansing function of a boil,” Reck-Malleczewen expands his interpretation to indict collusion of government and industry, unrestrained profiteering, indulgence in petty nationalism, and the gullibility of those seeking easy answers, accepting empty promises in a wrecked economy, and attempting to assuage their “own bad consciences by shifting the blame to a single man.” As a writer immersed in the arts, Reck-Malleczewen also implicates writers, composers, and actors who, through their politics and art, colluded with the regime. Some of his observations embrace elements I’d tacitly associated with Nazism’s rise, such as a zealous sense of order – he instead castigates the Nazis for their rejection of order and “form” - and an eugenic approach to the development of society. It’s jolting to read Reck-Malleczewen assign partial blame to “mass man’s” intervening to allow unhealthy babies to live, thus creating a weakened race.
But despite some controvertible assumptions and a few factual errors, Diary of a Man in Despair takes a long view, employing not only the historian’s backward study but also the visionary’s forward-thinking. What’s perhaps most sobering about Reck-Malleczewen’s account is how his philosophical clear-sightedness and longitudinal perspective, distilled by circumstance into concentrated brevity, pull back the curtain on the world’s “progress” since the defeat of Nazism, revealing the persistence, little impeded by voices of reason and caution, of many elements he indicts as Nazism’s accomplices. He rails against the free reign of “pirates of industry” who defile valleys, forests and streams with their factories, dams, and “characteristic barbarian inability to understand that some things are irreplaceable.” He warns of corporate influence on government, leading to ”a shallow and irresponsible concentration on one generation, an unheard-of destruction of irreplaceable natural resources, of our cultural and ethical substance – a stockbroker’s philosophy…which blocked out every thought about tomorrow.” He issues a disturbing prediction that “armed might” in the service of private industry would become the way of the world and that “mass man” would be led into “nationalism, with no nation.” He protests the intrusion into science by “patriotism,” anticipates the dispersal of new technologies to masses incapable of or unwilling to understand them, laments the creation of cheap, ersatz products – “without solidity in either materials or execution…appearance, artifice, a patched-on thing, and with it all the deeply ingrained idea of being something special,” and suggests, among other things, that “gasoline…has contributed more to the inner decay of mankind than alcohol.”
In other words, the threats Reck-Malleczewen describes remain recognizable and present. His diary permits us no distancing from Nazism, but demands that we view it in relation to ourselves and charges us to remain vigilant. Acutely conscious of having been stripped of everything but his role as witness, Reck-Malleczewen, in leaving us this small, profound, essential book, took the “one last chance given to one in this life, the chance to affirm the truth with one’s death.”