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History 133q, Winter 2006
January 17, 2006
Question: Using Victor Klemperer's diary for the years 1933-1938, I will bear witness, What does a diary tell us about history that other sources may not?
A Secret Work as a Valuable Source
A diary, a personal record of events, experiences, and observations gives authors the opportunity to explore their thoughts and experiences in writing, allows readers to enter into authors' private worlds, and immortalizes authors' legacies. While many sources include solid facts about historical events, a diary communicates much more; its lack of audience, unique introspective style, and the description of all aspects one person’s life, convey important intimate information about history that other works leave out.[thesis statement]
The foremost reason that makes a diary stand out above any other work, is that it is not intended for an audience; rather it is written by the author, for the author to gather his or her own thoughts. Klemperer’s diary is written to reconcile his experiences and record the things that he will use in his future memoirs (Klemperer xix). Diaries contain dangerous secrets and Klemperer is “constantly being warned about keeping a dairy” (Klemperer 37). Because most things are written to be published, there is a large difference between a diary and the other works, and what each reveals about history.
While many documents attempt to be well supported and objective, a diary depicts the author’s perception of the world and is obviously biased and subjective. History books claim to make objective historical truths known, but as Eric J. Wolf argues in his book Europe and the People without History, history is misleading, it is a moral success story written by the winners to glorify themselves. In diaries, such assumptions are not necessary. Klemperer’s diary, for example, reports on the Whitsun Holidays and how learning has become an evil (Klemperer 64). It is obvious that this statement is subjective and fits his situation, for he is a professor who believes in the value of education, but a believer of the Nazi party who celebrates this holiday would perceive this event entirely differently. Because the biases are known, diaries provide excellent truthful accounts of how different people perceive the same moments in history.
Diaries serve as case studies in history; they add knowledge and a personal touch to what is known about various highly summarized historical events. By revealing many aspects of Klemperer’s life experiences, and creating an idea of what life is really like under Nazi rule, his diary provides a thorough understanding of the Holocaust experience and adds a face, Klemperer’s face, to the summarized horrific conditions of the time. Klemperer lives through the Nazi rise to power, their control and fall, and writes about his experiences. The unfortunate discrimination of the Jewish people, Klemperer’s fallen status as a professor, and his wife’s hysteria lead to his depressive, down-looking moods and procrastinating attitudes. Such connections are only found in diaries, for small details allow one to paint the larger picture.
Diaries reveal what certain individuals find significant. Klemperer notes the sighting of a children’s ball with a swastika drawn on it (Klemperer 10). No other work would note this tiny detail, but it has many implications. It reveals the how widespread Nazi power really is by the year 1933 and how it reaches people of all ages. It also shows that children will soon be very much accustomed to this symbol o Nazi power, and in the future will be more likely to go along with, and support fascists in their decisions.
Many historical works deal with the Holocaust by focusing on the grief and the number of the people dead, or exploring the joint experiences of the Jewish people as a whole, but diaries are different. They show the many different aspects of one individual, and add a personal and familiar touch to the historical moments that these authors write about.
- Klemperer, V. (1999). I will Bear Witness 1933-1941. New York: Random House Inc.
- Wolf, E.J. (1982) Europe and the People without History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press