It speaks to us as a warning today.
Friedrich Kellner, a courthouse administrator in a small town in central Germany, began his diary on the day Adolf Hitler sent the German Wehrmacht into Poland. He knew the risks in such an undertaking, but as a former Social Democrat who had campaigned against the Nazis before they came to power, Kellner deeply felt the necessity to expose Nazi crimes, record the public's approval of their Führer and the Nazi Party, unmask the truth cloaked by Joseph Goebbels's propaganda, and also lay bare the Allies' many lost chances to prevent the war. Above all else, Kellner wanted to be sure future generations would know the terrible consequences of not defending their individual liberties against totalitarian ideologues with anti-democratic agendas.
Called a Jahrhundert-Dokument by the German press when it was published in its original language in 2011—a vital historical document that helps to interpret a particular era—Kellner's observations shine an uncompromising light on our own era as well. It is impossible to avoid the disturbing parallels between then and now: the resurgence of a menacing totalitarianism; the use of terror to bring political change; the bombing of residential areas; the indiscriminate murder of women and children; obliterating historical buildings and monuments; declaring that their victims were responsible for the attacks against them; and resorting to the age-old stratagem of blaming the Jews for everything. To forge their master race and master nation, the Nazis placed young boys and girls into pre-military youth organizations. "At ten they feel the breath of militarism and are not released from its claws until the mass grave," wrote Kellner in April 1943. Seventy years later similar iniquities are with us in the child-soldiers in the Central African Republic and children fitted for suicide vests in the Hamas camps in Gaza.
What amazed Kellner was how the educated and cultural elite of Germany embraced Hitler's vision of a Greater Germany, though they knew from Hitler's Mein Kampfonly an iron fist and war could attain it. "The vast majority of intellectual leaders—with university professors in the forefront—shoved aside everything they had previously stood up for and taught, and devoted themselves entirely to the new political direction," Kellner wrote in June 1941. "They exalted in a servile and spineless way everything the Party prescribed for them."
But the blame was not the Germans' alone, Kellner knew, and he railed against the leaders of the democratic nations, particularly in France and England, who could have stopped Hitler long before the war. He considered Neville Chamberlain a "pathetic nincompoop" for believing Hitler's artful pledges of peace while building up a massive array of armaments in violation of the Versailles Treaty. In May 1940 he wrote: "The Western powers will carry the historical guilt for not promptly providing the most intensive preventative measures against Germany's incessant politics of aggression."
Compounding their negligence before the war was England and France's year-long inertia after they declared war on Germany, their "Phoney War" that allowed the German Luftwaffe to control the skies and let panzer divisions roll unhindered through one European nation after another. "By the time these Englishmen wake up, the greater part of Europe will be a heap of rubble," declared Kellner on May 29, 1940. He lambasted Americans as "idiots" for thinking they could remain neutral and talk Hitler out of his thirst for territory. The day after Pearl Harbor, Kellner asked: "Will the isolationists in the U.S.A. now open their eyes? What a delusion these cowardly people were under. How can you stand on the sidelines claiming neutrality during this gigantic fight for human dignity and freedom—when in actuality that places you on the side of the terrorist nations?"
Another parallel for today is with the irrational anti-Semitism rampant in the Third Reich that led to the Holocaust. Threats to destroy modern Israel herald an even greater catastrophe. In his natural sympathy for Jews, Kellner displays an outstanding sense of fairness and justice and a unique moral character. At the beginning of his diary, in October 1939—when he already was aware Jews were marked for extermination—he wrote, "If the Jews, who over the centuries contributed demonstrable achievements in the economic life for the total development of the nation, can be made a people without rights, then that is an act unworthy of a cultured nation. The curse of this evil deed will indelibly rest on the entire German people." And in December 1941, when he learned Jews were being transported from Germany to concentration camps: "This cruel, despicable, and sadistic treatment against the Jews that has lasted now several years—with its final goal of extermination—is the biggest stain on the honor of Germany."
On more than one occasion Kellner came close to being sent to a concentration camp himself for speaking out against the regime. "Kellner's attitude exerts a bad influence on the population," a Nazi official named Ernst Mönnig wrote, "and he should be made to disappear." Kellner's wife, Pauline, who refused to join any of the Nazi women's organizations, would be imprisoned with him. To protect her, and to remain free to finish his self-imposed task, he restricted his thoughts to his diary. However, he collected leaflets dropped by Allied bombers and surreptitiously placed them around town and at the train station where he knew Nazi Party members would be. "I placed them where wavering Party members would find them," he explained. Among the hundreds of newspaper clippings pasted into his diary are several announcing court judgments against people caught with leaflets: they were all death sentences. Despite that, Kellner would not let the Nazis have the last word.
Robert Scott Kellner is a retired English professor and editor and translator of his grandfather's diary, My Opposition: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner - A German against the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2018).