February 2013

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck, translated by Paul Rubens

Diary of a Man in Despair begins mid-death, an in medias res in rigor mortis. The year is 1936; Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West, has just died, his warnings of civilization's decay having gone unheard save for by Friedrich Reck, a pop novelist and hyper-erudite theater critic for whom the immolation of the Third Reich is less an historical inevitability than a moral certainty. Diary is Reck's record of fruitless rage as his country is occupied by a putrid version of itself.

Reck was an intractable conservative, pining for the days before industrialization blew the scattered embers of the Hapsburg Empire into the bright, bustling German nation, bullish in business but limp in imagination, culture, and ethics. He spots the Nazis for the thugs they are, not because they herald some terrifying future but because he sees them as a tumid outgrowth of the recent, wretched past: Reck's conservatism draws a straight line from Germany's industrial denigration of values to its inability to discern evil even when it rides over the hills on Hegelian horseback. Describing a tenant's wife aghast at the thought that her children might be captured by enemy forces and raised in America:

Nota bene, this woman spent several years in America, as a laundress; she still speaks a little English, and she has a number of quite warm recollections of Boston -- yet she still believes these stories about foreign devils. Really, this people, only yesterday so intelligent and discriminating, seems to have been overcome by a disease of the mind.

But for all that his opposition seems motivated by his suspicion that the money-mad merchants and schoolteachers and burghers are mucking up the good china -- at one point he's so despondent over the degradation of Munich he holds his nose and wonders if he's in Chicago -- Reck is far from reactionary. He scowls equally at the factory owners who, having replaced landowners as the new aristocracy, are not tied to the earth for their wealth and thus happy to exploit Germany in the name of "Germany." Reck damns them in a surprisingly environmental critique, as he watches townships eagerly submit their natural resources and historic buildings to the thresher of development, all to get factories that nobody wants or needs. This is a perversion of basic notions of right and wrong, a corruption that started the when the first foreman replaced the first worker with the first machine.

The result: trash. Reck merciless inverts the notion that Germany was a smooth-functioning machine under Nazi rule. Instead, everything is crumbling: castles, cathedrals, cars (Reck will hear none of this Volkswagen nonsense). It is "the deification of the threadbare." Nothing works. Overloaded trains cause good crops to spoil before they arrive in Berlin. New buildings are a "blasphemy in stone." No one can write a string quartet to save his life, and the cheap radio it would be played on would break anyway. The great Germanic language has rotted into "this pimp's German." Nature, as in Denmark once upon a time, "is out of joint." "The vintages have failed," Reck writes in 1942. "The botanists say certain plants which normally bloom in the autumn now come up in spring, while there are spring-blooming plants which now emerge in late autumn." Even the people are falling apart: a doctor confides that most of the latest class of German Olympians is impotent. And this is to say nothing of the demise of the family unit, Reck's crowning piece of evidence in his case against the "dirty little bourgeoisie":

Here is something that happened locally. The son of a poverty-stricken peasant family returned home recently from America following an adventure-filled odyssey. His mother and father, poor as beggars but of excellent repute, welcomed their son home with open arms and a great dinner, and the prodigal ate and drank and went to bed. But during the evening, he had exhibited several hundred-dollar bills. The parents debated the matter for a long time while the son slept. Then, unity having been established, the mother got a long kitchen knife and slit open her son's throat for the sake of the money: honest people, otherwise...

When fields become factories and people machines, it is only a matter of time before courts become sideshows, mothers murders, monsters bureaucrats, and trains, once chugging proudly into Germany's future, delivery vehicles for concentration camps. The Nazi regime, in Reck's vision, was the bourgeoisie's bill come due, and even as he weeps for his Germany his tears are heavy with conviction that those who ruined it are finally getting what's coming to them. (This economic underpinning is so complete that when Reck finally overhears, in 1943, a man disdain the Nazi Party, the man does so by declaring he is tired of this "swindle," as if National Socialism's cataclysmic warfare and unprecedented genocide were nothing more than a large pickpocketing scheme at the expense of the German merchant class.)

But however much he hates the bourgeoisie, Reck reserves his true invective for Hitler.

Snobbish to the core, Reck derided the "man from the furnished room," and it seems not to have occurred to him what role the condescension of old guard monarchists like him might have played in militarizing Hitler's insecurities. "Appearing in the chair of a minister," Reck writes of the Führer's quotidian countenance, "an apparition with a face like this would have been disobeyed as soon as it spoke an order -- and not merely by the higher officials in the ministry: no, by the doorman, by the cleaning women!" Hitler himself was likely aware of this, hence the bombastic carnage.

Nonetheless, one of the most gratifying pleasures of Reck's journal is its unsurpassed quantity and unmatched density of sheer Hitler-hate, all the more impressive as Reck could have been killed for any of his bon mots. The despot is "that forelocked gypsy type," "a deeply miscarried human being," "a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins," "the Chief Eunuch," "the power drunk schizophrenic," "this somber bandit," "a raw vegetable Genghis Khan," "a teetotalling Alexander," "a womanless Napoleon," "an effigy of Bismarck who would certainly have had to go to bed for four weeks if he had ever tried to eat just one of Bismarck's breakfasts," "a figure out of a German ghost story," "a poor dung face," "this failure of a Moloch," "a headwaiter closing his hand around the tip," and, perhaps worst of all, "a middle-class antichrist." Compared to all that, Goebbels, dismissed as a "limping haberdashery salesman," gets off easy.

But Reck slings these insults in the early pages of his diary, when such ad hominem was, if not permissible, then at least possible. By midway through the book, the barrage stops; in fact, mention of Hitler all but ceases, as the true extent of what the man from the furnished room is up to dawns on the diarist; he who had been but a boy "playing with the great levers of the world" is now wracking up a body count even beyond Reck's bitter comprehension. Only one explanation figures for the sudden disappearance from this text of a figure with which it had hitherto been obsessed: fear. Sometime around 1942, Reck realized that however much he was not Hitler's fool, he was still very much the Führer's victim.

Reck was finally arrested in October 1944, not over his writings but for insulting of the German currency -- he had complained to his publisher that inflation had hurt his royalties. Thus the man who devoted his life to protesting the vulgarization of his nation was at last taken away over a matter of coinage. He continued to write in prison, but the longer he stared at his cell walls, the more his loathing turned inward, as the same conservative belief in the world's immutable forms that convinced him the Nazis' days were numbered now suggested that his arrest, however illegitimate in its particularities, was his comeuppance for his life's wrongs. The chapter in which Reck looks back over his sins and crimes bares an uncanny resemblance to Arthur Koestler's 1940 novel of Soviet imprisonment, Darkness at Noon; that there's almost no chance the two read each other means Reck was reporting from the midst of a terrible universal condition, that of a man jailed by his neighbors, stripped of liberty and then dignity, until his isolation leaves him no one to blame but himself -- "as though loneliness has become part of our martyrdom." A few months later, Reck died of typhus in Dachau.

Diary of a Man in Despair, obviously, is not a diary: the entries are not personal jottings but self-contained and well-articulated essays. Reck regularly addresses a future reader, encoding his faith that one day there will actually exist a future readership that will not only read his journal but also agree with its analysis. In any other context, this faith would hint faintly of arrogance; Reck was so committed to his diagnosis of the Nazi Party as doomed that it never really occurred to him they might very well win, his journal ground up en route to total victory.

In the end, he was right: his diary buried the regime. As the opening pages segue immediately from Spengler's death to a discussion of his work, setting the key of a man's testimony outliving both his death and his executioner, so Reck's despair that his life must be subsumed into opposition -- "In our hatred, we are like bees who must pay with their lives for the use of their stingers" -- steeled him all the more to preserve his writings as the last word over the man from the furnished room. "The Gestapo is in a fury," he reminds himself in 1942, at the height of the madness, "but it cannot send a poem to a concentration camp."

Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590175866
264 pages