“Germany has been sinking deeper and deeper into unreality ever since…. It is now completely drugged on its own lies. The cure will be more awful than anything ever seen before in its history.”
Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck (1884-1945) is both an aptly titled book and an extraordinary document which records aspects of life under Nazi tyranny. Reck, the son of a Prussian landowner, whose full name was Friedrich Percival Reck-Malleczewen, was a conservative, and served in the Prussian army but due to health problems, he returned to civilian life where he held various positions: doctor, journalist, theater critic, and novelist. Placed in the highest echelons of German society, he not only witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, but he also personally knew many of the people involved in some of the most egregious episodes of the period. Living in despair, Reck courageously wrote in his diary which he hid by burying it, and this document that survived while its author did not, stands as a unique testament to the horrendous events of the time. Reck was appalled by the rise of the Nazi party, and finds some disturbing parallels between Hitler’s ascent to power and Bockelson’s 16th century rebellion and brief despotic rule:
The same role of official murderer played by Hitler in the Röhm Putsch was acted by Bockelson in Münster. As with us Spartan laws were promulgated to control the misera plebs, but these did not apply to him or his followers. Bockelson also surrounded himself with bodyguards, and was beyond the reach of any would-be assassin. As with us, there were street meetings and ‘voluntary contributions’, refusal of which meant proscription. As with us, the masses were drugged: folk festivals, useless construction, anything and everything, to keep the man in the street from a moment’s pause to reflect.
Reck concluded that the “resemblance may not be coincidence at all, but may be determined by some frightful law decreeing periodic draining of a psychic abscess.” While Reck makes some uncannily accurate predictions during the years 1936-1945 covered by the diary, that didn’t stop him from being blindsided by the venom of the Gestapo, and in 1945 he was shipped off to Dachau where he either died of typhus or was shot.
Moving in the highest German society, Reck came across Hitler several times, and while he later regretted not killing him when he had the chance, his first meeting with Hitler, which took place at the home of Clemens von Franckenstein (great name btw), and which is recalled in a 1936 diary entry, was less than auspicious. It’s 1920 and according to the butler, one of the guests “there under the guise of being interested in operatic scenic design” was “forcing his way in everywhere.” Reck notes that Hitler thinks that “theatrical design was connected with interior decorating and wallpaper hanging, his former profession.” So here’s young Hitler in 1920:
He had come to a house, where he had never been before, wearing gaiters, a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a riding whip. There was a Collie too. The effect, among the Gobelin tapestries and cool marble walls, was something akin to a cowboy’s sitting down on the steps of a baroque alter in leather breeches, spurs, and with a colt at his side. But Hitler sat there, the stereotype of a headwaiter — at the time he was thinner, and looked somewhat starved –both impressed and restricted by the presence of a real, live Herr Baron; awed, not quite daring to sit fully in his chair, but perched on half, more or less, of his thin loins; not caring at all that there was a great deal of cool and elegant irony in the things his host said to him, but snatching hungrily at the words. Like a dog at pieces of raw meat.
Eventually, he managed to launch into a speech. He talked on and on, endlessly. He preached. He went on at us like a division chaplain in the Army. We did not in the least contradict him, or venture to differ in any way, but he began to bellow at us. The servants thought we were being attacked, and rushed in to defend us.
When he had gone, we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic. We sat for a long time and no one spoke. Finally, Clé stood up, opened one of the huge windows, and let the spring air, warm with the föhn, into the room. It was not that our grim guest had been unclean, and had fouled the room in the way that so happens in Bavarian village. But the fresh air helped to dispel the feeling of oppression. iI was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else; the unclean essence of a monstrosity.
That was Reck’s first sighting of Hitler– a man he despised immediately. He later saw him in a courtroom, passing by in an armored vehicle, and also in a restaurant. And throughout all of Hitler’s manifestations, Reck’s impression of Hitler was that he is basically stupid, a petty bureaucrat who hated himself: “a raw vegetable Genghis Khan, a teetotaling Alexander, a womanless Napoleon.”
In the diary, Reck reacted to the news in 1936 of Röhm Putsch (Night of the Long Knives)–an event which he says is “full of strange, unfathomable ramifications; when the whole truth comes out some day, it will make people shudder… I understand Hitler himself took on the job of killing some of his enemies in the course of his Apache-style raid on Bad Wiessee.” The diary records the passage of time in a Germany that Reck no longer identified with. To Reck, Germany had sunk into madness–run by a “mob” spurred on by mass psychosis from which extraction would be both very painful and devastating. He comments on the “mentally deranged” Göring and his wife posing before their freshly-looted wealth, now with a “fantastic coat of arms” and an elaborate family tree tracing a suspicious lineage back to the Middle Ages. He describes Goebbels, Himmler, Hitler, Göring et al as having “the pose of revolutionaries de facto dirty little bourgeoisie who cannot rid themselves of the feel of the dog collars they wore only yesterday.” Reck lives through the Night of the Long Knives, assassination attempts on Hitler, Jewish persecution, and he comments on the Nazi elite whooping it up with looted Jewish wealth, the prevailing propaganda, Max Schmeling’s defeat in New York, the White Rose, and his disappointment that Hitler was allowed, by other countries, to gain power and momentum until he was too difficult to stop. Some of this we, of course, know about, but Reck’s unique position grants the reader startling new insight, and through all this Reck leaves no room for doubt as he sweeps out the notion that Germans had ‘no idea’ what the Nazis were up to.
The first year after they came to power, the Nazis proclaimed that dueling belonged to the natural rights of every man– a consistent extension of the philosophy of 1789–and with much fanfare announced that all classes of society now had state approval for this method of solving differences. Any difference of opinion between master and servant over badly polished shoes could be resolved with pistols. But the very first duel held under the new dispensation has struck down one of their own–and by an ancient law, not the worst of the lot. Herr Roland Strunck, a journalist of some calibre that exceeded their usual level of the schoolmaster gone berserk–as far as I know, a decent chap, a man of some quality.
That’s the sort of quote that makes this book so unique and also so necessary to read. Diary of a Man in Despair offers a fresh (yes, and tragic) look at a horrific time. Reck saw the Nazis as monstrous, murderous thugs whose actions would bring an inevitable destruction to the country he loved. The book’s brilliantly unique qualities are based in the timing of the entries; these were not written in retrospective with an outcome safely secured. Instead the diary is written with a sense of horror fused with the disturbing knowledge that while the very worst aspects of human nature were running amuck in Germany, payday was not far off, and it wasn’t going to be pretty:
This people is insane. It will pay dearly for its insanity. The air of this summer is full of foreboding, and fire and iron must heal what no physician can any longer cure.
In the afterword (the diary ends abruptly) is an account of Reck’s murky end at Dachau–along with the corrections to a few of the diary entries. For example, he recorded the death of Hilter’s pal, Unity Mitford, but she died after the war in 1948.
The reinstitution of duelling also reminded me very much of that promising little fascist Diederich–an unforgettable character from an earlier time in Germany as portrayed in Heinrich Mann’s Man of Straw. How Reck would have loved the book–it’s entirely possible that he read it (and I hope he did), for Reck would have recognized the type- Diederich Hessling, a thoroughly corruptible bourgeoisie, a petty, weasely tyrant with his pathetic dueling scars, twisted notions of honour and patriotism.
Translated by Paul Rubens. Review copy