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
The monograph I Will Bear Witness presents a collection of private diary entries of Victor Klemperer written during the Second World War. Klemperer records the daily events and his personal thoughts and feelings which he experiences during the years 1942 - 1945 in Nazi Germany. Klemperer, a Jewish professor in his sixties, lives together with his German wife and a group of other individuals in a Jewish House in Dresden. Fully aware of the danger and consequences which he could face should his records be discovered, ("Eva must take the diary to Annemarie again soon. The guillotine at Münchner Platz goes to work for less cause." Klemperer, p. 201) Klemperer continues to write, keeping a diary of daily life under the Nazi Regime. Although Klemperer's records are colored with subjectivity and personal perception they constitute an important historical document. His diary presents a primary source comprising information which can not be found in other materials.
In the following short paper I will point out and briefly discuss three reasons which support the thesis that a diary is a valuable historical document which gives insight into information not available in other historical sources.
The main characteristic of a diary is its subjectivity. The author comments on his personal feelings and thoughts and selectively describes events which directly or indirectly influence him. Klemperer often mentions his state of mind and well- being ("I have such a strong feeling of being cast down into the next circle of hell by being cut off from borrowing books." Klemperer, p. 75. "A first day of truly remorseless hunger." Klemperer, p.103) or for example the many decrees issued against the Jews (Klemperer, pp. 65, 86, 95, 153). By confronting the reader with personal thoughts and feelings, it is easier to create understanding for a particular historical event or period. The personalized history, captured in a diary becomes less abstract and more vivid to the contemporary reader.
Another aspect of a diary is its importance as a record of everyday life. Klemperer's description of the daily routine gives an excellent example of life as it was experienced by the Jews day by day during the war years. He and his wife live together with others who not only share the same the same living space but also fears, hopes, ("I continue to be very exhausted -- heart troubled, constant tiredness -- and very depressed. I share the depression with the whole of Jewry." Klemperer, p. 211). Neither political nor diplomatic documents are able to tell us the history of the daily life. Klemperer's description of day to day struggle and deprivation of food, clothes, adequate living conditions demonstrate the situation many faced on a daily basis.
Finally the third argument which speaks for the importance of a diary is its representative value. The Klemperers and their wartime experiences resemble those of many others. ("And her husband, too, has been waiting for six weeks now, and for six weeks [...] looking death in the face for hour after hour. It is so horrible that I feel no pity for the man, only fear of having to experience his fate myself." Klemperer, p. 171). The continued documentation of events allows us to trace the history of the author and at the same time that of common people who did not keep records. It is the author's goal to give voice to those who shared equal experiences and endured the same fate. His diary bears a testimony of women and men whose lives otherwise would remain unknown. ("Things must go on even under these circumstances. Some kind of worthwhile reading will after all be found, and I shall risk continuing with the diary. I shall bear witness to the very end. "Klemperer, p75)
Summarizing the presented arguments, it is apparent that a diary is a valuable primary source which holds historically relevant information that can not be found in other documents.