Book review – My Opposition: the Diary of Frederich Kellner. A German against the Third Reich

April 25, 2018 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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When one thinks of the various forms of resistance in Germany to Nazism two groups come to mind…writes Jeffrey Cohen.

The first are those who Yad Vashem has designated as Righteous Among the Nations for they had the courage to hide Jews at the risk of losing their own lives. The second group is those who offered resistance. These included the Bonheoffer Circle [around the pastor, Dietrich Bonheoffer]; the White Rose group and the officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

Historians like primary documents. One form is diaries. The only other German of his day whose diaries have been published about whom one can quickly recall is Victor Klemperer who kept a secret diary and published in 3 volumes.

As I read this book I was reminded of Faye Kellerman’s novel Straight into Darkness set in Munich in the late 1920s. She is able to portray the terror that the average person felt as the Nazis sought power. This diary is in many ways an extension, not in the fictional sense, but in the sense of how alone a person feels when they do not “go with the flow”.

While many of us who have visited the concentration camps in Germany and Poland and beyond have always found it hard to accept that no German knew what was going on – and remembering that Eisenhower insisted that his soldiers visited the camps after they were liberated so they would be able to bear witness to the horrors of those places – this book makes us realise that not all Germans who lived there between 1933 and 1945 were inherently evil. It is one of the reasons why we are supposed to get somewhat tipsy at Purim, so that we cannot easily distinguish between Haman and Mordechai. Put another way, there is never in our world neither absolute good nor absolute evil.

As the historian, Richard J. Evans noted in his review that “some at least managed to retain a sense of decency and human values.”. Just one month into the war he is aware that Jews are marked for extermination and later records how soldiers on leave spoke openly about the mass murder of Jews and the murder of POWs.

Kellner was mid-level official in a provincial town. It is powerful to read his ongoing encounters with Nazi supporters in his hometown and how he managed to maintain his own (moral) compass when others have lost theirs. It is hard to be someone who is alone and against the popular values of the day.

Kellner clearly took risks in maintaining this diary which covers the period 1939-1945. Had it been discovered his fate would not be dissimilar to the victims of the Gestapo and Nazi brutality.

Just as interesting is the remarkable story described in the book of how the diary was brought to light by Robert Scott Kellner, Friedrich’s grandson.

While this book is of a particular time and place it does have a much wider currency and is a voice in our own times.

Editor: Robert Scott Kellner

Published by Cambridge

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor, School of Medicine, University of Notre Dame Australia. Among his other roles he served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum (1996-2001).

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