A Man in a Land of Beasts

Friedrich Kellner's War Diaries.

Friedrich Kellner's war diaries.

Friedrich Kellner was born in Vaihingen an der Enz, in the German state of Württemburg in 1885, in the house of his father, a baker. At the age of 4, he relocated with his family to Mainz. He attended a public primary school and a vocational high school, and then took up an unpaid apprenticeship at the city courthouse, setting him on the path to a career as an administrative official in the judicial system.

In 1910, advancing steadily along his chosen career path, he met his future wife, Karoline Paulina “Pauline” Preuss. She was then a clerk at a local brewery. She was also a committed suffragist and convinced Friedrich to accompany her and her officemates the celebrate the first International Women’s Day in Frankfurt am Main in March 1911. When they married in January 1913 she retained her position and kept it for another two years.

Kellner was mustered into the Prince Carl Infantry Regiment, Number 118 in 1914. He had earned a rating as an expert marksman and saw extensive service at the front. Kellner was ready to do what he viewed as his duty, but he was little excited by the aggressive nationalism and sloganeering the Kaiser’s government. In his view, the war was or should have been, about defending the borders of Germany, rather than expanding into the territory of other states.

After receiving a shrapnel wound in his leg in November 1914 he was sent to recover in a hospital in Mainz. When, in the spring, he was once again rated fit for service he was given a position in the department of the quartermaster in Frankfurt. In February of the following year, Paulina gave birth to a son, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm (called Fritz), who would be their only child.

After the dour and hungry months at war’s end, Friedrich and Paulina looked forward with hope at the founding of the Weimar Republic. Paulina now had the right to vote. Friedrich became an activist for the local branch of the Social Democratic Party.

In 1925, according to a biographical essay written by his grandson, Kellner received a copy of Adolf Hitler’s newly published Mein Kampf, along with the encouragement to “take a stand against its author.” Speaking at rallies, Kellner would hold up the copy of Hitler’s book and declare, “Gutenberg, your printing press has been violated by this evil book!” His public criticism of Nazism earned him unfriendly attention from the SA, but having lived through the trenches, he was accustomed to violence and not easily intimidated.

Friedrich and Paulina struggled together through the latter stages of the Weimar Republic. The web of Nazism closed ever tighter around them, with family members (including Paulina’s siblings) and even their son Fritz evincing support of Hitler.

After Hitler’s electoral victory in July 1932, Friedrich began to look for a way out of Mainz. Although there was strong support for the SPD there, Kellner had no illusions about what was likely to happen when Hitler came to power. In January 1933 he took up a position in the town of Laubach in Oberhessen. Although support for the Nazis was stronger there, Kellner guessed (probably correctly) that the high bureaucratic grade that the position entailed, combined with being somewhere less in the public eye, gave him and his family a better chance of avoiding adverse consequences under the incoming regime.

Fearing that their son was coming under the influence of a political ideology that they viewed as barbaric, Friedrich and Paulina packed Fritz off, first to London, then later to New York as a way of getting him away from the influence of Hitlerism. These efforts, it would later turn out, were only partially successful.

On 1 September 1939, the war that Kellner had viewed as implicit in Hitler’s rise began with the invasion of Poland. On that day, Kellner began keeping a diary. This was a dangerous matter. Even as an “Aryan,” the expression of sentiments critical of the regime could result in imprisonment, dispatch to a concentration camp, death, or any combination of the three, and not just for Kellner himself, but for his family as well.

This diary, published last year by Cambridge University Press under the title My Opposition, is a fascinating document of life under National Socialism. Kellner, of course, is neither the first, nor necessarily the most profound, diarist of this era, and much of what he has to say will be familiar to those who have read Victor Klemperer’s writings. But as a social democrat and a public official, Kellner views things from a different standpoint, conveying a different texture of experience and many interesting details.

In his diaries, Kellner records his bitterness toward the Nazis, both their leaders (especially Hitler and Goebbels), as well as the more minor figures engaging in propaganda on their behalf. He frequently clipped out articles which he regarded as especially loathsome, pasting them in the diary and adding commentary. With regard to one piece, written by a “Dr. Hobbing” in 1942, in which the author gloated over the failure of Great Britain and the United States to stem the Nazi onslaught, Kellner noted,

With true Nazi recklessness the author dismisses England and the USA. What these countries have lost at the beginning of the war, “not eternity shall return to them.” So Dr. Hobbing would like! Such a knave should be thrashed for hours. I am curious whether something will be done against such creatures. If they can do their mischief without being punished, it will never get better in the world.

In February 1943, a merchant from a nearby town expressed the view to him that having defeating Russia, it would not be difficult to deal with England and America, Kellner commented, “These are the current views of a Party member who belongs in a mental institution.”

As a former soldier (and a veteran of the quartermaster service), Kellner was familiar with the ins and out of tactics, strategy, and logistics. His critical readings of Nazi propaganda about the course of the war are telling, and his broader insights about the conduct of the war by both sides demonstrate an experienced soldier’s insight. He was never convinced that the war was going as well as advertised, and he could read the pettifogging news from the Eastern Front for what it was: attempts to cover up looming defeat.

Kellner was also a voracious consumer of information, listening to radio broadcasts both domestic and foreign, and the written press both local and the national Nazi organs such as the Völkischer Beobachter and Das Schwarze Korps (the SS press organ). Listening to foreign radio broadcasts was another matter which might have resulted in a death sentence, as Kellner knew well since he included and commented on a number of cases of this in the press.

These were not his only sources of information. In an entry dated 28 October 1941, Kellner wrote,

A soldier on leave said that he personally witnessed a terrible atrocity in the occupied part of Poland. He watched as naked Jewish men and women were placed in front of a long deep ditch and, upon the order of the SS, were shot by Ukrainians in the back of their head, and they fell into the ditch. Then the ditch was filled in as screams kept coming from it!!

We have long known that the postwar claims advanced by many Germans after the war that they didn’t know about the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht, the SS, and other paramilitary formations were, at best, self-serving delusions. The realities of the Holocaust were knowable to anybody who wasn’t absolutely determined not to know about them. Kellner’s observations provide further evidence as to exactly how widely available that knowledge was. Kellner was also well aware of the consequences that were likely to ensue:

There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts. Of course, in the case of retribution the innocent will have to suffer along with them. Ninety-nine percent of the German people, directly or indirectly, carry the guilt for the present situation. Therefore we can only say this: Those who travel together, hang together.

Kellner knew of atrocities happening closer to home. On 10 June 1941, he noted, “Notifications about deaths in the mental care facility in Hadamar have recently increased. Supposedly incurable patients are being brought to this institution. And they are soon to begin building a crematorium.”

Six weeks later, Kellner was in possession of further information that fleshed out the suspicions that he had earlier expressed:

The mental hospitals have become murder centers. As I learned, a family brought their mentally deranged son back home from an institution. After some time, they received a letter from the sanatorium informing them their son had died and his cremated ashes were being sent to them! The office clerk had forgotten to strike this boy’s name from the death list. From that oversight, the intended and premeditated murder came to light.

The facility in question here is the hospital at Hadamar, near Limburg in Hesse, where some 15,000 people, mostly mentally disabled adults and children, were murdered between 1941 and 1944. Once again, Kellner’s revelations are not new, since the crimes committed there and at other places under the auspices of the notorious T4 program have long been known. But Kellner’s awareness of it points out exactly how easy it was to know what was going on if one had the slightest inclination to do so.

Kellner and his wife survived the war. In the days following the arrival of the US Army in Laubach, Friedrich was offered the position of mayor. He declined, citing work commitments and his health. He later became deputy mayor of the town and later still the leader of the local branch of the reformed SPD.

The story of the publication of these diaries is a tale unto itself. Friedrich and Paulina’s grandson, abandoned by his profligate parents managed to locate his grandparents and met them while AWOL from the US Navy. Unable to speak German, he managed to find and reconnect with his grandparents, rebuilding familial ties and providing an important connection that allowed this important document to see the light of day.

With the publication of these diaries, Kellner should be added to the list of those truth-tellers whose firsthand insights helped to illuminate the crimes of the 20 century. One might perhaps argue that he should not be viewed as in the first rank since his experience did not involve the suffering and danger of people like Viktor Klemperer, Margarete Buber-Neumann, or others who survived the camps and other forms of direct and immediate repression.

Yet it should be recognized that Kellner’s actions, both in keeping a diary and in expressing sentiments critical of the regime to other (which the diary entries indicate that he did with alarming frequency) could have easily resulted in his own death, as well as that of his wife. One need only think of the case of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, the conservative diarist who was arrested for similar activities in late 1944 and died in Dachau early the following year to get an impression of the actual dangers involved. In Nazi Germany, one could be executed for much less.

As a former member of the SPD, Kellner was already under suspicion by the Nazis. His failure to join the party after 1933, as well as his unwillingness to contribute significantly to Nazi fundraising efforts and his general lack of enthusiasm for Hitlerism,  increased these suspicions. Paulina’s negative attitude toward Nazism led to her racial background coming under investigation in 1938. In 1940, Friedrich was the subject of an in-depth investigation of his personal and professional conduct. Eventually cleared in both cases, the Kellners did not discover the full measure of the threat that they’d faced until after the war. It is sometimes easy to forget the danger involved in Kellner’s project, given the often lively and insouciant character of his entries. But the danger was real and omnipresent.

In a larger sense, Kellner’s diary presents an illustration of how people opposed to totalitarian regimes found ways to survive and to express dissent even under conditions where it was extremely dangerous to do so. Kellner’s diary provides a window into one of the darkest corners of life in the 20th century, and perhaps another name to add to the shortlist of its heroes.

Photograph courtesy of Rskellner. Published under a Creative Commons license.