[This book has been translated into English under the title Diary of a Man in Despair.]
Born into a noble Prussian family down on its luck, Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen (1884-1945) was a failed officer and a failed medical doctor and so wrote articles for newspapers and books for the mass market in order to keep his head above water. But beginning in May, 1936, he secretly wrote a diary in which he eloquently and dangerously vented his hate for the Nazis and those who helped them to power - the big German industrialists, his own Junker class, and the petite bourgeoisie - and expressed his despair at the sight of the German people acceding to the lawless, ruthless and shameless activities of the Nazis in power since January, 1933.
The few signs of active resistance from the Communists, from idealists like the Weisse Rose,(*) and from efforts in the military to assassinate Hitler alleviate for moments his despairing vituperation of the nearly unspeakable decay and collaboration he saw around him. But only for moments.
Many lovers of German culture have asked how could it happen, how could this "people of philosophers and poets" be taken in by this "böhmischen Gefreiten" and his laughing gallery of government ministers who soon changed the disdainful sneers into cries of fear? There have been many answers given to this question, and, after the fact, many books written by Germans to excuse or to whitewash their own collaboration. This book excuses no one, including the other European powers who stood by and watched until Hitler and Stalin partitioned Poland.
One is simply mesmerized as Reck-Malleczewen makes his unwhitewashed reports from inside Nazi Germany about the increasingly thorough control of all aspects of German life by the Nazi party and its domestic security apparatus and the increasing unwillingness of Germans to utter any objections of any sort. He, and anyone else with eyes, clearly saw the huge ramping up of the military-industrial complex at the end of 1937. And there are many passages of perfect clairvoyance like this one, written directly after the violent Anschluss of Austria to the Drittes Reich in March, 1938:
All around, the other states shrug their shoulders while watching this miserable rape of a small state; no one grabs the criminal by the collar in time and all seem to want to wait until out of the yet vulnerable snake's egg the great cobra will crawl. But I see the day coming when one will remember this politics of cowardly passivity. ... I pose the question already now and see the day coming when I, after the unavoidable Second World War, will pose it a second time.
Reck-Malleczewen surprises with a bitter humor which caused me to laugh many times. The text is also full of unexpected stories of all kinds, not the least of which is the one about the former German officer, who, standing before a firing squad, turns around and drops his britches and a load right in front of the speechless executioners...
Reck-Malleczewen's critique of Nazi Germany is that of the stock conservative elite, not that of a progressive democrat. It is, therefore, more than anything an aesthetic critique. The Nazis are crude, vulgar, physically repulsive lower middle class persons who have no appreciation for culture and breeding. And though he has a paternalistic sympathy for the honest, hard working proletariat, there is no sign of any real social conscience in this book.
Because of this, the editor of the progressive weekly Der Spiegel wrote an editorial upon the re-publication in 1966(**) of Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten to remind his readers that there was an abyss separating Reck-Malleczewen's critique of Nazism from that of the modern German progressives (in the '60's the Social Democrat Party was still socialist).
The last entry is dated October, 1944, when the German armies are being thrown back on all fronts, and is full of reports of people being arrested or simply disappearing. Since he did not attend a call up of the Volkssturm (***) because he, a 60 year old man, was experiencing angina pectoris, he was arrested for Zersetzung der Wehrmacht, a crime which entailed the guillotine. He does not explain how he came home to write the entry...
Later in 1944, Reck-Malleczewen was denounced again to the Nazis; the second one took. He died in Dachau in February, 1945. Somehow, the Nazis did not find his diary; Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten was first published in 1947 in the midst of Europe's ruins.
(*) A group of students and one professor at the University of Munich who wrote and distributed leaflets in 1942 and 1943 calling the German people to oppose the tyranny of the Nazis. Nearly all were arrested and executed by the guillotine. In at least one case it has been documented that the Nazis sent the widow a bill for 600 Reichsmarks for "Abnutzung des Fallbeils" ("wear of the guillotine").
(**) This is the edition I read. For this edition a historian checked all of Reck-Malleczewen's assertions and allusions, finding nearly all of them to be supported by historical documents. Details, corrections and sources are provided in 10 small print pages at the back of the book.
(***) The people's militia of the very old and very young that was going to do what Germany's professionally trained armies were not capable of doing.