What did Germans know? Secret anti-Nazi diary gives voice to man on the street
'A person always has a choice between right and wrong'

What did Germans know? Secret anti-Nazi diary gives voice to man on the street

Friedrich Kellner’s account, starting from 1939, about the Nazi regime’s atrocities and the unfolding destruction of European Jewry is being published in English for the first time

In Weimar, Germany, Adolf Hitler participates in a Nazi party rally, 1930 (public domain)
In Weimar, Germany, Adolf Hitler participates in a Nazi party rally, 1930 (public domain)

Half a century after Friedrich Kellner gifted his Nazi-era diary to a grandson in America, the clandestine writings will be published in English by Cambridge University Press in January.

A vociferous critic of the Nazis, Kellner used his diary to document the regime’s atrocities beginning in 1939. The small town “justice inspector” wrote 676 entries, drawing from numerous sources and a formidable knowledge of history. In addition to content on the unfolding Holocaust, Kellner wrote about the regime’s use of propaganda to delude the populace, and what he regarded as the Allies’ criminal mismanagement of the war.

Kellner’s diary, which he titled “My Opposition,” is seen by some historians as a barometer for what “ordinary” Germans might have known about activities in the east, where members of the SS and other Germans were engaged in the mass murder of Jews, Poles, and Slavs. Some of Kellner’s information came from sources that were widely available, including the Nazi party broadsheet and illegal radio broadcasts. To gather other accounts, Kellner questioned people and sifted through gossip, attaching more than 500 newspaper clippings along the way.

A potent sense of anger fills Kellner’s diary, not only directed toward the Nazis, but also with regard to his fellow citizens and the world for allowing Hitler to rise.

Friedrich Kellner in 1934 (Courtesy: Robert Scott Kellner)

“There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts,” wrote Kellner. “Of course, when the retribution comes, the innocent will have to suffer along with them. But because ninety-nine percent of the German population is guilty, directly or indirectly, for the present situation, we can only say that those who travel together will hang together.”

With indictments like that, it’s no wonder Kellner’s full diary was not published in Germany until 2011.

Prior to Hitler wresting power, Kellner, a veteran of World War I, was a public opponent of Hitler and his movement. A lifelong Social Democrat, he delivered anti-Nazi speeches during the heady Wiemar Republic years, for which he was often assaulted. Following the regime’s Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, Kellner sought to bring charges against some of the riot leaders. In retaliation for these efforts, a Nazi judge ordered that he and his wife’s “bloodlines” be investigated for traces of Jewish ancestry.

As the Nazis spread terror across Europe, Kellner documented atrocities the regime sought to hide. To put current events in context for future readers, he made pointed references to Hitler’s tome “Mein Kampf,” on which he was an expert. Among other crimes, he wrote about the “mercy killings” of disabled Germans at Hadamar, and “retribution” killings carried out against civilians in occupied countries.

During World War II, Nazi forces invaded Russia and burned many villages to the ground (public domain)

“To let people who are completely innocent suffer for the deeds of another is reminiscent of the horrific deeds of wild beasts in times long ago,” wrote Kellner on October 26, 1941, following the murder of 100 French civilians by German forces in retaliation for the shooting of two officers.

Kellner’s accounts of the Holocaust were concise, including his report on an early Jewish “action” in Poland.

“A solider on leave here said he personally witnessed a terrible atrocity in the occupied part of Poland,” wrote Kellner in 1941. “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 heads, and they fell into the ditch. Then the ditch was filled in as screams kept coming from it.”

A few weeks later, Kellner wrote about “Jews being transported somewhere” and “treated worse than animals” along the way. In another entry, he reported on the deportation of specific Jewish families from his town.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau in May of 1944, Hungarian Jews arrived in cattle cars and prepared for the SS-conducted ‘selection’ (Auschwitz Album)

“This cruel, despicable, and sadistic treatment against the Jews that has lasted now several years — with its final goal of extermination — is the biggest stain on the honor of Germany,” wrote Kellner on December 15, 1941. “They will never be able to erase these crimes.” (This is much prior to formal implementation of the Final Solution.)

This clandestine reporting of facts was not enough for the inflamed justice inspector, who also dared to criticize the regime outside of his diary. For this, Kellner was labelled a “bad influence” on the population of Laubach by its mayor. He was threatened with imprisonment in a concentration camp along with his wife, Pauline, and plans were drawn up to punish him after the Final Victory.

“He should be made to disappear,” wrote Nazi official Ernst Monnig in a report on Kellner. Despite constant danger, the diarist continued to seek out friendly ears. Seemingly fearless, he sometimes gathered up anti-Nazi leaflets dropped by the Allies in order to place them strategically around town.

Following the liberation of Germany, Kellner was appointed deputy mayor of Laubach, where he helped with Denazification and to revive the Social Democratic Party. He died in 1970, long before his “My Opposition” diary made it to readers’ attention.

‘I decided to fight them in the future’

In 1968, with two years left to live, Friedrich Kellner gave his diary to an American-born grandson, Robert Scott Kellner.

“I could not fight the Nazis in the present, as they had the power to still my voice,” Kellner told his grandson at the time. “So I decided to fight them in the future.”

According to Robert Scott Kellner, a retired English professor, the diary was his grandfather’s attempt to provide future generations with a weapon “against any resurgence of such evil.” As the book’s translator and editor, Kellner has also worked on a documentary film about his grandfather and several museum exhibitions based on the diary.

The April 25, 1943 entry in Friedrich Kellner’s wartime diary (courtesy: Robert Scott Kellner)

For more than 30 years after Friedrich Kellner’s death, few people outside of the family saw the crisply penned pages of “My Opposition.” The writings got a big break in 2005, when the George Bush Presidential Library exhibited portions of the diary for public viewing. That endorsement helped bring about the German publication of the diary, which Der Spiegel said presented a “challenging” but essential narrative of wartime Germany.

January’s publication of “My Opposition” in English is another milestone in his grandfather’s legacy, Kellner told The Times of Israel.

“Friedrich knew that people like the Nazis would never lose their thirst for power and absolute rule,” said Kellner. “The last of the Holocaust survivors will soon depart, but his voice will remain, a new voice to check revisionist historians and Holocaust deniers with an irrefutable account — an account not by a Nazi or a victim of the Nazis, but by an average German citizen who never lost sight of the simple truth that a person always has a choice between right and wrong, between good and evil,” said Kellner.

Friedrich Kellner with grandson Robert Scott Kellner and wife Pauline Kellner, 1968 (courtesy: Robert Scott Kellner)

When asked what his grandfather might have thought about President Donald Trump’s America, Kellner said the diarist would not have been too disturbed by Trump’s first year in the White House — at least in comparison to Hitler.

“My grandfather, as a Social Democrat, would have strongly disagreed with some of Donald Trump’s policies and pronouncements, but he would not have viewed Donald Trump as a nascent Hitler,” said Kellner. “The German Fuhrer had an agenda to purify the Aryan race, exterminate Germany’s enemies, kill the mentally ill, and steal the land from Germany’s neighbors. …He then went on to devastate the European continent, leaving tens of millions of corpses in his wake.”

In terms of the American political system, Kellner said his grandfather admired the “checks and balances” system of government, which he believed was necessary to combat dictatorships. Friedrich Kellner would, however, likely have been baffled by the target of so many Americans’ anger these days, according to his grandson.

Entries from the diary of Friedrich Kellner (courtesy: Robert Scott Kellner)

“[He] would wonder why so much energy was being expended on overturning a valid American election,” said Kellner, “when the truly potential ‘Hitlers’ direct their followers to wreak havoc in lower Manhattan, bomb subway trains in Madrid and London, fill the streets of Paris with machine gun fire, mow down pedestrians with lethal vehicles, and pervert the Internet to inspire and instruct individuals on how to slay innocents.”

The growth of radical Islam, believes Kellner, bears a “close relationship” to Nazi Germany. Similarities include “terroristic threats to advance political aims,” the use of children as “soldiers,” and “blaming the Jews for everything,” according to the steward of his grandfather’s legacy.

Seventy-eight years ago, Friedrich Kellner addressed the issue of “blaming Jews” in one of his early diary entries. As was his habit, the activist refuted the regime’s lies and accused his neighbors of complicity.

“To keep the people from directing their rage at their actual oppressor, rulers in every age have used diversionary tactics to shield their own guilt,” wrote Kellner in 1939.

“The entire action against the Jews was no different from throwing down a piece of meat for the beasts. ‘The Jews are our misfortune,’ cry out the Nazis. The correct answers of the people would have been, ‘No, not the Jews, but the Nazis are the misfortune for the German people,’” wrote Kellner.

read more: