Reading Other People's Diaries, Part 2: A World at War

The Second World War was an event that defies comprehension: the death, the physical destruction of cities, the upheaval of human lives, all happened on a scale so large it's almost meaningless. I've read books about the Blitz, the Battle of Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin, all of which record the viewpoints and experiences of individuals, but the overall focus is on the big picture. Reading diaries of the time give you an altogether different viewpoint: life as it was lived, day by day, in a world falling apart. Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) led a remarkable life. The simpleharold fact of being married to Vita Sackville-West would have earned him a place in the history books, but he was also a writer, a diplomat and a member of parliament. His diary is an excellent source on the Second World War from a British perspective. I especially enjoy the entries from 1940, when Britain stared disaster in the face. One day he writes that he expects a German invasion within a week;  another he's gloating over the RAF's stunning victories over the Luftwaffe. At times he writes casually about life during the Blitz: "we have tea and watch the Germans coming in wave after wave. There is fighting above our heads and we hear one or two aeroplanes zoom downwards. They flash like silver gnats in the air." In another he writes sadly of a friend in the military who was killed in a bomb explosion: "They would not let [his wife] attend the funeral because there was so little left." In addition to compelling writing about the war, Nicolson's diary also provides a fascinating (if often dislikable) glimpse into the mind of a Briton born to great privilege. He refers to the prime minister simply as "Winston" and the author of To the Lighthouse as "Virginia." And mind-bogglingly, when he's running for re-election to Parliament in 1945, he refuses to campaign: "Well, I just won't do it. I  know that I am a good Member." As you can imagine, the voters didn't send him back to Parliament. ReckA very different view of life in wartime is provided by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen's Diary of a Man in Despair.  He was a German aristocrat who hated the Nazis. He was genuinely horrified by the persecution of the Jews and by the way the people of Goethe and Beethoven had allowed themselves to be brainwashed so completely.  But his loathing of the Nazis has a perverse twist: he despises Hitler and his followers not just because they're fascists, but because of their lower-class origins.  In his diary he calls Hitler "a Machiavelli for chambermaids" and a "middle-class Antichrist." He's a reactionary who longs for a past that never was: when men like him lived "authentically" on the land surrounded by a loyal peasantry. But he's much more empathetic when he rails against the danger rampant industrialization poses to Germany's natural and cultural resources: "What price a forest if the 'national' interest calls for a cellulose factory? Or a cathedral that stands in the way of an autobahn?" And in the entries he wrote after German armies conquered most of Europe, Reck-Malleczewen's  hatred for what his country has become is almost palpable: "every nation normally puts its demons, its delusions, its impossible desires into the cellars and vaults of its unconscious. Germany has reversed the process...The language one hears, the talk in the coffee-houses...makes the blood run cold." More posts about diaries in the new year.

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