Cover Page

The first page of the manuscript of Klemperer’s 1942 memoirs on the Revolution of 1918–19.

Munich 1919

Diary of a Revolution

With a foreword by Christopher Clark and a historical essay by Wolfram Wette

Translated by Jessica Spengler



Christopher Clark

The wave of political tumult and revolution that crashed over Germany at the end of World War I was a key episode in twentieth-century history. A society already scarred by war and defeat found itself once again shaken to its very foundations. The emergence of a Soviet-style communist Left on the one hand and heavily armed, counter-revolutionary right-wing radical groups on the other led to drastic political polarization. The rhetorical escalation soon degenerated into violence. Freikorps troops clashed fiercely with Spartacists.

Nowhere was the expansion of the conventional political spectrum more dramatic than in Munich. On November 7, 1918, the King of Bavaria became the first German monarch to be toppled. The army defected to the revolutionaries and the king went into exile. After the Bavarian prime minister Kurt Eisner (Independent Social Democratic Party) was assassinated on February 21, 1919, the power struggle between left-wing and moderate socialists came to a head. The government of the new prime minister, Johannes Hoffmann (Social Democratic Party), was overthrown on April 7 and replaced with a Bavarian council republic led initially by pacifist and anarchist intellectuals. But barely a week later, the communists under Eugen Leviné seized power. Hoffmann’s cabinet, which had gone into exile, now asked the government in Berlin for help. In mid-April, Reichswehr troops and Freikorps units advanced on the Bavarian revolutionaries. The council republic was then brutally crushed, and an estimated 2,000 of its supporters – both actual and merely alleged – were murdered, summarily shot or sentenced to imprisonment.

Victor Klemperer guides us through the turmoil of these eventful Munich days with empathy, sensitivity, and a perceptive eye. This volume brings together contemporary accounts written for the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten newspaper, only a fraction of which were published at the time, as well as related passages from a later memoir that Klemperer was forced to abandon in 1942. Thanks to the diaries he kept during the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer is one of the most frequently read eyewitnesses of the twentieth century. The keen judgment, eye for striking details, and literary talent he displays in that epic chronicle are also evident in the writings of the young Romance philologist in Munich who was concerned about his academic future.

This is Klemperer describing the entrance of the troops that crushed the council republic in the Bavarian capital in early May 1919:

all through the day and late into the afternoon, as I write these lines, a thunderous battle has raged. An entire squadron of planes is crisscrossing Munich, directing fire, drawing fire itself, dropping flares; bombs and grenades blast constantly, sometimes farther away, sometimes nearer, shaking the houses, and a torrent of machine-gun fire follows the explosions, with infantry fire rattling in between. And all the while new troops march, drive, ride down Ludwigstrasse with mortars, artillery, forage wagons and field kitchens, sometimes accompanied by music, and a medical train has stopped at the Siegestor, and heavy patrols and various weapons divisions are scattering through the streets, and crowds of people form on every corner that provides cover but also a view, often with opera glasses in their hands.

The reader’s attention is drawn dynamically from the airplanes above to the masses of troops below; our gaze sweeps over the multitude of weapons, people, and vehicles, coming to rest on the clusters of bystanders taking in the spectacle through opera glasses. Klemperer memorably conveys the theatricality of the political events, the element of drama about them. In fact, he considers this a defining characteristic of the Munich revolution: “In other revolutions, in other times, in other places,” he writes in early February 1919, “the leaders have come from the streets, from the factories, from the typing pools of editorial and law offices. In Munich, many of them have come from the bohemian world.” Under these circumstances, politics appears to be not a profession but rather a stage upon which dreams (and nightmares) are played out. “I’m a visionary, a dreamer, a poet!” the prime minister Kurt Eisner cries out to a large assembly in the Hotel Trefler. Klemperer looks on in astonishment as Eisner – a “delicate, tiny, frail, stooped little man” in his eyes – elicits clamorous applause from the Munich audience, and he infers that the people of Munich are less interested in politics than in entertainment.

This book is unique in that it superimposes two time periods: the contemporary reports from Munich are supplemented with retrospective passages from Klemperer’s memoirs. Klemperer’s experiences in Munich are thus placed in their biographical and historical context. The result is a much deeper reflection on the time; aspects of the Munich revolution that sometimes seem absurd to the young man living through them in the spring of 1919 are later viewed in a more tragic light by the persecuted Jew in Nazi Dresden. Looking back, Klemperer recognizes the growing virulence of the burgeoning anti-Semitism in postwar Germany. “I do not want to exaggerate: there were a good many lecturers and students in Munich at the time who very much condemned this eruption of hostility toward Jews, and during my entire time in Munich I was never personally subjected to anti-Semitism, but I did feel depressed and isolated by it.” This book is essential reading.

Clark May 2015

Notes on the text

1919, writing as “Antibavaricus”

The two-column reports were written by Victor Klemperer in Munich as the revolution was taking place, between February 1919 and January 1920, under the pseudonym of “A.B. correspondent” (= Antibavaricus) for the Leipzig newspaper Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten. The majority of these articles are published here for the first time. The newspaper was only able to print one out of three dispatches; in the tumult of the revolution, the others either arrived too late or never reached their destination at all.

1942, looking back on the revolution

The texts set normally were written in 1942 as part of Klemperer’s memoirs. They were not included in the collection Curriculum vitae: Erinnerungen 1881–1918 (1989) because they were originally intended to be part of a longer chapter called “Privatdozent” (“Lecturer”), one which remained unfinished after Klemperer was abruptly forced to stop writing in 1942 – when the danger that the Gestapo might discover the manuscript had grown too great. These texts have never been published before.

Politics and the Bohemian World

(From our A.B. correspondent)

Munich, in early February [1919]

The Munich puzzle. – The ur-Bavarians Eisner, Mühsam, and Levien. – The political bohemians. – The communist estate with two kinds of love. – The effect abroad. – Eisner’s future prospects.

Munich politics have gone the way of Munich art – you find yourself asking: where are the Munich natives, or the Bavarians? In the arts you would come across names from East Prussia, from Württemberg, names from everywhere – but it was still “Munich” art. And in politics today? It is really not necessary to insinuate that the prime minister is a Galician and cast doubt on his German name.1 He is by his own admission a Prussian, and a Berliner to boot. And his main opponents on the Left, who are as highly esteemed in some circles as Eisner2 himself – and he is esteemed, even today, though the elections3 have gone somewhat against him! – even his radical opponents are no more Bavarian than he is. Erich Mühsam,4 the noble anarchist, whose star ascended in the Café des Westens in Berlin and long radiated a soft literary glow in Munich (despite so many noble anarchist lights) before taking on a truly bloody political flush – Mühsam, who by nature was always a benign, helpful, unmartial creature, and whose revolutionary heroism might amuse us even today were it not also perplexing and dangerous, is widely known to have his roots in Berlin’s west side5 – ever since he was transplanted there, that is. He grew up as the son of a Lübeck pharmacist in what was, at the time, a quiet Hanseatic city.

The latest figure to appear is Doctor Levien6 – as reported from Munich, Dr. Levien was recently arrested7 – who plays the most serious role here in the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council8 and on the Spartacists’ side, and who makes the government, which naturally does not want to create any martyrs, more than a little uneasy. To be clear from the outset: Doctor Levien is not a Russian Jew – he has Germanic blood in his veins, he shakes a mane of blond with every vigorous gesture, his eyes flash blue, and his left hand tugs the button nearest his heart on his field-grey uniform when, with his right hand thrust up or out, he refutes the objection that he is a foreigner who should have no say in matters. At least, this is how he appeared and sounded to me at an assembly where he thundered against the “reactionary” Eisner. Admittedly, when he then cast the poor, hereticized Bolshevists in the right light (namely, the gentle, rosy light of human benefaction) and suddenly faced the accusation that he seemed to be exceedingly familiar with Russian affairs, he thundered with the same conviction and emphatic gesticulation as before – only this time, instead of “I served on the battlefield as German!” it was “I was born in Russia!” So there is something slightly amiss with the Bavarianness of this leader of the people, too. No, he was born the son of a German in Russia, he first breathed Russian air, and he was soon to breathe Russian prison air. He was caught up in the Russian revolutionary movement at a tender age, he formed close ties with a Russian revolutionary in prison and later went to Zurich with her. The two studied and lived entirely in the peculiar atmosphere of Russian Switzerland – there have always been a Russian and an English Switzerland amidst the more well-known German, French, and Italian parts of the country. Just before the war, it occurred to Dr. Levien that he would have to fulfill his German military service obligation at the last minute if he did not want to lose his German citizenship. A friend described Munich to him in alluring terms, so he joined the “Lifers”9 here – and then the war broke out. For a little while he really did serve on the battlefield, and he was even slightly wounded, but he then spent a long time with the rear echelon in the East and at home. It’s said that he was brought back here because he was too closely connected to the Bolshevists in the East. And now he is Munich’s most radical popular leader.

The Munich puzzle: The Bavarian is so proud of his heritage, so averse to all things foreign, and particularly all things Nordic, which he likes to refer to collectively as “Prussian.” Yet who rules now, each in his own circle, but Messrs. Eisner, Mühsam and Levien! A very simple solution to this puzzle has been proposed. They’ve said of Eisner (and it’s all the more true of Levien) that he prevails in Munich because he feuds so fiercely with Berlin. There is certainly something to this. Eisner has – several times, in any case – appealed strongly to Bavarian particularism; and when Levien rages against the bloodhounds Ebert10 and Scheidemann,11 who have now been joined by the chief bloodhound Noske,12 he rages against murderous Berliners and bloodthirsty Prussians. Nonetheless, both men are so entirely un-Bavarian in their character and, above all, in their dialect – something tremendously important here – that anti-Prussianism alone cannot explain the possibility of their leadership.

No, Munich politics are like Munich art: you need not be either a native Bavarian or a native of Munich to participate. And this is not just a comparison – in Munich, art and politics are the same thing! This, then, is the solution to the puzzle. In other revolutions, in other times, in other places, the leaders have come from the streets, from the factories, from the typing pools of editorial and law offices. In Munich, many of them have come from the bohemian world. We just have to take into consideration – and here’s a job for future cultural historians and novelists – that the concept of bohemianism, its ambit, expanded during the war. Before 1914, bohemians were poets or painters or journalists or musicians. And even today they are all of these things, either by profession or avocation. But now they have also become politicians, economists – to put it more simply and clearly: they’re also very interested in contraband and profiteering, they’ve taken an interest (mostly negative) in the relationship between the individual and the masses, they’ve generally turned their attention, as it were, to the things outside the arts and culture section of the newspaper that they had previously scorned as being unaesthetic. The connection between the bohemian world and politics is as close as can be here in Munich. Is Eisner not thoroughly bohemian, does he not consider himself an artist and writer, as he himself repeatedly insists? But the people of Munich do not demand that their bohemians be Bavarian; perhaps they think true Munich blood is too good for this crowd. The bohemians of Munich are a foreign legion, kept for the amusement, the fun of the citizens of Munich. And now artistic amusement has been replaced by political fun …

This all sounds very comical and very exaggerated. But anyone who gives it serious thought will find it’s not such an exaggeration after all, that I have merely highlighted, isolated, divested of all incidentals, laid bare and thus – to speak in the inviting aesthetic manner – stylized one central aspect of the local political scene. And as far as comedy is concerned, there’s certainly an overabundance. In one of these expanded bohemian circles, from which a well-trodden path leads straight to Eisner’s office, an amiable, fresh-faced blond lad recently told me, “We’re communists, we bought an estate near Augsburg in order to farm it and prove that we can lead an idyllic life in a new community, peacefully, without money.” I asked whether one could join by contributing to the investment costs – by buying one’s way in, so to speak, as in a cooperative. No, it couldn’t be done with money. “So how did you do it?” – “We borrowed it, we don’t actually own anything ourselves, we’ve been good friends for a long time, and if someone has a benefactor he helps out the others.” – “Are there farmers in your group?” – “One woman is a gardener; the rest are students, merchants and what the bourgeoisie calls the ‘derailed.’” – “So there are women in your community, too?” – “Two so far.” – “What’s your communism’s position on women?” – “We reject legitimate marriage as paid prostitution. Other than that, there are two schools of thought which are still fighting it out. One wants couples to cohabit freely, along the lines of old common-law marriage. The other wants to overcome sexuality entirely; it won’t be important anymore.” – “How so?” – “We all live in friendly, unsexual fellowship; if the beast stirs in two people, they simply feed the beast and everything goes back to how it was. It’s inconsequential, inessential, a triumph over the carnal. That’s what we progressives think. But as I said, opinions still differ on this.” – “And where do the two ladies in your community stand?” – “The gardener belongs to the older school of thought, the student to the new one”…

Granted, this is very comical and it’s just one example of many. But there is a deadly serious side to this intertwining of bohemianism and politics. For instance, an Italian journalist, a reporter for a large newspaper, traveled from Innsbruck to Munich and now wanders around here freely in order to report on German attitudes and circumstances. He doesn’t understand German, but some people in the bohemian circles here understand Italian. The man has acquired a helpful guide from this circle, and it is in this circle that he gathers his impressions, which he faithfully reports back to Turin. I was there when an enthusiastic Spartacus man explained the German situation to him at the tea table: We must and will bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat. It just requires a little educational work. Then all of the imbecile tradesmen, farmers, doctors, academics – in brief, everyone who currently calls themselves bourgeois – will realize with astonishment and delight that they are not bourgeois at all, they are actually proletarians themselves, so they are destined to partake in the unjustly feared and ill-reputed dictatorship of the proletariat. We have at most 100,000 members of the middle class, bourgeoisie and capitalists in Germany. They bought off some of the herd that elected the reactionary National Assembly and kept the rest in stupidity and ignorance. The dictatorship is directed only against these 100,000, and if a little more blood should flow – well, a few drops more or less makes no difference. We have to follow through to pure socialism, like the exemplary Bolshevists who have simply been smeared by the lying press … All of this over tea, all of it in very passable Italian, all of it directed at readers abroad …

Incidentally, it is this more radical section of the political bohemian world that Kurt Eisner will have to thank if – and this is a very real possibility – he should remain at the helm after the state assembly13 has convened, although the distribution of votes is not to his advantage. He has already shifted somewhat to the right in order not to ruin his chance of continuing to govern from the outset. He also faces fierce enough opposition from the Spartacist quarter. But despite all the hostility, he gets along with these radicals because they are united by their background, their former circle – their bohemianism. So some kind of peace can probably be maintained if Eisner, even a more moderate Eisner, remains in power – but there could never be a moment of peace between any of the bourgeoisie and Munich’s bohemian radicals. If Eisner stays, he can thank Levien and Mühsam for it. Their opposition has pushed him closer to the bourgeoisie. At the same time, the bourgeoisie views Eisner as a shield between them and the group around Levien and Mühsam, who feud with him but do not seriously attack him. They feel too much affinity with him for that. They are hostile brothers, but they are brothers all the same – in bohemianism.