Friedrich Reck

I happened to be in Munich recently, just as one of the official festivals, which are by now an everyday occurrence, was being celebrated to the blare of tubas and the rat-tat of drums. I could not get a room at my usual hotel near the stations, and found a place to sleep in the Old City, opposite a schoolhouse in which a visiting Hitler Youth troop had been lodged for the holiday period.

I saw one of these boys, who had just thrown off his knapsack, look about him at the empty classroom. I observed how his glance fell on the crucifix hanging behind the teacher’s desk, how in an instant this young and still soft face contorted in fury, how he ripped this symbol, to which the cathedrals of Germany, and the ringing progressions of the St Matthew Passion are consecrated, off the wall and threw it out of the window into the street…

With the cry: ‘Lie there, you dirty Jew!’

I have seen this. Among people I know, I have heard of more than one case of children denouncing their parents politically, and thereby delivering them to the axe. Ah, I do not believe that all these children are born devils: yesterday, that Christ-killer may well have been entranced by the fairy tale about the juniper tree, or the one about faithful Heinrich, around whose heart, in his loyalty and his concern over his bewitched and banished master, there grew an iron band.

My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself to be dominated by the street-corner idlers of yesterday, but actually, height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its shame for the shame that it is.

 I saw Hitler last in Seebruck, slowly gliding by in a car with armour-plated sides, while an armed bodyguard of motorcylists rode in front as further protections: a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins. So sad, so unutterably insignificant, so basically misbegotten is this countenance that only thirty years ago, in the darkest days of Wilhelmism, such a face on an official would have been impossible. Appearing in the chair of a minister, an apparition with a face like this would have been disobeyed as soon as its mouth spoke an order –– and not merely by the higher officials in the ministry: no, by the doorman, by the cleaning women!

And today? I hear that Hitler recently ended a report by Wilhelm Keitel, the Army commander  which had given him reason for dissatisfaction, by throwing a bronze vase at the head of the general. Isn’t this the kind of thing that happens when a people is sinking in the cesspool of its own disgrace? ‘And all that they did was as it should have been, because it was God’s will.’ This I read in a sixteenth-century Münster chronicle.

I am neither an occult nor a mystic. I am a child of my time despite all forebodings, and I hold strictly to what I see. But there is a frightful riddle here, and I come back again and again to what appears to me to be the only answer to it:

What I saw gliding by there, behind the fence of his mamelukes, like the Prince of Darkness himself, was no human being.

That was a figure out of a ghost story.

I have met him a few times  not at any of his meetings, of course. The first time was in 1920, at the home of my friend Clemens von Franckenstein, which was then the Lenbach villa. According to the butler, one of those present was forcing his way in everywhere, had already been there a full hour. It was Hitler. He had managed an invitation to Clé’s house under the guise of being interested in operatic scenic design. (Clé had been general intendant of the Royal Theatre.) Hitler very likely had the idea that theatrical design was connected with interior decoration and wallpaper-hanging, his former profession.

He had come to a house, where he had never been before, wearing gaiters, a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a riding whip. There was a collie too. The effect, among the Gobelin tapestries and cool marble walls, was something akin to a cowboy’s sitting down on the steps of a baroque altar in leather breeches, spurs, and with a Colt at his side. But Hitler sat there, the stereotype of a headwaiter  at that time he was thinner, and looked somewhat starved  both impressed and restricted by the presence of a real, live Herr Baron; awed, not quite daring to sit fully in his chair, but perched on half, more or less, of his thin loins; not caring at all that there was a great deal of cool and elegant irony in the things his host said to him, but snatching hungrily at the words, like a dog at pieces of raw meat.

Eventually, he managed to launch into a speech. He talked on and on, endlessly. He preached. He went on at us like a division chaplain in the Army. We did not in the least contradict him, or venture to differ in any way, but he began to bellow at us. The servants thought we were being attacked, and rushed in to defend us.

When he had gone, we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic. We sat a long time and no one spoke. Finally, Clé stood up, opened one of the huge windows, and let the spring air, warm with the föhn, into the room. It was not that our grim guest had been unclean, and had fouled the room in the way that so often happens in a Bavarian village. But the fresh air helped to dispel the feeling of oppression. It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.

I used to ride at the Munich armoury, after which I liked to eat at the Löwenbräukeller: that was the second meeting. He did not have to smack his boots continually with his riding whip, as he had done at Franckenstein’s. At first glance, the tightly clenched insecurity seemed to be gone— which allowed him to launch at once into one of his tirades. 

Diary of a Man in Despair

I had ridden hard, and was tremendously hungry, and wanted just to be let alone to eat in peace. Instead I had poured out over me every one of the political platitudes in his book. I know you will appreciate my sparing you, future reader, all the dogma. It was that little-man Machiavellianism by which German foreign policy became a series of legalised burglaries and the activity of its leaders a succession of embezzlements, forgeries, and treaty breaches, all designed to make him appeal to the assortment of schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and stenographers who have since become the true support and bastion of his regime…as a fabulous fellow, a real political Genghis Khan.

With his oily hair falling into his face as he ranted, he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook. I got the impression of basic stupidity, the same kind of stupidity as that of his crony, Papenthe kind of stupidity which equates statesmanship with cheating at a horse trade.

But this impression was not the last one I had, nor the most striking. Every time I think about it, I am more and more struck by the way this Machiavelli preaching away at me between my sausage and my veal chop bowed to me when we partedlike a waiter who has just received a fair tip. And this image is like that photograph in which he is shown shaking hands with Hindenburgthe same image of a head waiter closing his hand around the tip.

The third time, I saw him in a courtroom accused of creating a disturbance at some political meeting: by then, he was known outside the Munich city limits… And then I observed him in Berlin, entering his hotel, already a celebrity. In court, he looked like he was begging for a kind word from the small and very low-ranking official who was in charge of the hearing: the look of a man who has been in jail a number of times. On the other occasion, he went by the doorman with the stiffened back of a man who is going to ask the hotel manager for credit, and knows he is likely to be thrown out.   

Notwithstanding his meteoric rise, there is absolutely nothing that has happened in the twenty years since I first saw him to make me change my first view of him. The fact remains that he was, and is, without the slightest self-awareness and pleasure in himself, that he basically hates himself, and that his opportunism, his immeasurable need for recognition, and his now-apocalyptic vanity are all based on one thinga consuming drive to drown out the pain in his psyche, the trauma of a monstrosity.

There are additional detailsErna Hanfstaengl, who knows him better than I do, says he is becoming increasingly afraid of ghosts. She believes that this fear of the spirits of those he has murdered drives him on continually, and does not allow him to stay for long in any one place…. Quite in accord with this is that he has taken to spending his nights in his private projection room, where his poor projectionists have to show six films for him, night after night…

This may well be. It only confirms my diagnosis. I do not even believe that the man is especially amoralthe title of great criminal does him too much honour. If a German government had built a gigantic studio, subsidised the newspapers to declare him the greatest artist of all time, and managed to satisfy his limitless vanity that way, I believe he would have turned to completely harmless pursuits and would never have gotten the idea of setting fire to the world.

No, I do not believe in his being a Borgia type. I believe that in this case the offal-compounded, repressed drives of a deeply miscarried human being were combined with a whim of history, which allowed him, as Cleon was once allowed in Athens, to play for a time with the levers of its gigantic machinery. I believe that all of this coincided with a fevered hour of this people. I believe that this poor devil, sprung out of a Strindbergian excremental Hell, like that other time’s Bockelson, coincided in time with the bursting of an abscess by a nation, and came as the embodiment of all the dark and generally well-curbed desires of the masseslike his Münster predecessor, a character out of a German ghost story!

I saw him once more at close range. This was in the autumn of 1932, as the fever began to take hold of Germany. Friedrich von Mücke and I were dining at the Osteria Bavaria in Munich when Hitler entered and crossed the restaurant to the table next to oursalone, by the way, and without his usual bodyguard. There he sat, now a power among the Germans … say, felt himself observed by us, and critically examined, and as a result became uncomfortable. His face took on the sullen expression of a minor bureaucrat who has ventured into a place which he would not generally enter, but now that he is there demands for his good money ‘that he be served and treated every bit as well as the fine gentleman over there …’

There he sat, a raw-vegetable Genghis Khan, a teetotalling Alexander, a womanless Napoleon, an effigy of Bismarck who would certainly have had to go to bed for four weeks if he had ever tried to eat just one of Bismarck’s breakfasts….

I had driven into town, and since at that time, September 1932, the streets were already quite unsafe, I had a loaded revolver with me. In the almost deserted restaurant, I could easily have shot him. If I had had an inkling of the role this piece of filth was to play, and of the years of suffering he was to make us endure, I would have done it without a second thought. But I took him for a character out of a comic strip, and did not shoot.

It would have done no good in any case: in the councils of the Highest, our martyrdom had already been decided. If Hitler at that point had been taken and tied to railroad tracks, the train would have been derailed before it got to him. But when his hour strikes, the end will come down upon his head from every possible direction, and from places, even, that were never thought of. There are many rumours of attempts to assassinate him. The attempts fail, and they will continue to fail. For years (and especially in this land of successful demons) it has seemed that God is asleep. But, to quote a Russian proverb:

‘When God wills it, even a broom can shoot!’

“Diary of a Man in Despair” is published by New York Review of Book Classics, and is available for purchase here.

Background illustration by Marcela Gutiérrez