He had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook

Reck

Over the last week I read Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair. I had to read it alone, because if I ever read it when my wife was in the room I had to keep stopping to tell her something he’d just said.

You feel, during it, that you could have been friends. You feel, after it, that a kindred spirit has been snuffed out.

I’d never heard of him before. I just picked the book up last week. It doesn’t even have a promising cover. But this is the story. This guy, Reck, wrote diary entries from May 1936 to October 1944 which describe life in Nazi Germany. You’ll never read anything like them.

There are 39 entries. Nothing like a normal diary. He’ll just write four pages from time to time about events around him, things he’s heard, gossip, impressions of Munich (“Prussian-occupied Munich”, he calls it in 1936), and so on. He said that these notes he was writing were his “contribution to the cultural history of the Nazi period. Night after night, I hide this record deep in the woods on my land.”

I just want to give you an idea of the way he writes, and what he writes about.

He sees Hitler passing in a car, “a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins”. He recalls, years before, seeing Hitler ranting in a café, “with his oily hair falling into his face…he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook.” He calls him “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.” (11 August 1936).

He sees Berlin in 1937, “like an immense machine, all sound and fury and producing nothing…I do not believe there is any substance to the idea that people in Berlin work harder than elsewhere. They have a hysterical drive to keep moving, probably an indication of a flight from the knowledge of their own inner emptiness.” (May 1937).

When Austria is invaded he says: “The bordering countries watched this miserable rape of a little nation, and shrugged their shoulders. Nobody is moving to stop this before it is too late. It almost seems that they prefer to stand back and wait until the cobra breaks out.” (20 March 1938).

Berlin in April 1939 “smells of war, and strikes me as looking the way a parvenu never should: shabby, wan, ridiculous. The menus offer little, the wine is even more questionable than usual, the linen is of doubtful cleanliness. The coffee is miserable, there is no petrol for taxis, and since repairman have been drafted for work on fortifications, the hotels are in a sorry state.” I could believe this – six months before the war broke out!

And so on it goes – vignette after vignette – Ludendorff’s phone call to the Balkan front in 1917, when his only question is whether strawberries grow there; the brief re-introduction of dueling under the Nazis; digressions on pastoral versus industrial Germany; the observation that in 1500 there was no nationalism but there was a German nation, while in the 1930s it was the opposite…

I read and read, not knowing what would happen to him, whether they would get him in the end. All I knew, from the brief biography at the start of the book, were his dates, 1884 – 1945. Did they get him in the end? Did he live to see the end of the war, and then die? Compelling, and moving.

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