Saturday, February 15, 2014

More thoughts on Diary of a Man in Despair

Writing is coming along well; there should be a couple shorts and more coming out soon. I will, hopefully, have parts of a short out here soon.

I wanted to further discuss the book I read recently, Diary of a Man in Despair (New York Review Books Classics). The book has caused me cogitation recently, and I wanted to delve into why this is (btw any book that sinks its teeth into my mind like this is, no matter its flaws, definitely a candidate for the title "classic").

As I've mentioned, this book isn't without its flaws. There is a reactionary streak in our author who thinks the reason that things have gone so wrong is that his nation's moved away from aristocracy and towards nationalism (and I can't fault him too much, after all nationalism would seem to be a cause for many issues), and this puts him in a distinct minority as one of the few who were against the Nazis since the beginning (rather than after Germany started to lose its war). He believes, however, that Nazism is a result of what Bismarck started in the 19th century. So perhaps his diagnosis for what ailed his country was slightly off (and given what we know of his aristocratic background this is somewhat problematic), but that doesn't mean that his analysis was wrong. Nor is this what brought me to think over and over about this book.

What I wanted to focus on was the ability of this man to see that society was heading in the wrong direction, and by picking on a handful of actions or memes that developed around him, he was able to simply know this. This isn't as easy as it seems. Though we can look back at the Nazis and know that they were wrong, it's much harder to go against the grain when an entire nation is chanting the same hymn. Especially when going against that hymn will result in penury (or later, death) or at least being labeled an outcast (after all, Hitler helped improve their economy; a reason that so many of the master of industries tended to support him) or a person who did not care for his country. Don't tell me that these forces aren't strong in our nation (or many nations).

But this man was able to, with laser like focus, see what was wrong, and see the actions which were bad, and never let go of the fact that they would always be bad, no matter how much material gain there was to be had (and his neighbors and distant friends all had some sense to at least make hay while the sun shined and cash in on this improved economy... can anyone fault them?) or how much the Jews were being picked on. And from his writing I can take at least that: that if one keeps their faculties to think independently, then they can weather such storms with their dignity intact.

And from there is the second question: about whether or not this man did the right thing. After all, all he did was write a diary and keep it hidden. Couldn't he have done more? Fought with pamphlets, or perhaps waged an insurrection? It's hard to say [1]. There are definitely layers to something like this; where direct action might be a step above not falling for the siren call of Nazism which would be better than nothing. And still if everyone had acted like him, Germany would not have fallen as far as it did during this period.

All these come to the final thought: what would I (you) have done in this time period? Again I'm speaking about when the Nazis (or fascists) had just come into power. What does one do? What checks and balances exist in the legal route and in the other routes? Obviously everyone who rails against his society cannot take the latter route (especially if we are to take into account the Internet comments we see). Even today there are some people who are certain that the current administration (incorrectly, I believe) is taking the country down a wrong path. Surely some of those people believe this. But do we want them taking any steps? Are there only specific actions a government can take for there to be a reaction from the concerned citizens of a nation?

Tough questions, and I'm not sure I have the answers. I would say when a nation moves against a few within its borders, then its citizens will be more likely to react (for some reason it still seems that doing things outside the border does not evoke the same, though I'm not sure if this is a morally sound stance).

What you have done during this time in Germany? Before outright atrocities were committed? What would you have done before civil war in the States (assuming you were against slavery)? Do you shrug? Do you keep counsel with close ones that it's wrong? Do you join a rebel outfit to force the issue? Surely in any given human population there are all these groups, and each will play an important role (the latter pulling more from the "less serious" levels into their ranks, or helping them to influence those in power and so forth), but where do you stand, and do you automatically assume a moral superiority for assuming such a position?

Please, let's discuss.
And on a similar note, this article, gives a very good bit on German culpability in general (for WWI & WWII), as well as some historians' squabbles. Are National Master Narratives good for any country? I'm not sure, though I naturally lean towards saying that they are indeed troublesome and eschew introspective looks into the national self that are productive. Also any move away from looking into finding out the truth about a nation's weaknesses and strengths tends to be something I think will only hurt in the long run... this, of course, is another discussion in of itself...

Update (29Mar2014): Another aspect of this question that the book raises is: at what point do the things a society does to an individual (and thus a set of individuals, usually when it gets out of hand) become too hard to handle that one person decides to react and sparks a revolution or at least change? There is the matter of the small indignities of life. But that usually isn't enough. Some people seem to react negatively, but most people choose to ignore what they have done (witness the Occupy Wall Street protests, the authorities crushed them and bet that no one would react, and in fact no one did), whereas at other times, people do not (witness the immolations of men truly in despair, in Vietnam, in Tunisia, in Tibet today). 

Surely this speaks to currents in the air. Humans are gregarious and very susceptible to what others around them do. When/why does a protest movement die, while at other times it doesn't? I'm sure many heads of state would like to know the answer to this. One would say that democracy helps to stem this by providing a release via voting. But the overthrow of democracies would speak against this. (A side note on this matter is that people seem to sense a point where their votes don't matter—for whatever reason as there are too many moneyed interests etc—and react).

Still, even in the book in question, The Diary of a Man in Despair, he seems to sense that there isn't much room for him to breath in protest (he's left with a few acts like not saying Heil Hitler), even when he sees others being executed for handing out pamphlets and so forth.

In that sense, even when one is doing the small acts (like not saying certain things), they must do them even if they seem small ('cowardly' even), because it's these small acts that allow others to feed off, and perhaps encourage larger acts, and in that moment of truth, allows for a real change because everyone is feeding off a general feeling. In this case, doing 'nothing' does indeed matter.

Update:  Some thing else that Diary brings to mind: this is the 

[1] Also, it's hard to say how much some of these things would have helped.

Some other articles for you to read:
# A book about men facing circumstances not to their liking. Ministry of Bombs
# List of the 5 best international novels out there
# 5 Best scifi novels
# An article on what makes a classic book.
# Best books of the 21st century
# Best books of the 20th century
# A review of the Diary of a Man in Despair

Below you can sign up for short stories you won't get elsewhere as well as free ebooks and updates to new releases:

Then Subscribe to my mailing list

* indicates required
Email Format


  1. Yeah, but that was dem Nazis. One ting is one ting. Dunt getit twisted.

  2. #3 here. You're giving this book a little too much credit here. Surely there are things (such as his historical bad luck and perhaps his tenacity in the face of something fierce) to admire, but it's mainly a historical curiosity rather than a book filled with wisdom. Perhaps the version I read differs, but one must think on many things when it comes to a book like this (and I'm not dismissing the ultimate sacrifice this man made though he could have lived a comfortable life in silence—this is his greatest lesson here), and that he had the temerity to never give the Heil Hitler greeting is another commendable point.

    I think your comment about how there was a sense that when reading the book the man was simply mad (raving, perhaps?) seems to strike a correct chord; was he that? A man who would have ranted no matter what, though he happened to be right at this time? And if so, is this the fate of even the prophets among us? In other words do all human populations have a set amount of ranters about many topics and thus one will be right and vindicated while others will not? Since if this is the case, it makes it hard to find a way to see who's right and when.

    I'm not blasting this article. It's damn good. What I'm saying is that I want a good lesson to draw from this book: and it doesn't seem like there's a set way to see why this man was right (he was very reactionary in many ways, wasn't he?), beyond the simple


Please comment to add to the discussion. Be kind. But let the democratic ideal lead you. And no spamming!