Opposing the Nazis: the secret diary of a German against the Third Reich
Between 1939 and 1945, a German official called Friedrich Kellner kept a secret diary, risking his life to record some of the atrocities taking place during the Second World War. Here, his grandson Robert Scott Kellner tells his remarkable story, and shares some of his grandfather's observations about life in Germany during the Third Reich...
In 1960, American serviceman Robert Scott Kellner tracked down his German grandfather Friedrich Kellner. The 19-year-old expected to find a Nazi, but instead uncovered a remarkable tale of one man’s struggle against totalitarianism. Here, Kellner reveals the secrets of his grandfather's wartime diary, which he translated from the original German and published in English earlier this year...
August Friedrich Kellner (1885–1970) was guided by two simple philosophies in life: to treat others fairly, in the way he would wish to be treated, and to always choose good over evil. At political rallies in 1920s Germany, he would hold aloft Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, and cry out: "Gutenberg, your printing press has been violated by this evil book." He did not know that one day his own book, a diary called Mein Widerstand (My Opposition), would be hailed as the antithesis of Hitler's Nazi creed.
Kellner’s diary is remarkable for its reporting of the crimes committed against Jewish people during the Second World War. It provides early proof of the German population's awareness of Nazi intentions to move from pogroms like Kristallnacht to genocide. On October 7, 1939, just a few weeks after Germany’s invasion of Poland, Kellner composed a list of Nazi mistakes that ultimately would be their downfall. The seventh entry on the list is "the persecution and extermination of the Jews".
Atrocities of the worst kind
It did not take long for Kellner’s prediction to be realised. In a diary entry made on 28 October 1941, Kellner recorded a soldier’s eyewitness account of an atrocity in the occupied part of Poland. Naked Jewish men and women had been placed in front of a long deep ditch and shot in the back of their heads. Screams could be heard as the ditch was filled in with dirt. "There is no punishment hard enough that can be applied to these Nazi beasts," Kellner reflected. "99 per cent of the German people, directly or indirectly, carry the guilt for the present situation."
Why were these atrocities happening? "The Jews have to be exterminated because they are smarter than the German people," was Kellner's caustic explanation. He referred to judges, lawyers and physicians – professionals who had, in his view, always behaved as the “worst anti-Semites” as a result of “professional jealousy”. Displaying a natural sympathy, Kellner declared: "If the Jews can be made a people without rights, that is an act unworthy of a cultured nation.” He added: “The curse of this evil deed will indelibly rest on the entire German people.”
Two months later, Kellner reported that Jews were being transported out of the country. He did not know where they were being sent, but he was certain that it was to their death. It wasn’t long until his suspicions were confirmed: "I heard from a reliable source all the Jews were taken to Poland and murdered by SS brigades,” he wrote on 16 September 1942. “Such atrocities will never be able to be erased from the book of humanity."
Who was Friedrich Kellner?
Friedrich Kellner was born in Germany in 1885. After graduating from high school, he accepted a position as an apprentice clerk in the vast bureaucracy of the German Empire's justice system. He served as an infantry sergeant during the First World War until he was injured by shrapnel from a bursting shell in France. During his time on the battlefield, he questioned the High Command’s inept strategy and the Kaiser’s ruinous quest for glory; although he would readily protect his home and country with his life, he saw no sense in a German soldier shedding blood in France because a Serbian killed an Austrian in Bosnia.
The loss of the First World War and collapse of the empire brought new hope, possibilities and challenges to Kellner, his wife, Pauline Preuss, and their son, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm. Kellner had been promoted to justice inspector, a job that involved administering court records. In his spare time, he campaigned for the Social Democratic Party to protect the budding democracy from the excesses of parties with totalitarian agendas, from the communists to the national socialists.
As the worldwide economy was hit by the crash of 1929 and the Nazis gained increasing power in Germany, Kellner took a job as courthouse administrator in the small town of Laubach, where he was not known for his political views. Unfortunately, the presiding judge of the courthouse – Judge Ludwig Schmitt – was a confirmed Nazi, and Friedrich's refusal to join the Nazi Party aroused not only the judge's suspicion and enmity, but also that of the mayor, Otto Högy, and the local Nazi group leader, Otto Pott.
"Kellner’s attitude exerts a bad influence on the rest of the population," wrote Ernst Mönnig, the local group leader of the National Socialist People's Welfare Organisation, in one of the Nazi reports on Friedrich. "In our view he should be made to disappear from Laubach."
The secret diary
When Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland in 1939, Kellner began to write down his observations in a diary that would eventually fill almost 900 pages. He was determined to record Nazi crimes and the German people's overwhelming approval of their Führer's craze to conquer Europe.
In writing the diary, Kellner had set himself a task that could get both himself and his wife, Pauline, executed as traitors. Kellner was already under surveillance by the SS, and in early 1940 he was interrogated twice about his political views. Fortunately, his status as a mid-level justice official meant that the Nazis needed more evidence before they could arrest him. “If we want to catch people such as this character Kellner, we will have to entice them out of their hiding-place and allow them to incriminate themselves,” said Nazi Political Director Hermann Engst.
Kellner’s wife, Pauline, was as much under the SS microscope as he was. Pauline went to great pains to avoid giving the Nazi salute, avoiding situations that required her to say "Heil Hitler”. And no matter how many times the leaders of the Nazi women's groups came to the courthouse to persuade her to join their organisations, Pauline refused. "Despite their repeated efforts and intimidations, my wife never filled out a single form or became a member of any such organisation,” Kellner wrote. “I would suggest that in all of Germany there are to be found few wives of officials who showed the same courage."
In the run up to the war, Kellner could not understand why the Allies did not stop Hitler when he first began rearming Germany in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Nor could he understand why they appeased Hitler when he demanded a part of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The French government "watched calmly," he wrote, while their historical nemesis became ever more powerful. And the "nincompoop" Chamberlain failed to act decisively when action was most needed. "As the foremost statesman of a world power, he had the damned duty and obligation to ensure that any attack would be immediately countered," Kellner concluded.
Kellner had another reason to be unhappy with the Allies: he expected the war to end quickly. But for several months after Germany invaded Poland, England and France seemed to act, in Kellner’s view, as if there was no war happening at all. Stalling for time to build up their armed forces, they instead bombarded Germany with propaganda leaflets. "Where is the English fleet?" Kellner wondered.
The cautious and slow pace by the Allies – after the German Wehrmacht [the army, navy and air force] had introduced the world to Blitzkrieg warfare – heightened the German people's arrogance, as Kellner saw it. Nazi newspapers, controlled by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, poured their scorn on Roosevelt and Churchill. The Americans would have done well “to put their sick president in an asylum,” one German writer wrote. “The lowest low in German journalism has been reached,” was Kellner’s response.
"A boundless arrogance is found in every layer of the population – an indestructible faith in the power of German weapons," reported Kellner of his countrymen. "Everyone says England will be immediately 'beaten down' and 'destroyed.’ Dr Goebbels has already sunk the entire English fleet, so there is no need then for the silly crowd to worry their heads about anything."
The youth have been contaminated through and through by the spirit of Adolf Hitler
Adding to the diarist's dismay was how the hostile and aggressive declarations by the adults were so easily adopted by the youngsters. "The youth have been contaminated through and through by the spirit of Adolf Hitler," Kellner wrote, no doubt thinking of his own young son, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm (‘Fred’) – whom he had sent to the USA in 1935 in an attempt to clear his mind of Nazi propaganda. Considering everything Kellner and his wife would have to contend with in the years ahead, it was a blessing they did not hear the truth about Fred's activities in America: their son associated with members of the pro-Nazi German American Bund in New York, and in March 1943, the FBI opened an Enemy Alien investigation of his pro-Nazi activities in the city.
Back in Germany, Kellner was consistently amazed at how his fellow countrymen continued to adore Hitler while ‘Nazi justice’ inflicted terrible punishments on some German citizens. Kellner’s diary details how some mental hospitals were turned into ‘murder centres’ – where medical staff had to align their thinking with the Nazi agenda and begin killing their patients rather than saving them. He writes how Heinrich Himmler's Gestapo – the official secret police of Nazi Germany – inflicted "ruthless brutality without mercy" on anyone who crossed them. Also recorded are dozens of newspaper articles about the "People's Court", which handed out death sentences to people caught listening to foreign radio broadcasts, including those produced by the BBC. The same punishment was issued for a variety of offences: death for picking up leaflets dropped by Allied aeroplanes without turning them into the police; death for hoarding food; death for merely suggesting to someone that the war was not going well.
In the countries occupied by Germany, the SS troops and the regular army executed dozens of innocent citizens for every German soldier who was assassinated by the Allies. When two German officers were shot by unknown culprits in Nantes and Bordeaux in France, 50 citizens in each of the towns were apprehended and executed in retribution.
The world will rightfully be outraged over so much inhumanity, and it will ignite a hatred that can never be extinguished
“The world will rightfully be outraged over so much inhumanity, and it will ignite a hatred that can never be extinguished,” wrote Kellner in his diary entry of 26 October 1941. In Germany, these atrocities were published in daily newspapers for every German to read. What was not published in the German media was still widely known; Kellner, for example, learned from wounded German soldiers convalescing in hospital that Russian prisoners of war were to be killed. "Barbarous gangsters," he later wrote.
When the war was over, and leading Nazis were placed on trial at Nuremberg, Kellner was appointed first town councilman and deputy mayor of Laubach, where he played a substantial role in removing local Nazi Party members from their professions and public service. In many diary entries he had called for the guilty parties to be punished, but the war itself had accomplished much of that, creating many widows and orphans in Laubach and the surrounding villages. When his task as deputy mayor was completed, Kellner helped to rebuild the Laubach branch of the Social Democratic Party and the members elected him their chairman.
In April 1946, Kellner and his wife were reunited with their son when Fred appeared in Laubach wearing a US Army uniform. The young man who had left for America 11 years earlier was now a gaunt 30 year old, with eyes reflecting the shock of what he had seen travelling through the ruins of his homeland. He did not tell his parents about the FBI investigation, nor did he tell them that he had been required to join the army to prove his loyalty. He did not tell them the truth about leaving his wife, but said that she had left him. He did not tell them he intended to earn his living in the black market. Over the next few years, unable to cope with the mistaken choices he had made, their son slowly lost his grip on reality. At the age of 37, Fred Kellner killed himself, leaving his parents desolated.
It would be seven more years before I, as a young man in a US Navy uniform, appeared at their door in 1960 with a photograph of their son – my father – in my pocket. For the last 10 years remaining to my grandparents Friedrich and Pauline Kellner, they worked with me to school me in the diary, with its clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. Although it took many decades for the diary to finally come into print – first in its original language and now in the Cambridge University English edition – it comes, in my view, when it is most needed.
This is a perilous time for the era of the Third Reich to be leaving the historical category of living memory; for the Allied soldiers who had fought the Nazis to be leaving us; and for the last survivors of the Holocaust – who dedicated their lives to giving witness to the Nazi blight on civilisation. Their final cry is for democratic leaders not to be deceived again by tyrants in totalitarian regimes.
And as for Friedrich? Friedrich Kellner offers us – and our children – a permanent and irrefutable voice from within the Third Reich. Friedrich knew that Nazi types would always exist and seek power no matter the cost in blood. "These jackals must never be allowed to rise again," Friedrich wrote. "I want to there be in that fight."
Robert Scott Kellner is the grandson of Friedrich Kellner. He is the editor of My Opposition: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner – A German against the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Listen to our podcast with Robert Scott Kellner here.