Our Night of the Crystals

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By Thelma Lessa da Fonseca*

“Sometimes I take some solace out of all the terrible disconsolation of the situation. This is the pinnacle: nothing good and nothing bad usually persists in the superlative. A  hybris, the brutality, the cynicism of the victors in their “electoral speeches” are so monstrous and the threat from abroad assumes such absurd forms that at any time the counter-coup will have to come. And we have become so accustomed to our misery that there are still a few bearable hours left.”

This passage, which could well have been uttered by a Brazilian today, is dated March 30, 1938. It is part of Victor Klemperer's diaries[I], professor of classical philology at the University of Dresden. Of Jewish origin, Klemperer was able to postpone his deportation for a few years because he was married to an “Aryan”. Even so, he only managed to escape the “final solution” by pure chance: in 1945, when, on the verge of being sent to a concentration camp, he escaped in the midst of a bombing.

Over almost a thousand pages, the diaries haunt us, not by the description of the already known barbarities perpetrated by the Nazi regime, but, above all, by the narration that follows in detail the daily submission to the dictates of the new order in force.

In other times, it would have seemed completely strange to us the passivity with which dictatorial violence was received in Germany, especially by members of the cultured and well-informed strata of the population, as was the case of the author.

In their daily lives, between 1933 and 1945, Klemperer and his wife were victims of successive withdrawals of rights, starting with the loss of their position at the university, passing through housing and transit restrictions, limiting coupons for food and heating, until reaching to actual imprisonment. Finally, the political situation was no mystery to this privileged analyst and the growing misery of his own material and moral life was patent. Still, no indignation at the lack of mass uprising, nor any practical action in order to save oneself, planning an escape while possible, for example. Everything happens there as if the total catastrophe were not announced day after day.

In the universities, the totalitarian campaign ran wild. On September 27, 1934, Klemperer comments on an official communiqué entitled “New resolution for students”. In this, the reduction in the number of university students by two thirds is presented as a victory “in order to avoid an academic proletariat”, according to the report. There was no secret of the Reich's effort to "cleanse" the University of its "communist" traits. Deans are appointed and form university councils willing to put into practice the directives of the Nazi party.

What makes this university professor, as well as a large part of the educated and well-informed population, allow themselves to belittle the threat that is constantly renewed, not only in the destruction of institutions, but also in all the small activities of daily life? On the one hand, there is the profile of the Leader: it did not seem credible that the subject of limited intelligence, mediocre culture, who makes disconnected speeches accompanied by histrionic gestures would manage to remain in power for a long time. On the other hand, perhaps there was a kind of unjustifiable faith in the natural balance of things, after all, it seems to Klemperer that an evil of such proportions could not last.

About the seduction of totalitarian discourse, often misunderstood among intellectuals, it is worth remembering Adorno's interpretation: “the fascist agitator is usually an expert salesman of his own psychological defects.(…) They are seen as hysterical, but their hysteria fulfills the function of doing and saying, acting in such a way as to envy listeners, victims of their own inhibitions”[ii]. They violate typical middle-class taboos as they assume behaviors that are forbidden to ordinary citizens subject to the demands of normality and, thus, exhibit their freedom to break the “norm”. They become icons that impose their superiority precisely when they flout the rules without hesitation. Thus, the paradox is explained: “fascist agitators are taken seriously because they risk making fools of themselves”[iii].

It is evident how well this description fits the current president of Brazil, as well as shedding light on his influence on a large part of the population, especially those who are enraptured by moral lectures and rules of conduct. It is not an identification out of empathy, but a desire for submission. Instead of the figure of the loving father, the fascist, says Adorno, represents the threatening authority and incites the listener to regress to the archaic stages of his psychic development, leading him to relive moments of impotence before the father figure or before authority in general. There is a masochistic relationship there that will end up triggering, due to his identification with authority, precisely its reverse, the sadistic impulse. Here, as there, we saw crystal nights: the pleasure in causing and publicizing, watching or resonating in an effusive way, suffering, pain and death.

Oscillating between hopelessness and the eventual belief in a redeeming force that limits the reach and duration of terror, a “counter-blow” coming from nowhere, Klemperer plunges into the purest immediacy, bends over his studies and turns to the everyday tasks, infinitely complicated by the constraints of the time. He is now convinced that Hitler will not last another six months; now he states: “there is nothing to be done, it is not possible to live normally in abnormal times. I don't want to worry about what will come tomorrow, everything is so useless” (June 28, 1937).

We too, here, oscillate between the feeling of impotence when witnessing spectacles of justice with prisons and even public executions, when watching elected officials and their representatives behave like sociopaths with very low intellectual capacity, and the expectation that the revelations of the The Intercept or simply exhaustion decrees the end of the reign of terror, now established. However, it is good to remember that the Third Rich, despite the estimates of its critics at the time, lasted well more than a few years, but it did not need to last a millennium to immortalize its achievements.

* Thelma Lessa da Fonseca is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS).

This article corresponds partially to the lecture given in the Course on the 2016 coup, held at UFMS, in the first half of 1918


[I] Klemperer, V., The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, Companhia das Letras, 1999.

[ii] Theodor Adorno. “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda”. In: Essays on social psychology and psychoanalysis, Unesp, 2007, p.144.

[iii] Idem. P. 145.

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