On a chilly, overcast October afternoon in 1960, Yeoman Second Class Petty Officer Robert Scott Kellner, a 19-year-old U.S. sailor on the way from a military base in Germany to a new posting in Saudi Arabia, was nervous as he walked down an unpaved street in Laubach, a village 40 miles northeast of Frankfurt. Based on family stories, he thought that his grandparents, whom he had never met and who may have died in the years after World War II, might be living there. After some missteps in other German cities bearing the same name, Kellner encountered a stranger who pointed him towards a modest white cottage up a small hill.
Maybe, Kellner feared, his grandparents had been Nazi supporters during the war. How would he handle that ignominy, he wondered?
Kellner needn’t have worried.
His grandparents were alive and well. After knocking on their door and introducing himself — in English since he didn’t speak German — he quickly learned that they were quiet heroes.
“Ich war kein Nazi” (I was no Nazi), Friedrich Kellner, who had served in a minor bureaucratic position in the village since 1933, told his newly found grandson. In fact, Friedrich Kellner had been an outspoken opponent of the Third Reich. He had, risking imprisonment or execution, spoken out against Hitler and clandestinely distributed German-language flyers dropped from Allied planes; he complained to local authorities about the Kristallnacht pogrom; carefully shared information he had surreptitiously heard on BBC broadcasts; helped a Jewish family escape Nazi Germany. And after the war, as deputy mayor of his village, he had helped coordinate the Allied-led denazification of Laubach’s compliant Nazi supporters.
And in an act of the greatest importance, of the greatest defiance, of the greatest danger, an act that occupied 12 years of his life and would subsequently consume nearly four decades of his grandson’s life, Friedrich Kellner wrote a massive diary in which he recorded the daily terror of life during the Third Reich and his disgust at the deteriorating conditions.
The young sailor also learned that his grandmother, Pauline, shared her husband’s Nazi antipathy, refusing pressure to join any Party organizations.
Friedrich, a veteran of WWI, showed his grandson his book — actually 10 volumes of hand-written notes in accounting ledger notebooks — that he had kept hidden in a hutch in his dining room. He explained the historical value of his rare eyewitness testimony. And he made young Kellner promise to have the diary published one day.
Now a 79-year-old, retired professor of American literature and technical writing at Texas A&M University in College Station, 40 miles northeast of Houston, Kellner kept his promise.
Seven years after the German-language edition of the diary appeared, Cambridge University Press has issued “My Opposition: The Diary of Friedrich Kellner — A German against the Third Reich,” an abridged, 520-page English-language version of the original 860-page, 400,000-word hand-written manuscript translated by his grandson. Similar abridged versions in Polish and Russian have already been published.
Friedrich had titled his diary “Mein Widerstand” (My Opposition, or My Resistance), a conscious swipe at Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle), the autobiographical manifesto that Kellner despised.
To keep his promise, Kellner, who had been a high school dropout, went on to study for his GED degree, attend college, learn German, earn a Ph.D. degree, and found a construction company in order to take early retirement from his teaching job and devote himself to his grandfather’s diary; he did all the translation work himself. And he had his grandfather’s diary, penned in the now-antiquated Sutterlin script, typed in a contemporary, easier-to-read German font.
“I was able to get my grandfather’s voice onto the printed page,” Kellner said in an interview in Houston. “It is a weapon of truth. My grandfather knew that Nazi types would always exist.” In different times, in different places.
The diary pointed out the dangers.
Under surveillance in Laubach, Friedrich Kellner judiciously limited most of his subversive activity to compiling his diary, usually late at night after a full day of work at the Laubach courthouse; his diary included more than 500 relevant clippings from German newspapers. “I could not fight the Nazis in the present, as they had the power to still my voice,” he would tell his grandson. “So I decided to fight them in the future.”
He had, he explained, documented the rise of the Nazis and the extent of public acquiescence, to serve as a warning “against any resurgence of such evil.”
Friedrich’s writings span the period from the election of Hitler in 1933 to Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. “Friedrich expected his diary to be used in the future as a weapon to counter fanatics with totalitarian agendas,” Kellner said.
“The purpose of my record,” his grandfather wrote, “is to capture a picture of the current mood in my surroundings, so that a future generation is not tempted to construe a ‘great event’ from it (a ‘heroic time’ or the like).”
In other words, Kellner wanted readers to understand how evil can corrode a society.
As a self-described “preacher in the wilderness,” he wrote at the beginning of the war that, “The foolish people are intoxicated by the German army’s exaggerated initial success in Poland,” and at the end that “the people were besotted and fooled.”
In the intervening dozen years, the diary criticizes Nazi propaganda and “idiots in America” who sought to appease Hitler. It cites the murder of patients in mental hospitals, the executions of Germans who — like himself and his wife — monitored foreign radio broadcasts, the massacre of Russian prisoners of war, and other atrocities. “Our murderous government has besmirched the name ‘Germany’ for all time,” he wrote. “The decent German has hardly any courage left to think, let alone to speak.”
The diary’s tacit message: Ordinary Germans knew what was happening in their country — they knew about the persecution and extermination of European Jewry.
Kellner in his diary writes about his country, not about himself, as Anne Frank did.
Others opposed to the Nazis recorded their thoughts in diaries, but Kellner’s diary is unique in its depth and breadth, said Michael Berenbaum, a Los Angeles-based Holocaust expert and prolific author. “There are other books like this, but he is particularly insightful. What he wrote about is how one became an acute observer of his society and an opponent of his society.”
Kellner, said Berenbaum, represented a wide segment of like-minded Germans. But, “it certainly wasn’t wide enough.”
Will Kellner’s eyewitness-to-history diary serve as evidence against the claims of Holocaust deniers?
Unlikely, Berenbaum said. “Deniers are unpersuadable by evidence. They live in an evidence-free universe, in a fact-free universe.”
The younger Kellner, who had learned nothing about his parents while growing up in New Haven — his father, who had been sent to the U.S. to curtail his latent sympathy for the Nazi cause, had married and deserted his wife and joined the U.S. Army and, at 37, committed suicide — took the diaries back to the U.S. after a return visit to Germany in 1968. Two years later he started the transcribing and translating process.
Eventually he wrote to every publishing company in this country; none were interested in his manuscript. Then he reached out to hundreds of prominent Americans, asking for help; only three responded, including former President George H.W. Bush, a WWII veteran, who arranged for the diary to be exhibited at his nearby presidential library and museum in College Station — which led to public interest in what Friedrich Kellner had done, and to the interest of Cambridge University Press.
The dairy was the subject of a 2007 Canadian documentary. To tell his grandfather’s story, Robert Scott Kellner gives frequent speeches, including a recent one at Yad Vashem.
The original diary, in fragile shape, is now stored in a bank’s safe-deposit box.
Friedrich Kellner, who retired in 1960, died 10 years later. Raised as a Lutheran, he lost his faith during the war because of his church’s complicity in supporting the Third Reich, his grandson said. “He died an atheist.”
Finding foreign travel increasingly difficult, Kellner has not returned to Germany in more than a decade. Another German family, he said, now lives in his grandparents’ cottage — on a street that is now named Friedrich Kellner Strasse.