Philip Crawford: Professor Klemens von Klemperer’s long reach

Last modified: Sunday, March 03, 2013

PARIS — Just about everyone has a favorite teacher who affected us in a special way or opened doors that would have remained closed. Sometimes we manage to keep in touch with them over the years, sometimes not.

My favorite professor had brilliance, personal warmth and an ability to make course materials come alive. His memory was also the primary source in his lectures, rather than a dusty volume, a cache of letters written centuries ago or an ancient object squirreled away in a museum.

Klemens von Klemperer, the Smith College professor emeritus of history who wrote prolifically about the Nazi era, recently died at age 96 in Easthampton. I crossed paths with him in the late 1980s in a course at Smith called “Europe Between the Two World Wars.” I was a student at Amherst College at the time and was fascinated by the decades of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe.

Born in Berlin in 1916, von Klemperer was a student in Vienna before winning a refugee fellowship at Harvard and leaving Austria in late 1938, just months after the Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of that country. He was inducted into the U.S Army in 1943 and worked with the documents unit of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, evaluating captured documents for technical information, and later for strategic purposes.

Von Klemperer took me under his wing after we met. Part of the reason, I think, was that I was a nontraditional student. Having spent my 20s as a piano player, cranking out jazz standards in hotels and restaurants in the Berkshires, I’d come to Amherst in my early 30s. I was also a male student, a rarity in any Smith class at that time, and a history major.

“KVK,” as we referred to him, usually had us do most of the talking. We were required to deliver presentations on his reading assignments, and it was especially important that we take a point of view and be able to defend it. Interestingly, he brought German thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Schopenhauer into his analysis of the 1930s, and made us articulate how their writings might relate to what happened during that tumultuous decade.

One day we got him to talk, reluctantly, about himself. His first childhood memory, he said, was of pulling back the curtains in his family’s Berlin apartment during the revolution of November 1918 and seeing guns pointed at him from across the street. Most memorably, he told us about being in Vienna the night before Hitler arrived to seal the Anschluss.

You must understand, he said, that there is never a revolution or even an invasion not preceded by a partial collapse of the old regime. He told us there was enormous frustration in Austria, that Hitler was Austrian and that millions perceived the Anschluss as the heroic return of a native son. “The Germans were greeted in Vienna with, for the most part, wild joy,” I remember von Klemperer saying, leaning forward on his lectern at that point, his eyes lost in memory. Very softly, he said: “It was a night of utter madness.”

As the semester wore on, we often asked him to tell us more about his experiences during the war years and those that led up to it. On the rare occasions when he acquiesced, we were riveted.

When I read of von Klemperer’s death I pulled out some of my old college papers. I found two that I wrote for him, one about the social underpinnings of the Nazis’ rise to power, the other about Albert Speer, Hitler’s enigmatic architect and armaments minister. I read through them both. The professor’s handwriting was notoriously illegible, but among his copious comments on the cover page of the Speer paper I was able to make out the word “Congratulations.”

We stayed in touch for many years, and met once in Paris when he was visiting. He wrote a kind inscription for me in his best-known book, “German Resistance Against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945.” But our communications became less frequent, and we lost contact, which I regret. I thought of him often.

Which of course is the point. Whether the subject is history, psychology, economics, music or any other discipline, most of us found a mentor who brought magic into the classroom. In our hectic worlds, we may not manage to keep up with them. But we never forget the effect they had on our lives, the rare sense of excitement they brought to learning.

And we never should.

Philip Crawford, who covered Deerfield and Hatfield for the Gazette in the early 1990s, lives in Paris.


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