Hating the mob. Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen never forgave himself for not murdering Hitler when he had the chance. Jason Cowley reads the fascinating war diaries of an aristocrat and pessimist

Diary of a Man in Despair

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen <em>Duck Editions, 240pp, £12.99 </em>

ISB

"When I think of Adolf Hitler, nothing occurs to me." Karl Kraus's remark famously captured something of the dangerous emptiness of the Fuhrer, something of the hectoring, clownish little man that he was - an officious schoolmaster perhaps, promoted far beyond his abilities; or, as Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen memorably puts it in his diary of the Nazi years, the very "stereotype of the head waiter".

Reck-Malleczewen was a Prussian aristocrat who spent much of his life in rural isolation on his Bavarian estate. His diary - published for the first time in Britain but widely known in Germany - covers the period from 1936 to February 1945, when, having refused a call-up, his elegant disdain for Nazism led to his being murdered at Dachau. It is a fascinating contribution to what is now a thriving sub-genre: Hitler studies - the source of a seemingly inexhaustible flow of new books, attracting in equal measure distinguished scholars, journalistic populists, revisionists, conspiracy theorists and innumerable paranoids and maniacs. Not a week passes but a new study thuds on to my desk, announcing its intention to anatomise, unmask, interpret or reflect on the Fuhrer. In short, to explain him; but not, mercifully, to revive him as George Steiner did in his novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A H, in which a group of Nazi hunters discovers an aged Hitler hiding out in a Peruvian jungle. They capture him but allow him one last long speech of clear-eyed self-justification.

So where will it all end? Well, in perpetuating mystery and incompleteness, I suspect, certainly if one learns from the experience of Ron Rosenbaum. In his recent book, Explaining Hitler (Macmillan), Rosenbaum met and interviewed the world's leading authorities on Nazism only to conclude after more than 400 pages that, in fact, there is nothing to conclude: that Hitler remains resolutely inexplicable, unknowable, a monolith of contradictory motives. Joachim Fest understood something of this perplexing hollowness when he spoke of Hitler as being an "unperson", a man without conscience, believing in nothing and no one, utterly bereft of any coherent sense of self. And yet this "unperson" compels and fascinates more than perhaps any other 20th-century figure. Steiner, interviewed by Rosenbaum, is still capable of speaking fervidly, as if approvingly, of Hitler's courage as a soldier on the Western Front, and of his indisputably compelling presence. Albert Speer, as revealed by Gitta Sereny in her biography of the architect, clearly loved the Fuhrer and continued to love him long after his death. Goebbels, on meeting the young Hitler for the first time, was so mesmerised that he wrote, comically, in his diary: "Is he John the Baptist? Is he Jesus?"

But Reck-Malleczewen was less impressed when he first encountered the "forelocked gypsy". He was present when the young Hitler arrived at the house of his friend Clemens von Franckenstein in 1920. He walked in wearing gaiters, a floppy wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a riding whip. "He talked on and on, endlessly. He preached. He went on at us like a division chaplain in the army . . . The servants thought we were being attacked and rushed in to defend us. When he had gone, we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic." At length, Franckenstein rose, crossed the room in silence and opened a window. The "fresh air helped to dispel the feeling of oppression. It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity." Some Jesus indeed!

Diary of a Man in Despair abounds with moments of such startling clarity. To read the diary is to encounter a kind of German version of the late Tory Alan Clark - but Reck has better jokes and a more exquisite aesthetic sensibility. On visiting a spa town in southern Austria, for instance, Reck is alarmed by the smouldering proximity of the Balkans - where the sight of a "well-cut suit can stop the traffic".

A cultural conservative, monarchist, snob and extreme pessimist, Reck is a man out of a time, at once listlessly estranged from German modernity and mournfully engaged with it. His prose has a superb hauteur and he addresses the world out of the absurd aristocracy of his background (he knows most of the big noble families in Germany and Austria, speaks fondly of meetings with the Habsburgs and with the deposed Wilhelm II). He despises industrialism, mass-man and the "termite-heap" society, Prussian militarism, the new "business German" spoken by the swarming hordes in Berlin, "processed food" and the petty bureaucrats of Nazism - "office managers before they began impersonating Genghis Khan". But, above all, he despises Adolf Hitler, whom he once sat next to in a near-deserted restaurant. Reck was armed. He could have murdered the man whose face he unforgettably describes as waggling with "unhealthy cushions of fat; it all hung, it was all slack and without structure - gelatinous, sick. There was no light in it, none of the shimmer and shining of a man sent by God. Instead, the face bore the stigma of sexual inadequacy, the rancour of a half-man who had turned his fury at his impotence into brutalising others. And through it all, this bovine and finally moronic roar of 'Heil'."

One hears, at such moments, echoes of the cultivated fury of the French nihilist Celine, of Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and D H Lawrence. But Reck - unlike Celine and indeed the great Norwegian pessimist Knut Hamsun, who both embraced Nazism as a cleansing ideology of apocalyptic rebellion - was never attracted to National Socialism. In fact, he was repulsed by its vulgar hysterics; repulsed, unusually for one of his class, by its virulent anti-Semitism.

As his disgraced country stumbles towards total war, Reck is haunted by a sense of an ending. He finds the very air that he breathes "faded and mouldy". He reads and rereads a passage from Dostoyevsky in which the end of the world is forecast. He begins to see death everywhere - in the bomb-ruined buildings of Munich; in the countryside where the Catholic farmers he respects continue working on the land with sombre resignation; and in the ghostly passageways of his own crumbling mansion. His diary even begins with the emblematic death of his friend Spengler, whose The Decline of the West resonates with Reck's own world-view, as it did, for entirely different reasons, with the young Hitler's, as he wandered the streets of cosmopolitan Vienna, inflamed by adolescent dreams of limitless achievement. But Spengler, dressed in his tweeds, has grown fat and bloated - the kind of man "who likes to eat alone, a melancholy-eyed feaster at a great orgy of eating".

In a powerful sense, then, Reck's own world of pastoral conservatism died long before he ever met Hitler, died even as Bismarck was unifying the nation under Prussian control and beginning the hard drive towards industrial prosperity. He longs for the lost past - for "the world of yesterday" - and thinks approvingly of his grandfather, a "reserved and cultured man who lived the contemplative life . . . and retired at 50 to spend his remaining years hunting and fishing in otium cum dignitate". He contrasts the genuine conservatism of his grandfather with the sound and fury of mass-man, and he is frightened: "What I see coming is . . . the inevitable catastrophic finale to mass-thought, and thus to mass-man, which is in the making here and which now I see on the horizon in all its frightfulness and all its promise."

If Hitler studies have assumed the exaggerated dimension of a boom, the diaspora of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe remains one of the great unwritten narratives of the postwar period. As a result, an important book is still to be published in this country on the experience of the estimated 13 to 14 million Germans who were forcibly removed from their homes - ethnically cleansed, in the argot - in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Hitler.

German selfhood has long been defined by a cult of the Volk; it is an ethnic nationalism, rooted in a mystical sense of blood and soil - quite unlike Britishness, no more than a legal concept, founded on civic unity, a shared history and an uninterrupted attachment to a given territory. As the Nazis pushed east in the name of the Volk and in search of Lebensraum, they resorted to mass deportation, upheavals and slave labour; and the Soviet forces used similar tactics as they began their counter-offensive after Stalingrad. The eventual result was the dislocation and expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans, scattered throughout the Soviet empire, central and eastern Europe: the largest single refugee movement in European history, but one now either largely ignored or forgotten altogether.

East Germany is an admirable book, a work of oral history from an enterprising independent press, telling the story of these expulsions from the perspective of the Silesians who, like the east Prussian, Pomeranians and Sudetenland Germans, were cleansed from their homes in 1945 as the borders of Poland were lifted as casually as a rope and shifted westward. As a young woman, the editor, Ursula Lange, fell in love with and married a Silesian refugee. She became interested in his story and those of his friends. This book, soft-edged with melancholy, is a testament to her diligence and curiosity, even if her grief at what happened to the lost Germans of Europe, who endured an "elimination of even the simplest human rights in the middle of civilised Europe without precedence within the last two thousand years", is not once counterposed by a wider acceptance of historical German complicity.

In his darkest moments, slipping rancorously into despair at the end of the 1930s, Reck-Malleczewen knew what lay ahead for his people and for their enemies. He thought he knew, too, that the coming world war would signal the "end of an epoch in which rationalisation was dominant, and the legacy of which - assuming that the planet is still capable of regeneration - will be a new model of life based on the non-rational". Although he was prescient about much, he was wrong about the future of Germany, which has evolved into a model of benign rationality. But how he would have hated the banality of our mass consumer culture.