Klemperer was born in Landsberg an der Warthe (now Gorzow Wielkopolski, Poland) to a Jewish family. His parents were Dr. Wilhelm Klemperer, a rabbi, and Henriette nee Frankel. He was brother to the physicians Felix Klemperer and Georg Klemperer (who both also consulted Vladimir Lenin), cousin to the conductor Otto Klemperer, and first cousin once removed to Otto's son, the actor Werner Klemperer. IN 1903 Klemprer converted to Protestantism for the first time, shortly thereafter returning to Judaism, before his second conversion in 1912.
Victor Klemperer attended several Gymnasien. He was a student of philosophy, Romance and German studies at universities in Munich, Geneva, Paris and Berlin from 1902 to 1905, and later worked as a journalist and writer in Berlin, until he resumed his studies in Munich from 1912. He completed his doctorate (on Montesquieu) in 1913 and was habilitated under the supervision of Karl Vossler in 1914. From 1914 to 1915, Klemperer lectured at the University of Naples, after which he became a decorated military volunteer in World War I. From 1920 he was Professor of Romance Languages at the Technical University of Dresden.
Despite his conversion to Protestantism in 1912 and his strong identification with German culture, Klemperer's life started to worsen considerably after the Nazis' seizure of power in 1933.
Klemperer's diary, which he kept up throughout the Nazi era, provides an exceptional account of day-to-day life under the tyranny of the Third Reich. Two of the three volumes of his diaries that have been published in English translations, "I Shall Bear Witness" and "To the Bitter End," concern this period. This diary also details the Nazis' perversion of the German language for propaganda purposes in entries that Klemperer used as the basis for his postwar book LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii.
Chiefly, Klemperer's diary chronicles the daily life of restricted Jews during the Nazi terror, including the onset of a succession of prohibitions concerning many aspects of everyday existence, such as finances, transportation, medical care, the maintenance and use of household help, food and diet, and the possession of appliances, newspapers, and other items. He also gives accounts of suicides, household searches, and evacuations of friends, mostly to Theresienstadt. Throughout his experience, Klemperer maintained his sense of identity as a German, expressing even in 1942 that "I am German, and still waiting for the Germans to come back; they have gone to ground somewhere".
In 1933 the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed removing all non-Aryan professors from their profession, with the exemption of those who had fought in World War I. This exemption allowed Klemperer to continue in his position a little longer, although without the right to use the University library or other faculty privileges. However Klemperer was gradually forced out of his job and forced to retire. Although he was allowed to keep part of his pension, the money quickly ran out an he and his wife had to take cleaning jobs. The couple lost their right to drive and had to sell their car, and their housekeeper had to resign due to the law against Jews employing Aryan women. Eventually the Klemperers were even forced to put down their household cat, a tomcat named Muschel, because of a restriction as to Jews' ownership of pets. In 1938 a law retro-actively prohibiting Jews from changing their names forced Klemperer to change his name back to his birth name Victor-Israel, a name he had changed on his conversion to protestantism. That same year Klemperer was so dismayed with the spread of antisemitism, even among those who profess to be against the Nazis that he briefly entertained the possibility of fleeing to the US. But in the end his connection to his fatherland was too strong even after the Kristallnacht in November 1938. During the pogrom their house was searched by Nazis who found Klemperer's saber from World War one - almost causing his arrest. Only at this point he concedes that "No one can take my Germanness away from me, but my nationalism and patriotism are gone forever" Yet, even so he could not get himself to leave Germany.
Since his wife, Eva, was "Aryan," Klemperer avoided deportation for most of the war, but in 1940, he and his wife were rehoused under miserable conditions in a "Jews' House" (Judenhaus) with other "mixed couples". Here he was routinely questioned, mistreated, and humiliated by the Gestapo. Only because of his wife the couple were able to procure food enough to subsist. In the diary, the much-feared Gestapo is seen carrying out daily, humiliating, and brutal house searches, delivering beatings, hurling insults, and robbing inhabitants of coveted foodstuffs and other household items. In addition, the diary hints at the profound paucity of information Klemperer and his fellow victims had available to them concerning the nature of atrocities being conducted in places such as Theresienstadt following transports and evacuations - although they gradually became aware of the forced labor and extermination camps, and the risk of being deported.
On 13 February 1945, the day preceding the night bombing of Dresden, Klemperer assisted in delivering notices of deportation to some of the last remaining members of the Jewish community in Dresden. Fearful that he too would soon be sent to his death, he used the confusion created by Allied bombings that night to remove his yellow star, join a refugee column, and escape into American-controlled territory. He and his wife survived, and Klemperer's diary narrates their return, largely on foot through Bavaria and Eastern Germany, to their house in Dolzschen, on the outskirts of Dresden. They managed to reclaim the house, which had been "aryanised" under the Nazis.
In 1945 Klemperer joined the East German communist party, and recovered a university post at the University of Leipzig. His former friend, Historian Johannes Kuhn who had severed connections with Klemperer upon his dismissal from the University of Dresden welcomed him back as if nothing had happened.
He became a significant cultural figure in East Germany, lecturing at the universities of Greifswald, Berlin and Halle. He was a delegate of the Cultural Association of the GDR in the GDR's Parliament (Volkskammer) from 1950 to 1958, and frequently mentions in his later diary his frustration at its lack of power and its largely ceremonial role.
Klemperer's diary was published in 1995 as Tagebucher (Berlin, Aufbau). It was an immediate literary sensation and rapidly became a bestseller in Germany. An English translation of the years spanning the Nazi seizure of power through Klemperer's death has appeared in three volumes: I Will Bear Witness (1933 to 1941), To The Bitter End (1942 to 1945) and The Lesser Evil (1945 to 1959).
In 1995, Victor Klemperer was posthumously awarded the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis for his work, Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten. Tagebucher 1933–1945.
In 2000, Herbert Gantschacher wrote, together with Katharina and Jurgen Rostock, the documentary play Chronicle 1933-1945 using original documents from the biographies of Robert Ley and Victor Klemperer. The first performance took place in 2000 in the documentation centre at the planned "Strength Through Joy" beach resort Prora on the island of Rugen in Germany.
In 2003, Stan Neumann directed a documentary based on Klemperer's diaries, La langue ne ment pas (Language does not lie), which considers the importance of Klemperer’s observations and the role of the witness in extreme situations.