»  The New Criterion

November 2000

   Slim Pickings

Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Harry Kessler
        edited and translated by Charles Kessler

Germany, let's face it, did not have a good century. To start one war and lose it might be misfortune: to do the same thing twice looks very much like carelessness. And wars aside, there is the dreadful, indelible blot of the Holocaust. It needs some effort of imagination to see how surprising all this would appear to a time traveler from 1900. Germany came into the twentieth century very hopefully. She was, by general agreement, the best-educated nation in Europe, and by no means the most antisemitic (I think the 1900 ranking would have been: Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany). Her philosophers were read everywhere — German philosophy was philosophy. German — or, at any rate, German-speaking — composers dominated the concert- and opera-halls. Germany's scientists and mathematicians filled the front ranks of those disciplines. (This reviewer took his first degree in mathematics from a good English university. The ability to read German was a prerequisite.) The growth of German industry after 1871 had been remarkable — a "Teutonic tiger," we should say nowadays. A meritocratic civil service administered a prototypical welfare state with quiet efficiency.

There were some warning signs, to be sure, and a few very percipient observers picked them up: the coarse philistinism of university student associations and the uncritical worship of state power taught by too many of the professors; the shallow militaristic bumptiousness of Kaiser Wilhelm II; the odd disengagement of writers and artists from the society that sustained them; the crude suppression of leftist social movements and the severely restricted power of parliaments; the extraordinary determination to keep women in their place. But those things are much easier to see in hindsight. Taken all in all, Germany viewed from the perspective of a century ago offered more grounds for hope than for fear. That everything went so horribly wrong needs much explaining, much understanding.

The diaries of Count Harry Kessler offer some modest insights into this conundrum. This English-language edition covers a period from November 6, 1918 to September 30, 1937, two months before the diarist's death at age sixty-nine. Kessler kept more diary than that, though how much more is not clear to me. He himself, in an entry dated June 16, 1933, notes: "Thirty-five years ago I started this diary." Yet a web site for the Schiller Museum at Marbach, who have a Kessler project under way, states: "Kessler kept a diary almost without interruption across six decades (1880-1937)." Amazon.com's German-language site lists only Tagebücher 1918-37, so perhaps the earlier diaries are lost, or have never been published.

Whatever the case, we have here an edited translation of 560 pages (the German Tagebücher is listed as having 855 pages, so roughly a third has fallen to the editor's scissors) dealing with the brief revolutionary period following the 1918 armistice, then the Weimar Republic and the early years of the Third Reich. Kessler was an esthete, an art collector, a minor diplomat, a publisher of fine limited-edition books, and a familiar — or at least a nodding acquaintance — of most of the artistic and literary figures of Europe during the inter-war years. He was wealthy, and his wealth seems to have been very soundly established, unperturbed by the economic horrors of the period. He records paying an English physician £350 for 3½ days of attention in 1926, three years after the great inflation that wiped out much of the German rentier class, and at a time when an English working man made £3 a week. Kessler was cosmopolitan — fluent in German, French and English, and at least capable in Italian.

I had better confess before going further that I found this book a very dry read. I could not like Harry Kessler, nor could I dislike him — he presents too little of himself for one to form much of an opinion. Ian Buruma, in his introduction, tells us that Kessler was homosexual. There is no direct evidence of this in the diaries — there is very little of an "interior" nature at all — but neither is there anything to contradict it, and the rather guarded, detached style of the diaries is certainly what one would expect from a homosexual of Kessler's generation and background. Supposing Buruma is right, I should guess that Kessler's homosexuality was of the more fastidious sort. I cannot imagine that it expressed itself much in action — though this is, of course, an area full of surprises. Here is Kessler at the first night of Cocteau's Orphée:

The part [of the angel] is played by a revoltingly mawkish, effeminate young man who appears to have escaped from some dreadful hairdresser's. This sugary youth completely spoiled my taste for [the production].

Kessler's closest female acquaintance was his sister Wilhelmina. In this he resembled Nietzsche. He was in fact acquainted with Nietzsche to some degree — it is not clear from the diaries exactly how — and remained friends with Elisabeth Nietzsche after her brother's death. (She is indexed under her married name of Förster.) There is an affecting moment in the diary entry for August 7, 1932, when he calls on Elisabeth in Weimar:

We talked in the small parlour on the first floor. Through the connecting door I had a view of the sofa where Nietzsche sat, looking like an ailing eagle, the last time I saw him; our conversation made a deep impression on me. Mysterious, incomprehensible Germany.

Kessler notes the death of his mother (who was Irish) in September 1919 and declares himself "very depressed"; but he did not attend the funeral. That's pretty much it for women. His closest male acquaintance — one is reluctant to use so strong a word as "friend" in speaking of Kessler's attachments — was the sculptor Aristide Maillol. Maillol provides a rare moment of comedy when, in 1930, he accompanies Kessler from Paris to Weimar, taking along his young and high-spirited model. Maillol was the same age as Kessler, and the young woman seems to have been too much for him. Furthermore, he had a wife in Paris who had previously caught him in an embrace with the young lady, and is deeply suspicious of all his doings, so that the flight has to be arranged with some subterfuge. The whole silly business is over in a page or two, but it enlivens a book otherwise nearly devoid of what news editors call "human interest." Almost the only other patch of humor is Kessler's response to a friends' wife who asked him "what the word pédéraste, which she so frequently hears applied here [they are in Paris], means. I advised her to ask her husband." (This is so dry as to be positively English. Compare, in fact, the episode from Mrs. Thrale's Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson: "Mr. Johnson told me that at a friend's house he had been one evening talking over some theological subjects — the room was full — a young lady said to him: Now pray dear sir tell us what was that circumcision we so read of — Ask your Mama tomorrow Miss, said he.")

Thus the appeal of Kessler's diaries is principally historical, resting mainly on their account of the times the diarist lived through, and on sketches of well-known people. Yet even here I found the pickings slim. Some great events are omitted altogether. In the entries for 1923, for example, there is a blank from April 24th to December 23rd, a period which included both Hitler's farcical Beer Hall Putsch of November 8th and the great hyperinflation that so demoralized the Republic. (On November 15, 1923 the Mark was quoted at 4.2 trillion to the dollar, up from 18 thousand in January.) There is a widespread opinion that the Republic was generally popular until the inflation, fatally weakened thereafter. Kessler seems to believe this himself. In June 1922 he is saying that: "Firm adherence to the Republic [is] a far more deeply-rooted emotion than pre-war monarchical 'patriotism' was." Three years later, following the election of Hindenburg to the Presidency: "Farewell progress, farewell vision of a new world …" If the great inflation was indeed such a turning-point in the fortunes of the Republic, it would have been nice to hear something about it first-hand.

Kessler's political instincts are mostly sensible, and his political heroes — Walther Rathenau, Gustav Streseman — are those one hopes one would have favored oneself, sane and capable men struggling valiantly against rising forces of violence and madness. Like many aristocrats, Kessler had a weakness for socialism, but not enough of one to undermine his basic good judgment. He loathed Nazism, of course. The feeling was mutual, and Kessler was effectively an exile, in danger of his life in Germany, from the time of the elections following the Reichstag fire (February 1933) until his death. He seems to have been personally admirable: a man of solid integrity and physical courage — does one of these ever exist without the other? During the Spartacist uprising of 1919:  "When the shooting began again I was proceeding towards the Reichstag. That was also Spartacus's line of fire. Bullets whizzed past my ear."

Kessler was a crashing snob, and I got a bit tired of his distaste for the lower-middle classes, and of offhand remarks like "Kerr [a Berlin critic], who sat listening with his vulgar little wife …" On closer inspection, though, Kessler's snobbery was more esthetic than purely social. It expressed itself most bitterly in his attitude to Wilhelm II, whom he loathed, to the degree that at one point (April 3, 1923) he asserts: "In a symbolic and profound sense, William II really was Antichrist, although in his own person a very insignificant, shallow and contemptible example." This is all mixed up with his abhorrence of Wilhelmine fashions in the decorative arts. Of the official residence of the Reichstag President, November 22, 1922: "Atrocious Wilhelminian taste, oppressively florid and vulgar. The style was intimation of the catastrophe to come." You could use the diaries, in fact, to make some sort of case that sound aesthetic instincts are a better guide to the probable course of public events than is a grounding in science, history or economics, provided that the bearer of those instincts meets some minimum standard of worldliness.

Kessler's personal sketches are mainly disappointing. Famous people — Albert Einstein, Richard Strauss, George Grosz, Virginia Woolf — are encountered, dined with, chatted to, but rarely engaged. (The exchange with Pauline Strauss — Richard's wife — on January 19, 1926 is one of the few striking counterexamples.) There are no decent anecdotes or quotations. The occasional glimpses of that decadence which is almost the only collective memory of Weimar Berlin still retained in the public mind are so coolly detached as to leave almost no impression.

I drove to Vollmöller's harem on the Pariser Platz. Reinhardt and Huldschinsky were surrounded by half a dozen naked girls. Miss [Josephine] Baker was also naked except for a pink muslin apron … A bewitching creature, but almost quite [sic] unerotic. Watching her inspires as little sexual excitement as does the sight of a beautiful beast of prey. The naked girls lay or skipped about among the four or five men in dinner-jackets.

The translation and editing present problems, too. There is nothing wrong with the translator's English style, which is plain and robust. (The translator, by the way, is unrelated to the diarist, the identity of names pure coincidence.) However, he has left untranslated all remarks in French — some of them quite lengthy — which is frustrating for those of us with a limited grasp of French. Presumably Charles Kessler is aiming his book at readers who are insufficiently multilingual to tackle the original German. Why does he suppose that this target audience can read French? We are far gone from the time when every educated person knew French. This is a shame, but it is a fact. It would have been nice, too, to know just what was edited out — a simple bracketed ellipsis would do as a marker. And while I understand that people have strong opinions about footnotes, I personally would have preferred more of them. What was the Canitz Society from which Kessler was asked to resign in 1925?

Reading Berlin in Lights, in fact, I found myself asking the question publishers often ask of aspiring authors: Who is this book for? Kessler's diaries are a good supplementary source for the history of the period — Gordon Craig's admirable Germany 1866-1945, for example, makes frequent use of them — but anyone qualified to write German history can surely read them in the original. I do not think the diaries can be ranked very highly as literature; Kessler's fundamental lack of interest in other human beings disqualifies them. Kessler has the virtue of being his own man, not representative of anything at all (except, of course, in the most general way, of his time) and so his observations are not without interest; but I cannot agree with Ian Buruma's estimate of the diaries as "a consummate work of art." Curious inquirers who would like a different point of view might sample Buruma's introduction, though — for my money much the best part of this book.