Dancing on a Wobbly Deck

Count Harry Kessler
Count Harry Kessler; drawing by David Levine

Why do the diaries* of Count Harry Kessler fill me with such nostalgia? Since I was born six years after the end of World War II, and fourteen years after Kessler’s death in 1937, this would seem to be an odd emotion; how can one possibly feel nostalgic for something one hasn’t experienced, or even seen? To long for a world one never knew is surely absurdly romantic. But then, romantics are always drawn to what is lost, or even to what never was but appears to be real in retrospect. One is drawn to a myth of the past, perhaps more than to the real thing. The Europe of Kessler’s diaries, which undoubtedly existed, is a lost world encrusted with glittering layers of myth, spun by Isherwood, Grosz, Brecht, and Weill, among others. What infuses Kessler’s descriptions of 1920s Berlin, Weimar, Paris, and London with such melancholy beauty is the author’s own awareness that, even as he was writing, his world was doomed to almost total destruction. It was decadent in the most literal sense.

Kessler’s Europe, stylish, libertine, sophisticated, sinister, revolutionary, and always shadowed by extreme violence, was still a continent that felt it was at the center of the world. Europe, and Germany especially, fizzed with ideas, some of them mad, even lethal. Paris and Berlin produced the greatest scientists and philosophers, the most interesting musicians, painters, and novelists, the finest newspapers and the best architects—as well as the most poisonous political agitators. Metropolitan European culture, that of Berlin in particular, was filled with a fever-ish attraction to Americana: Brecht’s gangster-ridden fantasies of Chicago, Grosz’s hallucinatory drawings of New York, the crazes for Hollywood, dancing, and jazz. And yet, unlike today, American pop culture did not dominate. The center had not yet shifted entirely across the Atlantic.

Although Kessler’s diaries were written during the Weimar Republic, he was really a product of an older European society. A publisher of fine, limited-edition books, a diplomat, an art collector, a cosmopolitan aristocrat born in France to a German father and an Irish mother, he belonged to an age when the sweet life of the European upper classes was at its peak. His father was a Parisian banker, ennobled in 1879 by Kaiser William I. Summers were spent in Germany, and it was there, while taking the waters, that Count Kessler’s beautiful wife caught the eye of the same Kaiser, who then reputedly took her as his mistress. To prepare him for finer things than making money, Harry was sent to the best schools in England, Germany, and France. All this was long before the Great War, of course. Hitler’s rise in 1933 was the coup de grâce for a world that had already been fatally wounded at the Somme, Ypres, Gallipoli, and Verdun. After that kind of slaughter, the Old World could never feel at ease again.…

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