The Catty Chronicler

Count Harry Kessler (stepping forward at right) greeting Otto von Bismarck (center), August 10, 1891

On July 23, 1914, Count Harry Clément Ulrich Kessler, Anglo-German aesthete, publisher, art collector, world traveler, writer, part-time diplomat, and socialite, hosted a lunch at the Savoy Hotel in London for, among others, Lady Cunard, Roger Fry, and Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother. In the afternoon, he attended a garden party at the residence of the prime minister, H.H. Asquith. Then he viewed some paintings at Grosvenor House with Lady Ottoline Morrell, a patroness of the Bloomsbury group. In the evening he met Sergei Diaghilev at the theater, where he had a seat in the private box of one of the Guinnesses. This was a busy but not uncommon day for Kessler.

One would never know from his diary account of this day that World War I would start a mere five days later. But that is not the most surprising thing. Kessler, the consummate cosmopolitan, the dandy who spoke at least three European languages equally fluently, who knew everyone from Bismarck to Stravinsky, who was as much at home in an aristocratic Parisian salon or English country house as in a Prussian officer’s club, this same man would be cheering on the war as a fire-breathing German chauvinist. You would have expected him to be closer, in temperament and point of view, to someone like Lytton Strachey, who distanced himself from the European catastrophe as a conscientious objector. Instead, in his wartime diaries, Kessler sounds more like Ernst Jünger, the soldier-writer who glorified the “storm of steel” of such bloody battles as Langemarck (1914), as though mass slaughter were a morally uplifting, spiritually cleansing experience.

Here is Kessler on the Battle of Langemarck, where, according to German nationalist legend, thousands of student volunteers were cut down by machine-gun fire while singing “Deutschland über Alles”:

Along with all that is deepest in the German soul, music too breaks out in this deadly struggle of our people…. What other people sings in battle, goes to its death singing?

Well, in reality, those poor German boy-soldiers did no such thing either. There was no time for much singing as they rushed to their deaths. Kessler, who, unlike Jünger, wasn’t there, could be excused for swallowing the legend. It is the tone of celebration that surprises.

What possessed Kessler to be such a macabre cheerleader only a few months after having tea with Lady Cunard? A possible explanation is that he was simply a man of his time. Many people, in England and France no less than in Germany, were drunk with patriotism and seduced by the idea that war would provide the brisk invigorating spirit needed at a time of national decadence. My British grandfather, not yet eighteen when the war began, could not wait to be sent to the deadly trenches of Flanders, but then…

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