In the Twenties: The Diaries of Harry Kessler
translated by Charles Kessler, with an Introduction by Otto Friedrich
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 535 pp., $10.00
Count Kessler’s diaries begin when he was fifty, three days before the Armistice, and end in 1937, a year after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when he was an exile living in Paris. Mysteriously, there are no entries between New Year’s Eve, 1933, and May 25, 1935.
Like Saint-Simon, though deeply involved in politics he does not seem to have exerted a decisive influence on events. Before the war, apparently, he had collaborated with Bernard Shaw in an effort to improve Anglo-German relations. Later he went on several diplomatic visits, to Warsaw, to London, to Genoa. His most ambitious plan was to reorganize the League of Nations. Perceiving, quite rightly, that a league based on national sovereignty would be impotent to deal with any serious crisis, he proposed a league made up of international collectivities—labor unions, churches, professional groups, etc.—but nothing came of it.
Unlike Saint-Simon, who was only concerned with France, Kessler was one of the most cosmopolitan men who ever lived. Partly educated in France and England, he was completely at home in both. There is hardly anyone in political or artistic circles in either country whom he does not seem to have met. The only notable exceptions, so far as I can make out, were Winston Churchill and T. S. Eliot.
At this point I should like to take a slight exception to the description on the dust-jacket of the 1920s as an “era of cultural renaissance.” There were, to be sure, important figures like Brecht, Weill, and the Bauhaus Group who were creations of that decade, but most of the greatest writers, musicians, and painters had started their careers before 1914. What had changed were their audiences, who were now ready to appreciate them. Furthermore, I am unwilling to apply the term “renaissance” to a period which saw the rise of such asinine movements as Dada and Surrealism.
Count Kessler was known as the “Red Count,” but he was never a communist. He was a pacifist and a liberal. For Germany he thought the only viable form of government would be a Socialist Republic, but I doubt if he would have made this a must for all countries. It was rather that he hated the Hohenzollerns and the German military cast. Of the Kaiser, he writes:
He was both shy and intemperate, screaming his head off to hide his embarrassment. His brutality and his cheap posturing were means of self-protection and self-deception, a purely personal matter for which all of us are now paying the price by way of political destruction and economic ruin. This rabbit roaring like a lion would be history’s most ridiculous monster if his performance had not resulted in such suffering and rivers of blood. The mendacity of his behavior undermined policy and the state, substituted sham and show for sound Prussian tradition, and distorted the perspective of almost the entire nation.
Not that he imagined that, with the abdication, the Golden Age had arrived …