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A Saint-Simon of Our Time

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. Of nearly all the political figures, whether right of left, he took a dim view. Even Rathenau, whose life he was later to write, struck him at first as “an adept at striking false attitudes and displaying himself in a freakish posture.”

About most of the others he was scathing.

Here the regal proletarian Scheidemann, inflated like a peacock in his brief glory, wandered round arm in arm with Preuss and Erzberger, deliberating affairs of state. As they passed up and down, the Gothic trappings quivered slightly in the breeze. I joined them. Erzberger, with his baggy cheeks and sly, sensual lips, received me smilingly. He always looks like someone who has fed well and is in the process of giving a tip. What with Scheidemann being pompous in his concertina trousers and Preuss a sheer monstrosity, the three of them constituted the quintessence of German humdrumness.

[Noske] has indeed something of a bear with a nose-ring about him. Though “unemployed,” he looks prosperous enough, travels first class, wears brand new yellow boots, and consumed during the journey large quantities of ham rolls and beer. Were there not so much innocent blood on his hands, he would be a slightly comic, almost likeable figure. Where, in that immense frame of his, he keeps his social conscience and his Social Democratic red heart is another matter and his own secret.

Nor do foreign politicians fare much better at his hands.

…Radek made a mischievous speech, assuming the mask of youthful ardour. From behind it, and his flashing spectacles, there suddenly crept into his face an expression somewhere half-way between that of Facta and a wolf and at the same time having something of the look of a street urchin after a particularly successful prank.

In addition to that indefinably youthful appearance which characterizes an English boy past school-leaving age, he [Chamberlain] has a clean-shaven sharply contoured, lean face. It carries little trace of intellect, but resembles that of a boiling chicken or a bad reproduction of features on a fine old medal executed in relief.

His delivery was abominable. He stuttered, continually corrected himself, from time to time got stuck, and was evidently undecided as to how much he should or should not say…. Never in my life have I experienced so lamentable a performance on the part of a Foreign Minister in a Parliament…. How such a helpless, awkward, indecisive, vague man is expected to discuss the world’s most serious problems with some degree of good sense is incomprehensible. I would not let him act for me even in eviction proceedings.

Though he disapproved of the methods of fascism and the intellectual stagnation which resulted, he was inclined, in 1927, to believe that Mussolini might be a genuine statesman. At the same time, however, he pointed out that the popular notion of Mussolini as the man who made the trains run on time and made the postal system efficient was a myth. Italian trains had been as punctual and Italian post as unreliable before his coming to power as after.

On the subject of communism he quotes an interesting though, I think, erroneous view of Rathenau’s.

The current Russian version is like a magnificent play performed as melodrama by third-rate actors. Germany, if Communism should come in, will give just as appallingly crude a performance. We lack the men to handle such an extremely complicated system. It requires more delicate and sophisticated talent than we possess. We have nobody of the requisite stature, though the British and Americans may. German organizational capacity is confined to parade-ground style; Bolshevism demands the staff college touch.

I am a little surprised that so acute a political observer as Kessler should never have remarked on the basic weakness of the Weimar Republic, namely its multiplicity of parties and factions. A one-party system, whether right or left, must become a tyranny, but a parliament consisting of more than two or, at most, three parties must be unstable and impotent to put through urgent reforms.

Hitler? Let us leave him till later.

For someone of my generation in England, who was too young for the First World War to be real, reading these diaries has been a curious experience. They forcibly remind me, firstly, of how unpolitical we were and, secondly, of how safe we felt. Having known neither civil violence, political executions and assassinations, nor inflation, we all thought the world was still as it had been before 1914. As an undergraduate, I had a few friends, like Hugh Gaitskell and Richard Crossman, who were interested in politics, but they were intending to make politics their profession. The rest of us couldn’t have cared less what was happening politically either in England or elsewhere. My own interests were in literature and music. I read the Times Literary Supplement, but I would never have dreamed of opening a daily newspaper.

As for myself, though I think Isherwood and Spender would agree with me, my really significant experiences when I went to Berlin in 1928 were not cultural, exciting though the cultural life of the city was at the time. They were two. For the first time I realized that the world was no longer a safe place, that the foundations were shaking. And then, as a foreigner, stammering in ungrammatical German, I had no class status and so could make friends with members of the working class in a way I could never have done at home. Both parties would have been too conscious of their accents.

In his account of his experiences in the world of arts and letters Kessler has certain things to say which I, at least, never knew before. I never knew that he had collaborated with Hofmannsthal in planning the scenario for Der Rosenkavalier. I had never heard of a translation by Edward and Victoria Sackville-West of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which they made for his Cranach Press. And I was surprised to learn that Einstein could not understand why the public should be so interested in his theories.

When Copernicus dethroned the earth from its position as the focal point of creation, the excitement was understandable because a revolution in all men’s ideas really did occur. But what change does his own theory produce in humanity’s view of things? It is a theory which harmonizes with every reasonable outlook or philosophy and does not interfere with anybody being an idealist or materialist, pragmatist or whatever else he likes.

Well, then, Hitler. It is easy to understand, given the political circumstances, why Napoleon, Mussolini, Lenin, and Stalin came to power. From books like these diaries and Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge,* we know of the various political maneuvers that went on in Germany, but to this day it remains a complete mystery how such an unprepossessing-looking and illiterate creature as Hitler could have become dictator. Even as a demogogic orator he was greatly inferior to Goebbels. Much as I dislike the invention, I think McLuhan is right in thinking that, had television then existed, Hitler would never have made it. One notices, too, that he never made a fireside chat on the radio: there was always a background of a cheering crowd.

Had England and France acted when he reoccupied the Rhineland, he might well have been overthrown by an army Putsch. We did not act because, by then, public opinion in both countries felt the Allied occupation had been unjust. Once that point was passed, he was firmly in the saddle and, but for his insanity in insisting upon a war, he would have remained where he was until he died a natural death. To lay the blame upon the character of the German people is too easy a way out. Kessler says, I think rightly:

I have through the years come to recognize two characteristics as being absolutely and inalterably basic to all Germans, but especially the younger generation, whether they belong to the left or right, the Communists, the Nazis, the Social Democrats or the middle class: escape into metaphysics, into some sort of “faith,” and the desire for discipline, for standing to attention and receiving orders or issuing them. The German, because of some feeling or other of insecurity, is through and through a militarist and through and through an escapist into some kind of beyond or Utopia, and the awful part is that he mixes them together!

Or, as one of Kessler’s cultural heroes, Nietzsche, said: “Definition of Germanics—obedience and long legs.”

But why just this kind of faith? Aside from party functionaries, the SS and the Gestapo, to whom Nazism was their profession, it is impossible to estimate how many Germans between 1934 and 1939 were convinced Nazis. Heroes like Niemoller and Bonhoeffer are rare: the average man in all countries thinks about his job and his family and does as he is told if the consequence of disobedience will bring disaster to both.

One thing that surprises me very much is that Kessler never once refers to Mein Kampf. Can it be that he never read it? After reading it, I and my friends were convinced that a Second World War was only a matter of time. In Hitler’s determination to be the master of Europe and Russia there was something profoundly self-destructive. As Count Keyserling observed:

According to his handwriting and his physiognomy, Hitler…clearly falls into the potential suicide category, a man looking for death. He embodies a fundamental trait of the German nation, which has always been in love with death and to whom the tribulation of the Nibelungs is a constantly recurrent basic experience.

There was a story in England current when the defeat of Germany was certain that, at the end of the war, Hitler would come out of his Berchtesgarten house, remove his moustache, and say: “I am British Agent Number 567. Germany is destroyed.” But no reading of Mein Kampf or any other Nazi literature could have prepared one for Belsen and Auschwitz, and one is not surprised to learn that when Kurt Gerstein informed the British and Americans of what was happening, they refused to believe him. All one can say is that, in history, nothing is so silly or so horrid that it cannot happen.

Mr. Kessler’s translation reads very well and the editorial notes are all one could wish for. I have only two complaints. For my taste there are too many cartoons by George Grosz. When one has seen one of them, one has seen them all. Then, once or twice—I don’t see why since he generally doesn’t—he anglicizes the titles of operas and plays. It took me some time to realize that the Hofmannsthal play he calls A Hard Case was Der Schwieriger.

  1. *

    Harper and Row, 1972.

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