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Dancing on a Wobbly Deck

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. Like Scott Fitzgerald, Kessler was an extraordinary observer of a giddy society that was weirdly out of kilter, sparkling, brilliant, yet constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The Kessler diaries begin in 1918, when the author observes the revolution in Berlin, just before Kaiser William II had fled to Holland. Sailors of the German navy have mutinied in Kiel, Hamburg, Lübeck, and Cuxhaven. Karl Liebknecht commands the rebellious workers in Berlin. The Kaiser’s palace is raided. Kessler speaks, half-admiringly, of a slaves’ revolt against England and American capital. (Kessler was not known as the “Red Count” for nothing.) What makes his descriptions of this doomed rebellion so fascinating, however, is his air of aristocratic désinvolture, his ironic distance from the daily events. And always there is the gimlet eye for disquieting detail. He enters the Reichstag on November 9:

My first reaction was what an ugly place it is. Never has it seemed to me less dignified and more like a gin-palace, this ridiculous neo-Gothic crate, bad imitation of an Augsburg chest.

And the same place, three days later:

The corridors and lobby teem with armed civilians, soldiers and sailors. In the lobby rifles are piled on the carpet and sailors lounge in the easy chairs. The disorder is vast, but quiet reigns. The old attendants, in their parliamentary livery, flit about, helplessly and shyly, last relics of the former regime.

The same odd atmosphere of chaos and indifference marks the city of Berlin itself. People are killing each other in the streets, yet life goes on, the shops and department stores stay open, Christmas trees are lit, the hurdy-gurdies continue to play in the Friedrichstrasse with gunshots ringing in the background. It is often in his descriptions of the bleakest scenes that Kessler’s terse prose reaches the level of poetry: “In the Imperial Stables lay the dead, and the wounds freshly inflicted on the Palace and on Germany gaped into the Christmas night.”

Kessler’s Berlin is a bit like the Titanic, its people dancing on a wobbly deck, oblivious to the looming catastrophe. In fact, Kessler himself was not oblivious. Already in 1920, on the 10th of January, when the peace treaty has been ratified in Paris, and the Great War is finally, officially over, Kessler writes:

A terrible era begins for Europe, like the gathering of clouds before a storm, and it will end in an explosion probably still more terrible than that of the World War. In Germany there are all the signs of a continuing growth of nationalism.

Obviously, even Kessler couldn’t have known just how terrible the explosion would be, but his awareness of doom lends a macabre quality to the descriptions of his extremely elegant life under the axe of history. Dinners with Einstein, parties with Max Reinhardt, breakfasts with Max Liebermann; soon they would be in America or dead. Who would not like to have been there, while it lasted? Saturday, February 13, 1926:

At one o’clock, just as my guests were gone, a telephone call from Max Reinhardt. He was at Vollmoeller’s and they wanted me to come over because Josephine Baker was there and the fun was starting. So I drove to Vollmoeller’s harem on the Pariser Platz. Reinhardt and Huldschinsky were surrounded by half a dozen naked girls, Miss Baker was also naked except for a pink muslin apron, and the little Landshoff girl (a niece of Sammy Fischer) was dressed up as a boy in a dinner-jacket.

Kessler was deeply involved in the affairs of his time, and yet his observations are those of a man who was always slightly off-center. He was an insider who wrote with the sardonic eye of an outsider. Perhaps his homosexuality, never mentioned in his diaries, accounts for this, or perhaps it was the ambivalence of an aristocrat living in a revolutionary age. Kessler’s style and manners were aristocratic, but his politics were not: he loathed the Hohenzollern monarchy and was a confirmed republican. Even though he had a high degree of disdain for the plebeian mediocrity of most Social Democratic politicians, Kessler remained a Social Democrat. His political heroes were Gustav Stresemann and Walther Rathenau, both of whom served as foreign minister, and Stresemann as chancellor too. Kessler wrote an admiring biography of the former. Neither Rathenau nor Stresemann was a man of the left, to be sure, but both knew that failure of the Weimar Republic would mean dictatorship, either Communist or fascist, both highly disagreeable. Too few Germans shared that opinion at the time. When Rathenau was murdered in 1922 by right-wing anti-Semites (he was a reluctant Jew) and Stresemann died of a stroke seven years later, Kessler prophesied, quite correctly, that the end of the Republic was at hand.

It is clear from the first page of Kessler’s diaries that he was a man of enormous cultivation. Indeed, he was what Germans call a Schöngeist, a man of “fine spirit,” a fastidious aesthete. The products of his Cranach Press in Weimar—classical poetry, translated by the best contemporary writers, illustrated by superb woodcuts, printed on paper made of raw silk—exude that same air of a lost European culture as Kessler’s elegant language. But this refined aestheticism injects a peculiar tension into Kessler’s political and social observations. His instincts are invariably decent. The sight of Nazi thugs rushing into a Jewish-owned hotel bellowing “Germany awake!” and “Death to Judah!” makes him feel sick. By the same token, however, the left-wing, Spartacist rhetoric of “necessary violence,” indulged in by his friend George Grosz, also fills him with dismay: “I contradicted him on the ground that any idea is debased by alliance with force.”

There is one diary entry in which the tension between Kessler’s aesthetics and his politics becomes particularly evident. On January 17, 1919, when the Spartacists are still not defeated by government troops in Berlin, Kessler compares the good breeding and handsome looks (to which he was always susceptible) of young Prussian officers with the uncouth demeanor of the proletarian rebels. Obviously, he says, one prefers the company of the officers and Junkers. Likewise, he observes, the rebel leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are indisputably finer human beings than the “little men” who thrive in the coarse game of contemporary politics. And yet, “it is probably more important to raise the general level of a nation than to breed outstanding physical or ethical specimens.” A democrat, then. But that means dealing with those little men who rise to the top. And Kessler, at least in the privacy of his diaries, doesn’t attempt to hide his contempt.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Kessler was a snob. There are worse things to be. His bitchiness helps to sharpen some of his best sketches of people and places: the Polish archbishop’s palace smelling of chlorine and furnished “in middle-class style”; or the Social Democrat Matthias Erzberger, “with his baggy cheeks and sly, sensual lips,” who “always looks like someone who has fed well and is in the process of giving a tip.” Like many aristocrats, Kessler doesn’t mind workers so much, especially when they are young and strapping, but cannot stand the lower and middle ranks of the bourgeoisie. He worries about the disappearance of the cultivated upper-middle class from German political life. “This is the age of little men,” he writes. “They all look alike…. In Germany only taproom politicians make their way.” Soon, he fears, Social Democratic workers and right-wing rabble-rousers will have to fight it out alone. National Socialism, he says, “is a delirium of the German lower middle class. The poison of its disease may however bring down ruin on Germany and Europe for decades ahead.”

Reality was a bit more complicated. The Nazis had allies and supporters among all classes in Germany, workers as well as aristocrats. Indeed, Kessler is at his acerbic best when he reports on the low scheming of wealthy industrialists and conservative politicians, who looked down their noses at Hitler but thought they could use the vulgar little corporal to their own advantage. Franz von Papen, one of the last opportunists to dance on the wreck of the Weimar Republic before Hitler took over, comes in for especially scathing treatment:

Papen…continues to have himself photographed, by the Press, day after day, as he attends smiling and self-satisfied every theatre first night, tennis tournament, fashion show, and racecourse occasion. Un inconscient is what the French call such a windbag and coxcomb. He strongly gives the impression of a German Gramont, the man of 1870 who light-heartedly manoeuvred his country into catastrophe. Baccarat players and gentleman jockeys are probably after all not the right stuff for foreign ministers.

At the same time it was precisely the upper-middle-class disdain for little men that helped to bring Hitler to power. For too many “fine-spirited” Germans cultivated their minds but left politics to those they considered beneath them. This was less a matter of Zeitgeist, as Kessler would have it, than of antipolitical fastidiousness. High taste produced an extraordinary high culture in pre-war Germany, but Schöngeisterei, the aesthetic approach to life, was a poor pillar with which to hold up the tottering Republic.

Kessler was an enemy of the Nazis from the beginning. But since the Nazis, he thought, were petty bourgeois, one couldn’t expect them to come up with anything that wasn’t contemptible. In a way, the old monarchy was even worse, in Kessler’s view, because of its hideous pretensions. The Nazis were barbarians, but the Kaiser and his entourage were aristocratic Philistines, and that was, in a way, even harder to forgive. Nothing irritated Kessler more than to be associated with the ancien régime just because William I had taken a shine to his mother. Some even thought Kessler had Hohenzollern blood himself. At a lunch in December 1931, Kessler explains his hatred for the old monarchy to a man who had believed exactly that. The main reason for his republicanism, Kessler says, was William II’s “perverse bad taste.” He had bad taste in people, and “bad taste in art, literature, politics and his style of living; bad taste revealed by every word he uttered.”

In 1918, during the red rebellion in Berlin, Kessler enters the imperial palace, which has just been ransacked by the mob. As he sifts through what remains of the imperial trinkets and gewgaws and objets d’art, he reflects on the appalling taste they reveal and feels some sympathy for the looters. He is astonished that the ghastly, unimaginative Kaiser, “who liked this trash,” could have left his mark on history. A world war was launched from this “rubbishy, trivial, unreal microcosm, furnished with nothing but false values.” Kessler is disgusted that “this world was not done away with long ago.” Indeed it “still continues to exist, in somewhat different forms, elsewhere.”

This is clearly a cry from Kessler’s heart. And he is right, of course, to deplore the hideous style of William II. He may even be right that the Kaiser’s overblown yet tawdry fantasies were partly responsible for the Great War, which brought even greater convulsions in its wake. And yet there is something about Kessler’s desire to “do away” with worlds, because they are in poor taste, that misses the point. Taste is not always the best guide in politics, and Germans have indulged a bit too much in doing away with worlds in the last hundred years or so.

So Kessler could easily have fallen into the trap that ensnared so many cultivated Germans. He could have settled for being a fine spirit, turned away from worldly matters, and cultivated his garden, as it were. The fact that he chose to be political and stick his neck out in support of the Republic made him a rare and remarkable figure. And yet, soon after he retired from public life, after being told that it would be bad for his health to re-turn from France to Hitler’s Reich, he was forgotten. That is the common fate of political affairs, and those who dedicate themselves to them. With luck, art, or at least the best of it, lasts longer. Art was Kessler’s greatest love, and it is only fitting, then, that his memory should have been saved for posterity after all by a consummate work of art, his diaries.

  1. *

    This essay is based on the introduction to Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1918-1937, to be published this month by Grove.

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