Harry Clément Ulrich Kessler, known in the Weimar Republic as the “Red Count,” was a rich German patron of the arts whose family lived in Paris and sent him at twelve from a bleak French school to St. George’s, a fashionable English prep school (where he missed Winston Churchill by a term), and then to a Gymnasium in Hamburg where he spent some of the most wretched years of his early life. He was a strikingly beautiful boy.
Like Schopenhauer, who had received a similar education in three countries, he refused to go into business with his well-to-do father. He became an art lover, a cosmopolitan wanderer among cultures. In the seemingly stable world of solid bourgeois prosperity before the First World War, he was for years oblivious of current politics. After the war, during the Weimar Republic, he was a leading pacifist and anti-Nazi; after Hitler’s rise to power, a political refugee in France. A passionate collector, Kessler spent several months each year in Paris and London visiting galleries and the studios of his friends. In a well-known portrait of 1906 by Edvard Munch, now in the Munch Museum in Oslo, Kessler contemplates the world with the air of an experienced connoisseur: a good-looking young man wearing a canary yellow wide-brimmed hat, painted full-length against a mauve and orange background. He seems to be leaning backward, as E.M. Forster said about Cavafy, “at a slight angle to the universe.” Many commented on his appearance. “Sometimes he appeared German, sometimes English, sometimes French, so European was his character,” his friend Annette Kolb, a fellow exile in Paris, wrote after his death.
His real home was in the arts and the world of ideas. In this he resembled other outsiders, secular German Jewish, or partly Jewish, artists and intellectuals, to whom he was attracted throughout his life; among them were his friends Albert Einstein, the poet Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (with whom he jointly wrote the scenario for Der Rosenkavalier), Rudolf Hilferding, and Walther Rathenau, respectively finance and foreign minister during the Weimar Republic. He was especially close to Rathenau, who may have been the only man in the social and political elite of Berlin to openly oppose war in 1914, and who broke into tears when he heard the news of Germany’s declaration of war. In 1922, Rathenau was assassinated by a proto-Nazi for favoring reconciliation with Germany’s former enemies and for being a “Judenschwein.”
Kessler wrote a deeply felt biography of his late friend, with whom he strongly identified for both personal and political reasons. Both were outsiders, loners; both could not shake off the influence of overpowering fathers; both were frustrated artists. Kessler was homosexual, and it is likely that Rathenau was as well. Kessler’s book was more than a biography. Like most Germans in 1914, he had been enthusiastic about the war (a marvelous “purifying fire”), and he put a lot of his own experience into the book, which can be …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.