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The Catty Chronicler

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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 he was the son of German-Jewish immigrants, and felt that his patriotism needed to be proven. Kessler was not Jewish—“au contraire,” as the very Irish Samuel Beckett is supposed to have said when someone inquired whether he was English. But perhaps there was an element of anxiety in Kessler too, a slight worry that he might not be seen as quite German enough.

What is certain is that the heroic spirit in Germany, for Kessler’s generation, had been much boosted by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche: the idea of renewal through struggle, of the will to power, of men taking upon themelves God’s tasks of destruction and creation. In 1895, Kessler wrote in his diary: “There is probably no twenty-to-thirty-year-old tolerably educated man in Germany today who does not owe to Nietzsche a part of his worldview….” Kessler was clearly influenced by Nietzsche’s idea that great art comes from a state of intoxication. The danger begins when this state is applied to national politics.

But if Kessler was nothing more than a mirror of his time, we might not be reading his diaries anymore with so much pleasure. What makes him such an appealing figure is his struggle with the received ideas of his age. He was too cosmopolitan, by birth, education, and inclination, to be an unambivalent nationalist. With certain ideas of his time, however, Kessler might not have struggled quite hard enough.

His diaries fascinate on various levels, first of all as an observant, witty, frequently catty chronicle of European culture and high society between the fin-de-siècle and the Great War, and following that, between 1918 and the Nazi regime. The second part of the diaries, covering the Weimar period, was widely known and published in English in 1971.* The first part, ending in 1918, was not found until fifty years after Kessler hid them in a safe when he fled from the Nazis to the island of Mallorca in 1933. Both the pre–Great War and Weimar period diaries have the heady atmosphere of dancing on the deck of the Titanic, the sense of looming calamity, which he saw coming with a sense of foreboding in the 1920s, and with a degree of aristocratic insouciance in the early 1900s. When Hitler came to power, Kessler was a broken, disillusioned, frightened man. In 1914, he still saw war as a romantic adventure.

One of the eeriest entries in his World War I diary was written on the Polish–Austrian border. It is January 16, 1915. He is having supper with some military comrades in a small, barren railway station waiting room. He writes: “There is little in the mood that speaks of a great adventure and yet we are on one of the most adventuresome journeys in world history.” The name of the station is Oswiecim, better know to later generations as Auschwitz.

2.

Who was Harry Kessler? He was born in 1868 in Paris to a beautiful Anglo-Irish mother, Alice Blosse-Lynch, and a banker from Hamburg named Adolf Kessler. The family lived in Paris, where Alice performed little plays in her private theater with Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and Henrik Ibsen, among other guests. Holidays were taken in German spas, such as Bad Ems, where the elderly German emperor Wilhelm I took such a shine to Alice that Harry was sometimes rumored to be his bastard son. In fact, as Laird Easton points out in the helpful introduction to his translation of the diaries, Alice only met the emperor two years after Harry was born. Adolf was ennobled in 1879 for his services to the German community in Paris.

Kessler’s early schooldays were spent in England, at a boarding school in Ascot. As a delicate German youth, he was probably bullied. And yet, he looked back wistfully to his English schooldays in a way not unrelated to his homoerotic inclinations. It was at Ascot, and Potsdam, where he later trained as an army cadet, “that I suffered perhaps the most violent and intimate sorrows. But I would sacrifice all of the untroubled and even blissful hours of my life just to taste once more this mixture of pain and joy.” Revisiting the scenes of his youth, he goes for a walk around Windsor in 1902: “In Eton, looking at the lightly clad, nimble youths, still something of the same feeling.”

The diaries begin in 1880, while Kessler was still at Ascot. Written in perfect English, they express the kind of opinions one would expect of a snooty upper-class schoolboy. On the rowdy demonstrations in London against unemployment, which led to the famous Riot Act in 1886, he has this to say: “Why on earth were not the horse guards commanded to charge and disperse the mob if need be with their swords; really when it comes to saving the richest part of London from all the horrors of a pillage nothing is too severe.”

Then, in 1891, the diary suddenly switches from English to German. Kessler was of course as much a master of his native tongue as he was of English. Alas, the translation leaves a different impression. The grammar is often mangled, the sentences creak as though written in a thick German accent, and the mistakes are legion. A Kaserne is a military barracks, not a “casern.” Genial is not genial, but brilliant, literally “of genius.” Schallplatten, or records, is not normally rendered in English as “gramophone platters.” To translate schleppen as to schlepp, as in they “schlepped along little children,” sounds Yiddish, which I’m sure was not intended by the author. Hotel Emperorhof instead of Kaiserhof is eccentric. And the grasp, in translation, of this great cosmopolitan’s European geography seems deficient. It is The Hague, not the Haag, and Antwerp, not Anvers, at least not in an English text.

But even though Kessler decided that his principal loyalty was to Germany, he was not a narrow nationalist. As an aspiring diplomat, art collector, and publisher of fine books, he still spent much time in Paris, where he struck up friendships with the sculptors Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol, as well as with Paul Verlaine, who expressed an odd fondness for Bismarck’s speeches. In England, Kessler knew most people of consequence, in politics and the arts. And he was a regular at such seasonal fixtures as the races, always attended with an eye for curious details. At Derby he observed one of the chief entertainments, which was “tossing a pin at a live Negro. He sticks his head through a hole and for a penny anyone who wishes can throw a ball at his skull; who hits the target gets a prize.”

In 1892, Kessler embarked on a world tour, first taking in the United States, where he much preferred the women in New York society to the men, who were “businessmen, the older ones often vulgar, the younger for the most part boring, loud, and suffering from ulcers.” He liked Japan, where “the perfect and natural manners of even the most common man, make of the average Japanese a being who is infinitely more remote from barbarism than the crude, sensation-hungry European.” He didn’t much care for the British imperial trappings in India, but found the view of Benares from the Ganges “wordlessly beautiful and colorful and moving.” On to Egypt, and then back to Europe by way of Sicily, where he was so happy to see “familiar places and cities after all the fantastic and strange sights” of the Orient that he “even rejoiced at the sight of the old baroque church in Taormina, converted into a theater.”

Kessler would not become a pacifist, let alone a social democrat, until the Weimar period, when he became known as “the Red Count.” And even then, when democracy needed every defender it could get, he was too much of a social snob to feel much affinity with the common man’s elected representatives. Yet drawn as he was to high society in various European capitals, he saw through its affectations with an acid eye. Here he passes an evening in Paris with the Baroness van Zuylen and her lesbian lover, Mme. Riccoï:

  1. *

    Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1918–1937, translated and edited by Charles Kessler (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971). The introduction I wrote for the US edition (Grove, 2000) appeared in somewhat different form as ” Dancing on a Wobbly Deck,” The New York Review, April 27, 2000. 

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