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.
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:
They collect, as they told me, perfumes and everything connected to perfumes. This completely pretentious society has altogether about as much taste as a healthy farm girl: the Zuylen woman…advertises, as something especially original, “that she is mad about the Gothic.” Boni de Castellane, who came later, said of Riccoï “that she only likes what she can lick; she is only concerned with what is good to lick.”
He adds that the Baroness van Zuylen was née Rothschild, but “does not look very Jewish.” Whether this was something to be said in her favor is not quite clear.
One advantage of the homosexual life is that it often cuts across class barriers. Kessler’s lovers were not usually from his own social milieu. There was the “little sailor cadet Maurice Rossion” and “the little Colin,” a French bicycle racer. True, Kessler took a rather exclusively aesthetic view of these boys, as if they were specimens of the kind he liked watching in Whitechapel boxing rings: “A few magnificently slender and thoroughbred young fellows among them. Not completely full-blooded like the Greeks but beautiful, slender half-bloods.” But relations were not only physical; he liked to ply the little sailor and the little Colin with important literary works: Balzac, etc.
Kessler’s most intimate friendships were with gifted men who felt like outsiders. Despite his fashionable disdain for Jews in general, two of his closest friends were the Viennese playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the statesman and industrialist Walter Rathenau, both Jewish, although not entirely happy to be so. Kessler’s anti-Semitism is worth looking at a little more closely, for it helps us understand his wider views of society and politics, and perhaps even why he would become one of the champions of a devastating war.
Disobliging remarks about Jews that speckle Kessler’s diaries are often made by others. Degas, for example, in 1907, on a Belgian Jew, who became a French citizen: “Such people do not belong to the same humanity as us.” Or Richard Wagner’s widow, Cosima, on “the Jewish question”: “She thinks the Jews are a danger because they are different from the Germans…. By cohabiting with us, therefore, matters of morality, of honesty, etc. have been thrown into question which should not be subject to reflection on the part of reason.” Kessler records these statements, the latter in 1901, without comment.
The views of Kessler’s great friend Walter Rathenau are cited at some length. Rathenau believed that Jewish intellect, honed over two thousand years of Talmudic disputation, was “completely sterile in itself.” The Germans, however, were a different matter: “The more he [Rathenau] gets to know the Germans, the more his respect and admiration for them increases.” This was in 1906. Sixteen years later, after having saved the German war industry during World War I, the great German Jewish patriot was murdered by two ultra-nationalists in Berlin, following up on the popular beer hall song of the time: “Knallt ab den Walter Rathenau, die Gottverdammte Judensau!” (Bump off that Walter Rathenau, the Goddamned Jewish pig).
Some of Kessler’s own observations often concern physical appearance, as in his entry on a friend’s Jewish wife, named Isi: “Isi has something physically repellent for me, as if she belonged to another species.” This was in 1899. Two years later, on the same person: “A brown, demonic, at times almost beautiful appearance, but physically repulsive.” The repulsion may owe something to the fact of Isi being a woman. But these remarks are rather typical of a man whose social, political, as well as artistic judgements are above all aesthetic.
This made him vulnerable to ideas that would turn out to be very toxic indeed. In 1896, Kessler speculates about the nature of modern society. The feudal state, he argues, with its feudal codes of loyalty and honor, was replaced by the dynastic state, based on the interests of the ruling families, and this in turn was replaced by “the racial state within which the links are nationalism and language.” Although Kessler has little sympathy for the (anti-German) chauvinism of the French, particularly the reactionary Roman Catholic kind, which he dismisses as the “sickness of nationalism,” he can see a certain beauty in the racial state. One of the more disturbing diary entries, of June 20, 1904, reads:
I would like to see someone who would settle down somewhere and make it his life’s task to pursue the beautification of the body (the race) through games, hygiene, nutritional supplements for the poor up to sixteen years, perhaps even arranged marriages.
Post-Holocaust, such notions are of course abhorrent, even though in some far-flung places such as Singapore they still enjoy some credence. However, 1904 is not 1935. There is no hint of violence in Kessler’s views. What he tries to do is to bridge the gap between his social and his artistic views with a utopian vision of beauty. The model for Kessler is not some Wagnerian fantasy of medieval Germany, or other forms of Teutonic Gothickry, which he considered vulgar. His ideal is ancient Greece. It is at once an erotic and a political ideal. He writes, in 1908: “Is it possible that our culture can find its way, without making a break with the past (Christianity), to a standpoint from which it can say yes, with a good conscience, to lust, to the naked, to all of life, as did the Greeks?”
He wrote this in Olympia, traveling around Greece with Maillol, the French sculptor, and Hofmannsthal. Maillol, always eager to please his patron, says all the right things about Greece. He shares with Kessler a fondness for buttocks, brought to mind by “ship boys” diving for gold coins in the Bay of Naples, but also, less obviously, by the columns of the Parthenon, which Maillol declares to be “like the buttocks of a woman.” Later, in Paris, he declares his enthusiasm for Nijinsky: “He’s absolutely Eros. Before you wondered where the Greeks got this? Now you see—it was young people like him.”
Hofmannsthal is less taken by the worship of everything Greek, which almost destroys his friendship with Kessler. Relations are strained even further when Hofmannsthal confesses to having gone through Kessler’s luggage at the hotel. “Somewhere,” writes Kessler, “there is clearly a difference between us regarding tact, perhaps a racial difference.”
And yet, Kessler refuses to sink to the depths of Wagnerian anti-Semitism. It is, in fact, Rathenau who mentions, approvingly it seems, the poisonous racialism of Arthur de Gobineau, in an argument about—what else?—Greece. Kessler paraphrases his friend’s argument thus: the Greeks lost their essence and became vain in the fifth century “when the good, strong, blond blood had been pushed aside by the black blood of a lower race, which happened approximately from the Persian wars on.” Kessler objects to his Jewish friend “that the racial question was much too complicated and still much too unclear to derive such general, apodictic principles from it….”
Kessler was not the only one to project visions of ancient Greece onto his own place and time. Think of the many Greco-Roman colonnades adorning the British Empire. But his was an erotic vision that he pinned to his hopes of a sexual utopia in Germany, one where men could be free to dance naked in the northern sun. In 1907, returning to Paris from Germany, he comments that all Germans seem to be talking about is pederasty and zeppelins. He hopes this will lead to
a kind of sexual revolution through which Germany will very quickly, in broad daylight, overtake the lead that France and England have had up to now in these things. Around 1920 we will hold the record “in Paederasticis,” like Sparta in Greece, which is not the case today.
Perhaps not. But a month later, back in Berlin, he talks about the new generation in Germany:
Everywhere an awakening of sensuality, often merely an obscure thirst for beauty. As an early example it occurred to me how the Garde du Corps officers during my days as a junior officer would make Pfeil, back then still a cadet and a boy as pretty as a picture—drunk and take off his clothes.
The countermodel to Kessler’s ideal of Greece is Rome, whose “magnificent parvenu style” still impresses the world, “as much and even more so than the diamonds of a Jewish banker’s wife or the racing yacht of the most recent Chicago millionaire.” This is what offended Kessler’s sense of beauty: the prospect of “Americanization,” the “economically unified state” that threatened to replace the “racial state.” Americanization was cheap, grasping, shallow, vulgar, unnatural, impure. The symbol of the Americanized parvenu is the Jewish banker’s wife.
Kessler’s Germany, confounded with an erotic, aesthetic fantasy of Greece, was a place in his imagination. He knew it, too. Returning from Paris to Cologne, in December 1908, he wrote how much he loved “the isolation of being abroad,” but could not give up on Weimar and Berlin: “They are the background of my life, a sort of mythical background, approximately like ‘heaven’ for Christians.” And this, he believed, was worth fighting for in the Great War against the Western powers.
Kessler’s descriptions of the war are extraordinary, for their vividness and their typically Kesslerian romanticism. On the Russian campaign in 1915, he revels in the soldierly camaraderie, with cheerful young men wandering
along this last border of life with light feet…. The air one breathes is like champagne, the light that one can still enjoy with young eyes. The Greek god of death, the beautiful, softly swinging youth prevails here, not the pathetic ugly skeleton.
He reads an essay on the “inner transformation of Germany” and muses: “The ‘new man’ as the result of the transformation of Germany during the war. This mystical goal inspires me as well.” Contrast that to the “Jews, who sit in every village as numerous as lice….”
Despite the champagne-like air, Kessler can still see the terror of war clearly. On the Russian front:
The battle here must have been especially bitter. Many of the dead have half their skulls torn away, the face caved in; a lot of tall, good-looking lads from the Semenoff Guards Regiment.
But he wants to believe in a German victory until the end, even speculating that in the face of American money, Germany has “the cunning of our Jews which I have deployed, plus our efficiency.”
Imminent defeat leaves Kessler in a state of despair. But at least this allows him to take a more realistic view of the world. He writes that “the war has done more to uproot the old morality than a thousand Nietzsches.” He worries that “the entire European world has begun the ferment, all the anger from the trenches is rolling backward….” Viewing an exhibition in Zurich of paintings and woodcuts (Gaugain, Seurat, Kirchner), he can no longer see a way to bridge the gap between his aesthetic and his political ideals, which is expressed in one of the most revealing entries in his diary, on March 27, 1918:
A huge gap yawns between this [artistic] order and the political-military one. I stand on both sides of the abyss, into which one gazes vertiginously. In the past there were bridges: religious, mystical, priestly-political. Today they have collapsed….
The only way for a better world to emerge from the wreckage is “out of a new ideology that commands a general consent.” This new ideology would soon come in Germany, with devastating consequences, an ideology that owed much to ideas Kessler himself had championed, of race, youth, purity. The new age, leading up to the next world war, would be a grotesque version of Kessler’s dream of the vigorous, masculine, racial society. Kessler was utterly opposed to the Nazi ethos. But by then it was far too late.
Kessler’s diaries should be read, not only for the pleasure of the author’s always stimulating and often amusing company, but because they contain a chilling lesson. Here was one of the most cultivated, cosmopolitan men of his time, an intellectual committed to European civilization who nonetheless endorsed ideas that contained the seeds of its near destruction. What does this tell us about our own age, when new notions are floating around about defending Western civilization against a foreign faith, notions that could turn out to be just as toxic? Cultural sophistication, alas, is no prophylactic against the allure of terrible ideas.
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. ↩