Monday, 30 January 2012

Book Review - The diaries of a cosmopolitan : Count Harry Kessler 1918-1937

The diaries of a cosmopolitan : Count Harry Kessler 1918-1937 by Harry Kessler, translated and edited by Charles Kessler, Introduction by Otto Friedrich

London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971  ISBN 0297003402

Count Harry Kessler was one of that last generation of European aristocrats who were at home anywhere in Europe, part of the floating cosmopolitan "village" of nobles in the late Victorian and Edwardian ages. Born in France, schooled in England, he considered himself German, and fought in the German army in the early part of WW I. As well as being a connoisseur of the arts, and a writer and publisher in his own right (his Cranach Press is still renowned for the fine publications it issued), he was heavily involved in the diplomatic maneuverings of Germany during the 1920s. His diaries therefore are a fascinating insight into the "life and times" of Weimar Germany and the European world of that era.

The diaries have been heavily edited [Charles is no relation of Harry, by the way] for this English version "to exclude matter unlikely to be of interest to an international public," but still show Kessler to be an indefatigable traveller, acceptor and giver of dinner invitations, and general bon-vivant. He was on good terms with people as varied as Einstein, Cocteau, Gide, Hofmannsthal, Neitzsche and his sister, Gustav Streseman, and Rathenau (of whom he wrote a definitive biography). Josephine Baker danced naked for him, and Eric Gill and Paul Valery were involved in producing items for his Press.

As with most published diaries - especially if they cover a span of years - the diarist can be seen to change their views over time, as well as make bad calls and prescient judgements. Kessler was a socialist and democrat (although not a member of the SPD), and his diplomatic work was in the main to help Germany and Europe to a democratic and republican future. On several occasions during the diaries he vents his spleen at the Kaiser - in an entry on the tenth anniversary of the armistice he wrote "Every fresh publication [about the Kaiser] renders the portrait of this weakling, coward, ambitious brute and braggart, this nincompoop and swaggerer who plunged Germany into misfortune, yet more repulsive. Not a facet of him is capable of arousing pity or sympathy. He is utterly contemptible."

Scattered throughout are entries that presage the hell that was to come. As early as 1919 he writes "For my part I believe that youth tends simultaneously in both directions and towards two extremes, radicalism and reaction, internationalism and chauvinism, and that in the coming years the battle between these will be unprecedently fierce."  A few days later he wrote " Perhaps one day traditional Prussian discipline and the new socialist one will coalesce to form a proletarian ruling caste which will assume the role of a Rome propagating new brands of civilization at the point of the sword."

He talks to many people about the causes of the war, and the War Guilt of Germany, and there are some interesting details in here of people delaying vital telegrams, which may have changed the progress of mobilization if they had have been delivered on time.

As for the Fascist movement and Hitler; he in the end became a victim, but was not necessarily a mortal enemy. When Mussolini came to power, he mused "Perhaps he will usher in a period of fresh European disorders and wars", but later on (1927) wrote "I had somewhat revised my notions about Mussolini and Fascism. There are elements in the Fascist state, like its corporative structure, which cannot be condemned out of hand.", although he does point out the myth that Il Duce made the trains run on time and the post to arrive was just that, a myth. As for Hitler, Kessler knew pretty much what the Nazis were about, and in fact was exiled to Paris after the Reichstag fire, because he was an outspoken defender of democracy, among other things.

While he may have been a socialist, Kessler could never rid himself of his finely honed views on manners and taste, writing "Compare Wirth with Lincoln, for example. 'He's a cad,' the British would say. And he has learned nothing on the way up (no 'breeding'). The result is that his innate crudeness lies naked to the eye. He is, in the deeper sense of the word, 'vulgar'." There are quite a few such asides in his diaries, about people both in politics and the arts.

There is so much more to be discovered in this wonderful book, gossip about Kings and Prime Ministers, wonderful pen-portraits of famous and infamous people, and a fly-on-the-wall view of the struggle to rehabilitate and democratize Germany. This particular edition is wonderfully illustrated, with reproductions of line drawings by or of the people he mentions in the text, such as Grosz, Klee, Cocteau, Edward Gordon Craig and Eric Gill.

This was a book I was going to dip into, I ended up reading it from cover to cover. The earlier diaires (1898-1918), have recently been published, and I will be hunting them out.

Check out your local library or second-hand book vendor for The diaries of a cosmopolitan.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

No comments:

Post a Comment