Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 
edited and translated by Laird Easton.
Knopf, 924 pp., £30, December 2011, 978 0 307 26582 1
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I knew who Harry Kessler was of course, ‘the red count’, the Junker aristocrat who supported the Weimar Republic, and wrote a diary which I used in my seminars. Well, it turns out he wasn’t a Junker; indeed, it’s hard to say what he actually was. Imagine somebody who was at once an English public school boy, a French-born art critic and a Prussian guards officer. Then imagine that this person kept diaries for 57 years and that these diaries survived two world wars and the destruction of Germany.

The diaries amount to a one-man history of European culture from 1880 to 1937. Kessler had many identities and assiduously cultivated the great, the good and the socially connected. He sat in Stravinsky’s box for the premiere of The Rite of Spring; he dined with George V and Queen Mary; he knew Verlaine, Degas, Monet, Manet and Rodin; he worshipped Wagner and helped support Nietzsche’s sister; he collaborated with D’Annunzio and wrote an oratorio with a score by Debussy. He took part in the atrocities committed by German troops in Belgium in 1914 and thought them entirely justified. He was awarded the Iron Cross. He later fought on the Carpathian front and at Verdun and had several private conversations with Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff in 1918, when they effectively governed the Reich. In August 1918 he went back to his house in Weimar and recorded the strangeness of the encounter with the Harry Kessler of 1914: ‘In an almost miraculous way my house seemed unchanged after all the eventful years: youthful and bright late in the evening under glowing lights, awoken like Sleeping Beauty.’

The vast historical panorama that Kessler paints, his gripping eyewitness accounts of everything from Monet’s studio to being pinned down under Russian machine-gun fire in no man’s land in the Carpathian mountains in 1915, defies obvious comparison with anything else I’ve ever read. Nobody has lived such a varied life or recorded it with such genius. The diaries are a vast, fascinating and irresistible museum of a period now vanished. In 1905, at the age of 37, he took stock of his position:

Berlin, 15 November 1905. Wednesday. I thought about the influence I have in Germany: the German Artists League, my position in Weimar, including the prestige and despite the grand ducal helplessness; the connection with Reinhardt’s theatre; my intimate relation with the Nietzsche Archive, to Hofmannsthal, to van de Velde, my close association with Dehmel, Liliencron, Klinger, Lieberman, Ansorge, Gerhart Hauptmann, along with the two most influential journals, Zukunft and Neue Rundschau. And in a completely different sphere to Berlin Society, the Harrachs, Richters, Sascha Schlippenbach, the regiment and finally my own prestige. The balance is rather surprising and certainly unique. No one else in Germany enjoys such a strong position, reaching into so many corners.

The density of these social connections – in three countries – accounts in part for the vast scale of the diaries. The Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach has so far published eight volumes of them, beautifully edited and accompanied by excellent indexes and notes, roughly eight thousand pages of text and back matter. (Volume I, the volume Kessler wrote in English, has yet to appear.) Laird Easton, who published a biography of Kessler in 2006, has worked with the Deutsches Archiv and made a single-volume selection of entries from 1880 to 1918. Since he had access to the English originals of the early diaries, this new volume is the only place where one can read Kessler the public school boy. In addition, Easton has made a selection from Volumes II to VI of the published German diaries and translated them. The full German edition contains many more entries. For January 1892, for example, there is an entry for every day, some several pages long. Easton has chosen 16 of the 31 and they cover nine pages: I reckon that Easton’s text, rich and fascinating though it is, amounts to less than 10 per cent of the equivalent German volumes. As an aid to the reader, he divides the book into seven sections, each of which covers a particular period in Kessler’s life. A short introductory essay sets out the background to the entries and explains who many of the characters cited were. It’s hard to imagine how he could have done more or better than he has.

What were these diaries for? They began when Kessler was 12. On his 13th birthday, he recorded an account of his life at St George’s, Ascot:

It is my birthday today. I was born in Paris at the corner of the rue de Luxembourg and the rue de Mont Thabor at the 3 étage in 1868 but soon after went to Hamburg. When four I went to America and stopped there till I was five then I came to England and Mamma and Papa soon after (about two years) settled in Paris where I was during the remarkably cold winter of 1879-80. In which the cold amounted to 24 degrees. I saw the Seine frozen. Papa came to see me today and brought me a barometer and microscope.

This boy who has no fixed identity gives way quickly to one with a new and very different sense of self:

Ascot, 15 October 1881. Saturday. We got to Waterloo at 2 o’clock whence we drove to the Savoy Theatre in a bus to see Patience, a most intensely utter play in the aesthetic line … After the theatre we walked down Piccadilly without a poppy or a lily as the people in the play did. We had chocolate … and got home at seven thirty. I am growing intense.

Ascot, 16 October 1881. Sunday. I am growing utterly consummately intense wearing sunflowers and poppies and dahlias in my button-hole.

By the age of twenty, he understands that the diary matters to him in a very important way: ‘When I am alone like this evening it often strikes me what an infinitely small proportion my outer life, my life that is known to the world by conversations, letters etc bears to my inner life, the life I live by myself.’ That inner life has two constituent parts. One is governed by a high notion of art, which takes the place that in another diarist might be occupied by religion, or by a rooted, unselfconscious sense of self. Here is an entry from 1891 from the German edition, not in the Easton selection:

Berlin, 31 October 1893. Browsed in Faust, one of those works which live in and with me and grow, as I live myself, into the lines with every experience, every pain. It is with artworks as it is with earthly lovers: they don’t want just to give but receive from us. Like Ulysses and the shadows, we must give our blood so that they can waken us to life, and the greatest work of art is not the one that contains the most but the one that can take into it the largest amount of our heart’s blood.

Kessler belonged heart and soul to the cult of Wagner. On 3 March 1894 he wrote:

His power over me is as strong as from the first day. One can think whatever one likes, but he lifts one on the wings of his genius to heights and depths of feeling, where the activities of the understanding simply stop and one gives in without willing it to his power. And that seems to me to lead to the core of his importance. He is nearer to Schiller and Hugo than to Shakespeare or Goethe, an oratorical rather than a poetic genius.

Hildegard Freifrau Hugo von Spitzemberg, the greatest diarist of the previous generation in Germany and the mother of one of Kessler’s friends, knew him well. Kessler dined with her almost weekly during the 1890s. Kessler had no idea that the ‘fat old lady’ at whose table he dined was watching him, but she saw his cult of art clearly – he was a member of what she called the ‘Wagner church’ – and found it uncomfortable. She wrote of a lunch at his flat in Berlin in March 1900: ‘He lives at 28 Köthen Street in four or five little holes in the rear building of a block of flats! Today, when daylight scarcely appeared, it looked so gloomy inside that all the art treasures which hang or stand there could not show themselves to advantage.’ On 4 March 1901 she went to lunch at Kessler’s ‘with the Hermanns, Gerhard Mutius and Frau Förster, Nietzsche’s sister, who cared for him until his death and now is publishing his works, a plain, agreeable lady, who has had a hard, hard life. It is embarrassing to appear in such a “congregation”, when one knows so little about their idol.’

The other deep drive in Kessler’s life, ‘my inner life, the life I live by myself’, becomes clear in an entry dated Berlin, 29 November 1893. Kessler used his diaries to record the elaborate notes he made on his reading, what Germans of his generation called a ‘Lesebuch’. He read French, English and German books in no fixed order but Valbert, a novel by Téodor de Wyzewa, made a profound impression on him:

I have never recognised myself so completely in a book … In the end what of reality have I really enjoyed with my senses? I have desired countless women, have had many, have enjoyed none. Literature and philosophy, science and history, have aroused my fantasy, but left my senses cold … and then Don Juan, Parsifal, some works of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Dürer … And even this pleasure I owe only to a defect: my fantasy was too weak to pre-empt such greatness. Life is for the fantasist a novel whose last chapter he already knows. It doesn’t pay to read the rest.

This confession – for that is what it obscurely is – of what Americans call his ‘sexual orientation’ made Kessler extremely uneasy. He had already recorded one passion for a regimental colleague, Otto Freiherr von Dungern: ‘Berlin, 27 October 1893. Friday. In the morning I took leave of my lovely little Dungern. Went to Potsdam for the regimental dinner.’ Easton writes that ‘this appears to have been the first deep love of his mature life. To what extent it was reciprocated by Dungern will presumably never be known.’ There are fleeting references to various subsequent partners, but they are always brief and generally unspecific.

To be a homosexual in Berlin between 1890 and 1914, and a member of the upper classes, had certain unspoken advantages, as well as certain dangers. The young emperor, Wilhelm II, belonged to Kessler’s generation, shared Kessler’s cult of the arts and also, very clearly, his sexual preference. A group of high aristocrats surrounded the kaiser, one of whom, Prince Philipp Eulenburg-Hertefeld, declared openly that he had ‘fallen in love’ with the young prince when they met at a hunting lodge in 1886. The group was implicated in a series of homosexual scandals, and in 1902 the outing of the richest man in Germany, Fritz Krupp, heir to the gigantic steel business, led to the first of a wave of suicides. Krupp had used his palatial house on Capri to create a cult of beauty, staffed by willing Neapolitan waiters. In Locarno, the Baltic Baron Elisar von Kuppfer erected a temple, the Elisarion, to celebrate the worship of the male body, complete with giant murals in pastel colours in which women turned out on closer inspection to be men. A different group of aristocrats with secret lives served in the exclusive guards regiment. They were exposed by the journalist Maximilian Harden in 1907 and one, General Count Kuno von Moltke, a military aide to the kaiser, faced a sensational trial. Kessler belonged to all these overlapping circles: he was a rich aristocrat too, a guards officer with a passionate commitment to the arts. He moved easily, as he notes himself, from one group to another.

The Dienstzeit – compulsory army – service gave Kessler the one secure and permanent identity of his life. It made him salonfähig, affording him entry to the social order, which no amount of art, charm or his considerable fortune could have done. As Carl Zuckmayer put it in his Weimar comedy, Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, ‘a doctorate is the calling card; reserve officer is the open door.’ Kessler’s title of ‘count’ couldn’t do it, because everybody who mattered knew that Kessler’s parents, though not Jewish, were ‘rootless cosmopolitans’. His father, Adolf Wilhelm Kessler, a Hamburg banker of enormous wealth, had in 1867 married a great beauty and socialite, Irin Alice Harriet Blosse-Lynch, the daughter of an Irish baronet and a distant relative of the Prussian royal house. William I, king of Prussia and emperor of Germany, had a crush on her and rumours circulated that the old emperor was Harry’s real father, just about plausible for a man who was 71 when Harry was born. In 1879 the kaiser elevated the family to the nobility and presumably leaned on Heinrich XIV Prince of Reuss (Younger Line) to grant Adolf Wilhelm Kessler and his heirs the title of count.

On 1 October 1892, Harry Kessler began his year of volunteer service in Potsdam with the 3rd Guards, in a cavalry regiment founded in 1860 by King Wilhelm I himself. The so-called Einjährige allowed young aristocrats and well-to-do bourgeois to escape the otherwise compulsory three-year period of enlistment, but the young officers had to pay for uniform, room and board out of their own pockets. This normally amounted to several thousand marks a year. Einjährige were exempt from most cleaning duties and were not subject to what I, as an ex-private first class in the US army, would have called the KP (kitchen police). Einjährige could chose their own regiments, but had at the end of their year to pass a stiff examination before the regiment’s entire complement of officers.

Kessler thoroughly enjoyed his period of service and managed to combine drill and culture. ‘I am reading Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in the few minutes which service and exhaustion allow me, during my meal. Interesting parallel between this book and Raskolnikov.’ A few days later: ‘On stables duty, fell asleep in the straw.’ Kessler took part in everything and was delighted in November 1892 to be allowed to dine in the ‘casino’ (the officers’ mess). At the end of the year he passed the examination, which allowed him to become a reserve officer and gave him regimental mess privileges for the rest of his life: i.e. membership in an exclusive club, and, in effect, the first stable identity he had ever had.

He now became a different sort of social actor, who moved in two distinct circles in Berlin, which only occasionally overlapped: the bohemian artistic and the high aristocratic. In January 1895 he dined with Prince Max of Baden, Sepp Radowitz (grandson of Frederick William IV’s foreign minister), Count Moltke (Kessler does not say which Count Moltke; there were several), Count von Seckendorff (the Empress Augusta’s cabinet chief) and others whom he called tutti quanti. On 23 January 1895 he was presented at court: he had arrived. A few weeks later, he noted:

I do not agree with those who find society hollow. My feeling is more one of admiration for the confidence and skill with which these enormous forces of material and intellectual capital play against each other. Behind a tone of voice or a look, an eight-hundred-year-old chain of glorious ancestors or a fortune of ten million can stand. All of these people are just symbols, algebraic signs for forces that the shading of an expression can decide to deploy in one way or another. This symbolic quality of each individual in a world of fateful connections and forces differentiates the crowd in a ballroom from a mob of people.

His status as a guards officer and his connections made him the perfect emissary in 1915 when reinforcements were desperately needed on the Carpathian front. In Volume VI, covering 1914-16, Kessler describes at length the Carpathian campaign in winter, which had become a military fiasco. The Austrians had lost 800,000 men in the snow and cold against the Russians, who held secure positions on the heights. Only Kessler, though just a Rittmeister (the cavalry term for a captain), could have gone to Berlin, where on 10 March 1915 he had a private dinner with Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. ‘Since I last saw him, he has become heavier and more tired, an exhausted colossus.’ He had a private audience with Prince Wedel, deputy chief of army staff, two days later and was told that ‘no more fresh troops [were] available. In the west we are already too thin and could withdraw nothing there. Hindenburg too could hardly give anything up … In general he made a very depressed impression.’ He left Berlin for the front sickened by the intrigue and lack of leadership. ‘To witness at the high point of the war this uncertainty and intrigue factory, while out on the front the poor lads let themselves be shot without hesitation, makes one sick. The core is rotten, as in 1813.’ This disillusion began Kessler’s conversion from German nationalist to the embittered veteran and pacifist of the 1920s.

In 1916 and 1917, Kessler had private audiences with Hindenburg and his chief of staff. The fiction of imperial supreme command, the idea that Wilhelm II, like his great ancestor Frederick the Great, could command armies of millions, had collapsed. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had become a military co-dictatorship. Kessler saw Ludendorff first: ‘A beaming, mild amiability has taken the place of his former, somewhat brusque, hard style. He is completing the transition from officer to grand seigneur.’ Ludendorff invited Kessler to dine with him and Hindenburg that evening. They ate in a small group with adjutants and Kessler sat at the field marshal’s table next to Ludendorff. ‘The field marshal has become visibly older in the two years since the great withdrawal, the flesh already somewhat flabby, the short-cropped hair which was once almost bristly, thinner and more subdued. What persists is the almost sedate tranquillity and the often flashing, bitter humour.’

After dinner all sat round in comfortable easy chairs. Hindenburg

sits in the middle of his enormous frame without vanity, with a kind of grandfatherly good humour that he expresses in short sentences. His voice sounds like hoarse thunder, like that of some old thunder god Wotan, but with laughter underneath. He is not in the slightest pathetic, not even modest, but superior through an imagination admittedly somewhat prone to caricature. He sees chiefly connections, original connections, and they, according to Meredith, are ‘the essence of comedy’. A comedic spirit, not a tragic one, despite the millions of dead … Ludendorff by contrast is more intellectual, a constantly mobile intellect, whose freshness is maintained by exceptionally healthy nerves and sap. Out of this still youthful fullness comes his passionate temperament, hidden beneath the smooth surface of his healthy, almost tranquil exterior and the polished manners.

Kessler speculates on how the two of them work together: ‘That is the innermost cell of the world war, the tiny powerful tense feather spring driving and ordering the whole affair.’

By 1918, Kessler had begun to drift into opposition. In Berlin he visited the artist Georg Grosz: ‘Grosz has something demonic in him … brutally realistic and at the same time fairy-tale-like … a highly nervous, cerebral, illusionist art … an art of flashing lights with a perfume of sin and perversity like every nocturnal street in the big city.’ Years later, Grosz recalled Kessler as ‘the last real gentleman he had encountered’. A few days later, on 16 February 1918, Wieland Herzfelde told Kessler that the common soldiers were now increasingly bitter: ‘Its cause was almost exclusively the comfortable life of the officers. The gap between the officer and the enlisted man is too great and too striking … All the conversations of the soldiers revolve around eating and “militarism”, by which they mean the privileges of the officers.’ In Berlin, on 23 June 1918, he wrote: ‘Acquaintances brought me to the Kleist café … where coquettes, pederasts, sailors, lesbians, cadets in uniform, Red Cross sisters, sat pressed rather repulsively together in the narrow room in a thick atmosphere of cigarettes and champagne.’ We are in the Weimar Republic although the war still has several months to go.

Easton has done all of us who care about the death of early 20th-century European culture a huge favour. There is a reason he calls the book Journey to the Abyss. It’s all there in Kessler’s diaries: his mysticism, his Prussian guards officer brutality, his frivolousness and his dandyism, but transmuted by his insight and style into something inexhaustibly interesting, funny and sly. Easton puts it well in his preface: ‘One of the deepest pleasures in reading diaries is experiencing something one might call “historical vertigo” … Kessler’s world has almost entirely receded over the cusp of living memory. Yet … how contemporary he is … and at the same time how embedded he is in a world for ever lost.’

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