I completed my memoir World within World in 1950, when I was 41. Reading it now, 42 years later, it seems to me that much of it represents the situation of a generation of English writers during the Thirties, novelists and poets, coming from a background of the professional middle class, and most of them born between 1905 and 1910. The accident of the time, as well as of the social class into which they were born, accounts for many of their attitudes during a period that covered two world wars – or perhaps only one war, lasting from 1914 to 1945, with a truce under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles between 1918 and 1939. Such is the rapidity of historical change in the present century that generations seem to succeed one another at intervals of five or ten, rather than thirty, years. We think in decades. The Thirties generation to which my colleagues and I belonged was separated by what seemed an abyss from the one ten years older, so many of whom had taken part in the 1914-18 war. The fact that they had been in the war when we were children created a gulf between generations profounder than that of the few years’ difference. Moreover, ten years after 1918, these former soldiers – as though summoned by the ghosts of their comrades in the trenches – started turning back to their war experiences, about which they wrote books which are today rightly regarded as classics.
We were a generation that had missed out on the war and who were not competed with by the previous generation. There were nevertheless older writers who had not fought in the war but who had absorbed into their writing, perhaps even more than the soldier writers, its lessons for our civilisation: Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence. These were the older generation to whom we looked for examples. They did not reflect in their work the conditions of the Western Front, but they shared a generalised despair about Western civilisation. In the masterpieces of Joyce and Eliot, two thousand and more years of history seemed to be encapsulated within a moment of contemporary ‘modern’ consciousness: rather like the vision of his life which supposedly passes before the eyes of someone drowning. This idea of the modern epoch as the end of civilisation persisted until the Eighties in the work of James Joyce’s former amanuensis, Samuel Beckett. It is implicit indeed in the title of his play, Endgame. The work – today unfashionable – which seemed to authenticate this vision was Spengler’s Decline of the West.
Our generation of writers was, very emphatically and very consciously, ‘young’. We were not, before 1932 or 1933, involved, as writers, in any kind of political action, though our sympathies as voters were vaguely socialist. But the way we voted had nothing to do with our conscience as artists. Politics was to us, at this time, just one more set of symptoms of that dying civilisation. Indeed, we considered politics the enemy of art. This was the view which we derived from reading the works of Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, etc. In their poetry and fiction they created imaginary worlds – and imaginary worlds seemed to have nothing to do with politics. In this view most members of our generation, as distinct from the highly politicised Communist poets of the generation immediately following – those who fought in the Spanish Civil War – continued fundamentally always to believe.
Our generation of poets was quickly hailed as New. We were the voices of a post-war world that readers had been waiting for. Half a dozen periodicals and anthologies sprang up, all of them incorporating in their titles that magic word. One has only to look at the early poems of Auden to realise that the sense of things coming to an end was what this generation, for all their self-conscious newness, began with. But in their work das Ende had an entirely different emphasis from the visions of a dying culture in The Waste Land and Ulysses. For if we saw in these works witness of the decline of civilisation, we also saw them as assertions of the power of the poetic imagination to absorb the ruin of the time and to make new language out of it. A landscape of derelict industrial machinery inhabited by a decaying English middle class of neurotic former empire-builders, financiers and schoolmasters formed the background of many of Auden’s early poems. The young poets viewed the decline of the British bourgeoisie with a kind of Schadenfreude. The derelict landscape emerged in their poems as a desolate playground set among ruins; and had they been more conscious of Latin literature they might have viewed themselves as poets of a silver age who, while the Empire visibly and symptomatically decays, write about nothing but love-making and say: ‘To hell with Empire!’ They did, though, have serious reasons for celebrating the breakdown of Empire: it was more than just a matter of, as Auden was to put it later, ‘poets adore ruins.’ In post-war England, after the short Twenties interval of pleasure-seeking, jazz and drunkenness, there was a reaction, something of a return to the conservative puritanism of the English public school empire-building middle class – for the very reason perhaps that the Empire, particularly in India, was beginning to show signs of falling apart. For the generation of young writers whom I am recalling, this puritanism was most evident in the banning of books by two of the writers they most admired: Joyce and Lawrence. It seems astonishing now that after a war in which millions of men had been confronted with the worst obscenities of blood and mud and wholesale murder, a simple description in a novel of a young man going to bed with a girl – or, for that matter, another young man – should have laid author and publisher open to prosecution.
By contrast with England, there was no censorship in France and Germany. There was, indeed, in those countries an exciting sense of the post-war era as a time for uninhibited experiment in art. Instead of the English conformities of behaviour, there was a new freedom of living, new architecture, new painting, new literature and very lively discussion of ideas. From 1918 onwards English artists and other ‘intellectuals’ sought for new life and new art abroad, on the Continent. My own generation was drawn to Germany. Auden had gone to Berlin to study soon after he left Oxford. There he met the anthropologist John Layard, who showed him the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute for Sexual Science. Auden also discovered the gay bars of Berlin. Through Layard he became acquainted with the revolutionary teachings of the American psychologist Homer Lane. Auden invited his friend Isherwood to join him in Berlin. Thirty-five years later, in his autobiography Christopher and his Kind, Isherwood wrote: ‘To Christopher, Berlin meant Boys.’ But in the same book he also points out that Auden ‘had now begun to write lines which are like the slogans of a psychiatric doctor about to seize control of the human race.’
When, in 1930, I joined Isherwood in Berlin it was still the centre where revolutionary ideas in the arts, from Russia and from Western Europe, met. We would go to Russian movies as well as to German ones. Isherwood was writing his Berlin novels and I was writing my early poems – such as ‘The Express’ and ‘The Landscape near an Aerodrome’. The imagery of the last stanza of one derives from black-and-white Russian movies.
There may have been a further reason, not mentioned by Isherwood, why we were drawn to the young Germans of ten years after 1918. This is to be found in a poem of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’, in which he imagines a conversation between an English and a German soldier, soon after which both are dead, each one having killed the other. Their dialogue is more that of lovers than of enemies.
There was, in our minds, a love affair between young Germany and young England. Nor was this confined to homosexual transnational and trans-class Schwaermerei. My eldest brother married a German girl at this time, as did my friend Dick Crossman and the brother of another friend of mine: their doing so was partly that they were in love with the new Germany. Between individuals, the German and the English rapprochement had a strongly sexual aspect, perhaps because the public murder of nation by nation which is war may be secretly compensated for by attraction between individuals of each side – an assertion of the private love which lies at a deeper level of truth than the public hatred.
Our generation, with one or two exceptions, was conscripted into politics by the phenomenon which was Hitler. The Nazis were totalitarian in a way which Mussolini’s Fascists could only be said to have approached. The Nazis had defined whole categories of their fellow citizens as enemies of the state on the grounds of their birth, their art, their intellectual interests, their sexuality. Returning to England in 1932, I became obsessed with events in Germany, feeling that they concerned me much more than those of my own country. I felt this not only for the obvious reason that the democratic powers, in granting to Hitler’s Government everything they had denied to the Weimar Republic, were permitting German rearmament, which would almost certainly lead to war – but still more because, together with some other people, I felt that an abyss of evil had opened up in the centre of Europe.
In the present century many people have little idea of evil – which seems to them to belong to a past of ritual and tragedy – and cannot believe in it. Modern literature has no villains and no character in fiction does anything bad that cannot be wrung clean in the laundry of psychoanalysis, Dostoevsky being the exception which proves this rule. The least our younger generation of writers expected of our parents’ generation of liberals was that they would see that democratic institutions like Parliament and the freedom of the press were threatened by Hitlerism. But these minds seemed turned away from events on the Continent and inwards towards an England which was soon to celebrate the Royal Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary. While Fascism was producing tragic victims in the centre of Europe, the tragedy on which English eyes concentrated was the Abdication. There was a feeling that Hitler, wearing top hat and tailcoat, would sooner or later become one of Europe’s gentlemen, received at Buckingham Palace and agreeing to sensible arrangements with the democracies which would grant the Third Reich everything France and Britain had denied to the Weimar Republic. Hitler would be granted what many English now felt to be due to Germany anyway, owing to the widely admitted injustice of the Treaty of Versailles. Perhaps a deal could be done to appease the Nazis. I now realise that politicians like Neville Chamberlain, who belonged to the generation that had fought in the first war, simply could not believe that under any circumstances there could or should be a repetition of that tragedy.
The non-political anti-Fascists, when they were forced into politics, inevitably sought out anti-Fascist leaders. The most obvious of these were the Communists – by their own as well as Nazi definition, the absolute enemies of the Nazis. Looked at today, it seems that Fascism and Communism were not only opposites but were also symmetrical, mirror-images of each other. In the end, they produced almost identical results: dictatorship, the police state, corrupt bureaucracy, mass murder and total collapse. There were, by the mid-Thirties, warnings of the nature of Stalinism – for example, in August 1936 the Moscow show trials of Stalin’s former collaborators, now forced to denounce themselves as traitors. However, during the Spanish Civil War, which began the month before the trials, the Russians were alone in supporting the Spanish Republic: for the anti-Fascists of the Front Populaire, this became the great cause of democracy. Since Hitler supported Franco, the Republican cause provided the opportunity for his victims and opponents, forming the International Brigades, to fight back at him. The anti-Fascist Communists who joined the International Brigades had nothing in common with the corrupt leaders of the hierarchies which have today fallen into the pit left by the collapsed Communist regimes of Russian and Eastern Europe. From England, the poets who gave their lives in the Republican cause were Communists in the first instance because they believed that this was the only way to fight Fascism, and in the second because they accepted the Marxist interpretation of history and thought that Communism would lead to the freedom of oppressed people, to a world of social justice, and to a depoliticised egalitarian anarchist utopia. They lived for no end except the defeat of Fascism, for which many of them died, having sacrificed their literary ambitions, their search for personal happiness, for this cause which offered them nothing in return. Nor were they wrong, surely, to believe that the precondition to fulfilment of their vocations as ‘intellectuals’ was the defeat of Fascism. Perhaps they were right in thinking that this might be achieved in Spain, through the victory of the anti-Fascists which would prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.
With the outbreak of war, paradoxically, anti-Fascism seemed to recede into the background and become a very small affair. English anti-Fascists were bitter when the proposal put forward by Tom Wintringham, a former International Brigade commander, that the British Army might learn from their experiences in fighting Fascism was ignored by the authorities. When America came into the war, the American authorities coined the phrase ‘premature anti-Fascist’ to describe members of the Lincoln Brigade. The outbreak of war had, in fact, little or nothing to do with the anti-Fascists. When, on 3 September 1939, Chamberlain announced on the radio that Britain was at war with Germany he complained that Hitler had broken his word to him. This seemed an almost frivolous reason for going to war at the time, but in fact it was the real one. The policy of appeasement had broken down, not because the British and the French governments no longer wished to appease, but because it had become clear that it was impossible to do a deal with Hitler. He would for ever be putting forward a list of ‘final demands’ following on previous ‘final demands’ that had been met. Early in the war there was some discussion as to what name should be given to it. Someone suggested that it should be called ‘the Unnecessary War’. By this it was meant that the war need never have happened if the leaders of the democracies had been able to do a deal with Hitler. But the unnecessary war was extremely necessary. Despite all the horror and destruction, no one today can imagine a world which would have been a better place without the elimination of Hitler, whereas it is perfectly possible to think it would have been better if there had been no First World War.