The Man Who Knew Everybody

Jonathan Steinberg

  • Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 edited and translated by Laird Easton
    Knopf, 924 pp, £30.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 307 26582 1

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:

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