Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 edited and translated by Laird M. Easton

Knopf, pp.976, 30

At last a diary as penetrating on Berlin as the Goncourt brothers’ on Paris has been translated into English. The author, Count Harry Kessler, resembled a character from Sybille Bedford’s masterpiece, A Legacy. Born in Paris in 1868, he was educated in England, France and Germany. His father was a Hamburg banker; his mother was an Irish-Scottish beauty called Alice Blosse Lynch, admired by the Emperor Wilhelm I. At once German and European, Kessler rotated, as freely as some do today, between London, Paris and Berlin.

After a year in the army, and a voyage round the world, Kessler devoted himself to the arts. Exhibitions and parties, and  long descriptions of landscape, fill his diary. He did not find social life hollow. Needing patrons for his projects, he admired the skill with which, at parties, ‘enormous forces of material and intellectual capital play against each other’. He enjoyed dissecting his acquaintance. A patron of the arts in Paris, much admired by Marcel Proust, was  Comtesse Greffuhle. Kessler wrote that her ‘taste and understanding are subordinated to her will to dominate and to shine, no matter the cost’.

Friends described in his diary include, among many others, Bakst, Rodin, Maillol, Rilke, Max Reinhardt and George Grosz. Kessler went to parties with Cocteau and Diaghilev and collaborated with von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss on Der Rosenkavalier and The Legend of Joseph. His portrait by Munch, in a white hat, leaning on a cane, is an epitome of elegance.

Photographs, however, show the coldness in his eyes.

Kessler is an incomparable observer of Germany, when it seemed destined to be the lighthouse of the world. The nepotism and bureaucracy of the universities were, in his opinion, almost as burdensome as the state’s. Berlin still looked ‘beggarly’ compared to Vienna. But on 12 December 1906, he wrote: ‘It is a curious moment in Germany, so much fermentation and such promise of something great’. On 10 October 1911:

How rich our German life is compared to France or England, what an abundance of social types and customs with completely different origins … Germany is a world, whereas England and France with their stereotypically divided three social classes are but enlarged villages … what a stage for a Balzac.

Kessler was presented at court, but wrote of Wilhelm II: ‘You could still forgive that he is no gentleman and a coward, if he were not so miserably bad in his métier.’ Many Germans — as well as foreigners — believed him mad. Kessler describes the ‘brutality’ and ‘bestiality’ of his chin and mouth, his ‘abnormally wide hips’ and ‘almost femininely developed rear end’. In foreign policy ‘almost everything happens from moment to moment according to the caprices of the Emperor’.  

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In 1907, a year before the eruption of a scandal involving the Kaiser’s friend Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg, Kessler wrote:

‘People only talk of pederasty and Zeppelins, but pederasty prevails, especially among ladies.’ They said: ‘If you want to amuse yourself among boys, you should at least refrain from doing it with your orderlies.’ He himself concentrated on Belgian sea cadets and a French cyclist called Colin, and hoped for a sexual revolution.

Kessler confirms that Germany was bent on war. In 1899 the liberal chancellor Caprivi had said ‘we must conquer colonies for ourselves in Europe’. Berliners by 1908 were saying, ‘more and more frequently’,  ‘to get out of this inner swamp a war today would not be so terrible’. Like others before and since, Germans paraded a sense of vulnerability in order to justify war.

Germany was the strongest power in Europe, almost twice the size of France. But Kessler complained, in the middle of peace in September 1911, of being ‘constantly threatened on our western front’, and wanted the Netherlands to be part of the German Empire. In his club many were ‘convinced there will be war within five years’ — 1914, when the Kiel canal had been widened, would be a good moment. The Emperor was blamed for his ‘almost unnatural’ dislike of war. In reality, he thought that the sooner it came, the better.

About England, which he frequently visited, Kessler is refreshingly abrasive. He thought feeling against Germany partly due  to England’s lack of investments in it. England did not profit from Germany as it did from the USA, ‘where the railways work largely for English profits’. The power of the press lords resembled that of owners of rotten boroughs before 1832. The same people who used to buy the latter now bought newspapers. He called the Albert Dock, with its ‘fairytale masts’, ‘the Parthenon of London’. In 1901 he noted that there were fewer telephones and automobiles in London than in Paris.

On 23 July 1914 the Prime Minister could not come to Kessler’s lunch party at the Savoy for The Legend of Joseph, as he had to see the King about Ulster. Irish Guards on sentry duty cheered Irish leaders entering Buckingham Palace. England seemed on the brink of civil war.

Even this charming cosmopolitan, however, whose homeland was the arts, could be dehumanised by nationalism. On 28 July 1914 he left Paris on the Nord Express. Back in uniform — he had worn uniform even at an exhibition opening in Weimar — he found, in German soldiers invading Belgium, ‘a new victorious life from out of the flames and smoke; forward over the graves!’ The ‘terrible executions’ of Belgian civilians, and destruction of Belgian towns and villages by German soldiers, which he witnessed, did not dismay him.

Considering Poles incapable of governing themselves, he advocated ‘exclusive’ German colonisation — in other words, ethnic cleansing — on Germany’s eastern border. In the villages of the Carpathians he saw ‘the young rascals, strikingly pretty, gazing boldly’. In the trenches, he wrote, ‘the bullets twittered and danced as if possessed, like a storm of steel hornets’. Such was his dehumanisation that he admired the ‘energy’ and ‘superiority’ of Germany, as it bombarded his birthplace Paris, and hoped France would be ‘finally finished off’. As late as the summer of 1918, he was convinced that Germany’s technological superiority, and takeover of the Russian economy, would make it ‘the greatest world empire since Rome’.   

By November 1918, however, aware of ‘a great earthquake gathering below’, and ‘a sea of bitterness and rebellion among the people’, diary entries begin to read like a Cavafy poem evoking the last years of the Roman Empire: ‘Kiel is in the hands of the rebels. The Third Naval Division has mutinied … we no longer know where we are heading … the common soldiers are completely undisciplined’.

Laird Easton is to be congratulated on leading English-speaking readers, via Kessler’s masterpiece, into the heart of Germany before its catastrophe. Journey to the Abyss covers an earlier period than the previous translation published in 1971. We impatiently await the next volume, when Kessler becomes ‘the Red Count’, the impresario of the Weimar Republic. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Diaries, Germany, History, Non-fiction