My diaries embarrass me. I keep a notebook, which is a different beast. But a diary? No way. It’s pure torture to read any of my scribbles.
To write well off the cuff and in the privacy of your own mind — now that’s a feat of character, of talent, even of soul. And while those qualities are rare, many fine diaries exist. Samuel Pepys, Eugene Delacroix, André Gide, and Paul Léautaud all wrote so well that their journals make a fascinating body of work on their own.
Count Harry Kessler belongs to that exclusive club. Kessler was a diplomat, a publisher of fine editions, a co-librettist for Richard Strauss, a connoisseur of art and music, a colonel, a Prussian aristocrat, a committed democratic socialist, and, most importantly for us, a fine writer.
His journals from 1918 to 1937 cast a cool and penetrating eye on the fall of the Kaiser, the splendors and decadence of 1920s Berlin, and the rise of the Nazis.
He knew practically everyone worth knowing. Kessler offers sharp-etched portraits of Albert Einstein, George Grosz, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Aristide Maillol, and Josephine Baker, to mention just a few. But he wasn’t a mere social butterfly. He had principled break ups. Perhaps the most painful for him was with Richard Strauss over the latter’s enthusiasm for dictatorship.
For all his sensitivity, Kessler was a cool customer. During the 1918 revolution, his entries describe machine gun bursts and sniper fire as mere annoyances. Perhaps his sangfroid was not only because of his aristocratic values, but also because he had recently returned from the front lines of the war. After that storm of steel, what’s a few extra shots? His reserve is all the more striking because Kessler’s diaries were not meant for publication. Even in the privacy of his own journal he was brave.
Perhaps because he had to be. Right-wing assassins killed two of his closest associates. He pushed for social democratic reforms –deeply unpopular in some powerful circles. Later, he’d be exiled. Kessler describes it all with dispassion and a total absence of self-pity.
He writes vignettes that are like haiku in their compression and clarity. And, inevitably, you find out some history, too.
The entries from the late 1920s are especially heartbreaking. So many people in so many countries wanted to make a better world, to establish lasting peace, and to move civilization forward. You could find good signs everywhere. Then, slowly and suddenly, the Fascists took over.
Yet, you learn, up close, that the great tragedy wasn’t necessarily inevitable. The Weimar Republic, despite everything, was working. Hitler, far from being an evil genius, was a mediocre creep whose own stench of failure actually helped him blunder into power – helped by theoretically clever power brokers who thought they could use him. Kessler, though, saw right through him, knew the danger he represented, and opposed the Nazis from the beginning.
The loss of Kessler’s Germany – one of broad cosmopolitanism, of insane refinement, of deep culture, of wild innovation in every art, and of tentative hope, is among the many tragedies the Nazis inflicted on the world.
To wrap up, here’s a quote to you a good sample of Kessler’s style – his perspicacity and aestheticism. Kessler’s visiting the Imperial Palace, occupied by rebel sailors. As he wanders through the ransacked rooms, he notes:
But these private apartments, the furniture, the articles of everyday use, and what remains of the Emperor’s and Empress’s mementoes and objets d’art are so insipid and tasteless, so philistine, that it is difficult to feel much indignation against the pilferers. Only astonishment that the wretched, timid, unimaginative creatures who liked this trash, and frittered away their life in this precious palatial haven, amidst lackeys and sycophants, could ever make any impact on history. Out of this atmosphere was born the World War…
Kessler’s diaries are worth reading for so many reasons. Observations like these, filled with a sort of moral aesthetics are just one.