Thursday, November 30, 2017

Dined with the Einsteins

‘Dined with the Einsteins. A quiet, attractive apartment in Berlin West (Haberlandstrasse). Rather too much food in a grand style to which this really lovable, almost still childlike couple lent an air of naivety. [. . .] I had not seen Einstein and his wife since their major excursion abroad. They admitted quite unaffectedly that their reception in the United States and Britain were veritable triumphs. Einstein gave a slightly ironic, sceptical twist to their description by claiming that he cannot make out why people are so interested in his theories. His wife told me how he kept on saying to her that he felt like a cheat, a confidence trickster who was failing to give them whatever they hoped for.’ This is from the diary of the colourful German Count, Harry Kessler, who died 80 years ago today. He was a man of many talents, a diplomat, writer and connoisseur, and he was extremely well connected in political, artistic, literary, and social worlds. Mostly, he is remembered today for the detailed diaries he kept throughout his life.

Kessler was born in Paris in 1868. His father, a banker, was ennobled by Kaiser Wilhelm I, and his mother was considered an Irish beauty. He was educated in England and Germany, and trained for a career in the foreign service. However, he became more interested in the arts, and was involved, during the mid-1890s, in developing an elitist magazine called Pan. He was particularly concerned with trying to develop the arts in Weimar, and held various appointments, including director of the ducal art museum and the art school. In 1904, he went to London to seek advice on the design of books for Insel Verlag, the innovative Leipzig publishing house.

When war broke out, Kessler led troops into Belgium and on the eastern front, but he became traumatised, apparently because his loyalties were so divided between three of the nations at war. Thereafter, he was briefly an ambassador in Poland, and became involved in peace negotiations. In the 1920s, he continued travelling and supporting the arts and producing superb editions of classical masterpieces published by his own Cranach Press. He turned to pacifism later in life, and this led to him being exiled from Nazi Germany. He died on 30 November 1937. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia or The Irish Times.

Kessler was a committed diarist from the age of 12 and, indeed, he is mostly remembered today for his diaries. Some of these were first published in German in 1961 as Harry Graf Kessler, Tagebücher 1918-1937. This was then translated into English and edited by Charles Kessler for publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1971 as The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1937. Kessler’s earlier diaries were thought to be lost, but then they were found in a safe in Mallorca in 1983. A definitive edition of the full diaries (nine volumes) was published in Germany in 2004, and a first edition of the early diaries, edited and translated by Laird M. Easton, was published in English in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf as Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler 1880-1918 (also in a Vintage Books edition, 2013). Reviews of Journey to the Abyss can be found online at The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

In promoting his most recent book, on the early diaries, Laird stated: ‘Harry Kessler was a born diary writer, with an extraordinarily sharp gift for depicting personalities, landscapes, and tableaus. He also was extremely well connected in political, artistic, literary, and social worlds within Europe. Browsing through the book, the reader will find whatever she or he likes: rollicking accounts of a trip around the world; encounters with artists and writers such as Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Munch, Shaw, Nijinsky, Rilke, Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse, Degas, Hofmannsthal, and Duncan; accounts of murders; adultery in high places; and political intrigue. There are first-hand accounts of many of the famous literary and political scandals of the day, including the famous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in May 1913.’

The following diary extracts - including meetings with the Einsteins and the Pope - have been taken from a reprint
 of The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1937 by Phoenix Press in 2000.

8 March 1919
This morning we had newspapers once more. The last two days have seen more bloodshed in Berlin than any since the start of the revolution. According to the Lokal-Anzeiger there have been five to six hundred dead. Ernst has had his ‘blood-letting’. For the moment the strike has been suspended. The workers have put forward fresh conditions: removal of the volunteer regiments from Berlin and repeal of the state of siege.

Kestenberg says that at the Chancellery they are drunk with victory. As far as the Majority Socialists are concerned, every angel in heaven is busy twanging his harp. They imagine that all difficulties have been overcome because, with Reinhardt’s assistance, they have mown down the uprising in Berlin. So Kestenberg thinks it unlikely that they will be prepared to enter into any compromise with the Independents or allot them any ministerial posts. In the northern parts of the city, seething hatred of the ‘West’ is said to be the preponderant mood. Reinhardt soldiers who go through the streets alone there are torn to pieces by the mob. Soon, it is thought, no one wearing a stiff collar will be safe in those quarters.

About a quarter to five I was passing down the Wilhelmstrasse when a lorry stationed in the courtyard of the Chancellery was being loaded with prisoners, both civilians and soldiers. The guards outside the building hustled passers-by along. I produced my identity papers, stopped and watched what was happening. Suddenly a soldier with a whip jumped on the lorry and several times struck one of the prisoners just before the lorry drove out into the street. The prisoners, mainly soldiers, stood with their arms raised and hands crossed behind their heads. Shameful, to see men wearing German uniform in that position.

I went inside the Chancellery and asked for the Commanding Officer. In his absence I saw the Adjutant. (These were Reinhardt troops.) I reported to him the incident of the prisoner being struck, demanded an inquiry, and had my testimony recorded. The lieutenant expressed his regret at the incident, but explained in exculpation that the prisoner was found to have on him the papers of three officers who have disappeared. There was, he added, a completely reliable escort on the lorry. Otherwise there would be grave danger of the prisoner not reaching Moabit alive at all. The bitterness of the Reinhardt troops is boundless. Last night a sergeant was stopped in the street by Spartacists and shot out of hand. Two soldiers have been thrown into the canal by Spartacists and others have had their throats cut.

All the abominations of a merciless civil war are being perpetrated on both sides. The hatred and bitterness being sown now will bear harvest. The innocent will expiate these horrors. It is the beginning of Bolshevism.
The electricity is on again. Business as usual in the cabarets, bars, theatre, and dance halls.

For some weeks, dating approximately from Liebknecht’s murder, a new factor has crept into the German revolution and during the last two days has grown uncannily, the blood-feud element which in all great revolutions becomes ultimately the driving force and, when all others are extinguished or have been appeased, is the last ember to remain burning.

25 June 1921
‘At half past twelve a private audience with the Pope. There were just the two of us and so I had the chance briefly to ventilate the questions which interest me. In these circumstances an even sharper edge was given to his deliberate diversion from the subject of the League, evading it with the words, ‘Ce n’est pas ici’ (meaning the Vatican) ‘que nous pouvons traiter cette question.’ The main thing, he emphasized, is ‘qu'il fallait mettre fin à la guerre’. He asked me, perhaps out of politeness, whether and what I had written on the subject of the League and, at the end, accorded me his Apostolic blessing on behalf of my efforts.’

20 March 1922
‘At one o’clock to Rathenau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our conversation began with a detailed catalogue of complaints on his part about the onerousness of his duties and the difficulties with which he has to contend. Nobody, in his view, can cope with this appointment for more than six months. It is a cranking up the Ministry’s entire machinery, and that is superhuman labour. For eight years German foreign policy has lain fallow. Now it has to be reactivated, every day a fresh iron has to be put into the fire, a helping hand has to be given to every part of the Ministry. To enable him to do that, he should see everything. If he omits anything, then that sector slips out of his grasp. He cannot in fact see everything, and so he will perhaps have to divide things up in such a way as more or less to delegate certain sectors to department heads while he himself exercises active control over these minor fields only every few weeks. Even then the burden will remain almost insuperable.

On top of this come the affronts which he must constantly pass over in silence, the answers to the Entente communications, the visits he has to receive and make, the Cabinet meetings and the Reichstag sessions, and the paradox which requires that German foreign policy shall now not merely be
sensible but accord with the popular mood. All that is an impossible strain to carry indefinitely. Worst of all, though, is his own countrymen’s vindictive hostility. In addition to threatening letters he receives every day, there are police reports which cannot be ignored. As he said this, he drew a Browning from his pocket. His most cordial relations are with the British, followed by the French, Italians, Japanese, and so on; his worst, with the Germans.

We discussed my trip to Paris. He is of the opinion that the phrase ‘désarmement morale’ presents at this stage the greatest possible danger to us, now that physical disarmament has been effectively implemented, because it can serve the French with an excuse for maintaining their military control.

Finally the talk turned to Genoa. I said that I propose to go there and that I am informing him of this because I do not want to act without his knowledge or against his wishes. He replied that he is very willing for me to go, but it should remain a private matter between us. I am to tell no one that he has encouraged the idea, else far too many others will seek his blessing also.

I am going, I commented, because I believe I shall be able to make myself useful to him and our common objectives and interests. He agreed that my innumerable connections in France, Britain and Italy may render my presence valuable and, if occasion arises, he will be pleased to avail himself of my services. He is very glad that I am going.

My own impression is that he is not as gratified as all that. Perhaps he fears that I shall produce too pacifist an effect and thereby inconvenience the efforts of his own people. The military undoubtedly exercise some influence on his trains of thought. Before I left, he added that we cannot promise the French ‘désarmement morale’ when our entire youth is moving in precisely the opposite direction towards the worst, most obdurately reactionary, outlook. Were we to offer the prospect of such a disarmament, then they would be justified in subsequently accusing us of dishonesty.

Dined with the Einsteins. A quiet, attractive apartment in Berlin West (Haberlandstrasse). Rather too much food in a grand style to which this really lovable, almost still childlike couple lent an air of naivety. Guests included the immensely rich Koppel, the Mendelssohns, Warburg, Bernhard Dernburg (as shabbily dressed as ever), and so on. An emanation of goodness and simplicity on the part of host and hostess saved even such a typical Berlin dinner-party from being conventional and transfigured it with an almost patriarchal and fairy-tale quality.

I had not seen Einstein and his wife since their major excursion abroad. They admitted quite unaffectedly that their reception in the United States and Britain were veritable triumphs. Einstein gave a slightly ironic, sceptical twist to their description by claiming that he cannot make out why people are so interested in his theories. His wife told me how he kept on saying to her that he felt like a cheat, a confidence trickster who was failing to give them whatever they hoped for.

He wanted to know precisely, and made me repeat several times, what message Painlevé gave me for him and what he said about his Paris trip. He is starting on this in the next few days and will stay there a week. He expects university circles here to take it amiss, but they are a terrible lot and he feels quite sick when he thinks of them. In Paris he hopes to be able to do something towards resumption of relations between German and French scholars. He brushed aside his differences with Painlevé as a detail, appearing to attach no importance to them. In autumn he intends to comply with invitations to visit China and Japan, giving lectures at Peking and Tokyo. He must see the Far East, he has confided to his wife, while the big drum is still being banged on his account; that much he insists on obtaining from the hullabaloo.

He and his wife kept me back when the other guests left. We sat in a comer and chatted. When I confessed to sensing the significance of his theories more than I can properly grasp them, Einstein smiled. They are really quite easy, he retorted, and he would explain them to me in a few words which would immediately render them intelligible. I must imagine a glass ball with a light at its summit resting on a table. Flat (two-dimensional) rings or ‘beetles’ move about the surface of the ball. So far a perfectly straightforward notion. The surface of the ball, regarded two-dimensionally, is a limitless but finite surface. Consequently the beetles move (two-dimensionally) over a limitless but finite surface. Now I must consider the shadows thrown by the beetles on the table, due to the light in the ball. The surface covered by these shadows on the table and its extension in all directions is also, like the surface of the ball, limitless but finite. That is, the number of conic shadows or conic sections caused by the theoretically extended table never exceeds the number of beetles on the ball; and, since this number is finite, so the number of shadows is necessarily finite. Here we have the concept of limitless but finite surface.

Now I must substitute three-dimensional concentric glass balls for the two-dimensional beetle shadows. By going through the same imaginative process as before, I shall attain the image of limitless yet finite space (a three-dimensional quality). But, he added, the significance of his theory lies by no means in these thought processes and concepts. That is derived from the connection between matter, space, and time, proving that none of these exists by itself, but that each is always conditioned by the other two.

It is the inextricable connection between matter, space, and time that is new in the theory of relativity. What he does not understand is why people have become so excited about it. When Copernicus dethroned the earth from its position as the focal point of creation, the excitement was understandable because a revolution in all man’s ideas really did occur. But what change does his own theory produce in humanity’s view of things? It is a theory which harmonizes with every reasonable outlook or philosophy and does not interfere with anybody being an idealist or materialist, pragmatist or whatever else he likes.’

16 April 1932
‘General demobilization and disarmament of the various civil war armies. It is a radical liquidation of the situation which, on my return to Germany, so surprised and disquieted me. At that time, a month ago, we really stood on the edge of a civil war between perfectly drilled, organized, armed, and fully equipped armies of several hundred thousand men on each side, simply waiting for the signal to attack one another. That this situation has been resolved by a stroke of the pen, that the SA and the SS (reputedly four hundred thousand men) allowed themselves with such lamblike patience to be disarmed and broken up (nowhere did they put up any resistance worth mentioning) seems almost suspicious.

If the operation has indeed been carried out seriously and thoroughly, it signifies the greatest change in public affairs since the defeat of the Spartacus uprising in March 1919. The behaviour of Hitler and his followers seems pretty chicken-hearted in comparison, but may well be consistent with the infirm, strongly feminine character of Hitler and his entourage. Therein too they resemble William II, loud-mouthed and nothing behind it when it comes to the point. A fully equipped army of four hundred thousand men (so Hitler maintains, and he probably believes it) and then, without the slightest resistance, unconditional surrender! One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry! Is this the ‘German desire for military preparedness’ which Hitler ostensibly wants to re-awaken and invigorate? Pitiable!’

30 January 1933
‘At two o’clock Max came to lunch and brought with him the news of Hiltler’s appointment as Chancellor. I was astounded. I did not anticipate this turn of events, and so quickly at that. Downstairs our Nazi concierge inaugurated exuberant celebrations.

In the evening dinner at the Kaiserhof followed by Coudenhove’s lecture on ‘Germany’s European Mission’, which he of course interprets as fulfilment of his Pan-European idea. What I dislike is that he wants to see it established as a preventive against Soviet Russia and thereby plays into the hands of those imperialists and propagandists who want a war of annihilation against the Bolsheviks. He expressly quoted Churchill and Amery as supporting his Pan-European concept.

In the discussion which followed, Hoetzsch very properly told him that the notion of playing off western Europe against Russia is one to appeal only to the generation aged over fifty: European youth as a whole (including right-wingers) is already far too imbued with collectivist and socialist theories to go along with him. Coudenhove’s trains of thought are logically cogent but remain unconvincing because they derive from far too narrow and biased a selection of facts. All the same, he speaks clearly and has a humanely appealing approach; un homme de coeur.

I sat at a small table between Coudenhove and the celebrated Herr von Strauss, formerly of the Deutsche Bank, who talked very big about his intimate association with Hitler. The latter, he claimed, has promised to fulfil whatever wish he may acquaint him with. I permitted myself to chaff him wickedly by saying that a few days ago I was pleased to learn, from someone who ought to know, that Otto Wolff has paid Hitler’s debts for him. Strauss, very red in the face, was extremely cross and growlingly denied my story. Simons, the former Supreme Court president, was at our table. So was Seeckt, who invited me to attend one of his wife’s regular Monday afternoon at-homes. Gossip included the titbit that the first Cabinet meeting this morning already saw a row between Hugenberg and Hitler.

Tonight Berlin is in a really festive mood. SA and SS troops as well as uniformed Stahlhelm units are marching through the streets while spectators crowd the pavements. In and around the Kaiserhof there was a proper to-do,with SS drawn up in double line outside the main door and inside the hall. When we left after Coudenhove’s address, some secondary celebrities (Hitler himself was in the Chancellery) were taking the salute, Fascist style, at an endless SA goose-stepping parade.

I drove with S. to the Furstenberg beer hall. SA troops were also marching back and forth across the Potsdamer Platz, but the peak of the festive mood was reached inside the hall. Five of us were sitting with S. at a table when a couple of blonde tarts appeared on the scene. They promptly accepted his invitation to sit down and we spent the rest of the evening, until two o’clock in the morning, in their company. At first I was under the impression that the pair were old acquaintances of S. This turned out to be a mistake. He became more and more embarrassed as time moved on but they did not. They swallowed down with hearty appetite whatever was offered them, suggested that he tutoyer them, and called him ‘grandad’. It was a worthy ending to, and appropriate to the general temper of, this ‘historic’ day.’

The Diary Junction

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