Harry Kessler’s Fin de Siècle Diaries
By LOUIS BEGLEYDEC. 23, 2011
Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937), whose diaries provide an unusual guided tour of belle époque and early-20th-century artistic and high life in Berlin, Paris and London, was born in Paris to great wealth. A lifetime of extravagant spending and the Depression took their toll. After a long and painful disease, he died impoverished and solitary in Pontanevaux, a village in the Beaujolais region of France.
His father, Adolf von Kessler, was the son of a protestant clergyman who had married into a distinguished Hamburg banking family. Adolf joined the family business, ran the bank’s branch in Paris and became hugely rich. In 1867, he married an Anglo-Irish beauty, Alice Blosse-Lynch, the daughter of a baronet serving the Raj in India. The Kessler couple’s second child, Wilhelmina, was born in 1877. No less a personage than the German kaiser, Wilhelm I, was her godfather, a remarkable proof of his friendship or infatuation with the lovely Alice. Further evidence of the kaiser’s favor came in 1879, when he elevated Adolf to the ranks of the nobility.
Young Count Harry received an international education, first in Paris, then at an English boarding school, a renowned gymnasium in Hamburg and universities in Bonn and Leipzig, where he studied law. Upon graduation, he joined an elegant uhlan regiment of the Imperial Guard, but with his father’s fortune filling his sails, he soon embarked on a career of social butterfly, aesthete, collector, cultural impresario and diplomat. Called back to his regiment at the outbreak of World War I, he initially served in Belgium, where he saw German atrocities firsthand, then in the Carpathian campaign, where he received the Iron Cross, and then again on the Western Front.
Released from duty in mid-1916, perhaps because of a nervous breakdown, he was dispatched to Bern and charged with cultural propaganda. He was to promote Germany’s cultural tradition and attainments to the Swiss public and thus erase the image of his country as a brutal aggressor. He was also given the job of approaching politicians in France who might be willing to make peace on terms satisfactory to Germany. Those included Germany’s retaining possession of Alsace and Lorraine, a position that had Kessler’s full-throated endorsement. His efforts yielded nothing. Indeed, his diaries leave one with the unpleasant impression that the superannuated officer and would-be diplomat was, despite his wealth and social connections, a fifth wheel — and one that squeaked as he bombarded friends and acquaintances in high places with advice on the conduct of war and foreign policy.
Apart from his diaries, Kessler’s lasting achievements are the exquisite books published by Cranach Press, which he founded in 1913 and supported financially as long as he was able. The editions of Virgil’s “Eclogues,” illustrated by Aristide Maillol, and of “Hamlet,” translated into German by Gerhart Hauptmann and illustrated by Edward Gordon Craig, are especially fine examples. His more ambitious projects, which included the construction of a monument and a stadium in memory of Nietzsche and the attempt to become the cultural czar of Weimar, ended in disappointment.
Assessment of the value of the diaries presents difficult problems, not the least of which is their extraordinary bulk. Kessler was a compulsive diarist: the first entry was written on June 16, 1880, when he was 12, and the last on Sept. 30, 1937. He died two months later, on Nov. 30. According to Laird M. Easton, the editor and translator, the 877 pages of diaries included in “Journey to the Abyss” make up only about one-quarter of the diaries for the period 1880-1918. The material from these decades was believed to have been lost until 1983, when a safe on Mallorca that held it was opened upon the expiration of a 50-year lease. This partial publication is its first in English. Diaries for the period November 1918 to November 1937 had already been published in English in London in 1971; they were republished in the United States under the title “Berlin in Lights” in 2000.
The most rewarding passages in the present volume are those written while Kessler was on his trip around the world in 1892, especially his descriptions of 1890s New York. He observed street life as sharply as he did balls organized by Ward McAllister and the Astors. His account of an extended and intelligently planned stay in Japan is even more remarkable. It records with great sensitivity and occasional flashes of humor his impressions of villages, ryokans, hot baths, the emperor and the empress passing through the Hama Gardens in Tokyo and an entertainment offered by a great court noble upon coming to maturity.
A reader avid for gossip about the great figures in fin-de-siècle and early-20th-century art, literature, politics and high society in Germany, France and England will have a feast. Rilke, Shaw, Richard Strauss, Maillol, Rodin, Munch, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Duse, to drop just a few names, pullulate in the diaries — he knew them all, was their frequent guest and entertained the crème de la crème with a passionate assiduity.
But this volume of the diaries is marred by Kessler’s conceit and strange lack of self-awareness (for example, he regularly took others to task for being parvenus, Hugo von Hofmannsthal among them, without reflecting that he owed his own position to his father’s recently acquired title and millions); his appalling political judgments (among them his enthusiastic backing of the Tirpitz project to expand the German High Seas Fleet, which was a major contributing cause of World War I); a nasty streak of anti-Semitism that runs through them (the remark that Galicia’s economy “had maintained itself, despite the Jews, who sit in every village as numerous as lice” is but one picturesque instance); and his hero worship of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Hindenburg’s duumvir in the waning days of the Second Reich, General Erich Ludendorff.
Men change, occasionally for the better. In March 1918 we find Kessler saying, apropos those who fear German world domination, that “if they saw the asses who sit in Berlin and guide the world empire . . . they would be less anxious.” A shrewder and more humane count is revealed in “Berlin in Lights.” For a brief month and a half in 1918 he held the post of German envoy to Poland, and acted decisively and to good effect. Back in Berlin after Poland had broken off diplomatic relations with Germany, he visited the imperial palace, recently sacked by mutineering soldiers and sailors, and, as he contemplated the remains of the kaiser’s and the empress’s objets d’art and mementos, all of them insipid, tasteless and philistine — emblematic of false values — he realized that “I feel no sympathy, only aversion and complicity when I reflect that this world was not done away with long ago, but on the contrary still continues to exist.”
He left Germany, never to return, in early March 1933. The boycott of Jewish businesses and professionals began on April 1. Kessler marked the event, writing: The “abominable Jewish boycott has begun. This criminal piece of lunacy has destroyed everything that during the past 14 years had been achieved to restore faith in, and respect for, Germany.” He had come a long way.
JOURNEY TO THE ABYSS
The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918
Edited and translated by Laird M. Easton
Harry Clemens Ulrich Graf Kessler (23 May 1868 – 30 November 1937) was an Anglo-German count, diplomat, writer, and patron of modern art. English translations of his diaries "Journey to the Abyss" (2011) and "Berlin in Lights" (1971) reveal anecdotes and details of artistic, theatrical, and political life in Europe, mostly in Germany, from the late 19th century through the collapse of Germany at the end of World War I until his death in Lyon in 1937.
Harry Kessler's parents were the Hamburg banker Adolf Wilhelm Graf Kessler (24 November 1838–22 January 1895) and Alice Harriet Blosse-Lynch (born 17 July 1844 in Bombay; died 19 September 1919 in Normandy), the daughter of Anglo-Irish Henry Blosse Lynch, C.B., of Partry House, County Mayo. Kessler's parents married in Paris on 10 August 1867; Kessler was born, also in Paris, in 1868. Kessler's younger sister was born in 1877, and was named Wilhelmina after Kaiser Wilhelm I, who became the child's godfather. After marriage, her name would become Wilma de Brion.
There were many rumours about a supposed affair between Kaiser Wilhelm I and Countess Kessler. The swift rise of the Kessler family led to a legend that either Harry or his sister were the illegitimate offspring of the emperor and Alice Kessler, but Harry was born two years before his mother met the emperor, and the emperor was eighty years old when his sister Wilhelmina was born. Curiously, Alice Blosse-Lynch is recorded as having died unmarried in 1919 in Burke's Irish Family Records (1976).
Adolf Wilhelm Kessler was ennobled in 1879 and again in 1881, Harry inheriting the titles on his father's death.
Kessler grew up in France, England and Germany. Kessler was educated first in Paris and then, from 1880, in St. George's School, Ascot, an English boarding school. Following his father's wishes he enrolled in 1882 at the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg, where he completed his Abitur (high-school education). Afterwards he joined the 3rd Garde-Ulanen regiment in Potsdam and earned the rank of an army officer. He studied law and art history in Bonn and Leipzig respectively. Kessler was familiar with many cultures, travelled widely, was active as a German diplomat, and came to be known as a man of the world and patron of the arts. He considered himself part of European society. His homosexuality, which inevitably made him a psychological outsider, undoubtedly influenced his insight and critique of Wilhelmian culture.
After moving to Berlin in 1893, he worked on the Art Nouveau journal PAN, which published literary work by, among others, Richard Dehmel, Theodor Fontane, Friedrich Nietzsche, Detlev von Liliencron, Julius Hart, Novalis, Paul Verlaine and Alfred Lichtwark. The short-lived journal also published graphic works by numerous artists including Henry van de Velde, Max Liebermann, Otto Eckmann and Ludwig von Hofmann.
On 24 March 1903 Kessler assumed control of the "Museum für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe" in Weimar. There he worked with new exhibition concepts and the establishment of a permanent arts and crafts exhibit.
In 1904, during his work in Weimar, Kessler began to publish a group of bibliophilic books containing artistic compositions of typography and illustrations. In the beginning he cooperated with the German Insel Verlag. In 1913 he founded his own company, the Cranach Press, of which he became the director.
Around 1909, Kessler developed a concept for a comic opera together with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and together they wrote the scenario. Richard Strauss provided the music, and in 1911 Der Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden under the baton of Ernst von Schuch.
Around 1913 Kessler commissioned Edward Gordon Craig, an English theatrical designer and theoretician, to make woodcut illustrations for a sumptuous edition of Shakespeare's Hamlet for the Cranach Press. A German translation by Gerhart Hauptmann, with illustrations by Craig, was finally published in Weimar in 1928. The English version, edited by J. Dover Wilson, came out in 1930. This book, printed on fine paper, using different type-faces, with marginal notes with source quotations, and featuring Craig's woodcuts, is regarded by many as one of the finest examples of the printer's art to have been published in the 20th century. It is still sought by collectors worldwide.
Kessler's ideas of reforming culture went beyond the visual arts. He developed a reformation concept for the theatre which was supported by Edward Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt and Karl Vollmöller. Kessler asserted that a so-called "Mustertheater" should be established. The Belgian architect Henry van de Velde sought to design the corresponding building. On the initiative of Kessler many prominent writers were invited to introduce a literary modernity to Weimar, but the hegemonic opinions were considered too conservative and nationalistic, and the plans for the Mustertheater failed.
During his Weimar period Kessler became close friends with Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (1846–1935), the sister of late Friedrich Nietzsche. At the suggestion of Kessler, she chose Weimar as domicile for the Nietzsche-Archiv.
In 1903 Kessler launched the Deutscher Künstlerbund and became its vice-president. The consortium supported less acknowledged artists including Edvard Munch, Johannes R. Becher, Detlev von Liliencron and the painters of Die Brücke. In 1906, an exhibition commotion gave reason to depose Kessler from his office. An exhibition of drawings at the Grand Ducal Museum by Rodin and dedicated, in error, to the Grand Duke of Sax Thuringia, was considered as a risk to the wives and daughters of Weimar. This was followed by a smear campaign that Kessler considered to be an intrigue by Aimé Charles Vincent von Palezieux, retired Prussian General and court Marshall in Weimar, but which led to Kessler's resignation. Palezieux died less than a year later on 10 February 1907 just before receipt of a challenge to a duel from Kessler.
Kessler saw active service on the Western Front during World War I. In 1918 he returned to his estate in Weimar, recording that although the house seemed unchanged from 1913 and his old servants and pets greeted him with affection, his collections of paintings, statues, books and mementos reflected a European intellectual and cultural community which was now "dead, missing, scattered .. or become enemies".
During World War I Kessler and Karl Gustav Vollmoeller worked together at the German Embassy in Bern for the cultural department of the Foreign Office. They developed activities aimed at peace plans with France and England. In November 1918, Kessler was German Ambassador to Warsaw in the newly independent Poland (Second Polish Republic). In 1919 he wrote a "plan for a League of Nations on the basis of an organization of organizations (World Organisation)", which contains the constitution of such an international confederation of states. The purpose of this covenant was above all to prevent new wars, securing human rights and the regulation of world trade. Main body of this covenant would be the "World Council", which also elected an executive committee. Under his plan a Weltjustizhof, a World Court of Arbitration and administrative authorities would be built. This ordered by paragraphs plan had the form of a state constitution. Another plan for a supranational organization he developed in 1920 as "Guidelines for a true League of Nations" in the form of a resolution. In 1922 he served for a short time as the President of the German Peace Society, of which he was a member from 1919 to 1929.
In the 1920s, Kessler tried to influence as a journalist on the political debates of the Weimar Republic. He wrote essays on different social and foreign policy issues, such as socialism, or the League of Nations. He belonged to the left-liberal German Democratic Party (DDP) and wrote a biography of his 1922 murdered friend Walther Rathenau (then Foreign minister). In 1924, he was a DDP candidate for the Reichstag. When this attempt failed, he withdrew from politics. In the twenties, Kessler was frequently a guest at the Berlin SeSiSo Club. In 1932/33, material co-edited by him appeared in the magazine Das Freie Wort (The Free Word). After the Nazis' seizure of power in 1933 Kessler resigned and emigrated to Paris, then to Mallorca and finally to the southern French provinces. He died in 1937 in Lyon.
It was presumed that Kessler's earlier diaries had been lost but they were found in 1983 in a safe in Mallorca. In 2004, the first definitive nine volume edition was published in Germany and the first English edition of the 1880–1918 years was published in 2011.