Journey to the Abyss
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These fascinating, never-before-published early diaries of Count Harry Kessler—patron, museum director, publisher, cultural critic, soldier, secret agent, and diplomat—present a sweeping panorama of the arts and politics of Belle Époque Europe, a glittering world poised to be changed irrevocably by the Great War. Kessler’s immersion in the new art and literature of Paris, London, and Berlin unfolds in the first part of the diaries. This refined world gives way to vivid descriptions of the horrific fighting on the Eastern and Western fronts of World War I, the intriguing private discussions among the German political and military elite about the progress of the war, as well as Kessler’s account of his role as a diplomat with a secret mission in Switzerland.
Profoundly modern and often prescient, Kessler was an erudite cultural impresario and catalyst who as a cofounder of the avant-garde journal Pan met and contributed articles about many of the leading artists and writers of the day. In 1903 he became director of the Grand Ducal Museum of Arts and Crafts in Weimar, determined to make it a center of aesthetic modernism together with his friend the architect Henry van de Velde, whose school of design would eventually become the Bauhaus. When a public scandal forced his resignation in 1906, Kessler turned to other projects, including collaborating with the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the German composer Richard Strauss on the opera Der Rosenkavalier and the ballet The Legend of Joseph, which was performed in 1914 by the Ballets Russes in London and Paris. In 1913 he founded the Cranach-Presse in Weimar, one of the most important private presses of the twentieth century.
The diaries present brilliant, sharply etched, and often richly comical descriptions of his encounters, conversations, and creative collaborations with some of the most celebrated people of his time: Otto von Bismarck, Paul von Hindenburg, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Sarah Bernhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Marie Rilke, Paul Verlaine, Gordon Craig, George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville-Barker, Max Klinger, Arnold Böcklin, Max Beckmann, Aristide Maillol, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Éduard Vuillard, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Ida Rubinstein, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Pierre Bonnard, and Walther Rathenau, among others.
Remarkably insightful, poignant, and cinematic in their scope, Kessler’s diaries are an invaluable record of one of the most volatile and seminal moments in modern Western history.
to spread conservative principles. g “The first English revolution” refers to the civil war that overthrew Charles I and led to Cromwell’s short-lived republic (1649–1660); the second to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, overthrowing James II. h Weltpolitik, “world policy,” was the slogan of German imperialists, especially Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow. Among its consequences was the beginning of the construction of a German high-seas fleet that could challenge Britain’s Royal
that is there, all is all right.” London. April 30, 1906. Monday. Visited Sir Ernest Cassel.z He proposed to ask the Duchess of Devonshire. If Metternich wants to do it he should come to him in Newmarket. He invited him along. The mood here, however, was very anti-German. Now it’s been sharpened again by the Egyptian border incident. The German-born ones here, he and the Duchess of Devonshire—“we,” as he says of himself and her—were waiting for the moment to overcome this bad feeling, but the
slept. Most carry a loaf of bread as their most precious possession under the arm, and then all kinds of household goods tied up in handkerchiefs. In Namur there were fires everywhere. The cadavers of horses lay about, thickly swollen and spreading the odor of plague across the streets, also the bodies of those who had been shot. We descended at the Hotel de Hollande where the governor was staying. The rooms and beds were still not made up since the hasty flight of the Belgian and French
power, because no neutral power or combination of powers has the strength to do so, so only the inner situation of one of the belligerent nations can compel it to make peace. Actually only one power is vulnerable to such a compulsion: England via submarine warfare, if we have sufficient submarines to almost starve it out. (The occupation of Egypt, as bad as it would be for the British Empire, would be less dangerous to Great Britain than the already accomplished occupation of Belgium to which it
Prussian militarism. No copy seems to have survived, alas. b As part of his policy of pursuing war “to the utmost,” Clemenceau had Joseph Caillaux (whose wife had shot dead the editor of Le Figaro on June 28, 1914) arrested as a defeatist and put on trial for treason. c The Bolsheviks, fearing correctly that the peace terms the Germans would impose would be very harsh, hoped that they might be able to create a revolution at least in Germany, or that the threat of their revolutionary agitation