Berlin In Lights – A Summary

Count Harry Kessler’s diaries are not your straightforward historical source material.

The diaries consist of a string of isolated observations spanning 29 years. They are not dominated by any particular topic. Nor are they animated by any particular sentiment, other than the desire to make a record of thoughts. They aren’t even particularly focussed on charting history as it was happening around him. The Nazis only start to feature heavily in his writings from p.396, on the advent of a stunning Reichstag victory. What’s more, when Kessler receives word of the deaths of his dog Lulu and President Ebert within 4 days of each other, he reserves his extensive eulogy for the former. As a depiction of historical events, the diaries are chaotic and inconsistent. Neither are they troubled by any concerns for historical cause and effect. They are instead, purely a record of a personal experience.

But though the selection of content was not dictated by any academic interests, the content itself is worth academic interest. Kessler was a man of many opinions, and often engaged in discussions concerning contemporary politics (‘in Berlin, I always feel as if I am going from one public meeting to another’). He was also a compulsive commentator and critic, with a flair for brief, yet comprehensive, descriptions that would make the average Twitter user green with envy. From time to time, said commentating extends into pontificating, so that the diaries are dotted with various grand theories, arguments and designs. But these are not just idle musings. Kessler’s opinions have weight, because he is vaguely involved in the political and cultural arenas he comments on. Early on in the diaries we witness his stint as German ambassador to the newly-created Poland. Later, Kessler takes part in negotiations with the British. He owned a publishing company, the Cranach Press, producing engraved and illustrated editions of books for bibliophiles. He was also a prolific writer, his most noticeable work being a biography of the Weimar Republic Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau. With this in mind, Kessler’s personal thoughts are obviously useful to the historian, as they are the thoughts of one in the know.

The quality of his knowledge is further complemented by the sheer extent and variety of his experiences. The diaries record Kessler’s travels all across Europe, particularly to France and England, but also to Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Poland and various Mediterranean islands. His social circle extended beyond national and occupational boundaries, and the diaries record Kessler hobnobbing with politicians, artists, sculptors, playwrights, producers, journalists, nobles and even scientists (on several occasions he hangs out Einstein, who, it turns out, as well as being a genius, was apparently just the nicest man). Kessler was also a true patron of the arts: his diaries reveal a man with a passion for theatre, as well as an interest in literature, painting, sculpture and cinema. This extreme variety of subject matter makes Kessler’s experience extremely valuable.

What this means is that, though the diaries provide only a personal experience, it is an experience of incredible quality. It’s only limitation lies in it being tied to Kessler’s social class. The diaries cast little light on how it might be to be one of the lower classes at this point in time, particularly since the worsening economic climate barely affects Kessler. But in terms of what Kessler experiences, he is able to provide a trustable viewpoint on the whole spectrum of European high society, politics and culture. As such they allow the reader, not necessarily to understand what was happening during the inter-War years, but what it was like to live in the midst of them.

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