Books: Cultural Amnesia — Egon Friedell |
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Egon Friedell (1878–1938), a student of natural sciences who graduated to the twin status of cabaret star and polymath, was a figure unparalleled even in Vienna, where there were several learned cabaret artists and even a few funny polymaths, but nobody else who could be both those things on such an heroic scale. To think of an equivalent in an English-speaking context is impossible: you would have to imagine a combination of George Saintsbury, Aldous Huxley, Peter Ustinov, Kenneth Clark and Isaiah Berlin. Translated into English in 1930, the three-volume set of his Cultural History of the Modern Age was such a publishing disaster that it simply vanished. Today it can be obtained only from a dealer in rare books. In the original German, however, Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit turns up second-hand all over the world, because it was a talisman for the emigration: the refugees took it with them even though, in its usual format of three volumes on thick paper, it weighed more than a brick. Of the several copies I own, the most beautifully printed, which I bought in Buenos Aires in 2000, was put out as a single volume on thin paper by Phaidon Press in London in 1947, for export back to the newly democractic Germany and Austria. (Phaidon also ensured that the book’s unfinished companion piece Kulturgeschichte des Altertums—The Cultural History of the Ancient World—was published with fitting splendour.) The scholars and book lovers of the emigration gave Friedell’s capital work a context, which could be picked up on by the German publishers after the war. I own three copies of the handsome, single-volume post-war edition put out by Beck. My intention was to use one of them as a workbench, and put into its endpapers the notes that have gone into this book. But I ended up defacing my beautiful Phaidon edition, perhaps guessing in advance that my graffiti would be labours of love. It’s that kind of book: it makes you feel civilized. The best explanation for Friedell’s continued presence in the German-speaking countries, and his absence everywhere else, is that they needed him. His writings give the comforting illusion that the historical accumulation of knowledge makes some kind of steadily increasing, and therefore irreversible, sense. He himself might have thought differently by the time of the Anschluß, when he anticipated his inevitable arrest by jumping out of his window, calling a warning as he descended: a cry whose lingering echo contains an era, with all its promise of a just world, and the despair of that world cruelly lost.

* * *
Of all the good wishes I received for my fiftieth birthday, it was yours that delighted me most.

EGON FRIEDELL’S POLITE message doesn’t sound witty at all until you are supplied with the information that it was sent as a printed card. The recipients must have loved it. You can imagine them considering themselves members of an exclusive club for the rest of their lives. A lot of Viennese wit was like that: shared jokes that travelled in a collective memory, and often didn’t get into print until a long time later. Friedrich Torberg’s retro-guide Die Tante Jolesch (Aunt Jolesch) is full of such moments, all recorded after the war, when the Anschluß, the deportations, the mass murder and the rigours of exile had trimmed the cast of characters to a random few. (One of them, the publisher Lord Weidenfeld, put me on to Die Tante Jolesch: like Alfred Brendel, he never sent me away from a conversation without a reading list.) The minor Hungarian literatus Friedrich Karinthy has vanished into obscurity but his eternal question remains unanswered: “What can you make out of a day that starts with getting out of bed?” Ferenc Molnár, the internationally successful playwright, had an acute business sense to go with his enviably marketable talent, but he was much put upon by women. When he and his ex-wife, the actress Sari Fedak, were both in American exile, she traded on his name by billing herself as Sari Fedak-Molnár. He published a brief but effective newspaper advertisement declaring that the woman calling herself Sari Fedak-Molnár was not his mother.

Molnár’s quietly delivered bombshells always dug in deep before they went off. One famous compulsive fabulist, the Jeffrey Archer of his time, never recovered what was left of his credibility after Molnár said: “He’s such a liar that not even the opposite is true.” As happens in any literary circle, some of the Viennese writers were better in conversation than they were on paper. The journalist Anton Kuh (who later died of a broken heart in New York, unable to survive out of his café context) wrote pointed articles and sketches that are well worth reading today, but his talk, by all accounts, was on another level: too good to miss and therefore, alas, too fast to catch. One of his few lines to survive is a definitive physical description of Stefan George: “He looks like an old woman who looks like an old man.” Most writers would be pleased with themselves if they could get even one crack like that into an article. Kuh talked like that all the time. A lot of them did. The main reason more of the stuff wasn’t written down was because everyone was Johnson and nobody was Boswell. It was the stuff of common interchange. The sense of something precious came after the collapse.

Although most of the Jewish figures in Vienna’s intellectual life were secular and assimilated, the rabbinical tradition was strong. The wisecracks were concentrated wisdom, and the verbal thumbnail sketches that were treasured, polished, elaborated and passed on had a moral background. The unrolling scroll of illuminated talk was a continuously enriched compendium of edifying stories: an unwritten literary text, a spoken Talmud. Wit and point were taken for granted. When everyone was a famous talker, there were no great individual reputations that could be marketed to a wider public. The contrast with pre-war New York could not be more complete. The Algonquin Round Table wits prepared their epigrams with the intention of being quoted in newspapers and magazines. The results, even at best, sound strained: they hark back to Oscar and Bosie at the Café Royal rather than to Friedell, Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg and Alfred Polgar at the Café Central, or Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Franz Werfel and Joseph Roth at the Café Herrenhof. The tradition began in the 1890s at the Café Griensteidl, where Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal were both regulars. But really it can’t be confined to the cafés: in the whole culture right through until the Nazis turned out the lights, talk was a way of being, and it was universally understood that the best talkers had the right to talk it all away. When the distinguished and wildly eccentric legal advocate Hugo Sperber played cards, people would take turns to stand behind him so they could overhear his running commentary: the queue would stretch down the aisle between the tables all the way to the door of the café. Talk was one thing and literature was something else. Even the feuilleton, a demanding genre that reached a high state of development in Vienna, was commonly thought to be more talk than literature. Alfred Polgar, the supreme master of the form, was praised to his face by Molnár as the world champion of the one-metre sprint.

For more than forty years in Vienna, talk was a way of life, and then it ended. In 1938, just before the Nazis took over, there were about 180,000 Jews in the city—down from about 201,000 in 1923. (As George Clare tells us in his exquisite memoir Last Waltz in Vienna, it was already a dying community, but nobody wanted to admit it.) After 1945 only 10,000 came back, and most of the rest, of course, had not chosen to be absent: they were absent because they had been slaughtered. But even in the great period not all the participants were Jews, and post-war, it has been argued, the tradition might well have revived, even if in restricted form. Torberg contends that there was more than one reason it didn’t. In the old days, people concerned with literature and journalism had time for a café existence even when they were busy. Peter Altenberg was only one of the many literati who did everything but sleep in the café, although he might have been unique in having it as his only address: P. Altenberg, Café Central, Wien 1. Novelists and critics wrote in the café, impresarios made their plans there, publishers read manuscripts and corrected proofs. Today, people use machinery to write, and need a telephone right in front of them, instead of in a little booth downstairs next to the lavatory. They write at the studio or in the office. They might meet for lunch at the café, but a lunch hour isn’t long enough to get the unimportant things said. The talk that counts is the talk that doesn’t matter, and to get that you need time to spare.

So argues Torberg, and there is reason in what he says: but there is also an unintended pathos, like a nervous whistle in the dark. In Vienna, the Jewish café habitués had no other real home. They were assimilated, but mainly in a technical sense: except for the café, where they could pay for a place by the hour, there was nowhere they belonged that was not overseen by a watchful landlord—the Blokleiter of the future. They could feel comfortable only in public. They could feel private only in public. Torberg tells a poignant story of seeing, in the Café Herrenhof in 1960, Leo Perutz and Otto Soyka still pursuing their no-speak policy from the years before the Anschluß. Soyka had returned to live in Vienna but Perutz was merely visiting, from his new home in Haifa. The only reason the Herrenhof was still open was that its proprietor, Albert Kainz, thought there should be a meeting point for anyone who came back from the past. These two had, but they refused to meet. Their time-honoured vendetta—some ancient business of an unexpiated insult—continued long after its context had disappeared. In the café thronged with the voices of contentious ghosts, no literary Jews remained alive except them. Their quarrel was all they had left, and no doubt they preserved it as a way of pretending that this much, at least, had not altered.

Horrific evidence suggests that the Austrian Nazis, when their armbands were still in their pockets, put the café talk high on their long list of Jewish intellectual pursuits to be trampled out of existence when the great day came. The future firebrands and executioners had been listening in for years, probably inflamed as much by sincere disapproval as by thick-witted jealousy. After a single orgiastic day of violence in March 1938 there was no-one left who had anything to say worth hearing. Hugo Sperber, already worn out from too many years of living on thin pickings, was thrown to the ground and kicked until he fell silent for good. Fritz Grunbaum, one of the stars of the Simplicissimus cabaret, was arrested within hours of the takeover, shipped to Dachau, and beaten to death. Whether in Austria or Germany, it had never been the fault of the Jews that they were so slow to realize the catch in the assimilationist ideal: the more indispensable to culture they became, the more they were resented. Hitler needed no telling that there were a lot of brilliant Jews from whom German-speaking culture had gained lustre. That was what he was afraid of: of a bacillus being called clever, and of the phosphorescence of decay being hailed as an illumination. For him, as for every racial hygienist, the whole thing was a medical problem, and the last thing he was likely to contemplate was that the medical problem might lie within himself. He didn’t know he was sick. He thought he was well. Convinced racists think they are healthy: their conscience can’t be appealed to, they have no better self that might repudiate the lesser one, and they bend all the powers of human reason to the unreasonable, without reservation. For the Jewish intelligentsia, cultivated to the fingertips, it was very hard to grasp the intensity of the irrationality they were dealing with—the irrationality that was counting the hours until it could deal with them. Even in Auschwitz, some of the enslaved musicians must have thought that Schubert’s writing for strings would melt Dr. Mengele’s heart, as it had always melted theirs. And it did melt his heart. It just didn’t change his mind. Similarly, there were probably crypto-Nazi kibitzers who laughed at the running commentary of Hugo Sperber as he played cards. But that was exactly why they wanted him dead. They wanted their jokes to be the funny ones, and they got their wish.

It should be said that Friedell’s great book, for much of its enormous length, does not use wit for its texture. But it always has wit for a basis. The Viennese tradition of the enlightening wisecrack is there underneath, supporting a prose narrative that never loses its geniality even when talking about the Black Death. Friedell didn’t always feel compelled to be funny. But he was never unfunny, in the sense of straining to amuse, and missing the mark. For him the whole target was a bullseye, and he could let fly at his leisure. He saw the same quality in Shaw, whom he admired, perhaps to excess. When Friedell dedicated the English translation of The Cultural History of the Modern Age to Shaw, the dedicatee was already a known admirer of the dictators. Friedell would never have been capable of such a misplaced enthusiasm. He would have been a valuable voice in the English-speaking world if he had ever been taken up, but his name was never well-known in Britain or the United States except to the German-speaking refugees. Today it is so thoroughly forgotten that he is not even listed in the excellent Chambers Biographical Dictionary, which finds room for Finnish playwrights of the second order, and is usually good about those who once were prominent but are so no longer. Friedell, however, was never there to be forgotten. But if we know nothing about him, he, true to form, knew a lot about us. He was a student of British cultural history and wrote one of the best appreciations of Lord Macaulay. Typically playing himself in with a witticism—Friedell the cabaret artist always knew how to buttonhole the audience—he said that Macaulay was so highly regarded in Britain that his book of collected essays was included in any list of classics. In the English-speaking countries, Friedell pointed out, a list of classics was regarded as a guide to books that should be read, and not, as in the German-speaking countries, to books that should be avoided. It’s easy to imagine that idea starting its life at a café table. Harder to imagine is how the giant could walk away from his laughing friends, climb the stairs to his apartment, and settle down for another day’s lonely work on his strange and wonderful attempt to get the whole of creation into a nutshell.

Electricity and magnetism are those forces of nature by which people who know
nothing about electricity and magnetism can explain everything.

In his great book, Egon Friedell regales us with thousands of lines like this. If they were fully separable from their context, they would be aphorisms: we could pick them out like jewels from a crown. But they are more like threads and knots in a tapestry, and can’t be pulled loose without violating the texture. Suitably aware, however, that we are doing his masterwork an injury, we can memorize some of his best moments and reproduce them in conversation, although morality demands that we should acknowledge the borrowing. After all, he did. This line is one of the many he lifted from someone else. Friedell gives the provenance: one Gustav von Bunge said it in his Lehrbuch (Textbook) der Physiologie, and it wasn’t his line either. He was quoting a professor of physics who said it in a lecture. Thus, all the way back to anonymity, we can follow the trajectory of a shining notion. The tapestry analogy breaks down. Friedell’s mighty gathering place of a text is a game park, a menagerie, an aviary and an aquarium. Sentences live in it as our dreams are populated with fragments of experience, often including experience we have not yet had, and may never have. It follows that the importance of always identifying a source lies not only in common justice, but in truth to life. Whether we like it or not, individuality is the product of a collective existence. Few writers have ever had a more identifiable tone of voice than Egon Friedell. But the tone was a synthesis of all the voices he had ever heard, and so is ours. If we had never heard anyone else, we would not sound more like ourselves; we would sound like Kaspar Hauser the savage infant, on the day he was rescued from solitude. In the matter of style, freedom lies in all the ways we have been a prisoner of someone else’s example. He might only have been a school bus conductor with a gift for sardonic verbal abuse. She might only have been the woman who stamped your card at the lending library. But they gave you the gift that comes next after the gift of speech: the gift to give it shape.

Obviously, in wit, there are degrees of humour, from intense to non-existent. What is funny is a matter of dispute, but I have always found the anonymous humour of Hollywood immensely funny. Nobody knows who first said: “She’d be a nymphomaniac if only they could slow her down.” But whoever thought of that line knew a lot about humour: probably he worked in it professionally, in some branch of the film business, although I doubt if he was a writer. (If he had been, he would have a found a way of letting us know who he was.) One day, perhaps on the spur of the moment, he—or, come to think of it, more likely she—came out with a witty line that was also creasingly funny. Slightly lower down the scale of tickled ribs, there are witty lines that make you smile with appreciation—the smile that acknowledges how you almost laughed.

On that level one can place many of Oscar Wilde’s best epigrams: the ones that are condensed without being leaden, and fashioned without being laboured. “Meredith is a sort of prose Browning, and so is Browning.” But much of the most valuable wit forms at a level where laughter is neither induced nor sought, and even a smile is not required: the level where a sense of rightness combines with a sense of neatness, and a nod of the head is enough to acknowledge the blend. It’s possible to say that on this level all wits sound the same. They are not monotonous—quite the reverse—but they do share a tone: the enviable tone of something put with sufficient cogency to make the listener feel that if he can’t remember exactly how the thing was said, he won’t remember exactly what the thing was. It is as if there were one precisely codified set of manners operating, which all its adepts know equally.

As a result, it’s easy to mistake them for one another. As an illustration, I once quoted several aphorisms by Hugh Kingsmill, capped them with a single aphorism by Santayana, and defied the reader to spot the difference. In my memory, the one by Santayana is “A fanatic redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” But I would not be surprised to be told that it is by Kingsmill. It is not so much that the memory plays tricks: rather that, in this area of distilled truth, there is not all that much difference between personalities. “We are asleep,” says Baptiste to Garance in Les Enfants du Paradis, “but sometimes we wake up just long enough to realize we are dreaming.” “If all the people who lived together were in love,” says Wittgenstein, “the earth would shine like the sun.” It is easy to imagine the attributions reversed; and indeed, without your permission, I just reversed them; it was in Jacques Prevert’s screenplay that the shining earth appeared, and the moonlit line about the dreaming sleepers came from the thin-lipped mouth of the sad philosopher.

Vauvenargues the unlucky aristocrat is a larger spirit than La Bruyère the rising bourgeois, and both would have been more fun to meet for a drink than La Rochefoucauld, whose contempt for mankind would have been unlikely not to have included us. They were three very different minds, but you would need to know an awful lot about the treasury of the French aphorism never to misattribute a coup by one of them to either of the others. The same applies even on the dizzy level where wit becomes funny: in the brief span that the Italians usefully call a battuta there is not much room for an individual personality to show up, so all the wits sound like the one sparkling soul, and on our deathbeds—if we do much laughing there—it will probably be a matter of hearing the jokes that go past our ears rather than of seeing the people who cracked them go past our eyes. When forgetfulness confers anonymity, it could well be that justice will be restored. I doubt if Liberace was the first to say “I cried all the way to the bank.” It sounds like Old Hollywood, and could very well be Old Vienna. Dorothy Parker might not have been the actual inventor of the joke about the woman who injured herself sliding down a barrister. Except for Flann O’Brien, there was never a new pun, although always an alert plagiarist. Dorothy Parker could think the stuff up, but you can tell that it took effort: in her theatre reviews, she could barely manage one real zinger each time, even when it was expected of her. A wit under pressure to produce is very apt to borrow on the sly.

Friedell could go on and on being wise because he didn’t feel compelled to be funny. He thought it sufficient to be interesting: a desirable condition for a writer to be in. Comedians do not enjoy the same luxury, although they always aspire to it: given the chance, they will construct a framework in which character makes the points, so that they can relax. The necessity to go on throwing a double six is nerve-racking and eventually not even amusing. A commentator probably does better to accept that too many wisecracks are a mistake. Even Mark Twain soured some of his early travel writing in Europe by dragging in a vaudeville routine when he should have been focusing his observations, which were always the most interesting features of his pieces, and often the funniest.

Friedell was one of those enchanted spirits who are observant over the whole range of human experience from everyday behaviour up to the most exalted level of creativity: indeed he scarcely recognized the hierarchy, and took it all as an isotropic universe of delicious excitement. Finding everything significant, he was in a good position to appreciate the perennial charm of the charlatan, whose expertise is to convince the hayseeds that they share the same propensity for universal insight. It is not enough for the mountebank to unleash a theory that explains everything: to be successful, he must convince his gormless onlookers that the same theory has always been in their possession, but now stands suddenly revealed. They reward him for what he has discovered in them, and buy his snake oil as a vote of thanks.

Memories from childhood tell me that it can be deeply disturbing to be addressed by an adult in the grip of such all-encompassing certitude. It sounded like madness even before I could tell sense from nonsense, and ever since, through a life now blessedly stretching to some length, I have been periodically rocked to meet otherwise normal-sounding people who are suddenly taken over by the same rhythmic rant. Those in the grip of an all-encompassing Answer soon make it clear that the desire to be so enlightened has more to do with personality than intelligence. Few men were more intelligent than Arthur Koestler, for example. He was one of the first prominent international commentators to develop a case of clear-sightedness about what was going on in the Soviet Union. During the Spanish Civil War, savage maltreatment by the NKVD helped to open his eyes. He stopped believing in communism as an Answer. But he started believing in everything else: one fad after another until the end of his life. He thought the world was going to be put to rights by science fiction, by J. B. Rhine’s researches into the paranormal, by a Lysenko-like offshoot of Lamarckian evolution. Finally he asked his ageing but loyal audience of intellectual supermarket browsers to fall to their knees in wonder when they heard a word on the radio at the same time as they were reading it in a book—to be impressed, that is, by mere coincidence. Throughout this stentorian career of waxing and waning enthusiastic, Koestler always maintained his solid capacity for realistic observation and cosmopolitan savvy. He was hard to fool, except when the boondoggle was big enough, and sounded like science. If you want to read an essay whose humour attains the level of a cosmic joke, read P. B. Medawar’s demolition of Koestler’s theories about the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Medawar put his fastidious finger exactly on the throbbing point of the fervent amateur’s psychological problem: Koestler was science-struck. Untrained in science himself, he had a taste for it—the fatal proclivity for magnetism.

As Robert Musil said in praise of Alfred Polgar, our only idée fixe should be the determination to avoid one. But the bonnet-filling bee is a tireless migrant, and can even show up in fields nominally concerned with the rational employment of the brain. Apart from the sharpness of the disappointment, there should be no surprise in the fact that the philosopher’s stone has always made its most prominent appearance in philosophy itself, where its looming outline is the surest mark of incompetence. But monomania would be easier to deal with if the sufferer were of one mind: we could just avoid him. Unfortunately it is quite possible for the subtle visionary and the shouting dunce to inhabit the same skull, so that Wagner the anti-Semite will always be there to help convince aspiring race scientists that they know something about politics, and perhaps even something about music. Newton’s celestial mechanics constitute a mental achievement sublime beyond estimation. But those same exalted capacities of ratiocination spent years plugging away at a system of chronology whose fraudulence was self-evident to any shopkeeper. From the evidence supplied by history’s teeming reservoir of minds simultaneously clear and crazed, the logical inference can only be that we probably all suffer—somewhere on the pathway winding through our heads there is a philosopher’s stone waiting to trip us up. But as long as we don’t hit anyone else with it, we are probably doing well. One of the loveliest women I ever knew was a believer in colonic irrigation as an aid to beauty. She was mad enough to think that it had worked for her. But she wasn’t mad enough to suggest that it might have worked for me. On that showing, I would have pronounced her sane, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stand surety for how she might have behaved if the Moonies had got hold of her. Fifty years before, it might have been Reich’s orgone box, and fifty years before that it might have been the theories of Madame Blavatsky. When the beautiful Magda Rietschel met her future second husband, she had just finished being passionate about Buddhism. Before that, it had been Zionism. In order to marry Josef Goebbels, she became equally passionate about National Socialism. Her latest and last enthusiasm made even less sense than the others, but there can be no doubt it convinced her: she not only killed herself for it, she made certain that her children died too. And so on, all the way back through history, in which the beautiful women, because they get written about, are forever cropping up in the grip of the latest explanatory fad, whose essential property is to console them for having been picked out from other mortals, and thus made to feel so mortal. Friedell caught the essential truth about people prone to catch-all theories: they aren’t in search of the truth, they’re in search of themselves.

Mankind in the Christian era possesses one huge advantage over the ancients: a bad conscience.

Friedell wrote this not long before the Nazis arrived in Vienna. Had he survived the onset of the new barbarians, Friedell might have modified an unwarrantably uplifting sentiment. He must have been revising it in his mind long before he went out of the window, because it had already turned out that he had chosen too confident a grammatical form for the verb. Mankind in the Christian era ought to possess a bad conscience. By the time of his wisely chosen suicide, the evidence had already been coming in from Germany for the previous five years that Christianity was in for a comprehensive rewrite, the main aim being to jettison its moral encumbrances, of which the bad conscience was the most burdensome.

Even if the Nazis had stayed where they belonged, at the ragged edge of politics instead of in the centre, the same sort of evidence would still have been coming in from Russia for a full twenty years. A conscience of any kind, good or bad, was never listed as an item of a Bolshevik’s mental equipment. Loyalties beyond the state’s declared aims were thought to be inimical, and an a priori set of values carried within the mind could have no higher status than that of a psychological problem. Since Christianity was the main source of the problem, the elimination of Christianity was a state aim from the word go. The state could have lived with the icons and the incense. The icon, in fact, was about to come into its age of gold, even if the gold was the light gilded alloy of the badges that bore the images of Lenin and Stalin, and which always startled you by weighing no more that snowflakes when you picked them up.

But the Soviet state could never live with spiritual values. Strangely enough, the Nazi state could, as long as the spiritual values were aimed in the right direction, along the path of Parsifal, or of Siegfried on his journey down the Rhine. Compared with the Soviet state, which was a monolith, the Nazi state was a bucket of eels, with conflicting values of individual conscience having validity independently of the programmes of state power. Even near the top, departments were in contention. There were even different departments to interpret orthodoxy, so that Alfred Rosenberg, the cultural “expert” on policies towards foreign populations in the East, would have ideas on race that other top Nazis thought stupid. To get a ruling was hard: Hitler would have preferred it if all his subordinates were in conflict with each other, always. Only the paper-pusher Martin Bormann ever succeeded in imposing hegemony, and he could do so only as an exercise in pure bureaucracy, after Nazi power to influence events had ceased to be a reality. The Nazi state got its act together when it could no longer act. There was always room in the upper reaches of the Nazis’ earthbound Valhalla for dreamers to imagine they were following the true path—for an appeal to spiritual values of chivalric dedication. Himmler brought it down to pentagrams and runes, but even among the SS there were would-be Teutonic Knights in the picture. It was possible to dream of being Parsifal—Parsifal standing upright in the turret of a Tiger tank. Siegfried could carry a flame-thrower charged with Wotan’s magic fire. The mark of sentimentality it is to be all choked up with feeling about nothing, and the mark of black-and-silver ceremonial was to upgrade sentimentality to the religious plane by working towards a future in which nostalgia for the supposed purities of the heroic past would become real. The time and treasure that the Nazis put into mumbo-jumbo was one of the marks of their regime. Other racist regimes have been more pragmatic. In post-war South Africa under apartheid, when it became expedient to make the Japanese racially acceptable, they were simply declared racially acceptable. Under the Nazis, when it became expedient that the Japanese should be reclassified as Aryans, Himmler poured a lot of the Reich’s money and effort into proving the point scholastically. Cynicism could have worked the trick in an instant, but sincerity demanded evidence. Nothing except the fervour of religious belief can explain such a rush of blood to the head.

After the defeat, the Nazis vanished completely. Officers of the occupying powers forgivably got the idea that the party membership had consisted of nothing but opportunists. Some of the opportunists were among the hierarchs. Goebbels stood out for his willigness to accompany Hitler to oblivion. Himmler and Goering were both ready to forget the whole thing. But we should not overlook the dreamers: there were many men who looked back on their duties not just as a dedication of moral effort, but as a sacred rite. Those quondam mass executioners who talked about “the task” were the Nazis we should not write off. Many of them, after the war, grew comfortable enough to wear fleece-lined car coats, drive a big Mercedes, and die in bed, and some could not resist telling the television reporters how sad it was to see a new generation of young people who believed in nothing and had no respect for values, because they had never done anything hard and clean. There is no reason to believe that those terrible old men were faking their disgust. They remembered their lives as a crusade.

The religious trappings of the Nazi movement were kitsch, like all its art: but as with the art, they left a long echo in the mind for as long as the mind had nothing else in it. It was by no great act of cynical calculation that Nazi liturgical material could be pitched unerringly at the kind of people who were genuinely moved by tripe. It was concocted by the same sort of people. Bad taste gives aesthetic expression to the aspirations of upstarts, and part of the appeal of Nazism was in the way it turned social mobility into a path of adventure rewarded with decorations at every step. The kind of women who could pin a diamond studded swastika to a bias-cut jersey silk evening dress were thrilled by the kind of men who had learned just enough about Wagner’s Siegmund to fancy the idea of impregnating Sieglinde. When the years of power were over, there was plenty to be nostalgic about. The memorabilia market was soon in the position of having to manufacture souvenirs: there are probably more SS ceremonial daggers in existence now than there were in 1945. In the Soviet Union, by contrast, nobody ever felt the same way about the paste cookies cranked out by the state medal factories. A Soviet officer at general staff rank was covered with medals like a pangolin with scales, to no lasting effect except on the spectator’s funny bone. The Soviets knew nothing about rarity value, whereas the Nazis made sure that the ascending grades of a high decoration all occupied the same focal space—the Knight’s Cross was worn at the neck, and so was the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The “Diamonds” was referred to in the singular and almost invariably conferred by Hitler personally. The aim was to stress quality over quantity, and once again the trick worked particularly well on people who had not been brought up to know the difference. After the Berlin Wall came down I bought a KGB cap (it was from a clerical branch of the KGB: no rough stuff, and therefore not very glamorous) at a stall near the Brandenburg Gate for a few dollars. An equivalent SS cap would have cost a hundred times as much, and I would have had to buy it in Islington. In Germany, the stuff is so precious it either circulates in secret or is crated for export to America’s alarming abundance of people who find the Nazis glamorous. The big question, in Germany, has always been whether the hard-eyed sentimentality would live on into the next generation. The question was hard to answer because the older generation was so slow to go away. Nobody lives longer than those old men who got tough from killing children. They can ski until they’re ninety. They don’t even lose their hair.

It can be said that the Nazi brew of Nordic saga, Wagnerian fable and elfin tomfoolery had little to do with the Christian concept of conscience. There is truth to that, although we ought not to leave out the consideration that for many centuries a Christian conscience was no obstacle to the most hideously comprehensive persecution of unbelievers. Nevertheless the liberal conscience, the conscience we really value, would never have arrived in the world unless the Christian conscience had preceded it; so Christianity can be conceded the primacy.

When Friedell talked about a bad conscience, he meant the mind that was capable of seeing that might and right were not the same thing. The Nazis were dedicated heart and soul to observing no such discrepancy. Their superstitions served merely to make them feel better about it. If the Communists had managed to come good on their declared aim of abolishing all superstitions, they would have been even more frightening than the Nazis. It is a weird kind of consolation, but at least it is something, to have evidence that they couldn’t keep up the secular momentum beyond the death of Lenin. Already during Lenin’s life, his writings and sayings had been awarded religious value, like the poetry of Virgil, which for a large part of the Christian era was consulted as an oracle. Even as late as the seventeenth century, and in a country as civilized as England, people were still poking a finger at random into the Aeneid to be given a portent of an upcoming battle. Lenin was awarded that treatment while he lived, having given the lead by the way he treated the writings of Marx. After Lenin’s death, the embalming fluid was an interior anointment presaging the divinity to come. Stalin’s act as the Son of God depended on Lenin’s continuing as God, so the corpse remained safe. The superstitions attached to Stalin need not be rehearsed. Though they generated boredom on an intercontinental scale, they remain interesting to the extent that he agreed with them: the great realist really seems to have believed, for example, that he knew something by instinct about economics, biology and military strategy. Stalin’s capacity to join in the superstitions centred on his person is the gateway to the larger subject of how an utterly cock-eyed metaphysics guaranteed that the Soviet experiment could not possibly succeed even though the men who led it were ready to murder the innocent en masse.

It was hell; nor were they out of it; and the fuel that fed the flames was superstition of the most unsophisticated kind. The superstition which held that bread and wine turned into the body and blood of Christ always had a poetic justification even when men were burning each other in disagreement about whether it really happened, and on a practical level it scarcely matters whether it is true or not, because only the spiritual life is, or should be, affected. But the superstition that Soviet agriculture would do better if it were collectivized by force was one that killed people by the millions, and none were more certain to be victims than those who looked as if they might know the truth. There is a great danger, here, in ascribing the whole disaster to Stalin’s personal mania. Young people today who find it thrilling to flirt with the notion that they might be Trotskyites should know that Trotsky’s voice was the very loudest in calling for a more thorough “militarization” of the struggle against the reactionaries on the land: by which he meant that the peasants weren’t being massacred in sufficient numbers. It can be concluded, however, that agriculture was an area in which Stalin was particularly loopy. Almost certainly it was the importance of biological research to agriculture that made Stalin see the attractions of putting the ineffable T. D. Lysenko in charge of biology.

Lysenko preached the kind of biological theories that Stalin could understand: i.e., they were poppycock. Stalin gave Lysenko the power of life and death over a whole field of science. The result was the collapse of Soviet biology and the permanent ruin of Soviet agriculture, which never again produced enough grain to feed the nation. (The difference was made up by importing part of the American surplus at a knock-down price, a sub rosa agreement which continued throughout the Cold War.) But lest it be thought that Lysenko was the invention of Stalin and Stalin alone, it should be noted that it took the intervention of Andrei Sakharov, then still at the height of his prestige as the golden boy of Soviet physics, to persuade Khrushchev against favouring Lysenko’s comeback. The dreadful truth was that the superstitions had reached so deep into the fabric of the Soviet polity that nothing except a complete collapse could get them out. The notion that a government can plan a whole economy, for example, was already known to be a superstition at the time of Marx. By the time of Lenin, there were no serious economic theorists in the world who thought that a command economy could exist without a large area of private enterprise. Stalin spent his whole career in power proving that a state could plan every detail of an economy only at the cost of terrorizing a large part of the population which might have hoped to benefit from it.

By the time of Brezhnev, the Soviet Union had effectively given up. The Twenty-fifth Party Congress in 1976 decreed that the quality of consumer goods would be raised. I was there at the time and saw the decree hoisted into position on every second building, in red letters anything up to six feet high. The Soviet Union certainly knew how to make signs. But nobody knew how to raise the quality of consumer goods. Brezhnev’s own consumer goods were all bought abroad, like his cars. Brezhnev bought his shoes in Rome because no shoe factory in the Soviet Union could produce a pair of shoes that didn’t leak—a state of affairs which Stalin’s era had long ago proved as especially likely to come about if you threaten to shoot the official in charge. By Gorbachev’s time, the party hierarchs were no longer making a secret of having their tailoring done abroad. (When filming in Rome, I had a jacket made by the celebrated tailor Littrico, and found out that I had the same measurements as Gorbachev: they were on file in Littrico’s office.) Even while it was still a qualification for membership of the Politburo that the old dreams should be paid earnest lip service as if they still had some life in them, Andropov, head of the KGB, was preparing his organization for the novel concept of not ruling by terror. Sakharov had tried and failed to tell the Party that unless the Soviet Union embraced the concept of freedom of information there would be no way to continue. U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz tried to tell Gorbachev the same, with pie charts. But Andropov didn’t need telling. The intelligence community in the Soviet Union were the people who knew from experience that information and superstition were different things. The story of how the Soviet Union backed out of its historical cul-de-sac is adequately told in Scott Shane’s Dismantling Utopia, but it would be a blessing if John le Carré could occupy himself with the biggest single mystery ever to come out of Moscow Central—how the men charged with State Security managed to conspire against the state without becoming victims of each other merely for suggesting it. In his last years, I. F. Stone, an erstwhile sympathizer turned unyielding scourge, developed an elaborate theory to prove that the Soviet apparatus of control could never voluntarily dismantle itself. Before the eminent sociologist Aleksandr Zinoviev was expelled from Russia, he had already developed a similar theory, taking it so far as to suggest that even dissident writings like his own had come into existence only to support the structure by acting as a safety valve. There would be no retreat. It couldn’t happen.

It couldn’t happen, but it happened. The story is hard to summarize and of course it isn’t over yet, any more than history is over. Since the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons are even more dangerous now than when the state was making sure they were chipped free of rust, it is quite possible that the end of history is in the offing, but not in the way that Francis Fukuyama was talking about. It was yet another superstition to believe that the collapse of one of history’s most complete totalitarian dystopias would be succeeded automatically by a functioning democracy, as day follows night. In politics, it is more likely that a deep enough night will be followed by a lot more night, and then by nothing at all. But to be too confident about that happening in this case would be yet another superstition, and would lead us away from the fascinating question of where men like Andropov got their bad consciences from. They grew up in an atmosphere of unrelieved moral squalor. Through bad faith, they flourished; and good faith would have held them back. The system had been designed so that they always stood to benefit personally from the decay around them. If the whole thing had gone to the dogs, they would have been all right. Yet they chose to dismantle the system that had given them their careers. Most men bend with the breeze: which is to say, they go with the prevailing power. But a few do not. With or without Christ’s help, they grow a bad conscience. Thank God for that.