Post-Soviet Visions @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation was set up about ten years ago to celebrate the culture and creativity of the formerly communist nations of the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. The term they use to cover all these countries is ‘the New East’, meaning the countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

Calvert 22 is a not-for profit organisation which aims not only to promote art, film, photography, fashion and other cultural activities from the region, but also to stimulate debate and discussion. Hence the busy schedule of screenings, talks and debates (details on their website).

As well as the London headquarters and exhibition space – Calvert 22 Space – they publish the Calvert Journal – an online magazine of New East contemporary culture – and organise the Calvert Forum – a think tank for the New East, focused on research and policy for the creative industries.

Oh, and the name? it comes from the address. It’s located at 22 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP.

Post-Soviet Visions: Image and identity in the new Eastern Europe

This is a group show of photography by a young generation of artists from the former USSR and communist countries, namely Russia, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Most of them were either born or came to maturity after the collapse of the USSR in 1990, and grew up amid the ruins of their grandparents’ utopian dreams. They were teenagers and young people just like anywhere else except poorer, living amid the crumbling infrastructure of impoverished states, and above all completely disillusioned. Kids in America or Britain or France, for all their complaints, have a history of democracy and high ideals which can be mocked but do have some basis in fact. What did the USSR achieve to be proud of? Where did it leave its children? Those not fortunate to be born into the nomenklatura or mafia families, have been chucked on the scrapheap.

The result is that these photos of young people convey an overpowering sense of aimless futility. It’s all high rise alienation – teenage vodka parties, tattoos, bad attitude, and cheap rip-offs of American music and clothes.

The photographers

Jędrzej Franek (Poland) is the executive editor of Stacja Poznan, a cultural, architectural and design web platform. He is project manager of the Poznan Design Festival. He’s represented by three big colour photos of buildings, the best of which (below) gives the high rise a kind of romantic lustre, not unlike a mountain in the mist. That said, these high rises could be anywhere – New York, Moscow or down the road in Hackney. It represents an international style in inhuman alienation.

Jędrzej Franek

Jędrzej Franek

Dima Komarov (21) Born in 1997, in Yoshkar-Ola, Mari El Republic, Russia. Dima is a self-taught photographer and Post-Soviet Visions is his first major exhibition. He’s represented by eleven colour pics about A4 size of his mates, a gallery of pissed-off poor teenagers. What struck me is how 70s and 80s their clothes were. If the New East is meant to be at the forefront of fashion it’s going to have to try harder than this. I think I had a tartan-lined windcheater like the one below back in the 70s, and there’s a great shot of a surly skinhead wearing a Ben Sherman shirt from the 1980s.

Dima Komarov

Dima Komarov

David Meshki (39) was born in 1979 in Tbilisi, Georgia. After gaining an academic degree in photography, he worked as a photographer for major Georgian cultural magazines. His first solo show consisted of photographs of skaters and athletes taken in his native country and he went on to co-direct the award-winning documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light, based on his photographs. He’s represented by five photos (2 b&w, three colour) of skater dudes with their trademark long hair and this shot – possibly the best in the exhibition – which has been blown up to fill an entire wall. Way to go, Georgia dude.

David Meskhi

David Meskhi

Apart from being spectacular photo, it’s also an obvious symbol of unstoppable youth, all energy and fearlessness, transcending the crumbling concrete infrastructure of the junk countries they’ve inherited.

Patrick Bienert and Max von Gumppenberg have been working together since 2007. Travelling between Germany and New York, they explore concepts of culture and identity grounded in the heritage of street and documentary photography. The nine black-and-white and five colour photos here, of sullen youths and crappy townscapes, are described as ‘a love letter to the rave scene in Kiev’.

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Genia Volkov (37) was born in the Crimea, then in the Ukraine, back in 1981, and educated at the Institute of Journalism in Kiev. He became a self-taught multimedia artist. He’s represented by three big colour photos, highly stylised, two of them taken at night of hands reaching out or a scattering of star-like fireworks. He enjoys the effect of unnatural lighting, which sets him apart from the overwhelmingly naturalistic, photorealism of the other snappers.

Genia Volkov

Genia Volkov

Armen Parsadanov (36) Born in Baku in 1982 and Armn has lived and worked in Kiev from 2013. He’s represented by thirteen black and white prints, unframed and taped to the wall, looking like results of a photo shoot with fashionably wasted youths and blonde models, taped up to be selected by a magazine editor.

Armen Parsadanov

Armen Parsadanov

Masha Demianova studied journalism and creative writing before turning to photography. She’s represented by two neat rows of three A4-sized black and white photos. Apparently, she is ‘a pioneer of the female gaze photography movement in Russia’, ‘challenging prevailing notions of female sexuality and desire’. So the shots are of naked women in non-sexy poses, standing on a jetty or squatting on a tree. The most striking one for me was unrelated to female desire, a shot of multiple car headlights on a motorway in a thick fog.

Masha Demianova

Masha Demianova

Grigor Devejiev  is a photographer with over a decade of experience working in fashion, whose atmospheric, gritty pics have been included in international fashion magazines including i-D and Metal. He’s represented by three big A3-sized colour photos of shabby looking people in threatening poses in really run-down horrible buildings. The full crappiness is brought out by the use of flash which projects cheap shadows behind the dodgy looking characters.

Grigor Derevjiev

Grigor Derevjiev

Hassan Kurbanbaev (36) Born in 1982 in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, Hassan was educated at the Tashkent State University of Arts. He began his career as a cinematographer, producing short films focusing on social and youth issues. He’s represented here by a series of colour photos of pissed-off Tashkent teens, part of his Tashkent Youth project. Apparently, Tashkent is one of the youngest cities in the world, with 60% of the population under 25. This young lady doesn’t look too thrilled about it.

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Ieva Raudsepa Born in Latvia, Raudsepa is now based in Los Angeles. Her photographic work has been exhibited and featured internationally, including in i-D, YET, Latvian Photography Yearbook, FK Magazine. She’s represented here by 13 colour and two black-and-white photos, all of different sizes and arranged higgledy-piggledy so that some are overlapping.

She’s the only photographer who takes landscapes. Most of the photos are of more gangly, alienated youths but even these are photographed on mossy banks or in lakes. I’ve chosen a misty morning landscape for the sake of variety.

Ieva Raudsepa

Ieva Raudsepa

Michal Korta was born in Poland and studied German philology and photography. He has been working in photography for more than 15 years, working with press, advertising agencies and international cultural institutions, and is a lecturer on photography in Poland and Switzerland. He’s represented by four lovely black and white photos of the weird brutalist concrete architecture of Skopje in Macedonia, from his Beautiful Monsters series. All four are marvellous.

Michael Korta

Michael Korta

Paulina Korobkiewicz (25) was born in 1993 in Suwalki, Poland and is now based in London. She gained a first class honours degree in Fine Art Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and has also attended the Warsaw School of Photography. In 2016 Paulina was the winner of Camberwell Book Prize. She’s represented by five big colour photos of buildings, the balconies of apartment buildings, the locked door of a nightclub in the grim morning light, fog half hiding some local shops.

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Pavel Milyakov (30) Born in 1988 in Moscow, Pavel attended Moscow State Academy of Art and Industry, working with graphic design and then Moscow Film School. Post-Soviet Visions is his first exhibition. As far as I could see he was represented by one work, an enormous blow-up of a comedy photoshop he’s done of The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but with modern apartment blocks added in.

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

The videos

I nearly missed the fact that there’s a downstairs space, containing a few more photographers, a display case of photography magazines – and a projection room in which 11 videos from film-makers of the New East were playing on a loop.

Many of them feature more shots and stories about alienated youths – in one, kids get drunk in a park, smoke fags and share vodka, before going along to a shabby disco where they throw up or snog and fondle each other. In another video, two skater boys skate through the wreckage of their crappy town, lie around in a cemetery, then end up having a fight in a graffiti-covered underpass.

One is a sort of mock documentary with a voiceover in Russian explaining the contemporary rave scene, how and why alienated youths go to big warehouses, deliberately don’t eat much, but smoke and drink in order to encourage the sense of delirium, dancing all night to electronic music.

The standout film for me was Lake, directed by Vita Gareskina, in which several Iranian-looking women (actually from Georgia), dressed in dark robes and then glittering masks, carry out some kind of ritual by a lake which involves torches and – as far as we can tell – the ritual drowning of one of them. This stood out by dint of being one of the few with any aspiration beyond recording skater board, vodka-drinking, trying-on-trainers, teenage times.

That said, my favourite was this video – Jungle With Fiction by KayaKata. On reflection, maybe because – as a professional music video – it simply had higher production values than all the others and so was more watchable.

But also because – although I think they’re taking themselves seriously – I found it hilarious the way these dudes in some crappy post-Soviet town copy the style, movements and attitude of black rappers from South-Central LA.

Like almost all the other kids, youths, skaters, rappers, party goers, drivers and fashion victims captured in this exhibition, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that – far from innovating or creating any kind of ‘new’ fashion, music or scene – all these young people trapped in dead-end towns in the former communist countries of the East are hopelessly copying every aspect of the wealthy Western lifestyle they can get their hands on, and pathetically failing.

The meaning of ‘post-Soviet’

According the blurb the term post-Soviet ‘has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film’.

To those of us outside the bubble of fashion and film, ‘post Soviet’ is also a byword for economic collapse, falling life expectancy, epidemic alcoholism, a tsunami of organised crime, the rise of billionaire oligarchs, and the triumph of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.

All fourteen photographers are interesting in different ways, but they are all tend to gravitate towards the same central issues, of urban decay and youth alienation.

What is post-Soviet culture? It’s a big subject and one – with Vladimir Putin increasingly goading and provoking the West – which requires investigation and understanding.

If the photos and videos focus overwhelmingly on youths with no apparent jobs and little apparent involvement in the social structures around them, if they offer no political or economic insights into the world of ‘the New East’ – they do at least put faces, voices and sounds to the younger part of the populations of this huge region, populations which are coming, in our time, under the control of a new generation of authoritarian and intolerant politicians.

Related links

The exhibition is FREE – but note that Calvert 22 is CLOSED on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open Wednesday to Sunday only from 12 noon (until 6pm).

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (one of, if not the, poshest Oxford college). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming asistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as 1917 but that’s not true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti the Republic.

Also Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a shock when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus. It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art deco. Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl was no represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – which built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco. Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

Which is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegant titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, see, that’s real comitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquisness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas, convictions. With everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I once read to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions, lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (the wishy-washy degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

Whereas the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was a lot about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitiful play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde; they were German, it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

All in all, although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right. Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world revolution into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter has a paragraph-long summary of its content which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in. Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in detail about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in these chapter summaries and even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by the key aspects of the subject matter, for example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, specially in Russia where revolutionary excitement slowly morphed towards totalitarian bureaucracy, all tending to give rise to countless initialisms.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

And so on.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (coming round to support the Republic) and his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s theatre projects moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops. That’s it; we don’t get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927). Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic. America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Thus businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had been the main lender to the German government. it had been an American, Charles G. Dawes who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan which in 1924 arranged for loans to Germany, which it would invest in industry, which would raise taxes which it would use to pay off the punishing reparations to France, which would use the money to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

The guarantee of American money stabilised the currency and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks withdraw loans. German industry collapses. Unemployment shoots from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler takes power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters. Until the end the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD), and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted the Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism). How could they be so stupid? Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming media. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump. American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the obvious rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, threw up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering rural, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously don’t count. Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count. Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote). Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist is simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.

Related links

Related reviews

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.


I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.

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Weimar Culture by Peter Gay (1968)

The complex of feelings and responses I have called ‘the hunger for wholeness’ turns out on examination to be a great regression born of fear: fear of modernity. The abstractions that Tönnies and Hofmannsthal and the others manipulated – Volk, Führer, Organismus, Reich, Entscheidung, Gemeinschaft – reveal a desperate search for roots and for community, a vehement, often vicious repudiation of reason accompanied by the urge for direct action or for surrender to a charismatic leader. (p.100)

It took me a while to figure out what this book was for, what it’s about. I had to read the first half twice before the penny dropped.

It’s a relatively short book, 150 pages in the old Pelican paperback edition which I’ve got, and is divided into six chapters, with a 20-page historical overview at the end. The need for this appendix highlights the main thing about the main text: it is emphatically not a history of the Weimar Republic. It is not even, despite the title, a history of Weimar culture. It is a series of six essays showing how certain highly specific, and limited, aspects of Weimar culture helped to fatally undermine it.

The chapters are:

  1. The Trauma of Birth: from Weimar to Weimar
  2. The Community of Reason: Conciliators and Critics
  3. The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power
  4. The Hunger for Wholeness: Trials of Modernity
  5. The Revolt of the Son: Expressionist Years
  6. The Revenge of the Father: Rise and Fall of Objectivity

Analysis of chapter 2

To take a sample chapter, the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter is not about intellectual life as a whole in the Weimar republic: it focuses on the founding of several important institutes outside the established universities, including the German Academy for Politics (1920), the Warburg Institute (1921), The Institute for Social Research (1923) and the Psychoanalytic Institute in Berlin (1910) (Gay has a special interest in psychoanalysis and wrote a major biography of Sigmund Freud).

The stories behind each of these organisations is fairly interesting, in a gossipy sort of way (Warburg was borderline psychotic, apparently), but it’s only at the end of the chapter that Gay makes his point, which is that – although these are the bodies which went into exile when the Nazis came to power and had a large influence abroad – at home they were relatively little known and had little or no impact.

This point only really becomes obvious in the last few pages where he contrasts the modernising innovativeness of this handful of institutes with the prevailing worldview of most academics and further education institutions in the Weimar republic, which were incredibly conservative and close-minded.

Gay describes a widespread phenomenon known as Vernunftrepublikaners or ‘rational republicans’. This was the label given to intellectuals who only reluctantly gave assent to the establishment of the Weimar Republic, who supported it with their heads while their hearts and souls continued to lie elsewhere.

So the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter amounts to a gossipy surf through the sector, with a conclusion that the most interesting thinkers in this area were ineffectual or irrelevant, while the majority of academics and students remained resolutely against the new liberal government.

Analysis of chapter 3

The same sort of structure is used for chapter three, ‘The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power’. This takes the form of shortish sections each describing a German poet who lived during – or was revived during – the Weimar period, being Stefan George (1868-1933), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the Romantic poet Hölderlin (1770-1840), Kleist (1777-1811) and the playwright Büchner (1813-1827).

The pen portraits of each writer read much like the short introductory essays you used to get in old-fashioned student introductions to literature, books with titles like ‘An introduction to German poetry’ – short intros with a smattering of biographical facts, some generalisations about the work of their circle (the George circle seems to have been a particular phenomenon of Weimar). But Gay doesn’t actually quote or analyse any of their poetry, so you are left none the wiser about their abilities or styles.

Again it is only at the end of the chapter that we come to the point: all these writers were emphatically anti-rational, their writings over and over emphasising the importance of spirit and sensibility, community and authenticity – in both the writers and the style of their critics and readers.

Rilke became the dubious beneficiary of German literary criticism, a kind of writing that was less a criticism than a celebration, intuitive in method and overblown in rhetoric, a making and staking of grandiose claims, a kind of writing mired in sensibility and pseudo-philosophical mystery-making. (p.54)

Gay finds in the popularity of Rilke and George, the revivals of Hölderlin and Kleist, a morbid obsession with death, unreason, an ‘exaltation of irrationality, a blissful death wish’ (p.66). The blurring of the dividing lines between passion and religion led to ‘shapeless but impassioned religiosity’. It fatally led to poets being placed above thinkers or, as in Heidegger’s case, thinking itself becoming a kind of poetry, a kind of rousing rhetoric. Obscure but impassioned, it paved the way for fanatic barbarism.

It was only by reading the opening chapters twice that I realised Gay’s intention is not at all to give a panoramic overview of Weimar culture. It is not even to explore particular sectors, like poetry or film. It is to build up a collective indictment of the way leading intellectuals, institutions, writers and poets, historians and philosophers, refused to embrace the values of modern urban democracy.

Martin Heidegger

Mention of philosophy brings us to the notorious Martin Heidegger, notorious because he was both one of the seismic philosophical presences of the century, and because he undoubtedly gave help and support to the Nazis. Difficult and obscure though his work is (and he wrote it using words and terminology which he invented solely for the purpose) its central themes are comprehensible enough: rejection of the city, of urban life, of business, of politics, of democracy. Embrace of primitive being, primal existence, living (as Heidegger did) a primitive existence in a retired rural area, wearing peasant costume, thinking weighty troubled thoughts.

Gay gives a pen portrait of Heidegger not to offer any analysis of his work or importance as a philosopher, but to show that a direct line links him with the anti-Enlightenment Romanticism of Holderlin; to show how deep and powerful the anti-modern, anti-democratic spirit was in German cultural life.

As a tiny symptom of this prevailing mood Gay points out that the Nazi Party was, of course, a political party. But it always referred to itself as a movement, a mass movement of spiritual and cultural regeneration and purification. And this rhetoric fell right into line with the rhetorics of poets like Hölderlin and philosophers like Heidegger.

What Heidegger did was to give philosophical seriousness, professorial respectability, to the love affair with unreason and death that dominated so many Germans in this hard time. (p.85)


So: I thought this book would be an introduction to the cultural life of the Weimar Republic, but it really, really isn’t. Much the reverse: Gay shows how intellectual trends like a yearning for the order and hierarchy of the old Empire, combined with a widespread revulsion against modern urban life, and the cult of nature, primitivism, the rejection of the intellect and worship of ‘authenticity’, ‘depth’ and rhetorical power – how all this created an intellectual and cultural environment which was tailor-made for the advent of Hitler, with his appeal to people’s deeper, more ‘authentic’ emotions, his dismissal of foreign democracy and decadent cosmopolitanism, his appeal to the ‘true’ German spirit, founded in blood and suffering – his demand for unquestioning devotion.

And the remaining chapters ram this message home.

There is a long section about German historians of the 1920s (probably of pretty limited interest to anyone who isn’t themselves a professional historian) which indicts them for tending to glorify great Leaders of the past (Frederick the Great) as embodying German values of Kultur, an idea which German intellectuals considered superior to the decadent tinsel of Paris culture, and to Britain’s shopkeeper mentality.

The Weimar years saw the tremendous growth of the ‘Wandervogel’, community groups for the young which promoted outdoor activities and folk culture. Although some were supposedly socialist, Gay emphasises that their politics was shallow: it was a great surf of emotional enthusiasm looking for a direction, for a Leader.

Later chapters deal, in the same brief manner, with a number of other cultural peaks. The famous film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is taken as typical of the confusion of aims and objectives common among Expressionist artists and film-makers. They too wanted a return to nature, a break through to a more spiritual world – and yet they specialised in conveying confusion, fear, ugliness, extreme emotions. These weren’t attitudes suited to the calm, business-like give and take of democratic politics.

Gay has a longish discussion of Thomas Mann’s most famous novel, The Magic Mountain, whose main thrust seems to be that the book itself is a working through of Mann’s conflicted emotions about culture and democracy. The characters of the novel, living high in an Alpine sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis, on the face of it want to recover and live — but there is a tugging undercurrent (and some of the key characters) romanticising death, to cease upon the midnight with no pain etc. Even for so sensible a figure as Mann, death is just so much more glamorous and interesting than humdrum existence.

In fact Mann is taken as a paradigm of Weimar attitudes: he had written patriotic gush when Germany had entered the Great War, had slowly become disillusioned as it ground on, had been one of the early ‘rational republicans’ giving reluctant support to the Republic and, by the end of the 20s, had come to appreciate its virtues and to be a more active supporter of democracy.

But it was too little, too late. Gay shows how outnumbered he was.

Gay’s thesis

In each chapter, in each movement and sector he looks at, Gay discerns the same underlying pattern: worship or glorification of the irrational, savage criticism of urban life, of business, of politics. Grosz et al tend to be admired nowadays for their scathing satires on political corruption. Gay interprets them as banging another nail in the coffin, with their communist, anti-republican propaganda.

For a democracy to work a culture must believe in it, must want it. It must have enough functioning civil servants and politicians who believe in its structures and institutions, who support its values and ideas, to keep it working.

Gay singles out the second-phase Bauhaus under the influence of László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers from about 1925 onwards, determined to work with modern materials and confront modern design challenges, as an epitome of what should have been happening.

What Gropius taught, and what most Germans did not want to learn, was the lesson of Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment: that one must confront the world and dominate it, that the cure for the ills of modernity is more, and the right kind of modernity. (p.106)

But Gropius was opposed, even within his own school, by more radical voices, communists who wanted to overthrow the existing system. Meanwhile from the outside, the Bauhaus faced right-wing nationalist opposition throughout its existence and was finally, of course, closed down by the Nazis.

Gay’s book shows how, from top to bottom, from university historians to avant-garde film-makers and artists, from arcane philosophers to youth movements, from its architects to many of its leading politicians, the majority of the Weimar Republic’s intellectuals despised it, hated its ‘shallow’ urban values, despised the business-like compromises and deals which democracy requires. Being passionate artists or historians entranced with Germany’s military past or philosophers of ‘Authenticity’, they preferred passion, blood, Kulturdas Volk, intuition… almost anything except reason and moderation.

Basically, the book would have been better titled The Weimar Republic and its Enemies. Or maybe The Weimar Republic: The Enemies Within. Or The Intellectual Malaise of the Weimar Republic.

After Hitler came to power it was common for foreigners to say, ‘How can Hitler and his gang of thugs have taken over the country of Bach and Mozart?’

Gay’s book goes to show how little the people who said that understood the Germany of the 1920s and 30s. His book explains the failure of intellectuals not so much to oppose Hitler (there were plenty of communist intellectuals who wrote, painted, acted against Hitler) but to do the more practical and needful thing – to actively support the Weimar democracy.

His book shows how the lack of support, indeed the widespread lack of understanding of what is required for a functioning democracy, goes a long way to explaining why the Weimar republic collapsed: not enough influential people believed in it or wanted it. They didn’t necessarily support Hitler but – on the evidence Gay presents here – for all sorts of reasons, they actively opposed the republic and the spirit of modern, secular, urban democracy which it represented.

Gay’s authority

And Gay speaks with more than academic authority. Peter Joachim Fröhlich was born in Berlin in 1923, at the height of the hyper-inflation which racked the Weimar Republic in that year. In 1941 he emigrated to America where he changed his surname to Gay, a close translation of Fröhlich which means ‘cheerfully’.

Gay studied history at the university of Denver, gained a PhD at Columbia, and then taught at Yale University from 1969 until his retirement in 1993. He wrote 25 history books, several of them becoming bestsellers, including a massive biography of Sigmund Freud (1988), and this study of Weimar culture.

So Gay was German, his friends and family were German. He was an impressionable teenager in the world he’s describing, and he mentions that some of his conclusions are drawn from direct conversations with key players in Weimar – Hannah Arendt (formidable intellect in her own right and one-time partner of Martin Heidegger), Walter Gropius, first director of the Bauhaus, and so on.

Reading through Gay’s systematic indictment of the leading minds of the Weimar Republic, marvelling at all the ways that German intellectuals failed to support, or actively undermined, their nation’s first attempt at democracy, tends to:

  1. profoundly worry you about the German national character
  2. make you distrust public intellectuals even more than you already did

As I read the very last page with its poetic oration for the exiles forced to flee the advent of Hitler I had a thought which Gay doesn’t mention. Maybe all the famous exiles from Hitler’s Germany, from Einstein to Brecht, from Schoenberg to Koestler, from Kurt Weill to Billy Wilder – if, as Gay suggests, they simply weren’t capable of supporting a sensible modern culture, well then maybe they could only thrive abroad in the stable environment provided by capitalist, democratic America.

Maybe all these clever people didn’t deserve a country of their own since they did so little to defend it and so much – so runs the tenor of Gay’s book – to destroy it.

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Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop.

Moholy-Nagy wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach, focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. The director, Walter Gropius, had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. When it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time it ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147). What a catastrophe.

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

Whitford quotes from the letters which Gropius sent out to his colleagues in which he explained that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that, Gropius realised that it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as a higher education administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, which lasted for two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, for example explorations of how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But it was during Meyer’s time that the school had its biggest-ever commercial success. Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper, a challenge which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and helped set up a Communist Party cell among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course, looming behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich – after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)


After being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. In particular Germany’s loss was America’s gain. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

As to the Bauhaus’s general influence, Whitford opened the book with a summary. The Bauhaus influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche, which Bauhaus architects and designers built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included: the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

Whitworth also points out that the Bauhaus legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s journalists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this was misleading; it certainly hadn’t been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)


By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.

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Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

In front of us those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.
(Night, page 28)

Eliezer ‘Elie’ Wiesel was 15 when the authorities in his Hungarian hometown, Sighet, rounded up all the Jews and forced them into a tiny ghetto. A few months later, with terrifying suddenness, the Germans arrived, arrested all the Jewish elders, packed the rest of the population into cattle trucks and sent them to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

On arrival men and women were separated in a matter of minutes, then marched off to their separate dooms, to be stripped naked, forced into the gas chamber, then incinerated in the crematoria. The bewildered boy watched his mother and sister lined up with the other women and marched off, and that was the last he ever saw of them. Wiesel and his father were selected for labour and sent to a men’s barracks where he survived, enduring privations and the anguish of watching his father’s steady deterioration.

In August 1944 he and his dad are transferred to Buna camp where the entire focus of existence becomes getting enough food. They witness terrible scenes. Hangings, shootings. There is the terrifying ordeal of a ‘selection’, all the inmates passing naked before the legendary Dr Mengele, his pencil hovering, ready to add your number to those selected for gassing. Eliezer and his father pass. Then Eliezer develops an infected foot and is sent to the infirmary. He is terrified they will amputate his leg, but it is only an abscess which needs lancing.

Only days later, with the same suddenness, the same midnight panic, the Block elders announce the Russians are now close, so the Germans are evacuating the camp. It is January 1945, the depths of bitter frozen winter, when Eliezer and his father join the 60,000 inmates who are driven on a death march west. Cold, snow, thousands not walking but jogging, forced to run by hundreds of SS guards with machine guns. Respite in a snowed-in ruined factory, prisoners falling asleep in the snow never to rise. Then roll call and more jogging, the body an empty machine, cold, the pain, arriving at a new camp named Gleiwitz, bodies collapsing on each other, squeezing out breath and life.

Someone had lain on top of me, smothering me. I couldn’t breathe through my mouth or my nose. Sweat was running down my forehead and my back. This was it; the end of the road. Silent death, suffocation. No way to scream, to call for help. (p.94)

Three days in the derelict camp without food or water. Many die. They can hear the cannons of the advancing Russians. Then the SS rouse them and march them further west, to the middle of a field by a railway. They are packed into open-roofed cattle trucks, 100 per truck, which travel in bitter cold under the snow. Most die of exposure and are thrown out of the trucks. Light-headed, weak, hallucinating, starving, it is always night, the freezing snow is everywhere. Eliezer slaps his father to keep him awake, to stop him being stripped and thrown overboard. They pass through German towns, German workers throw bread into the wagons and Eliezer watches people literally fight to the death for scraps of bread. Someone tries to strangle him. Night. Snow. Someone dies, someone else starts keening and before long the entire wagon is a frozen hell of corpses and keening wailing lost souls.

Amazingly, Eliezer and his father are just about alive when they arrive at the gates of Buchenwald. 100 entered their wagon. 12 leave.

Everyone is starving. Everyone is dying. At the rest stop in the factory on the death march, Eliezer had talked to a rabbi he knew who was pitifully looking for his son amid the night and snow and corpses. He realised he had seen the son forging ahead on the march, having left his father, having abandoned his father, hoping to survive without the impediment which was his sick, ailing father.

Now, at the most searing moment of the narrative (which Wiesel had already told us about in the Preface to the book) young Eliezer repeats this ultimate act of impiety, unfiliality, inhumanity. He lies terrified on the upper bunk of a bed while he hears his frail father being beaten on the bunk below by an SS officer. He is too terrified to move or protest but must listen to each blow landing on his father’s frail skull. It was 28 January 1945. And the worst thing? Deep inside – he is relieved.

The process of dehumanisation is complete. He is a shell. Two and a half months are covered in a few pages. Details, descriptions, living no longer matter to him. Soup and bread are all that matter. In April the Germans announce a systematic selection and gassing of the inmates. But on 11 April the inmates rise up and disarm the SS guards. Later that same day, units of the Sixth Armoured Division of the United States Third Army arrive at the gates. They are liberated. Eliezer eats. He gets sick. He recovers.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (p.115)

History of the text

It is almost unbelievable that anyone could continue living after these experiences, but Wiesel settled in Paris and attended the Sorbonne university, before getting a series of jobs as a journalist. It was only ten years later that the French novelist, François Mauriac, encouraged him to write it all down. The first manuscript was in Yiddish and 850 pages long. He went through and reduced this to 245 pages and, titled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent’) it was published by a Jewish publisher in Buenos Aires in 1956.

Wiesel translated it into French and sent this manuscript to Mauriac, who tried numerous publishers who all rejected it. Eventually Samuel Beckett’s publisher agreed to take it, cut it down to 175 pages and changed the title to La Nuit. This French version came out in 1958.

Wiesel’s agent had similar problems interesting an American publisher until Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York agreed to take it. He commissioned an English translation by Stella Rodway – which was further trimmed down to 116 pages – and published it as Night in 1960. It sold little to begin with, but became a word-of-mouth classic and stirred interest among Jewish literary figures.

As interest in the Holocaust revived among historians, academics and the wider culture, as more documentaries, films, plays and novels were written, Night grew steadily more important as testimony. In the early 2000s his publishers commissioned a new English translation from Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and upon its publication in 2006 it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, which led to a surge in sales and awareness.

Although first-hand testimony in its own right, Night – for good or ill – is now also part of the substantial cultural enterprise known as ‘Holocaust studies’.

(This textual history – and including the mention of Holocaust studies – is described in Wiesel’s own preface to the Penguin edition.)


The book’s textual history explains its style. It is the result of not one but two translations, and an extensive process of revision and paring down. It has been extensively filtered. It is no surprise, then, that some critics have commented on its ‘minimalism’. By this they mean the style is polished. The sentences are mostly short. But they are pregnant with meaning. And suppressed emotion.

They ordered us to run. We began to run.

The old Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who he used to pore over the Zorah with, is shipped off with all ‘foreign’ Jews but, by a miracle, months later, reappears to tell everyone what happened to his transport i.e. they were lined up in a forest and shot, then piled into pits. He was wounded, played, dead, escaped to come back and warn everyone. But as in a fairy tale – or nightmare – no one will listen.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. (p.7)

Short sentences, simple forceful ideas conveyed in unfussy vocabulary. It has the power of a folk story. Or a sci-fi apocalypse.

Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (p.17)

Also, it is very fragmented. There are nine distinct chapters (though they don’t have titles or numbers) but within them the text is made up of short bursts, page-long sections. And – at least in the earlier part – each one starts with an indication of the time – ‘and then’, ‘one day’, ‘suddenly’. Cumulatively, they make the text feel punchy, staccato, like being punched. Thus pages eight to 20 have ten separate sections, which start like so:

  • Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian front.
  • Anguish. German soldiers – with their steel helmets and their death’s-head emblem.
  • The eight days of Passover.
  • Two ghettoes were created in Sighet.
  • Some two weeks before Shavuot. A sunny spring day…
  • For a moment we remained alone.
  • The ghetto was awake.
  • The small ghetto.
  • Night.

Diary format. Short entries. Each one situated in time, their brevity conveying the sense of hurtling headlong. And that is part of the point. It all happened very suddenly at night, arrests, orders to pack all your belongings, to be outside by 10 o’clock. And continues. In short staccato bursts. Facts. At pace. Bewilderment. Horror.

The Oberkapo was arrested on the spot. He was tortured for weeks on end. He gave no names. He was transferred to Auschwitz. And never heard from again. (p.64)

At six o’clock the bell rang. The death knell. The funeral. The procession was beginning its march.
‘Fall in! Quickly!’
In a few moments, we stood in ranks. Block by block. Night had fallen. (p.84)


As a Jewish comedian commented, if God especially loves the Jews, he has a funny way of showing it. The first twenty pages or so describe young Eliezer as devoutly religious. His family want him to be the learned one, the scholar. He prays day and night with fervent feeling, and finds rabbis to study the Talmud and Kabbalah with, he fasts to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

But of course, rounding up into the ghetto knocks his faith and then the journey to the camp and even what he sees in the first few hours, destroys it. There follows the long slow lingering terrible extermination of his faith in God, man or anything. He walks past trenches full of gasoline into which Germans and camp kapos are throwing live babies and infants. Alive. Into the flames (p.32). People around him mutter prayers or reproaches against God.

Jewish and Christian literary critics make much of this central strand of the text. When Wiesel describes walking past a young boy who is being hanged, he overhears someone saying: ‘Where is God?’ to which, inside, he replies: ‘Here, hanging from this gallows’ (p.65). The exchange has prompted literary critics to give fancy interpretations of the boy as symbolising the crucified Christ and thus uniting Christian and Jewish blah blah blah.

I can see the imaginative, psychological, religious and literary power of such moments and such interpretations, but I find them blasphemous. For me, there is no God, no hint of God, no way of hiding, no way out, no redemption. Just humans reduced to animals scrabbling in the dirt by systematic and sadistic evil. To elevate any of this, to invoke any kind of ‘spiritual’ aspect to any of this, seems to me a blasphemy. It is the quintessence of human evil. Talk of God is absurd, irrelevant, inadequate, grotesque.

But then, What do I know? I have never had any remotely comparable experience. I am just a reader.

Youth and identity

I’ve recently read two other Holocaust texts, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and This Way to the Gas by Tadeusz Borowski. Levi was 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz and had graduated as a chemist. In other words he had an adult identity. He credits his scientific training with saving his life, because it caused him to be transferred to the laboratory where he could steal things to exchange them in the camp for food (specifically the metal rods which he barters for the bread which keeps him and his friend Alberto going to the camp’s liberation – as told in the story ‘Cerium’ in The Periodic Table). But in a subtler way, it meant he had an identity based on science, scientific knowledge, the scientific method, and which related him to the entire scientific tradition of the West. The full depth and resonance and psychological power of this tradition is what gives such weight and force to his masterpiece The Periodic Table.

Borowski was twenty when he was sent to Auschwitz, and was already as a writer of poems, short stories and novels. He also had an adult identity which, in some way, helped him. Even as he unloaded the human freight onto the ramp at Auschwitz, maybe he was shaping and forming the experiences into words to write down.

Comparison with these two (still very young) men highlights Wiesel’s youth. All he had by way of vocation and ambition, was to become a religious scholar. So it wasn’t just his faith he lost in the camp, but  his entire purpose, his entire identity. And that is why, more completely than Levi or Borowski. His account conveys a sense of utter desolation. The others had an adult identity which could, to some extent, step back and rationally analyse the events.

Once stripped of his family and his religion, Wiesel had nothing. He is completely gutted, abolished, vacuated.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (p.37)

My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now… (p.68)


Alas, Night has been dogged by controversy. At one extreme, some people have claimed Wiesel was never at Auschwitz and the whole thing is a fake. The ‘evidence’ for this and the counter-arguments are laid out in this article:

A lot of the criticism of Night and broader attacks directed at Wiesel and his works stem from his outspoken support for the state of Israel, and for its policies of holding onto the land seized in the 1967 war, and building Jewish settlements on Arab land. Plenty of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish critics see all of his writing as compromised by his support of Israel.

Then there are critics who broadly support Wiesel, but claim that Night is not a work of fact, but of documentary fiction. Criticism in this vein can range from quibbling about various factual inaccuracies through to questioning entire episodes from the book. Much of this is summarised in this review of the new translation of 2006.

I am not qualified to comment on Wiesel’s stance on Israel or on debates about the book’s factuality. All I can comment on is the text before me. And reading some of the criticism mentioned above did crystallise in me some misgivings about the book, namely:

Harrowing and terrifying though it is, ultimately its shape seems a bit too pat and convenient. In particular the last twenty pages or so are designed to wring the very last ounce of anguish from the story of his dying father. Despite all the confusions of multiple transports, endless roll-calls, despite being split up into different Kommandos and work details, despite going through selection procedures and being shuffled from one barracks to another, Eliezer is never separated from his father. Through the confusion of the death march when others were dropping dead, there’s his dad. In the brick factory, he keeps his dad awake and alive. In the open freight car he supports his dad. In Buchenwald his first thought – on getting his soup or his coffee or his bread – is always his dad. He goes to several doctors to get them to treat his dad for dysentery. He cradles his dad as he gives him the water he asks for. After the SS man beat up his dad, he is still just about alive and Eliezer cradles his head for a long time before he finally retreats to his own bed exhausted. Then he wakes the next morning and his father is gone, died in the night and spirited away. At which point the son bitterly laments he had no opportunity to light the candles and say the prayers and perform the Jewish ceremonies over him.

I won’t say it rises to Hollywood levels of sentimentality – but it did feel laid on with a trowel. If you were going to craft a story designed to tug, pluck and finally rip to shreds your heart strings, this is how it would go.

And this sense of artifice is reinforced by the careful way Wiesel sets up earlier father-and-son anecdotes to anticipate his one. As mentioned earlier, on the death march an old rabbi gets separated from his son and young Eliezer doesn’t have the heart to tell him he saw his son steaming ahead, looking grateful to have ditched the old liability. And again, in the open train to Buchenwald, Eliezer claims to witness a burly son beat his own father to death for the sake of some bread thrown into the truck by passing Germans.

The point being that the final operatic Oedipal climax to the narrative has been carefully prepared and anticipated in the narrative – almost like a Shakespearean tragedy in which minor plots are designed to parallel and comment on the main action. Having witnessed the two earlier father-and-son betrayals allows Eliezer to feel even more distraught when he, also, fails the test.

I have absolutely no idea how much of this is fiction, fact, false or ‘faction’, but a seed of suspicion has been planted.

For this reason, I would recommend new readers seeking a first encounter with Holocaust testimonies to start with Primo Levi’s If this Is A Man, and would also prefer Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman to Night, harrowing, intense and poetically written though it undoubtedly is…


As described above, Night was published in French in 1958, Stella Rodway’s English translation was published in 1960, and Marion Wiesel’s revised English translation was published in 2006. All page references are to the 2008 Penguin paperback edition.

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Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.


Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!


Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.


It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

Charles felt dirty, he was aware inside himself of a mass of damp and sticky innards. (p.202)

The Reprieve is the second novel in Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. It is a long, panoramic account of the lives of some 130 characters during the fateful week in September 1938 when all Europe held its breath as Germany threatened to invade Czechoslovakia and spark a continent-wide war in order to ‘liberate’ the Sudeten Germans.

At the last minute, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier persuaded the Czech government to cede to Nazi Germany Czechoslovakia’s western border regions, containing not only many ethnic Germans, but all her defences and much of her industry. Hitler accepted this deal, the threat of an armed confrontation disappeared, and all Europe breathed a sigh of relief.

Hence the book’s title – The Reprieve. This epic betrayal bought the western democracies exactly one year’s remission, until Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 began the Second World War in Europe.

The Reprieve is drastically different from its predecessor, The Age of Reason. That book had a cast of seven or eight characters but essentially rotated around the plight of one central figure – the depressive philosophy professor, Mathieu Delarue, who was trying to find the money to pay for his mistress’s abortion. It covered just two days and was divided into chapters, 18 to be precise, each of which began in a new scene or setting, in the conventional manner. The Reprieve, by contrast, is much longer and divided into seven very long sections, one covering each day from Friday 23 September to Friday 30 September.

But The Reprieve is massively different from a traditional novel – indeed it is a form of experimental novel – in two key respects:

  1. It has an enormous cast of characters, some from its predecessor, The Age of Reason, but most entirely new. And they are in locations all across France, as well as Germany, England and Spain. There are even scenes depicting the leading politicians of the day as they handled the negotiations about Czechoslovakia – Daladier, Chamberlain and even Hitler himself (we even get to see some of Hitler’s dreams!) So there is an astonishingly large number and wide breadth of characterisation.
  2. And, most distinctively, it jumps between the settings of the different characters, between conversations between characters, and even between characters’ thoughts – with no warning, sometimes in successive paragraphs (easy enough to grasp), sometimes in successive sentences (you need your wits about you) and sometimes in the same sentence. The same sentence can begin describing the thoughts of a character in Morocco and end by describing another in Paris, or Munich or a Czech village. Some sentences jump between multiple consciousnesses.

I found this technique absolutely riveting. It makes reading into a parlour game, a Where’s Wally challenge, a test of the reader’s alertness. I suppose it is also meant to give a panoramic impression of the age, and of the very weird intense atmosphere which united the inhabitants of the entire population of Europe as probably never before, with everyone huddled round their radios or snapped up the latest editions of newspapers to find out whether we were going to war. Thus, again and again throughout the long dense text, characters’ thoughts and feelings and impressions overlap and intermingle.

Sartre sometimes uses James Joyce’s technique of associating certain phrases with certain settings or characters, to evoke their mood or consciousness – but mostly you have to be very alert throughout as it is often only one word which reveals that the text has now jumped from one character to a completely different one – is now in the desert, on the beach, in the city streets, on a plane – and which of its huge cast of characters we are now following.

Generally, all these new characters have one or a few longish (a page, maybe) sections in which to establish their situation and character – after which brief introduction the text freely switches to them at a moment’s notice, for a paragraph, for a few sentences, or even for a few words embedded in a sentence about other characters. Occasionally, what have been established as key words or phrases are blended together in kind of poetic rhapsodies, in fugues which counterpoint a whole host of characters and destinies into webs of words.

Chamberlain was asleep, Mathieu was asleep, the Kabyle put the ladder against the charabanc, hoisted the trunk onto his shoulder, and scrambled up without holding onto the rungs. Ivich was asleep, Daniel swung his legs out of bed, a bell echoed in his head, Pierre looked at the pink and black soles of the Kabyle’s feet.

I found this ‘simultaneous method’ quite spellbinding.

Lunch-time! they had entered the blinding tunnel of mid-day: outside – the sky, white with heat; outside – the dead, white roads, no man’s land, and war: behind the closed shutters, they sat stifling in the heat, Daniel put his napkin on his knees, Hannequin tied his napkin round his neck, Brunet took the paper napkin from the table, Jeannine wheeled Charles into the large and almost empty dining-room with its smudgy windows… (p.101)

I like its profusion, its variety and its sense of the diversity of life!

A happy side-effect of this approach is that the lengthy – the really, really long passages in The Age of Reason in which Mathieu or Daniel or Boris dwelt on the emptiness of their lives, the meaningless of existence and in which they obsessed about the ugliness of their bodies and of everyone else’s bodies, and generally marinaded in disgust and revulsion at life — these are all a lot less in evidence and, when they do occur, are pared back to the bone. Some such passages are still attached to Mathieu, Brunet and a few others, but the overall effect it is far less self-indulgently solipsistic and self-pitying than in the first novel.

Instead of focusing in to create a stickily claustrophobic effect, the text is continually exploding out in multiple directions, jumping across numerous locations, invoking a big cast, creating a sense of openness, breadth, fecundity.

This greater objectivity is indicated in a small but telling moment when Mathieu (35) is telling Odette about the ugly sister of a student of his, Ivich (18), who he’s snogged a few times and might be in a relationship with, is detailing her list of psychological quirks (hates being touched, hates summer, hates her own appearance etc) and, having heard all about it, Odette briskly thinks, ‘A good spanking is what she wants’ (p.23).

And I couldn’t help thinking that a good spanking and being told to grow up is what most of the characters in The Age of Reason wanted.

The characters in order of appearance

I set off imagining it would be a relatively straightforward task to name and give brief thumbnail descriptions of the characters, but soon ran into problems.

Should I include characters who aren’t named or make only fleeting entrances, like the unnamed Arab who puts Maud’s suitcase on the bus roof, or the unnamed steward on the liner, or the unnamed lady sitting next to Hannequin on the train or the unnamed lady who gets Zézette’s signature for a feminist peace petition in the street etc?

Or should I go to the other extreme and only include characters who have substantial speaking parts and whose lives we get to know a bit? I compromised by listing every named character, no matter how brief their appearance.

  • Godesberg, Germany The old gentleman, key to the negotiations, who is revealed to be Neville ChamberlainNevile Henderson (British Ambassador to Berlin), Sir Horace Wilson (special emissary from Chamberlain to Hitler). Later attended by Woodhouse.
  • Pravnitz, Czechoslovakia Milan Hlinka, former woodcutter, now schoolteacher of a Sudeten town which is being taken over by the Czech Nazis, is sheltering in his house with his pregnant schoolteacher wife, Anna, and a child, Marikka, sent there by their concerned parents. In the house opposite live the Jägerschmitts, a German family who had fled a few days earlier as a result of Czech persecution, but now return in triumph, knowing that Hitler is about to triumph and that their – the Gis the cermans’ – day has come.
  • South of France Mathieu Delarue is on holiday at Juans-les-Pins with his brother, Jacques, and his comely wife, Odette. In The Age of Reason Jacques gave Mathieu a common-sense lecture about it being time he grew up and assumed his responsibilities, so now Jacques is the mouthpiece for the bourgeois view that the whole crisis is the fault of the Czechs, who are refusing to see reason and must bow down to Herr Hitler’s very reasonable demands (p.92, 95, 96, 178).
  • Paris Maurice is a young, strong working class member of the Communist Party, walking the streets with his shallow girlfriend, Zézette. They bump into Brunet, the tall, strong, mature Communist, one-time friend of Mathieu and inspiration to younger party members (who we know from The Age of Reason). (Brunet bumps into Joseph Mercier, Professor of Natural History, a momentary encounter seen by both.) Later Maurice makes love to Zézette in a hotel bedroom next to Philippe’s room. Next day he leads a protest at the Gare de l’Est, talks to Simon, and Dubech and Laurent. Maurice is mobilised along with Dornier and Bébert
  • Paris Stephen Hartley, New York journalist, getting his secretary/wife Sylvia to organise a berth on the last boat leaving France.
  • A sanatorium at Berck-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais Charles is crippled by some disease, has to lie prone on a trolley, refers to able people as ‘the stand-ups’, is cared for by sentimental nurse Jeannine, resents ‘the little Dorliac woman’ who gives the nurses generous tips. On the day of the move he is attended by Madame Louise and finds himself in the transport train next to the irritating practical joker Blanchard.
  • Marseilles Sheep farmer Gros-Louis has come to Marseilles looking for a job. He hitches up with an unnamed Negro for a spell. He meets Mario and Starace, the sailors, they take him to a bar to meet prostitute Daisy, get him drunk, and beat him up down a back alley. Next morning, still bloody, he tries to get work at a depot, but Ribadeau the foreman points out to him that he’s been called up.
  • Rural France Daniel (the suave homosexual from The Age of Reason) is on holiday with his new wife, heavily pregnant Marcelle, one-time lover of Mathieu. He hates the countryside. He despises Marcelle. He is longing for a war to break out and rescue him from his predicament.

‘Oh God, if only war would come!’ A thunderbolt which would shatter this smooth-faced world, plough the countryside into a quagmire, dig shell-holes in the fields, and fashion these flat monotonous lands into the likeness of a storm-tossed sea.’ (p.42)

  • Staying at their hotel is a retired colonel, M. de Lestrange. The hotel-keeper’s son, Émile.
  • Marrakesh, Morocco Supercilious Pierre is on holiday having an affair with Maud Dassignies, a member of Baby’s Lady Orchestra. He despises her. On the boat home, she shares a cramped 3rd class cabin with other band members France, Ruby and Doucette and two unnamed women.
  • Paris Pitteaux is editor of a review named The Pacifist (p.125). His secretary, Irène, lets a young tearaway, Philippe Grésigne into his office to see him. The suggestion is that the boy is a rent boy and Pitteaux had some kind of sex with him, now the boy wants more money. Later Pitteaux is called to the house of General Lacaze, who is Philippe’s step-father, husband of Mme Lacaze, where he meets M. Jardies a mental specialist. Philippe has left a note, stolen 10,000 Francs and run away to make some grand pacifist gesture. The General holds Pitteaux responsible. Philippe goes to see a forger to forge him a passport, stays the night in a cheap hotel and hears Maurice making love to Zézette next door. — Irène lectures her kid brother René who is being mobilised. — Philippe falls asleep in a cafe owned by M. and Mme Cazin. The waiter is Felix.
  • Paris Armand Viguier, 80 years old, is dead. He lies stretched out on his bed among his luxury belongings while Sartre speculates poetically about his life dissipating into the objects around him, into an infinite future etc. He body is attended by a nurse, until an elderly relative, Madame Verchoux, arrives. Mme Lieutier asks the butcher in the shop opposite, M. Désiré, about M. Viguier, joined by Mme Bonnetain. –55
  • Marseilles Sarah, the plump placid friend of Mathieu’s from The Age of Reason, has come south to see her husband, Gomez, with their small son, Pablo who glamorises his father’s warriorhood. For a year earlier Gomez had simply walked out of their Paris apartment, headed to Spain and joined the Republican army. Now he has a week’s leave. Sarah she calls to them to come and hear the Negro singing in the street, the same one Gros-Louis had hung out with for a while earlier.
  • Crévilly, France Daddy Croulard, the old soldier, is instructed by the gendarmerie lieutenant to stick up posters round town calling for the mobilisation of all French adult men. Maublanc, a peasant, along with Chapin, Tournus, Cauchios, Simeon, Poulaille, Fraigneau drive their oxen and carts to the nearest barracks as a result of the mobilisation notices they’d read. Louisa Corneille, sister of the level-crossing guard, fiancée of Jean Matrat, watches them pass. Conversation between Madame Reboulier, Marie, Stephanie the tobacconist’s wife, Jeanne Fraigneau. Later Mother Tremblin, Jeanne, Ursule, the Clapot sisters, Little Rose… — 79
  • Paris A Jewish exile from Austria, Schalom, asks help from Georges Levy, then has a long interview with M. Birnenschatz, who we see wave off his pretty daughter, Ella. Then M. Birnenschatz’s talks to one of his staff, Weiss, who has been called up. Weiss says he is sticking up for Jews but Birnenschatz, although he is a Jewish refugee from Cracow, refuses to acknowledge his Jewishness, insists he is a Frenchman first and foremost.
  • Paris One-eyed Pascal is selling irises and buttercups at the Quai de Passy and watches the stream of cars packed with household goods, of families fleeing Paris.
  • Saint-Flour, France François Hannequin, pharmacist, tells his wife, Espérance Dieulafoy, that he is being mobilised and she fusses about the shirts and socks and boots he’ll need to pack. They meet Madame Calvé and Marie, Charlot the ticket collector and M. Pineau the notary.
  • France Jean Servier is a worker reading the sports page of the newspaper. Lucien Rénier finishes his lunch. François Destutt is a laboratory assistant at the Institut Derrien. René Malleville. Pierre Charnier.— 96
  • England Dawburn, journalist for the Morning Post attends a press conference given by an exhausted Chamberlain.
  • France Georges, a particularly feeble, ill, weak man, puts up with his querulous wife, goes in to see his baby daughter and – with typically Sartrean gloom – foresees her futile life, growing up weak and sickly like him, scorned by his schoolmates, feebly suffering, pointlessly struggling through her wretched existence.
  • Paris Maubert and Thérèse have fun tearing down mobilisation posters from the walls. –101
  • A hotel lobby in Paris Boris and Lola, who we know from The Age of Reason, watch numerous guests packing up and fleeing Paris e.g. Madame Delarive and overhear the conversation of a widow and a beribboned old man blaming the Popular Front and the ‘reds’ for arming Spain in 1936 instead of preparing to confront Herr Hitler.
  • A Paris brothel Philippe, determined to be a pacifist hero and do something significant, gets drunk and ends up in a brothel, where he is tended by kindly Negro prostitute, Flossie, who shows him to her friend,
  • The French government Daladier, Sarrault, Bonnet, Champetier de Ribes, Reynaud, 
  • London Fred watches Mr Chamberlain walk by and feels cheered.
  • Berlin Sportpalast The centrepiece of the Monday 26 September chapter is Hitler giving his speech about Czechoslovakia in which we are shown lots of characters across Europe tuning in, listening and reacting, including Karl, a devoted Nazi.
  • Round a radio are Germaine Chabrol and his wife.
  • Barcelona Gomez listens to the broadcast with comrades Herrera and Tilquin.
  • A bar in Paris where Bruno translates Hitler’s speech to the landlord, the Marseillais, the man from the north, Chomis, Charlier.
  • Mathieu’s flat in Paris His concierge, Madame Garinet.
  • Laon, France Ivich, back in her bourgeois home realises she rather likes her father, the Russian exile M. Serguine. –126
  • A nightclub in Paris Irène is being pestered to have sex by boyfriend Marc, who has been called up. Suddenly she sees Philippe, the boy everyone is looking for, being tended by a handsome Negress. When he leaves, Irène pursues him. Philippe shouts ‘Down with the war,’ is promptly beaten up, and is rescued by Mathieu. Irène begs him to help her take the half-conscious Philippe back to her flat. Being French, they go to bed. Being French, Mathieu has a long soliloquy about being, being in the flesh, being inside someone, being inside another person’s body, mind, memory. And so on.
  • Munich Jan Masaryk, Czech government representative at Munich, is left no option by Daladier and Chamberlain but to hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler. This scene is intercut with a completely different scene in which Ivich is angrily losing her virginity to an unnamed man, and hating every second of it – effectively being raped. So that a woman being raped is counterpointed with Czechoslovakia being betrayed and handed over to Hitler.

The interplay of characters, phrases and perceptions overlapping one character into another, is never totally incomprehensible (as it often is in the grand-daddy of this kind of experimentalism, James Joyce) and gives a wonderfully musical sense of counterpoint, of melodies or rhythms interweaving and interplaying. I found it immensely enjoyable.

Aloneness, freedom and decision

Sartre’s more thoughtful characters are oppressed by their self-awareness. They are always horrifyingly aware of themselves looking at themselves, barely able to keep up the pretence of existence, always at risk of drowning in an oppressive flood of impressions, of things.

I come upon nothing but my own self. Scarcely that: a succession of small impulses, darting centrifugally here and there, but no focus. And yet there is a focus: that focus is my self, and the horror lies there. (p.114)

Being a self is horrific in Sartre’s worldview.

And what prompts this nauseous sense of existing in the various characters, is the oppressive extent to which, at so many points, they feel utterly abandoned, adrift, alone.

Mathieu stopped and gazed up at it. A quite ordinary and unprivileged sky. And myself a nondescript entity beneath that vast indifferent arc. (p.296)

This is a key psychological basis of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Every adult human is completely alone and completely free – no ties bind us, only what we choose. Everyone must decide for themselves, without ‘bad faith’ i.e. without blaming circumstances or upbringing or this or that political or cultural situation. Our decisions make us who we are, but we can only fully grasp this, and the crushing responsibility it brings, once we have psychologically experienced our terrible aloneness.

  • ‘We are now alone.’ (p.6) Milan
  • He felt alone (p.9) Milan
  • ‘Now we are quite alone.’ (p.10) Milan
  • A man felt isolated (p.13) Maurice
  • Daniel thought: ‘I am alone’. (p.43) Daniel
  • At the moment he was alone. (p.96) Maurice
  • … they are alone upon the earth.. (p.99) Pierre on the Arabs
  • Gros-Louis was glad of their company, but he still felt solitary. (p.135)
  • … she was quite alone… (p.140) Maud, as she masturbates the captain of the liner
  • He was no longer alone (p.159) Philippe in the boarding house
  • For the moment he was there, an innocent, ugly little boy with a diminutive shadow at his feet, alone in the world… (p.196)
  • So you are quite alone?’ ‘Quite.’ He repeated: ‘Quite alone in the world.’ (p.209) Charles talking to Catherine in the evacuation train
  • The Moroccan climbed over the cracked soil of Spain, he thought of Tangier, and he felt alone. (p.220) Soon afterwards the Moroccan is shot dead by a Belgian
  • He was alone in the night, so small and solitary, he knew and understood nothing, like a man about to die. (p.250) Gros-Louis, the illiterate peasant
  • There was no longer anyone in the world but Karl and his Führer. The Führer was speaking in front of a large swastika’d standard, he was speaking to Karl, and to him alone. (p.271)
  • She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris also had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between things and people were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice. (p.273) [Ella]
  • He was alone on this bridge, alone in the world, accountable to no man. (p.308) [Mathieu]
  • I’m alone in the street, surrounded by sleeping people, ignored by everyone. (p.310)  [Irene]
  • She felt utterly alone. (p.360) [Maud after peace is declared]

At some point or other, all the characters realise their solitude, alone on the surface of a friendless planet, confronting their futures, their destinies completely unaided.

A man alone, forgotten, devoured by darkness, confronted that fragile eternity. (p.297)

In Sartre’s philosophy, we are each of us completely free, utterly free to make decisions according to our own sense of values – and our decisions therefore define us. And the responsibility, the implications of this radical, total freedom, is crushing.

  • ‘I am free,’ he said suddenly. And his joy shrivelled into horror. (p.299)
  • I am free, he said to himself, and his mouth was dry… Freedom is exile, and I cam condemned to be free. (p.308)
  • I shall be my own witness, I am accountable to no one but myself. (p.337)

If there are any character developments (and for the most part there aren’t: Boris hates Lola, Ivich hates Mathieu, Daniel hates Mathieu etc) the two main ones are:

  1. Mathieu with a start realises he is free, but realises that the nature of that ‘freedom’ is completely unlike what he expected: he expected a sense of deliverance and joy, but instead he experiences terror and physical anxiety. He is free to do anything. (In fact, of course, he doesn’t do much; he sleeps with Irène and volunteers for the army. Big deal.)
  2. Daniel has a religious conversion. Being French, and so Catholic, this is expressed in the same language of extremity, the same hysterical exaggeration, as the other characters’ ‘existential’ musings. To be precise, Daniel becomes aware of being seen, not by a human, but by some unknown see-er who can see right into his soul. And that fixes his mobile tremulous over-intelligent personality. It fixes and transfixes him. It objectifies him. He experiences a massive relief.

Sarte Bullshit bingo

As with The Age of Reason, I began chuckling every time I read characteristic Sartrean key words – despair, anguish etc – and burst out laughing whenever one of his stricken characters had another outbreak of Weltschmerz and nausea – like the numerous episodes where Mathieu and Daniel, in particular, are likely to completely lose their sense of themselves and become pure looks, observing but empty consciousnesses, at one with the surrounding objects, their futures foreknown, foretold, suspended, empty, futile etc etc.

Key terms in Sartre Bullshit Bingo would have to include:

  • nauseam, vomit, slime, sick, disgust, contempt, revulsion, anguish, hate, despise, horror, dismal, white (as in the blinding white glare of the noonday sun), insect (people routinely feel like one; Hitler is described as having an insect face)

Prose poetry

You might not expect it from his reputation, but Sartre is a surprisingly poetic writer. A lot of the rhapsody is negative (slime and vomit and bodily functions) or describes rather esoteric psychological insights into the nature of death, destiny, and his persistent hallucination that the objects around us are watching us, respond to our thoughts, embody our moods.

But in other places, especially in the many descriptions of the sea associated with the Mathieu sections, Sartre is a swift and vivid writer of pure prose poetry.

Odette returned with a smile. It wasn’t the conventional smile that he expected, but a special smile just for him; in one instant the sea had reappeared, the lightly heaving sea, the Chinese shadows speeding across the water, the green aloes and the green pine-needles that carpeted the ground, the stippled shadows of the tall pines, the dense white heat, the smell of resin, all the richness of a September morning at Juan-les-Pins. (p.94)


Le Sursis is well worth reading:

  1. As a vivid picture of the atmosphere of France, and to some extent the rest of Europe, during that turbulent week in September 1938.
  2. As a fiction in its own right, especially the experimental use of a vast cast of characters whose thoughts and actions blend into each other in such an arresting challenging way.
  3. As an insight into the psychological basis of existentialism, which comes across as the codification of the very peculiar psychological states experienced by its inventor, M. Jean-Paul Sartre who suffers an oppressive sense of self-consciousness, which veers from feeling so emptied-out that he becomes simply a seeing object, a stone which perceives, through to the other extreme of becoming so exquisitely over-sensitive to the suffocating existence of the world around him, and of his own strangling self-consciousness, that he wants to stop it, to cease being so self-conscious, to become as senseless as a stone. Hence the passage where Mathieu looks over the parapet of the Pont-Neuf in Paris and wants to jump into the Seine (pp.308-309), to cease, imagining himself already dead, imagining himself in the past tense (and so on and so on).

Above all, though, it is a good indicator of the wretchedly demoralised state of French culture in the late 1930s which goes a long way to explaining why France surrendered so easily when she was finally attacked by the Nazis in June 1940 – surrendered and quickly set up the Vichy regime which enthusiastically collaborated with the Germans.

Mathieu, Boris, Daniel, Ivich, Philippe – they all lack backbone, spine, a real sense of purpose. When the test came, they all collapsed like a pack of cards. The book is a powerful portrait of a demoralised nation.


Le Sursis by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. This translation by Eric Sutton was published as The Reprieve by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. The Reprieve was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint, which I bought 40 years ago for 85p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.


To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013)

At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective. I pound pavements. I interview witnesses. I collect evidence. (p.185)

The Dreyfus Affair

In December 1894 the French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was tried and found guilty of passing French military secrets to the Germans and packed off to Devil’s Island, where he served five years penal servitude in gruelling conditions. But in 1896 evidence began to come to light suggesting the real spy was someone else, and implying that Dreyfus was the victim of a shabby kangaroo court, a victim of the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-German mood of the army. (Not only was he a Jew, he was a rich Jew, moreover his family came from the eastern province of Alsace, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had stayed there instead of fleeing the enemy, as ‘good patriots’ had done.)

Slowly pressure mounted for a retrial and the Dreyfus case became a lightning rod for the divisions which had divided France since the 1789 revolution – with right-wing, pro-Army and generally Catholic forces on one side, convinced there was some German, Jewish conspiracy to undermine France and her patriotic virtues – opposed to liberal, freethinking, anti-militarists on the other side, equally convinced the whole thing was a travesty of justice, an example of military high-handedness, a blatant cover-up of incompetence at the highest levels.

The whole affair dragged on for over a decade, with Dreyfus released from Devil’s Island and accepting a pardon in 1899 but battling on to establish his innocence, securing a re-investigation in 1903, then a retrial in 1904, which led to his complete exoneration and his restoration to the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1906.

Harris has written a long, detailed and gripping recreation of the affair. It opens dramatically with Dreyfus being paraded in front of a baying mob of 20,000 Parisians and several army divisions, having his conviction publicly read out, his epaulettes torn off, his sword smashed in two, then dragged off to prison and a long sea voyage to his incarceration in the hellhole of Devil’s Island.

Georges Picquart

Harris has soaked himself in the history of the affair and the culture of the period – as the Afterword listing the works of reference he used amply indicates – and he manages to involve us in the convoluted series of conspiracies and investigations, which helps to make this book itself his longest (at 478 pages).

I was daunted by this sheer size and by the notorious complexity of the subject matter, but ended up being so gripped by Harris’s treatment that I read it late into the night and ended up wondering if it might be his best, and most gripping, novel – which is saying a lot after the compelling thrills of Fatherland, Archangel and Enigma.

It is a minor miracle (partly indebted to the historical facts, partly to Harris’s grasp of its complexity) that he has managed to identify and use the consciousness of just one first-person narrator to take us through the elaborate events and legal processes which is what the affair consists of.

This central character is Major (soon to be promoted Colonel) Georges Picquart, a bachelor of 40, who was a real historical figure right at the heart of the affair – present at Dreyfus’s arrest, tasked with reporting the first, secret, trial directly to the Minister for War, as a result promoted to head the Statistical Section (a secret intelligence section of the army’s intelligence division, the Deuxième Bureau) which had in fact gathered much of the evidence used against Dreyfus.

Here he slowly assembles the documents, the forgeries, the testimony from witnesses, which gradually cohere to suggest that Dreyfus was not guilty, that the real spy passing secrets to the German military attaché, von Schwartzkoppen, was an arrogant, loose-living officer named Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and that Dreyfus was elaborately framed by a cabal of officers and their superiors who wanted to find a scapegoat and hush up the initial spying allegations quickly with oh what dire and unintended consequences.

Thus we witness all the key opening scenes through Picquart’s eyes – Dreyfus’s arrest, trial, and his big set piece humiliation in front of baying crowds. Because of Picquart’s position he also reads the pitiful correspondence between Dreyfus – with its harrowing descriptions of his solitary confinement in the tiny rocky islet in the Atlantic – and his poor wife, Lucie, left looking after their two young children. Picquart’s superiors are the Head of the Deuxième Bureau, of the General Staff and the War Minister himself, who we get to observe close up on numerous occasions, just a few among the cast of scores and scores of historical personages that Harris brings to life with astonishing attention to detail and verisimilitude.

And then we follow Picquart into the minutiae of the various investigations and surveillances he runs, and experience with him the sense of doubt, then suspicion, and then horrified certainty as he realises the French Army has convicted the wrong man and let the real spy go free. We follow his attempts to alert his superiors to what he has discovered, only to find them cold and unresponsive – either because they were directly involved in the original frame-up or because they realise that admitting it will expose the army to ridicule, and that the most senior figures – the head of the General Staff, the war minister himself – will be compromised.

After refusing to obey direct orders to close his investigations, after refusing to stop gathering evidence against Esterhazy, Picquart is finally unceremoniously shipped to a remote dumping ground in colonial Tunisia, transferred to an infantry brigade, and, when the result of his investigations start to leak into the newspapers, becomes an outcast among his brother officers, a traitor, a Jew-lover.

After putting up with the Tunisian heat and boredom for 6 months he makes a momentous decision, returns to Paris incognito, and hands over a detailed dossier of all the evidence to an old family friend, seasoned lawyer Louis Leblois, who himself hands it over to the Vice President of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

Back in Tunisia, Picquart watches from afar as a big political and press campaign begins to roll to get the Dreyfus case reopened.

But his superiors are almost certain he is responsible for the leak and soon he is himself subject to crude intimidation and then cunningly framed by the very staff in the Statistical Section who he used to manage. He is summoned back to Paris and tried using evidence – letters and telegrams – which have all been concocted to make it seem like he himself is a dangerous spy, and spends a long time in various prisons in and around Paris, trying, like Dreyfus, not to go mad.

Meanwhile the army ransacks his apartment, exposes his affair with a married woman – thus ruining her life – sets up another stage-managed trial to incriminate him, and generally abuses its power in every way conceivable to frame another innocent man.

In the final section Picquart loses all illusions about  his enemy, and openly collaborates with a committee of the Dreyfus supporters who now call themselves ‘Dreyfusards’, including the left-wing politician and future French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and the novelist Émile Zola. It is in January 1898 that Zola publishes his famous front-page article J’Accuse, for the first time naming all the guilty men Picquart has assembled information about, minutely detailing their roles in the various fabrications and cover-ups – a historic publication which only manages to get him arrested and tried for libel.

Right to the end of these tortuous proceedings, investigations, trials, retrials, conspiracies and incarcerations, Harris keeps up the totally addictive grip of his fast-moving, factual but beautifully paced narrative. I couldn’t put it down.

Pace and empathy

Why are Harris’s novels so compulsively readable? It’s a long book – 484 pages in the Arrow paperback – but it flies by, even with its freight of historical, legal and cultural complexity.

It’s due to at least two things: Harris’s clear, readable and attractive prose, and his very canny pacing of the way the central ‘secret’ – Dreyfus’s innocence, the identity of the real spy – is revealed.

In fact, this central structure of the ‘slow reveal’ is identical to the ones he used in his earlier thrillers: Fatherland where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation of the Holocaust, Archangel where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation that Stalin had a son and heir who is still alive, Enigma where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence that there is a traitor at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre.

The fundamental journey is the same but the pleasure is in Harris’s tremendous skill at surprising the reader with carefully placed clues and insights. Somehow Harris takes you completely into the mind of his protagonists so that, although the reader knows in advance that there was a Holocaust and that Dreyfus was innocent, we still share the same growing suspicion, shock and horror as the central figure.

Even when, by half way through, the ‘secret’ is out and Picquart is fully convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he still manages to grip the reader by having us so fully on the side of his hero: as he anxiously waits in his Tunisian exile for events to develop, as he journeys alone and scared to Paris, as he has secret meetings with his lawyer friend, and then through all the rigours of his own arrest, imprisonment, rigged impeachment and further incarceration.

By this stage we are nearly as angry as Picquart, not only with the injustice of Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but with the combination of crude blundering and blackmail masterminded by his craven army superiors and their pawns and agents. And this anger, and an anxiety to see how and when the truth prevails, become the driving force of the reader’s involvement.


I’ve noted in my reviews of other Harris’s other thrillers, that he varies his style to suit the subject matter and period: Enigma used a prose style just slightly tinged with 1940s slang and phraseology; The Ghost skillfully captures the middle-brow, humorous, self-deprecation of an easygoing modern-day jobbing author; The Fear Index is rich with terminology from the computer science and financial markets which are its setting.

Similarly, An Officer and A Spy mostly functions with what you could call Basic Thriller Style, a curt clipped statement of the facts.

We take a taxi across the river and I pay off the driver just south of the École Militaire. The remainder of the journey we complete on foot. The section of the rue de Sèvres in which the hotel stands is narrow and poorly lit; the Manche is easy to miss. It occupies a narrow, tumbledown house, hemmed in between a butcher’s shop and a bar: the sort of place where commercial travellers might lay their heads for a night and assignations can no doubt be paid for by the hour. Desvernines goes in first: I follow. The concierge is not at his desk. Through a curtain of beads I can see people eating supper in the little dining room. There is no escalator. The narrow stairs creak with every tread. (p.403)

After a while I realised that the very fact that he is a soldier adds a slight but detectable extra amount of curtness and clippedness. He is a military man used to thinking in terms of fact, figures, orders and instructions, and a Frenchman trained in clarity and logic.

But this is combined with Harris’s marvellous gift for selecting just the right detail to convey a scene or character. There is a tremendous economy to his writing and an impressive tact: just so much, just what is needed to paint a scene, and no more.

The following Thursday evening, at seven precisely, I sit in a corner of the cavernous yellow gloom of the platform café of the gare Saint-Lazare, sipping an Alsace beer. The place is packed; the double-hinged door swings back and forth with a squeak of springs. The roar of chat and movement inside and the whistles and shouts and percussive bursts of steam from the locomotives outside make it a perfect place not to be overheard. I have managed to save a table with two seats that gives me a clear view of the entrance. (p.109)

The present

Another very distinctive aspect of the narrative is that it is all in the present tense.

It was a considerable risk to do it this, as a narrative told in the continuous present can appear pretentious or stilted in the wrong hands. But Harris really is such a brilliant and intelligent writer that it works entirely as he intends it to, by creating a permanent present in which the narrator – like the reader – has no idea what is going to happen next. It adds tremendously to the tension and anxiety of the book, continually driving you on every page to experience the hero’s doubts and anxieties.

For several minutes I sit motionless, holding the photograph. I might be made of marble, a sculpture by Rodin: The Reader. What really freezes me, even more than the matching hand-writing, is the content – the obsession with artillery, the offer to have a manual copied out verbatim, the obsequious salesman’s tone – it is Esterhazy to the life. (p.162)

We sit with him. We are holding the new evidence, transfigured by its implications. 479 is a lot of pages to keep up this balancing act, but Harris does it brilliantly.

The hero as modern man

Coming to this novel after reading a series of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels prompts the thought that what Furst’s and Harris’s novels share is the essential amiability of the central characters.

Compare Georges Picquart with Fredric Stahl, the protagonist of Furst’s 2012 novel, Mission To Paris. They are both good eggs. Furst’s hero is as immune to the prejudices of his time (the 1930s) as Georges Picquart is to those of his (the 1890s).

For example, both of them are repelled by anti-Semitism. This was an extremely common prejudice throughout Europe, at all levels of society until well past the Second World War. Harris’s and Furst’s novels testify to this, the Harris novel tracking the rise of virulent anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus case drags on. And yet both these heroes don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body. They never give in to even the slightest racist thought for even a second. Not even in their darkest moments. In this respect, they are whiter than white, politically correct. Their instinctive revulsion from and contempt for the anti-Semitism of those around them withstands the toughest scrutiny of the modern liberal reader.

Similarly, both of them are immensely respectful of women; never let slip a sexist comment, don’t belittle women in word or deed; indeed, they both have the same kind of sensuous, smoochy affairs with women that require or imply that the women in their lives are themselves highly sexually aware, ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ ie surprisingly anticipating modern attitudes.

Furst and Harris heroes are, in other words, modern men who reflect very accurately the most advanced, enlightened thinking of the 21st century – transplanted back into the clothes of a man in 1938 and 1895, respectively. If you actually read novelists from 1938 (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) let alone 1895 (Thomas Hardy, Henry James) you quickly discover they:

a) thought and wrote in a much more convoluted and less factual style than we do
b) were casually racist and sexist, not to mention snobbish, elitist and intolerant, without realising they’d said anything wrong – because those were the common values of the time
c) were very tight-lipped about sex, if mentioned at all

Not only that, but Picquart is winningly cultured and civilised. Harris goes out of his way to make him a man of culture, who knows a particular Paris church is famous because Saint-Saens plays the organ there, and who attends a performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by the composer himself, a man who whiles away boring journeys translating Dostoyevsky novels from the original Russian.

A mark of his urbanity and his ability to rise above petty mindedness (unlike so many of those around him) is his sense of humour.

Outwardly, I hope, I wear my usual mask of detachment, even irony, for there has never been a situation, however dire, even this one, that did not strike me as containing at least some element of the human comedy. (p.355)

Finally, and – crucially – these heroes are much the same at the end of the book as they were at the start. This is what keeps thrillers, by and large, from being considered ‘literature’. The characters undergo little real change. Picquart sees a lot, and tells us he experiences a lot, but he still uses the same snappy, confident, urbane tone at the end of the book as at the start. He’s learned a lot but is still essentially the same guy.

An indication of this lack of development comes right at the end of the novel. The payoff, the epilogue, the conclusion could have drawn a number of wide-ranging points from Dreyfus’s story: for example, what it tells us about the divided nature of French society, about French defeatism before the Great War (and indeed the Second World War), about the widespread presence of anti-Semitism in even an ‘enlightened’ Western nation, and so on.

Instead of opening up into historical perspectives, though, Harris deliberately and, I think, a little disappointingly, focuses the story right down to a Spielbergesque final moment.

In the epilogue (and, amazingly, this is true) the shamed Picquart, once a complete outcast from the French army has himself ended up becoming French Minister for War, and is asked for an interview by the newly restored Lieutenant Colonel Dreyfus. Both men are embarrassed as Dreyfus, finally, after their long odyssey together, says thank you. Picquart says shucks I could never have done it without you. Dreyfus replies, ‘No, my general, you did it because it was your duty.’ (p.479)

In other words, this final scene, for all the brilliance of the preceding pages, I think emphasises the essentially simple psychology, the innocence and apple pie goodness, of Harris’s hero. He and the reader have been on an extraordinary journey of investigation and understanding – but he is as solid, noble and conscientious at the bitter end as he had been at the innocent start.

What the thriller can tell us

Thus, lack of character development is one of the most obvious drawbacks of ‘the thriller’ as a genre, even very good thrillers like Harris’s.

But that said, thriller can do lots of things which more ‘serious literature’ can’t. They can have more breadth of character, range of incident, more extreme situations. Above all the thriller is interested in violence, fear, paranoia, surveillance, suspicion, enemies and the mindset which copes with constant threat, continual alertness and planning. It exercises ‘the predator mind’. And these, regrettably, are situations a lot of ordinary literature-reading people found themselves suddenly thrown into throughout the terrible 20th century.

So many of the thrillers I’ve read over the past two years self-consciously refer to the fact that this or that situation could be straight out of a shilling shocker, or cheap thriller or Hollywood movie – as if by confronting the fact that they’re using conventional thriller clichés and stereotypes they can somehow overcome it. Harris says something more interesting. As the narrator gives his lawyer a letter to be opened by the president of France ‘in the event of my death’, he is aware of how silly the situation is.

I suppose he considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together. (p.303)

Thrillers deal with people plunged into extreme situations and, for all their obvious shortcomings, people are in fact plunged into extreme situations every day, and thrillers do tell some kinds of truths, not subtle truths about human nature, maybe; but truths about the human mind and the desperate measures it sometimes has to resort to.


As referred to, Harris is a writer of great intelligence and forensic ability, a lawyer or journalist’s ability to grasp the detail of a very complex subject and rewrite it in an orderly, comprehensible and indeed gripping way.

I mentioned the economy and tact of his style, above. But there is also the economy and tact of his entire approach. Although I don’t quite like the sentimental ending when Dreyfus and Picquart finally shake hands, I do like what Harris doesn’t do: he doesn’t preach. He doesn’t draw the umpteen conclusions he could have about Dreyfus being one of the first political prisoners, or a victim of a state cover-up, or about the ineptness of spy agencies or the stupidity of so much military ‘intelligence’, or the broader historical echoes: Dreyfus was a kind of proto-martyr for what would become a flood of state-sponsored show trials in totalitarian Germany and Russian in the 1930s and in other authoritarian countries since.

Instead the eerie anticipations of later regimes are left entirely to the reader to pick up. He compliments his reader’s intelligence with his restraint. Just the use of the word ‘dossier’ to refer to all the made-up evidence against Dreyfus is enough to remind the reader of the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the ‘sexed-up intelligence’ which helped take the UK into America’s invasion of Iraq. This and other fleeting pre-echoes and premonitions are left entirely for the reader to detect, or not.

Subtlety. Tact. Discretion. These are just some among Harris’s many wonderful gifts as an unmatched writer of intelligent historical thrillers.

Dramatis personae

  • Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Jewish, wealthy, aloof, when some documents which imply that someone is passing French military secrets to the German military attaché are discovered by the French Deuxième Bureau, he is framed, evidence is twisted and handwriting experts are suborned to blame the entirely guiltless Dreyfus, who is tried in a secret military trial, convicted to life imprisonment, ritually stripped of military honours in front of a vast Paris crowd, and shipped to a tiny rock off the South American coast where a tiny prison and contingent of guards is kept solely to keep him in solitary confinement, with no letters or books, for five years.
  • Lucie Dreyfus, his wife, Pierre his son, Jeanne his daughter
  • Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother who leads the campaign for his release
  • Bernard Lazare, Jewish journalist the
  • Major then Colonel Georges Picquart
  • Anna, his older sister
  • Pauline Romazotti, grew up near the Picquart family, now married to Philippe Monnier, official at the Foreign Ministry, with whom Georges is having an affair
  • Louis Leblois, old schoolfriend and lawyer
  • Aimery de Comminges, baron de Saint-Lary
  • Blanche de Commanges, one of Picquart’s lovers
  • General Charles-Arthur Gonse, 56, Chief of French Military Intelligence (p.29)
  • General Mercier, Minister of War, to whom Picquart reports back an eye witness account of the Dreyfus kangaroo court
  • President Casimir-Perier, president of France
  • Major Henry, official in the Statistical Section of the Deuxième Bureau, a red-faced often drunk man who, it emerges, played a key role in framing Dreyfus
  • Captain Lauth of the Statistical Section
  • Monsieur Gribelin, the spidery archivist of the Statistical Section
  • Colonel Sandherr, Picquart’s predecessor as head of the Statistical Section ie he oversaw the faking of the evidence which framed Dreyfus
  • Jean-Alfred Desverine, young Sûreté officer Picquart gets seconded to his Statistical Section
  • Ducasse, young officer Picquart sets up in a rented flat opposite the German embassy in Paris to record comings and goings
  • Moises Lehmann, forger Picquart uses
  • Guénée, Statistical Section operative who has been assigned to surveil the Dreyfus family
  • General Foucault, French military attaché to Berlin
  • Armand du Paty de Clam, instrumental in forging evidence implicating Dreyfus
  • Operation Benefactor, the surveillance operation on Esterhazy instigate by Picquart
  • General Billot
  • General Boisdeffre, Chief of the French General Staff
  • von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris
  • Alessandro Panizzardi, Italian military attaché in Paris
  • General Leclerc, Picquart’s commanding officer in Tunisia after he is transferred to the 4th Tunisian Rifles
  • Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice President of the Senate to whom Picquart’s friend, the lawyer Leblois, gives Picquart’s dossier proving that Esterhazy is the spy and Dreyfus innocent
  • Colonel Armand Mercier-Milon, old friend of Picquart’s who is tasked with escorting him from Marseilles to Paris and there keeping him under guard
  • General de Pellieux, tough soldier leading the investigation into Picquart’s alleged treason and alleged fabrication of evidence against Esterhazy


An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

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Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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