Pain and Longing: The Hidden Terrors of Helene Nolthenius

Nolthenius in the 1950s

The Dutch medievalist Helene Nolthenius (1920­–2000) has a curious, split reputation.  The division is not between fans and detractors but rather between those who appreciate her for a small set of specialist publications, mostly in medieval music history, and then a much larger audience that loves her for popular non-fiction and fiction, usually set in the distant European past.  She began her career in 1951 with a tremendously successful work on thirteenth-century Italy, Duecento (English translation: Duecento: The Late Middle Ages in Italy, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968; published in Britain as In that Dawn: The Thirteenth Century in Italy, London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1968).  It’s still a lovely introduction to Italian culture on the eve of the renaissance, though it shows its age and, especially in the original Dutch, stylistically bears the mark of Johan Huizinga’s “historical sensation” – concept: it’s all very exciting, even a little breathless.  Imagine Huizinga, having fallen in love with Umbria, sitting down for work in the morning with an espresso and a shot of grappa, and then letting loose (hard to imagine, I know).

This is rather unkind of me because there are times when I really like the book, and in some ways it broke new ground: Nolthenius was interdisciplinary long before anyone knew what the term meant.  But she would have been the first to admit that Duecento did not go very deep and did not aim very high: the goal was to thrill, to please, to find a new audience for a history and a place with which she had fallen in love during her dissertation research on the musical culture of early Franciscan Laude in central Italy. It was the source of an enduring passion that compelled her to retire from her professorship in Utrecht at the age of fifty-six and move to an old farmhouse in Cavriglia, some 20 miles south of Florence, in 1978.  The dream turned out to be less than satisfying, and she went back to Holland in 1981, another illusion richer (or poorer).  The experience characterizes her life, dominated by a longing for a high culture of love and beauty impossible to attain in the modern world and increasingly sought in the past and within—or perhaps with her husband, Willy Wagenaar, a kind and erudite esthete, and with her family.  A strain of deep sadness and pain runs through much of her fiction work, which I always found difficult to reconcile with the mood of eager delight in Duecento.  Even her lighter work, like the mystery novels centered on Lapo Mosca, a medieval monk and sleuth,

A Spanish translation of two Lapo Mosca mysteries, 1996

can be bleak.  She started the series in 1977; a year later Umberto Eco began work on his novel about a medieval monastic detective, The Name of the Rose, which of course became an international bestseller.  (Nolthenius’ Lapo Mosca-mysteries did well in the Netherlands; some were translated into Italian, Spanish and German.)

Above all, there is guilt, and shame.  In her final novel, Voortgeschopt als een steen [“Kicked like a Pebble”, only available in Dutch], published a year before her death, when she was already suffering from Parkinson’s, the central character, Leonidas of Taranto (a real historical figure, aka Leonida di Taranto, author of Greek epigrams, probably active in the third century BC) traces his life of endless vagrancy to the day when, at the age of twenty-five, he leaves his homeland to seek adventure, serving cruel Pyrrhus and many other dubious patrons to whom he sold his pen as a second-rate poet.  ‘An artist is a divided human being: the protective hide of his homeland provides the foundations of his art, but he will always seek the muses on the far side of the horizon” (p. 17, my translation).  Leonidas looks back in shame: he failed himself for not living up to his own high standards of art, but he also failed his father, who had named him after the famed Spartan king and martial hero in the hope of a glorious future; and he has failed his home, Taranto, sacked by Pyrrhus.

Nolthenius thought of herself as a lonely wanderer in a senseless world.  Throughout her life and career as a historian and writer, she harbored an identification with St Francis of Assisi, the subject of her last historical work for a wider audience,

Giovanni Bellini, St Francis in Ecstasy, c. 1480 (New York, Frick Museum)

De man uit het dal van Spoleto: Franciscus tussen zijn tijdgenoten [The Man from Spoleto Valley: St Francis Among his Contemporaries, 1988; translated into Italian and Spanish, but not in English), in which she juxtaposes fragments from historical narratives about political and cultural events written in the days of St Francis, with a meticulous reconstruction of the saint’s life, which produces an odd effect of profound melancholy: it reminded me of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, in which the painter foregrounds a farmer plowing the land and a shepherd glancing up at the sky as if worried by inclement weather, totally oblivious to the drama in the background of young Icarus plunging to his death.

A new biography by Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering. Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 [Reason and Ecstasy: H.N.] (Nijmegen: Vanthilt, 2009) reveals that this brilliant loner kept some long and deep scars in her psyche carefully hidden behind a forbidding persona, unfathomable to her colleagues and intimidating to her students—though they remember her even more for her inability to look them in the eye.  When Helene was four or five, in the mid-1920s,

Nolthenius, age 5 (photo: Mulder, HN)

her father Hugo abandoned his career as a cellist because of stage fright and became a high school teacher of Latin and Greek.  His great learning inspired immense admiration in the young girl, but his pomposity in the classroom also embarrassed her.  He, in turn, cut short her promise as a singer, insisting that her voice “just wasn’t good enough”. Adolescence brought even greater tension with her father.  Helene never forgave him for leaving her mother (and her) for another woman, and broke off all contact with him in the early 1950s.  Mulder identifies “letting go” as a key value in her life.

I am intrigued by her sense of failure, affected no doubt by the troubled relationship with her father but also by traumatizing events during and shortly after the Second World War, which shaped her view of herself and her main subject, Franciscan culture.

Her formative teens and early twenties involved numerous crises and transitions for herself and for loved ones.  She idealized her aunt Frida, a history teacher in Indonesia; after Frida’s suicide in 1927, Mulder testifies, she “put on [Frida’s] clothes and read her books”, including Johannes Jørgensen’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi (orig. publ. 1907), setting into motion a lifelong fascination with Francis and her conversion to Catholicism, formally completed when she turns 21—truly an act of rebellion against her pantheist/atheist father; Mulder publishes Nolthenius handwritten Apologia for her faith, found among her papers after her death—complete with her father’s critical notes in the margin!

At that point, Holland is laboring under five years of Nazi occupation, of course, and they bring tragedy.  In 1943, the Nolthenius family decide to shelter her Jewish friend Hanna de Beer in their home.  They manage to hide Hanna safely for months, then move her to a friend’s house when the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) closes in.

Hanna (“Hans”) Hammelburg-de Beer in 1947 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

Finally, in January 1944, the SD arrests Nolthenius; under pressure, she divulges Hanna’s new hideaway.  Hanna and her parents are rounded up. Nolthenius is further interrogated but her father’s astonishing courage saves her: he convinces the German authorities that he is the ringleader of the underground circuit and that his daughter is innocent.  Dachau is his fate (he survives, weakened).  Hanna and her parents are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the elderly de Beers are immediately killed.  Hanna, a medical student, survives by claiming to be a doctor.  Nolthenius is freed.

Meanwhile a young Jewish man, Samuel Vecht, also in hiding, has fallen in love with Nolthenius, now 24 years old, smart, talented, beautiful, with a dominant personality. She acts as a mentor to Samuel, five years her junior,

Nolthenius (sitting, left) and Samuel Vecht (sitting, right), with Gerard and Willemien Brom (standing), 1946 (Photo: Mulder, HN)

tutoring him in Greek and Latin, while introducing him to the study of St Francis (I wonder if Jørgensen’s own, important mentorship of a Jewish friend was not without influence here).  With no news about his family deported to the camps, and utterly besotted by Nolthenius, Samuel even converts to Catholicism. In the end, Nolthenius marries another man, Willy Wagenaar; Samuel declares an intention to enter the Franciscan order, then commits suicide.  His father, the Vecht family’s sole survivor of the camps, spits Nolthenius in the face upon meeting her.  For the rest of her life, Nolthenius never talked about Samuel.

What did she try to find in St Francis and medieval culture?  Not confirmation of her faith: she abandoned Catholicism shortly after 1950 and never again ascribed to any religious belief system.  Nor did she idealize Francis as a social activist: although she had become a member of the Dutch communist party in her late teens (for her, communism was the logical consequence of true Christian faith!), she cancelled her membership because of the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact in yet another instance of “letting go,” and refrained from all political activity after that. Mulder suggests she admired Francis and his world for doing exactly that which she no longer could do: to give oneself for an ideal, to commit with passion.

Parkinson’s clouded her latter years; she became forgetful, confused.  Wagenaar relates to Mulder that shortly before her death, fifty-five years after the war, she would wake up at night convinced that she was living in an extermination camp.  In the end, she herself had become “Jewish.”

Etty Mulder, Rede en vervoering: Helene Nolthenius 1920–2000 (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2009). 319 pages.  ISBN 9789460040214.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003)

“You can’t believe how frightful Oxford is,” the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote to a friend in January 1946, a week after his return to the university, having served for six years as a British intelligence officer.  With him, thousands of demobilized men had come back eager to resume their studies.  Chastened by what they had just experienced and of course far more mature than the average undergraduate, they had little time for, or access to, the leisurely dinners over fine claret or burgundy, the drunken romps at select clubs, the regular fox hunts and exercise of the hounds “in the sweet air early on Sunday mornings”– in sum,

TR in the 1940s

the life Trevor-Roper had led as a college student and young historian at Christ Church before the war. “Oxford is very full, and the life of dignified ease which one used to associate with my profession seems to have evaporated,” he lamented.  In due time, he published a shrewd, dramatic account of The Last Days of Hitler, based on his intelligence mission to Berlin in the fall of 1945.  This work, the mother of all Downfall books and still in print, became an international bestseller, secured Trevor-Roper’s position as a Nazi-expert in the English-speaking world, and opened the gates for a steady stream of newspaper and magazine commissions, also from the United States, “from which an infinite, endless, golden shower of American dollars flow[ed] ceaselessly into [his] pockets.”  Trevor-Roper bought a Bentley, “which he parked ostentatiously in Tom Quad,” and embarked on a remarkable career as a don at Oxford (he was the Regius professor from 1957 to 1980) and Cambridge (as master of Peterhouse from 1980 to his retirement in 1987), an esteemed though iconoclastic scholar of seventeenth-century England and indeed of early modern Europe as a whole, a world-class traveler among the beau monde, a celebrated conservative talking-head, and, with his penchant for fierce polemics against multiple colleagues, a maker and breaker of many a reputation, including his own.  His name will forever be attached to the notorious Hitler diaries “discovered” by the German Stern magazine in 1983 and offered for serialization to the London Times, which naturally solicited one of its directors, Trevor-Roper, to authenticate the materials.  After a brief examination, he declared the diaries genuine, a declaration met with great fanfare in the world press but soon reversed when the diaries were proven to be crude forgeries, much to the dismay of Trevor-Roper and the glee of all those he had mercilessly skewered in word and deed for almost four decades.  Insightful as ever, Trevor-Roper had in fact predicted his own Untergang.  An entry in his wartime notebooks runs:

I am often astonished by the depth and extent of my learning.  ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper’, I say to myself, when this bewildering revelation breaks upon me, ‘you must be careful, or you will buried, obliterated, beneath the burden of this stupendous erudition’

And in his “Self-Appreciation” of 1941 he had observed that

Pride is my chief fault, and will be my undoing.

The Man

Meanwhile, however, he did lead a life far more interesting than most historians’ (I can safely attest to that fact). It is now splendidly chronicled in Adam Sisman’s Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010), which offers a very entertaining story thanks to the biographer’s sympathetic and thoughtful handling, to be sure, but Trevor-Roper deserves a great deal of credit as well, since he was kind enough to leave us an enormous output of letters, notes, reflections and assorted bons mots that gleam and twinkle in every tale of even the most tedious scholarly feud.  And boy, did he know how to feud!  A master of the deadly invective, Trevor-Roper loved academic brawls.  He sparred with Lawrence Stone and R.H. Tawney over the rise of the gentry and the origins of the English Civil War, with A.J.P. Taylor on the latter’s Origins of the Second World War (1961), with E. H. Carr on historical “objectivity” (or history as teleology, in T-R’s estimate), with Keith Thomas (“That silly young man”) and Alan Macfarlane (“those pernickety little arrows of yours which come whizzing out of your piddling little county of Essex”) over the great witch-craze, with Arnold Toynbee on just about everything the latter ever wrote, with Evelyn Waugh and lots of other Catholics on the Church of Rome, and with half of Anglican England over his own Archbishop Laud (1940).  For seven years he battled very publicly with his common room at Peterhouse College, which had elected him in the hope that, as a known conservative, he would “keep out the women,” only to find that he had little tolerance for insular reactionaries—especially when they were Catholic.  Barely a few months into his term, he managed to review Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, a new book by Maurice Cowling, the leader of the Peterhouse “mafia” (T.-R.’s term), without drawing blood, but privately he called it

A very rum work… The subject is the intellectual history of our time and the great spiritual crisis in which we have found ourselves.  I find, on reading it, that this intellectual history has unfolded itself, and the crisis has been observed, and it is to be resolved, almost entirely within the walls of Peterhouse.

though he conceded that “the outer world is occasionally mentioned en passant.”

This did not bode well for the Master’s reign at Peterhouse.  What ensued reads as a tale of dark intrigue worthy of an over-the-top campus novel, yet only true.  Sisman reports in the Foreword that

The unreformed law of defamation has provided a further restraint.  On legal advice I removed or modified a number of passages from my first draft.  Informed readers may not be surprised to learn that a high proportion of these were taken from the chapters covering my subject’s stint as Master of Peterhouse. (p. xvii)

Considering what is still left in the book, what was left out must be really strong stuff.

Naturally though, one would like to know where all that aggression was coming from.  “Why are you so nasty to people?” asked A.L. Rowse—himself a notorious ogre.  Sisman leaves little doubt about the reasons.  Trevor-Roper recalled that he grew up in a family where no emotion was ever tolerated, no love displayed or even intimated.  His father, a country physician close to the northern aristocracy but neatly closed out from it, had no interest in his children, declaring “he would converse with them once they reached the age of reason, which he put at sixteen.”  His mother never hugged him and refused to let him play with local children, afraid of mixing with the wrong class.  The precocious but shy boy was dispatched to a series of horrible boarding schools and subjected to the ritualized abuse we have come to know so well over the years.   Finally, there was Charterhouse, followed by Christ Church and acceptance into the elite, but at what price!  By the time Trevor-Roper was in his thirties, the publisher Hamish Hamilton and his wife Yvonne noted after dinner with him that “Hugh Trevor-Roper was there, and we found ourselves wondering if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people,” and after another meeting, Hamilton again wrote that Trevor-Roper was “entertaining as always, but the arrogance and vindictiveness make me uneasy.” Maurice Bowra described Trevor-Roper as “a robot, without human experience, with no girls, no real friends, no capacity for intimacy and no desire to like or be liked.”

It thus came as a complete surprise to everyone that, at the age of 39, he fell in love with

Xandra in 1948, five years before she met T.-R. (from Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper)

a woman, Alexandra, the daughter of Field Marshal Douglas, first Earl Haig, of World War One fame/infamy.  The marriage sealed his entry into the ruling class but exacted another cost: high strung, sensitive to being nine years his senior and a stranger to the scholarly world, “Xandra” proved to be a demanding and not entirely stable partner in life.  Their initial courtship, though passionate, did not run smoothly.  In a letter that must rank as unique in the annals of love, Trevor-Roper invoked the following mysterious analogy:

I give my heart to you—rather a complicated object, you may say, like a sea-urchin, prickly outside and untempting within; but you asked for it and must connive at some of its limitations.

She in turn was not quite sure if or how to proceed, in part because she was well aware of his reputation:

I must now confess that, for some time, I had serious doubts whether you could ever love anyone; I even thought, at one moment, that you liked men! (Don’t be furious with me—but you always went on trips abroad with young men & undergraduates & always seemed to be with men.) I know Dawyck [her brother] thinks you are quite neuter.

Momentarily forgetting that the whole point of the correspondence was to woo his beloved, Trevor-Roper struck back:

You think I am ironical when I am serious and serious when I am ironical—or at least pretend to do so; is it just calculated feminine perversity, or is my language really so “ambiguous”?

(As for the undergraduates, all male of course: he finds them good travel companions because “they are energetic, willing to rough it and do chores.”).

All of this is rather touching.  Despite the problems, the couple married in 1954 and stayed together more than forty years, until Xandra’s dead at the age of 90.  In these and a few other episodes, Sisman manages to humanize his subject quite convincingly, although I hesitate to subscribe to Trevor-Roper’s vision of himself as a shy person wrapped in an armor of belligerence.

We follow Trevor-Roper from urban salon to aristocratic country house (Xandra looking blank upon hearing that someone spent time in Birmingham: “Birmingham?  Whose place is that?”), almost causing a diplomatic incident over the Warren Commission while partying with Katherine Hepburn in Hollywood, gossiping with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti, traveling Pakistan at the invitation of president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (whose daughter, Benazir, attended Oxford thanks to T.-R.’s good services), trying to put a word in edgewise with Margaret Thatcher but failing.  “Do you think our dear P.M. has gone bananas?” Trevor-Roper asked a friend afterwards—but she did make him a life peer, as Baron Dacre of Glanton, in 1979.

The Historian

This is a great story, expertly told and I enjoyed it tremendously.  Do we learn much new about Trevor-Roper as a historian?  Yes and no.  Sisman characterizes the topics of the various feuds quite well—no small feat in itself, because Trevor-Roper’s interests ranged very, very widely—but professional historians would probably have liked even more discussion and context, and here and there a small error has inevitably crept in (Marc Bloch was not a pupil of Henri Pirenne, for instance).  It has often been said that Trevor-Roper “failed” as a historian because he never wrote that one, “big book”.  Sisman adds new evidence for this view, documenting more than just one large project that stalled despite an advanced stage, sometimes right before completion.  The most famous example is his book on the Puritan Revolution, his original specialty and destined to be his magnum opus.  He completed a version of it in 1961, but problems of organization and doubts about the underlying theme prevented him from publishing, and the momentum was lost afterwards, in yet another Hitler endeavor, more visits to mansions, and more journalism.  Of that great work, only incomplete versions have survived, which may be why Sisman does not provide a sustained analysis of it.

When reviewing his output, and given what Sisman writes about his early influences, I wonder if Trevor-Roper did not suffer, perhaps subconsciously, from the fear that history was indeed just one damn thing after another.  There really wasn’t much of a point to it, after all.  Having rejected all religious or metaphysical considerations as a young adult, skeptical of theoretical frameworks and by temperament entirely individualist, he appears to have embraced an estheticising but also absurdist philosophy of life, perhaps indebted to that of his one-time mentor, the critic Logan Pearsall Smith (Bernard Berenson’s brother-in-law); although Sisman does not quite say so, I suspect these views affected his understanding of history as well.  Upon Smith’s death in 1946, Trevor-Roper thanked him in his personal notebook for having

Showed me that life is short, & three parts routine, and most of it comedy, and can only be saved from triviality and given significance by some ideal to which all else … must be sacrificed… and that style is an ideal worthy of that sacrifice.  (…) For in his life and conversation … he illustrated this philosophy to me so vividly that if it has not become mine, at least mine can never be altogether emancipated from his influence.

The essay, witty, filled with brilliant insights and elegantly crafted, and with elegantly crafted barbs at major dogmas or historical constructs, was the right medium to develop that stylistic ideal.  It generated in him just the kind of intellectual satisfaction history could provide.  When embarking on a big book, a grand edifice with a firm structure and clear lines of argument based on source evidence, doubts eventually overwhelmed him, and when the need for patient exposition of evidence dulled his style, boredom took over.   As he put it in a letter of 1968: “[B]y the time I have written a chapter I have got interested in something else.”  This restlessness manifested itself also in his fascination with lone eccentrics operating as it where outside the normal confines of society, to whom he devoted two books: The Hidden Life: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1976), about the mysterious British sinologist who had died in Beijing in 1944 leaving a pornographic memoir that presented just one aspect of a multifaceted, most likely disturbed personality, and Europe’s Physician: The Various Lives of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, unfinished but published after Trevor-Roper’s death, in 2006, about a physician, alchemist, and secret diplomat active at the royal courts of France and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

One last word, or words, about the tragic/comic episode of the Hitler diaries.

Cover of Stern's special issue on the "discovery of the Hitler diaries," 25 April 1983

Sisman reveals that when he first heard of them, Trevor-Roper was skeptical.  He had been confronted with forgeries from the Nazi period before (notably Eva Braun’s “memoirs”), and nobody had ever mentioned Hitler keeping such a record.  On the other hand, it was well known that two weeks before the end of the war, a plane carrying some of Hitler’s personal papers had crashed.  These documents had now been found, representatives of Stern told Trevor-Roper, who was impressed by the large size of the cache—about fifty notebooks, many other volumes of documents, an album with Hitler’s drawings and other objects—too much, he thought, to be the work of a forger, and quite possibly part of the missing cargo.  He was given only a few hours to inspect the diaries in a Zurich bank.  Sisman maintains that Trevor-Roper found it “difficult to read the cramped handwriting, particularly as it was written in an obsolescent Gothic script, but he recognised it as Hitler’s. (…)  Those entries he could decipher seemed banal—which seemed to argue their authenticity.”  After receiving assurances that Stern’s experts had tested the paper and authenticated Hitler’s handwriting, he saw no reason for doubt, giving the green light for the Times’ publication of the diaries.

This account is puzzling.  The “obsolescent Gothic script” is of course the old German Kurrentschrift, familiar to all who have worked with handwriting in Germany before 1950.  The notion that Trevor-Roper, after his years as an intelligence officer working on German Abwehr communications, his research on Hitler’s last days in 1945, his decades-long experience authenticating and editing papers from the Nazi-era. could be surprised and challenged by the script, is difficult to believe.  Besides, seventeenth-century archival documents—Trevor-Roper’s original specialty—are far harder to decipher than the German Schrift.  It seems strange, too, that he did not himself conduct a formal analysis of the handwriting: he “recognised it as Hitler’s” but did not make a systematic comparison with authentic materials.  It is second nature for a historian to scrutinize individual hands very carefully, and it is such an elementary first step that the absence of a formal exam is very unorthodox.

It seems to me there are two ways to explain the lapsus, and both may have worked together.  Sisman notes that in the 1990s, Trevor-Roper’s failing eyesight made it impossible for him to drive and eventually also to read.  Could it be that the problem had started earlier but he didn’t wish to admit it in 1983?  The second explanation is less innocent.  For the real villain in the story is the Times’ owner, Rupert Murdoch, who had acquired the paper two years earlier and made some startling changes there.  Trevor-Roper seems to have been reluctant to admit just how much pressure Murdoch exerted on him to deliver a positive verdict in unseemly haste—and thus violate historical procedure.

Murdoch’s response when Trevor-Roper started to waver a few days later, on the eve of publication, is already legendary:

MacArthur [deputy editor of the Sunday Times] was speaking to [Murdoch] on the telephone.  He explained their dilemma.  Given that Lord Dacre [T-R] was now expressing doubts, should they halt the press and recast the paper?

Murdoch’s instruction was brief and explicit: ‘Fuck Dacre,” he said.  ‘Publish.”

Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010).  ISBN 978-0-297-85214-8.  Hardcover, xviii+598 pp., £ 25 (U.K.; not yet published in the U.S.).

Update: See also here for Trevor-Roper’s malicious use of book indices.

Henriette Roland Holst (II)

(this is the second of two posts; for the first one, see here)

Life After Marx

After her formal break with communism in 1927, HRH found herself politically “homeless”.  That didn’t stop her from being politically active, however.  From now on, she worked for specific goals, again in an international perspective: anti-colonialism and the fight against fascism.  The two were related, she argued:

Whereas imperialism is primarily the desire of an insatiable predator, i.e. the desire to acquire new colonies, fascism aims at arousing that desire among the general populace, so that a war for conquest becomes psychologically unavoidable.

She wrote those words in late 1927 with Mussolini in mind, but soon Nazism posed the greatest threat, which she identified as the power to mobilize vital urges and primal emotions in order to undermine rational belief systems.  It abused the human longing for release and absorption into a greater whole by the “hocus-pocus” of race and blood:

Look at Hitler’s SA-gangs, and you’ll understand where the glorification of irrational drives and power in politics will lead to: to bestial degradation, pogroms, extreme sadism

she wrote prophetically in 1933.

Evidently, her rhetorical talents were still vibrant.  In 1927, at an international conference

HRH in 1921, drawing by Richard Roland Holst

in Geneva where she met Nehru, Albert Schweitzer, and the young Mohammed Hatta, she shocked the staid representatives of the League of Nations and the international press by claiming that Dutch authorities dispensed medical aid in Indonesia only because “a dead coolie cannot work.”  During the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, when she was in her seventies, she published anti-Nazi poetry in underground magazines while giving shelter to Jewish and resistance refugees.

But even though she lost none of her combativeness as she grew older, decades of frantic activity, of crisscrossing the country by train, always in third class, for speeches and demonstrations, writing at night against deadlines, took a lasting toll on her body.  Photographs of her in the late 1920s and 1930s chronicle an alarming physical decline.  There is some indication that after periods of intense work, mental exhaustion became a serious problem for her.  Although Etty is careful not to indulge in armchair psychiatry, she does record long periods of time, sometimes up to a year, in which HRH retreated to her estate in Brabant or foreign health resorts to recover from depression.  The desire to deny herself the benefits of her wealth became more and more outlandish.  Friends shook their head over her shabby clothes and ascetic vegetarianism; by 1935, “Tall Jet’s” weight was down to 110 pounds.  In more ways than one, Gandhi had become a role model.  Non-violent resistance against all forms of oppression and injustice directed her activism in those last decades.  Her thinking evolved toward a religious socialism akin to the teachings of Leonhard Ragaz, whom she came to know well in the 1920s, and in 1939 she left all she owned, quite a fortune, to the Woodbrookers, a Dutch leftist-protestant organization inspired by Quaker principles.

To Think and To Act

HRH’s itinerary from doctrinaire Marxist to religious socialist is not extraordinary, in se.  We don’t have to look very far to find fellow travelers who changed their mind—many of them much later than she did and ending up in much weirder places.   Nor was it simply a matter of dour reality breaking through and ultimately shattering youthful idealism.  Biographies like this one remind us that intellectual history is more than a succession of –isms, which are of course convenient abstractions rarely experienced in pure form on the individual level.  HRH’s story allows us to trace the internal struggles, the hidden questions and doubts that broke into the open between 1917 and 1927, gave a new orientation to her life in the 1930s, but were never entirely resolved.

If I have one, mild criticism of Etty’s analysis, it is that she devotes relatively little space to the origins of HRH’s socialism, probably because she assumed them well known to her Dutch audience.  Readers familiar with the literary movement of the Tachtigers (“the 1880-ers”) will have no trouble understanding their impact on the young poet, determined to leave a mark on the world through the passionate expression of the most individual experience in the most sensual language (yes, only superlatives will do here).

Revolutionaries on a Sunday, 1903. From left to right: Herman Gorter, his wife Wies Gorter, Rik, HRH, and her mother Anna van der Schalk

In the socially-conscious 1890s, people like Gorter and HRH naturally abandoned the original estheticism of the movement to serve social needs, especially since Marxism so nicely filled the void left by Protestantism.  But there is a little more going on here.  Etty mentions in passing that at a very young age HRH would regularly visit her uncle Mart, who owned a large distillery in Schiedam and ran the local orphanage.  Young Jet spent time with the orphans and in her later memoirs recalled how shocked she was by the appearance Continue reading

‘History, the Enemy of Civilization’

I made my way through Richard J. Evans’s trilogy on the history of the Third Reich, which he completed in 2008.  For reasons of serendipity I read them in the reverse order, starting with The Third Reich at War covering the period 1939–1945, followed by The Third Reich in Power (1933–1939, published in 2005) and The Coming of the Third Reich (c. 1870 to 1933, published in 2003).  Aimed at the general reader, the three volumes cap Evans’s lifetime of research in the era, and it shows, not so much perhaps in new revelations or extraordinary details but rather in the complete and deep command of the sources and literature displayed on virtually every one of the 2,500 pages, the lucid prose, and the ability to trace various themes over a long period without ever loosing touch with the here and now of ordinary citizens.  And their victims.   For, while this is not at all a blanket indictment of an entire nation and there is of course no shortage of villains at the top, Evans does make clear, it seems to me, that this is a story of people making choices, some of them tragically wrong, with catastrophic consequences for themselves and for millions of others.  His central question is the same as the one asked by Friedrich Meinecke in 1946: ”How was it that an advanced and highly cultured nation such as Germany could give in to the brutal force of National Socialism so quickly and so easily?” (The Coming of the Third Reich, p. xxii).  The question receives a complex answer that may serve as a much-needed warning to all of us, because, even though the specific militaristic, nationalist, and anti-Semitic traditions at the root of the process seem supremely German, they were not uniquely German, and the chances that another “advanced and highly cultured nation” makes the same mistakes seem grimly good, in my reading.

I will leave it to others with more expertise in the period than I have to review the work more thoroughly (see for instance herehere, and here –with Evans’s reply here).  I have another question, much more limited in scope.  Reading the trilogy in reverse yielded few original insights–I don’t recommend it.  Yet, perhaps it did alert me to a few motifs that Evans did not specifically address but that caught my attention at several key turning points.  One was that of the use and misuse of history.  We all know examples of it from this era, but we may not know this reaction to it—or at least, I interpret the following episode as a response to the misuse of history.  Speaking of the short-lived Räterepublik (Council Republic) of the so-called “coffee-house anarchists” led by Ernst Toller, which “ruled” the city of Munich for less than a week in 1919, from April 7 to 13, when it was overthrown by a Bolshevik coup, also short-lived, Evans recalls one of their measures:

Toller announced a comprehensive reform of the arts, while his government declared that Munich University was open to all applicants except those who wanted to study history, which was abolished as hostile to civilization (Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, p. 158).

Toller’s front man for educational reform was none other than the Jewish writer and anarchist/socialist Gustav Landauer, whom I know just a little because he was, like so many romantic idealists of his age, a fervent fan of medieval culture, and a rather interesting reader of Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century German mystic.

Gustav Landauer, 1870-1919

Landauer’s medievalism was special, however, in the sense that he rejected its feudal and authoritarian components to embrace, in socialist-anarchist fashion, the “organic”, free-associative communities built up by guilds.  Here was a fine example, Landauer argued, of the true spirit of the Volk materializing into blueprints for communal organization.  Surely, at this moment in time, history had reached a high point, he thought.  It all went downhill from 1500 onward, what with capitalism and science and all that modern rubbish.  (As a medievalist, I heartily applaud this, though I don’t Continue reading