The central figure in this work of historical fiction is Count ‘Harry’ Kessler, a gay man whose extraordinary diarising life covered the period from 1880 to 1937. Kessler was born into a life of considerable privilege which only withered post WWII. His family background and education equipped him to have a broad European consciousness which was unlike many of his more narrowly nationalist contemporaries. His earlier period diaries had been assumed lost but were found in a safe (closed for 50 years) on Mallorca in 1983 and have since been published giving a view from an insider what those formative pre-WWI years were like in Germany. Several key aspects mark his contributions – he was an insider who knew practically everyone who counted in royal and political circles – he was quite the aesthete in art, music and literature and was very aware of current developments in science (dinner with Einstein) including the birth of sexual science (Magnus Hirschfeld). Finally, he was a gay man who knew of, and socialised with other key man of that time – most especially Walter Rathenau, the important industrialist and statesman assassinated in 1922.
Duberman is a well respected historian particularly of homosexual life and history. What he has attempted here is to examine what is known historically of German history from his birth to the post WWII period through the prism of Kessler’s revelations and then to humanise it by re-creating situations and dialogue. It is all rather like a film script (hint). There are so many characters touched on an situation with which an average reader will already be familiar from Kaiser Wilhelm and Prince von Eulenburg through to Ernst Röhm and Adolf Hitler.
I was already familiar with much of the factual material presented but found great interest in its contextualising which is rich indeed. I have some familiarity with the puzzle of the behaviour of gay men and Jews when confronted with the emergence of the Nazi state and Duberman’s settings were very helpful in that respect.
This is a peculiar piece of work and I think many people will learn a great deal from it both about historical events and persons made more readily available through their humanity as exposed by the Kessler material. I don’t read it as a particularly effective piece of novel writing though the characters of Kessler and Rathenau (a hard man to come to grips with) were well developed though largely without emotional feeling.