I should rococo


</strong>Ian Kelly

<em>Hodder & Stoughton, 403pp, £20</em>

The brand survives undamaged; even the sexual revisionists have failed to tarnish it. We, the consumers, make our own choice and Giacomo Casanova inspires loyalty. Leave him alone. The boy done good. Astonishing reach, too. Here is the Birmingham University Medical School yearbook 2008, filled with newly minted doctors. What a handsome, happy, diligent and optimistic lot they are. Makes you proud to be human. And here is Dr R Kassamali. Ten years from now, he wants to be "a surgeon in a random third world country, working for Médecins Sans Frontières". His favourite organ? "Liver." (A popular choice among medics.) How would Dr K like to be remembered? As "the one Asian guy the white girls actually fancied" (not my words). And there at the top of the entry is his nickname: "Kassanova".

Casanova would have been proud. Not just that his name has become an affectionate shorthand for a man who loved widely (and quite well), but that it should have crossed from the 18th to the 21st centuries, from Venice to Brum, from Europe to Asia, and, perhaps above all, that his name has alighted, punning, upon a doctor. Casanova, actor, spy, lover, priest, always wanted to be a medical man. That is where he felt his talents really lay, and - given his sharp and voracious intelligence (he was admitted as a Doctor of Laws at Padua aged only 17) - his lack of snobbery except when it came to his own image (when he would put on the dog like nobody's business), his tremendous sociability - unusually, in what was a primarily homosocial world, directed towards men and women alike, and his empathetic yet determined and resourceful nature would have made him a fine physician at a time when the scanty and largely ineffectual (or just plain mistaken) materia medica meant that the most potent thing a doctor could prescribe was himself. Hard to imagine any sickbed not being cheered by the arrival of Casanova.

But using his name as a shorthand for a devout and cheerfully promiscuous lover (in all senses) of women draws us away from the truth. As Ian Kelly's delectable biography makes entirely clear, his sexual adventuring was neither particularly egregious (though he was egregiously good at it) nor particularly predatory (though he did on one occasion offer his membrum virile as the most effective means of delivering an abortifacient).

It wasn't so much that Casanova constructed his world in order to get sex; it was more that the world in which he swam was exuberant, libertine, affective and demonstrative, so sex naturally became one of its great recourses. Looking upon him as some fantastical, driven knobhound has been one of cultural history's larger errors. I am reminded of the late Jeffrey Bernard, who was taken by a friend to see Tosca. Back at the Groucho Club after the show, Jeff was pensive for a while, then said: "You know, I think everyone's rather unfair. I don't think that Scarpia was a bad chap at all. I think he was just a bit cunt-struck."

You could say the same for Casanova. But we have allowed it to overshadow his life, and Kelly does a marvellous - and brilliantly unobtrusive - job of redressing the balance. The subtly witty index offers a précis. Careers? "In the church; diplomatic; in espionage; as fake occultist; fiscal; as gentleman of leisure; for the Inquisition; journalistic; as librarian at Dux castle; military; musical; as secretary to Venetian ambassador in Vienna; silk industry claims." Character? "Compulsion to seduce virgins; depression; final moodiness; frustration and embitterment in Venice; humour; love of performing; opinion in Poland; portrait by de Ligne of his unhappiness in old age; portrayed in Chiari's fiction; positivity in prison; Venetian Inquisition's view of; wit."

Here we have indexed his duels, fatherhood, gambling, illnesses ("childhood nosebleeds") and influences, oddly brief - "the Enlightenment; the theatre; Venice" - but, equally oddly, all we need to know. It may seem otiose to quote from the index, but a good one acts as a sort of metatext both to the book itself and to the reality the book projects; and if you wanted to give a writer or a God the recipe to produce a Casanova, you could hardly do better than the Enlightenment; the theatre; Venice. Go on to read the next entry (life events and periods), and it will become unthinkable that you will not buy the book there and then.

Like Kelly's previous biography of George "Beau" Brummell, Casanova is a treasure-house of life; in this case, as he says, "life in which a paradise in heaven did not preclude the cultivation of earthly paradises for as long or as little as we might be allowed to enjoy them, alive to the realities of art and joy in artifice for those last generations before the Romantics told the world that truth was in Nature and feeling was more vital than style, sentiment or sex".

How we should hate those humourless Romantics with their self-obsession and their awful bloody Nature. Yet how much would we have given to be there at the meeting between Casa nova and Rousseau or, indeed, between Casa nova and the great arse-licker himself, James Boswell. How we would have liked to be in Ismail's gazebo in Constantinople, the two chaps peeping and frotting at Ismail's prearranged tableau of naked, splashing concubines until, overcome, Casanova had to bugger Ismail and then "had to submit to his taking turnabout. It would have been impolite to refuse; I should have shown myself ungrateful, a thing that is not in my nature." How one would have wanted to be present when Casanova was rescued from jumping off the newly built Westminster Bridge by the extravagantly named Sir Wellbore Ellis Agar, who declared that what Casanova needed was "a drink, a woman, beef and Yorkshire pudding". How one would have loved to be there when Frederick the Great mistook Casanova for an hydraulician, and Casanova thought he would have to go along with it and pitch for work. How . . . how endless the list is.

Kelly has set himself a hell of a task. How do you write the life of a man whose life you are writing because he's famous for having written his memoirs? The answer is deceptively simple: use the memoirs as a map to guide you back to the life, and see what emerges. The effect is as though we had gone round the back after the show. Here is Casanova himself, without the make-up and the trick lighting, talking through Kelly's subtle, reticent voice. We can never get away from intertextualism. Kelly's narrative is enacted against the backdrop of half-remembered, half-imagined passages from Casanova's self-soothing memoirs, composed in damp, philistine Bohemia in his knackered, skint old age: the laughter of women, the choirs of Venetian virgins, the drone of the oligarchs, the creak of the Schlafwagen - giant, fur-lined horse-drawn beds on wheels - through the forests, the splashing and giggling as once again he is thrown into a canal to gain access or make his escape.

But these are stage effects. From the murky water of Kelly's deceptively sober prose (any writer who can refer to a "cavalcade of internationalists" commands instant respect as a stylist of some wit), something emerges, scales the leads, opens the bedroom door, moves closer, smiles. It is Casanova. It's good old Jack Newhouse. He's alive. He's alive!

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide