Excerpts from Diary of a Man in Despair

Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most rewarding books I’ve ever read. The author is an aristocrat, a writer and a genteel reactionary who had a truth to tell about the character of life in Nazi Germany. He had a hatred for the Nazis that is peculiar to the traditionalist right.

The first few pages are concerned with Reck’s encounters with Oswald Spengler, who, apparently, was pretentious and took himself too seriously.

I still remember our first meeting, when Albers brought him to my house. On the little carriage which carried him from the station, and which was hardly built with such loads in mind, sat a massive figure who appeared even more enormous by virtue of the thick overcoat he wore. Everything about him had the effect of extraordinary permanence and solidarity: the deep bass voice; the weed jacket, already, at that time, almost habitual; the appetite at dinner; and at night, the truly Cyclopean snoring, loud as a series of buzz saws, which frightened the other guests at my Chiemgau country house out of their peaceful slumbers.

This was at a time when he was not really successful, and before he had done an about-face and marched into the camp of the oligarchy of magnates, a retreat which determined his life from then on. It was a time when he was still capable of being gay and unpreoccupied, and when he could sometimes even be persuaded to venture forth in all his dignity and swim in the river. Later, of course, it was unthinkable that he expose himself in his bathing suit before ploughing the peasants and farmhands, or that he climb, a huffing and puffing Triton, back onto the river bank in their presence!

He was the strangest amalgam of human greatness and small and large frailties that I have ever encountered. If I recall latter now, it is part of my taking leave with him, and so I am sure it will not be held against me. He was the kind of man who likes to eat alone – a melancholy-eyed feaster at a great orgy of eating. With a certain amusement, I recall one evening when he joined Albers and me for a light supper. It was during the final weeks of the First World War, when there was not a great deal one could set before one’s guests. But, discoursing and declaiming the whole time, Spengler finished an entire goose without leaving us, his table companions, so much as a bite.

His passion for huge dinners (the check for which was later picked up by his industrial Maecenas) was not his only diverting attribute. After I had met him, still before his first major success, he asked me not to come visit him at his little apartment (I believe it was on Agnesstrasse, in Munich). The reason he gave was that his apartment was too confined, and he wanted to show me his library in surroundings appropriate to its monumental scope.

Then, in 1926, after he found a way to the mighty rulers of heavy industry and had moved to the expensive WIdenmayerstrasse on the banks of the Isar, he did, indeed, invite me to see the succession of huge rooms in his apartment there. He showed me his carpets and paintings, and even his bed – which was truly worth seeing, because it looked more like a catafalque – but he became visibly disconcerted when I said that I was still looking forward to seeing the library. After overcoming his reluctance to show it to me, I found myself in a rather small room. And there – on a well-battered walnut bookstand, alongside a row of Ullstein books and detective stories – stood what are commonly called ‘dirty books’.

But I have never known a man with so little sense of humour and such sensitivity to even the smallest criticism. There was nothing he abhorred so much as humbug; yet along with all the magnificent deductions in The Decline of the West, he allowed a host of inaccuracies, inadvertencies, and actual errors to stand uncorrected – such as that Dostoyevsky came into the world in St Petersburg rather than in Moscow, and that Duke Bernhard of Weimar died before Wallenstein was assassinated – and important conclusions were drawn from these errors. Mistakes like these could happen to anyone; but woe to the man who dared make Spengler aware of them!

… To repeat, he was truly the most humourless man I have ever met; in this respect, he is surpassed only by Herr Hitler and the Nazis, who have every prospect of dying of a wretchedness compounded by their own deep-rooted humourlessness and the dreary monotony of public life which, under their domination, has taken on the rigidity of a corpse and is now in its fourth year of suffocating us to death. But h who believes that I want to do Spengler an injury by recounting his many weaknesses is in error. I need not cite his indispensable early work on Theocrates, nor the fact that he gave form at least to the presentiments of an entire generation. Whoever has met him knows about the nimbus of the significant that attached to him and that was not dissipated even in his off-guard moments; knows that in him lived the representation of the best in humanist pedagogy; knows about his countenance, which reflects the same stoicism found in busts of the late Roman period.

He also has an encounter with Hitler himself, a man whom Reck believes to be the embodiment of the proletarianized elite. You get the idea that Reck is disturbed by the virtue-shaped void that characterizes Hitler and his regime.

 I saw Hitler last in Seebruck, slowly gliding by in a car with armour-plated sides, while an armed bodyguard of motorcylists rode in front as further protections: a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins. So sad, so unutterably insignificant, so basically misbegotten is this countenance that only thirty years ago, in the darkest days of Wilhelmism, such a face on an official would have been impossible. Appearing in the chair of a minister, an apparition with a face like this would have been disobeyed as soon as its mouth spoke an order –– and not merely by the higher officials in the ministry: no, by the doorman, by the cleaning women!

… I have met him a few times  not at any of his meetings, of course. The first time was in 1920, at the home of my friend Clemens von Franckenstein, which was then the Lenbach villa. According to the butler, one of those present was forcing his way in everywhere, had already been there a full hour. It was Hitler. He had managed an invitation to Clé’s house under the guise of being interested in operatic scenic design. (Clé had been general intendant of the Royal Theatre.) Hitler very likely had the idea that theatrical design was connected with interior decoration and wallpaper-hanging, his former profession.

He had come to a house, where he had never been before, wearing gaiters, a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a riding whip. There was a collie too. The effect, among the Gobelin tapestries and cool marble walls, was something akin to a cowboy’s sitting down on the steps of a baroque altar in leather breeches, spurs, and with a Colt at his side. But Hitler sat there, the stereotype of a headwaiter  at that time he was thinner, and looked somewhat starved  both impressed and restricted by the presence of a real, live Herr Baron; awed, not quite daring to sit fully in his chair, but perched on half, more or less, of his thin loins; not caring at all that there was a great deal of cool and elegant irony in the things his host said to him, but snatching hungrily at the words, like a dog at pieces of raw meat.

Eventually, he managed to launch into a speech. He talked on and on, endlessly. He preached. He went on at us like a division chaplain in the Army. We did not in the least contradict him, or venture to differ in any way, but he began to bellow at us. The servants thought we were being attacked, and rushed in to defend us.

When he had gone, we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic. We sat a long time and no one spoke. Finally, Clé stood up, opened one of the huge windows, and let the spring air, warm with the föhn, into the room. It was not that our grim guest had been unclean, and had fouled the room in the way that so often happens in a Bavarian village. But the fresh air helped to dispel the feeling of oppression. It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.

I used to ride at the Munich armoury, after which I liked to eat at the Löwenbräukeller: that was the second meeting. He did not have to smack his boots continually with his riding whip, as he had done at Franckenstein’s. At first glance, the tightly clenched insecurity seemed to be gone— which allowed him to launch at once into one of his tirades.

I had ridden hard, and was tremendously hungry, and wanted just to be let alone to eat in peace. Instead I had poured out over me every one of the political platitudes in his book. I know you will appreciate my sparing you, future reader, all the dogma. It was that little-man Machiavellianism by which German foreign policy became a series of legalised burglaries and the activity of its leaders a succession of embezzlements, forgeries, and treaty breaches, all designed to make him appeal to the assortment of schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and stenographers who have since become the true support and bastion of his regime…as a fabulous fellow, a real political Genghis Khan.

With his oily hair falling into his face as he ranted, he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook. I got the impression of basic stupidity, the same kind of stupidity as that of his crony, Papenthe kind of stupidity which equates statesmanship with cheating at a horse trade.

But this impression was not the last one I had, nor the most striking. Every time I think about it, I am more and more struck by the way this Machiavelli preaching away at me between my sausage and my veal chop bowed to me when we partedlike a waiter who has just received a fair tip. And this image is like that photograph in which he is shown shaking hands with Hindenburgthe same image of a head waiter closing his hand around the tip.

The third time, I saw him in a courtroom accused of creating a disturbance at some political meeting: by then, he was known outside the Munich city limits… And then I observed him in Berlin, entering his hotel, already a celebrity. In court, he looked like he was begging for a kind word from the small and very low-ranking official who was in charge of the hearing: the look of a man who has been in jail a number of times. On the other occasion, he went by the doorman with the stiffened back of a man who is going to ask the hotel manager for credit, and knows he is likely to be thrown out.

Notwithstanding his meteoric rise, there is absolutely nothing that has happened in the twenty years since I first saw him to make me change my first view of him. The fact remains that he was, and is, without the slightest self-awareness and pleasure in himself, that he basically hates himself, and that his opportunism, his immeasurable need for recognition, and his now-apocalyptic vanity are all based on one thinga consuming drive to drown out the pain in his psyche, the trauma of a monstrosity.

There are additional detailsErna Hanfstaengl, who knows him better than I do, says he is becoming increasingly afraid of ghosts. She believes that this fear of the spirits of those he has murdered drives him on continually, and does not allow him to stay for long in any one place…. Quite in accord with this is that he has taken to spending his nights in his private projection room, where his poor projectionists have to show six films for him, night after night…

This may well be. It only confirms my diagnosis. I do not even believe that the man is especially amoralthe title of great criminal does him too much honour. If a German government had built a gigantic studio, subsidised the newspapers to declare him the greatest artist of all time, and managed to satisfy his limitless vanity that way, I believe he would have turned to completely harmless pursuits and would never have gotten the idea of setting fire to the world.

Here he compares Hitler to Jan Bockelson, the leader of the Münster Rebellion, an early modern revolution by radical Anabaptists that foreshadowed the French Revolution and 20th century totalitarianism.

No, I do not believe in his being a Borgia type. I believe that in this case the offal-compounded, repressed drives of a deeply miscarried human being were combined with a whim of history, which allowed him, as Cleon was once allowed in Athens, to play for a time with the levers of its gigantic machinery. I believe that all of this coincided with a fevered hour of this people. I believe that this poor devil, sprung out of a Strindbergian excremental Hell, like that other time’s Bockelson, coincided in time with the bursting of an abscess by a nation, and came as the embodiment of all the dark and generally well-curbed desires of the masseslike his Münster predecessor, a character out of a German ghost story!

I saw him once more at close range. This was in the autumn of 1932, as the fever began to take hold of Germany. Friedrich von Mücke and I were dining at the Osteria Bavaria in Munich when Hitler entered and crossed the restaurant to the table next to oursalone, by the way, and without his usual bodyguard. There he sat, now a power among the Germans … say, felt himself observed by us, and critically examined, and as a result became uncomfortable. His face took on the sullen expression of a minor bureaucrat who has ventured into a place which he would not generally enter, but now that he is there demands for his good money ‘that he be served and treated every bit as well as the fine gentleman over there …’

There he sat, a raw-vegetable Genghis Khan, a teetotalling Alexander, a womanless Napoleon, an effigy of Bismarck who would certainly have had to go to bed for four weeks if he had ever tried to eat just one of Bismarck’s breakfasts….

I had driven into town, and since at that time, September 1932, the streets were already quite unsafe, I had a loaded revolver with me. In the almost deserted restaurant, I could easily have shot him. If I had had an inkling of the role this piece of filth was to play, and of the years of suffering he was to make us endure, I would have done it without a second thought. But I took him for a character out of a comic strip, and did not shoot.

It would have done no good in any case: in the councils of the Highest, our martyrdom had already been decided. If Hitler at that point had been taken and tied to railroad tracks, the train would have been derailed before it got to him. But when his hour strikes, the end will come down upon his head from every possible direction, and from places, even, that were never thought of. There are many rumours of attempts to assassinate him. The attempts fail, and they will continue to fail. For years (and especially in this land of successful demons) it has seemed that God is asleep. But, to quote a Russian proverb:

‘When God wills it, even a broom can shoot!’

Reck indicts the French Revolution, motivated in no small part by the fact that the Nazi regime that he lived under was the ideological legacy of it.

What about the world of ideas of 1789 – the world which surrounds you, and which is still the basis for your lives and thought, as self-evident to you as the fact that a crab has its protecting shell? Understand me: we, here, know full well that all of this – encyclopaedism, the whole process begun with the Renaissance of divesting man of his gods – was once a vital way of life. Let no one do me the injustice of holding my visions to the nightmares of a homo temporis acti, or hallucinations of one feverish with the plague that surrounds him! But isn’t what we are enduring here simply the final consequence of 1789? Hasn’t the bourgeoisie, which in 1790 began to conceal its seizures of the heritage of power left by the kings with a cry of ‘vive la nation’, show itself to be a most unstable phenomenon? Didn’t Balzac foretell the Russian, as well as the German, tragedy when he said that ‘there will be a day when the bourgeoisie will hear its Marriage of Figaro played? Didn’t St. Just long ago announce the coming of this insane totalitarianism of state? And doesn’t Girondism reach its final flower in the Krupps, the Vögelers, Röchlings and Associates, as cynically, throwing aside every restraint, they make themselves the centre of all thins German, the focal point of German society – militant Girondism, devoid of all basic ethical content, sworn enemy of men of faith, ideological victors of Waterloo even though defeated on the battlefield?

As far as National Socialism is concerned, I am sure that there will be agreement in seeing in it the arch-destroyer of a nation which has always tended toward the magical and unknown, and none of you, my old friends, will argue with me when I say that in 1500 there was a German nation, but no nationalism, whereas today, when our eyes are supposed to light up at every trouser button ‘Made in Germany’, we have the reverse: nationalism, plus no nation.

He later, on 14 October 1944, comes back to this subject while imprisoned, and talks with another prisoner about how the man had been evacuated from his peaceful winegrowers’ village by the Danube by Serbs who wanted to settle their own people there.

… ‘We were given just twelve days to leave our village, our vineyards, the rich harvest in our sheds. We were told that in exchange for leaving behind all our goods, all our property, all our farm machinery, we would find the equivalent in Bosnia, with completely equipped farmsteads and rich crops … in short, that we would not regret the change.

‘Once arrived, part of us were locked into the freezing cold room of a large estate; others were throw into the half-destroyed greenhouses of an abandoned nursery; while a third group was put into barracks filled with lice, formerly used for people ill with typhus. These, sir, were the “equally prosperous” farms we had been promised!’

‘The old regime,’ I answered, ‘the Austro-Hungarian Empire would not have been less cruel. Do you imagine that all it required of you was to pledge allegiance to the double eagle, the symbol of the imperial throne of Vienna?’
‘Granted, sir, and still one wants to lead one’s own life.’

He meant by this one’s own nationalist life, the insanity which spread from 1789 and on, in whose flames Europe will be consumed – and which could only burn so destructively because the milder flame of a generalised European intellectuality, the flame of those who seek God on this earth, has been extinguished.

I lay down sadly. I have been born to early on this planet. I will not survive this insanity.

… Sad days, of wind coming through the cracks in the walls, of the disappearance of the faint autumn sun, of the coming, so quickly, of the apocalyptic hour of dusk in this stone coffin.

While the light lasts, until the day dies, I go on reading, despairingly, these utterly stupid memoirs, these diaries  suffused with a special Parisian arrogance, those orgiastic survivals of the rotting-away of the Napoleonic concept, whose death throes have so long poisoned our lives…

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