Bicycle Diaries: On Isaiah Berlin, Part III

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On Isaiah Berlin, Part III

Continuing with Clive James
Which brings us to the European empire of Nazi Germany , where so many of the bubbles represented Berlin 's fellow Jews. There could have been several reasons why Berlin said so little. He called it “the most fearful genocide in history”, but beyond that he offered no illumination, as if the subject were too dark to admit light. The first reason might have been that he didn't know what to say. Thomas Mann — not a Jew but married to a half-Jew, and prominent on Heydrich's personal list of illustrious absentees with Jewish sympathies who should be dealt with promptly if they ever returned to Germany —started broadcasting from America as early as 1942 about what he knew the Nazis were up to in the East. (He didn't need access to the Ultra decrypts to get the facts: they were in the Swiss newspapers.) But after the war, when the full statistics of the Holocaust came out, his reaction was to work on The Confessions of Felix Krull. Berlin, too, probably knew all about it from an early date, but perhaps he found himself equally short of adequate things to say when the full magnitude of the horror was revealed. One of the revelations was that both of his grandfathers had been murdered immediately when the Nazis occupied Riga in 1941. He barely mentioned it, and the best explanation is that he was traumatised, and that the trauma was intensified to a paralysis by the realisation — imagination overload — that the extinguished multitudes were his grandfathers multiplied by millions.

Another reason could have been that other people did the job, notably Raul Hilberger and Martin Gilbert, and that anything he had to add would have been rhetoric. (He said this to Ignatieff, who might have been slower to report that Berlin “actively despised the Holocaust industry”. The Holocaust industry has never produced as much toxic waste as the Holocaust Denial industry, and if there are too many books, too few of them have reached even Vienna, let alone Cairo and Riadh,) Yet another reason might have been guilt for one of the two roles he had played in war-time Washington with relation to Zionism. A Zionist himself, he was a personal friend of Weizmann. Berlin used his connections to smooth Weizmann's path to Roosevelt and a possible endorsement for the Zionist cause. But as an emissary of Britain 's Ministry of Information, Berlin was also obliged — unless he resigned—to promote his government's official line on Palestine, based on the infamous White Paper that denied refugee Jews entry to what was, for many of them, the only possible sanctuary from Hitler. It couldn't have been long before Berlin realised that this made him party to a crime. Ever the diplomat, Berlin sided with Weizmann in the conviction that a Jewish entity of some kind would eventually emerge after the British had been talked into modifying their mandate — sided, that is, against David Ben Gurion, who thought that the Jewish state would have to be established unilaterally, if necessary with resort to force. Berlin always thought that reason might prevail in the matter. (In a letter written home in 1943, we find him opining that the cause would be best promoted “by means of private conversations on the part of sensible persons.”) Ben Gurion knew better: or, if you like, worse.

Born to a concerted Arab attack, the state of Israel grew up in the middle of a war, which has not yet ended. For the rest of his life, Berlin remained committed to Israel, although he was always careful not to offer advice from outside, in case it was thought patronising. Ignatieff records that Berlin felt guilty about not having said anything publicly in favour of Peace Now. It was a pity he didn't, because the emphasis that Peace Now places on giving up the Occupied Territories is a potent argument for the only possible means by which Israel can preserve itself as a democracy. Berlin's agreement would have been useful to the young soldiers: long on bravery, they were short of clout. But generally, throughout Israel's short and threatened history, Berlin seems to have had the right opinions, even when he didn't voice them in public, and the Israelis valued him as a star of the diaspora, the Jewish equivalent of a Righteous Gentile. In 1979 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize as a mark of respect. To actually live in Jerusalem, however, was never part of his plans. At one time or another Ben Gurion, Abba Eban and Teddy Kolleck all asked him to move there. He preferred Oxford . He already had his sanctuary. But of course he had always had his sanctuary. He was a Jew who had never needed to make it to the new home. His guilt must have been tremendous for the many who had needed to, and didn't. To where they went, there was no boat: only a train.

The train takes us to the best reason. Apart from his epic visions of domination and destruction, Hitler had few ideas on his mind. As a consequence, Nazi Germany gave the historian of ideas little to talk about. In The Proper Study of Mankind, the two essays grouped under the heading “Romanticism and Nationalism in the Modern Age” stop well short of Hitler's rise to power, as well they might, because Hitler was truly interested only in the power. The German right-wing intellectuals had already discovered this to their embarrassment while he was still a long way from the Reichstag. In 1922 a bunch of them called the June Club invited him to address one of their meetings. Their idea was that they would treat him to their combined scholarly wisdom before he spoke. He made it clear that he wasn't interested in what they had to say, and used the time gained to speak longer, boring some of them into the floor but convincing others that they had been wasting their lives: brutality, that was the thing. (He had the same effect on Goebbels, a proud bookworm before he met his action hero.) Even the anti-Semites found him incurious about the subtleties of their philosophy, as indeed he was, because for him anti-Semitism was a passion, not an argument. Though various ideological dingbats were allowed to pursue their researches on the government payroll, the Nazi regime reflected Hitler's hatred of ideas in all of its departments. Hitler admired Mussolini personally and copied his methods along with Stalin's. But Hitler and most of the other top Nazis thought that Fascism as a philosophy was a waste of time: too many intellectuals.

Hitler rigorously divided action from thought. Thought had to be under the control of action, not vice versa. The action came from his propensities, which were psychotic from the start. Almost all of his early successes depended on initiatives so bizarre that nobody sane could anticipate them. After the Battle of Britain had been lost, his second big failure, in Russia, came about mainly because he preferred to maltreat people who had suffered under Stalin rather than enlist their aid. Making territory he had already conquered ungovernable was no sane way to conquer more of it. Even Himmler could work that out, but Hitler didn't listen. He couldn't, because it involved conciliation, which was a true idea, as opposed to mass murder, which was an expression of emotion. Though it is tempting to believe that Hitler, after absorbing a few nutty anti-Semitic pamphlets in Vienna, read nothing except Karl May's western sagas about Old Shatterhand, the truth is somewhat different. He fancied himself as a philosopher and could drop the names that backed up the claim. In that unintentionally comic masterpiece Monologe in Fuhrerhauptquartier 1941-1944, we can find him, on May 19 th 1944, telling his nodding audience that throughout the Great War he had carried the full five volumes of Schopenhauer everywhere he went. Since he got the Iron Cross as a runner in the trenches, he must have been running with a handicap. But there is no reason to doubt he carried them, or even that he read them. Nor, however, is there any reason to believe that he critically weighed a single word. Like Stalin, he sought in texts nothing but pretexts for his actions. To bring ideas under scrutiny was not his purpose.

Since it was Berlin 's, we have a right to ask how well he did it. The first answer has to be that he did it very well. Though a worthy assemblage of his more heavyweight efforts, The Proper Study of Mankind is a bit misleading about how delightful he could be; and as so often happens with writers on serious topics, it is when he is at his most entertaining that he is most informative. He didn't really write all that brilliantly. Most of his prose pieces were transcripts of his talk boiled down from draft to draft, which is not the same process as the ab initio concentration necessary to yield a cogently nuanced text that reads like speech. He himself called his talk “an avalanche”, and he seems to have had little gift for the aphorism. That might have been one of the secrets for his continuing success at glamorous dinner tables. With his salon-wise wife Aline to manage his diary, he went on dining out until he had to be carried. Dr Johnson, in his own old age, told Boswell that he wasn't much invited anymore, because his unanswerable sallies silenced the table. Berlin was careful not to make the company feel stupid. On the night I saw him in action, he engaged in a tremendous competition with the political journalist Frank Johnson to name and evoke, with sound effects, every second-rate opera in the world. They were at each other like Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott, to hilarious effect: titled ladies were spitting pheasant. At his best, he could get the same sparkling treasure into his writings. To take just one compilation, Against the Current: there is wealth of incidental truth in it. “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx and the Search for Identity” is the ideal introduction to both men and makes you wonder how they would have got on. (Not very well, probably: we learn that Marx called Lassalle “the Jewish nigger”.) “The 'Naivete' of Verdi” is a classic restatement of Schiller's principle of the difference between the naïve and the sentimental: saturated with Berlin 's infectious love of music, it should be on the first-year course of every student in the country. Best of all, there is the essay about Montesquieu, which comes in handy when we try to give the second answer.

The second answer had to be that he missed a lot out, and some of it has proved to be of lasting importance. Here we should remember Burckhardt's principle. Berlin was already getting old before it started to emerge that totalitarianism had been so poisonous that the collapse or reform of the governments that imposed it would be no guarantee of its disappearance. If the first thing we now see about Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China and the other totalitarian states is their irrationality, it could be because of the growing evidence that totalitarianism can live without a state, and even without having a new state in mind. In that respect, even Saddam Hussein was obsolete, because he was a student of Stalin. Osama Bin Laden doesn't need to be as student of anybody except Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, the Brigati Rossi, Carlos, and whichever Japanese terrorists attacked the El Al desk at foreign airports because they had no Jews of their own. Irrationality, we can now see, is a force in itself, and scarcely in need of a brain. Already there is not just an equivalence, but a blend, between the Islamism that condemns the Western liberal democracies and the international pseudo-left intelligentsia that condemns them as well. The anti-Semitic arguments of those Muslim groups —- whether terrorist organizations or, less openly, states — who think Israel can be made to disappear are only just crazier than the pseudo-left arguments proclaiming America's responsibility for every injustice in the world. In fact the Arab arguments might even be more sane: the Palestinians can scarcely have a parallel state while suicide attacks against Israel continue, but sacrificing the Palestinians has always suited the Arab nations, and meanwhile Israel, under that degree of pressure, can be relied upon to go on gravitating towards an extremism of its own; although what the Arabs expect the Israelis to do with their atomic bombs should the point arrive when Israel caves in is difficult to judge.

We can be certain, however, that the performance of the Western intelligentsia has never been worse. Before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact regimes, the intelligentsia was merely deluded. After the collapse of the World Trade Centre, it has gone haywire. Essentially a branch of the home entertainment industry, the left intelligentsia circulates, almost entirely for its own consumption, opinions even more contemptuous of ordinary people than used to prevail on the right. At least Kissinger, when he gave the green light for the murder of Allende and the hideous events that predictably followed, could be reasonably sure that Chile 's standard of living would go up. When fashionable intellectuals pour scorn on Iraq 's provisional government as American stooges, they effectively ally themselves with the fanatics who would like to kill its every minister, with special treatment for the women. As Abba Eban once suggested, a consensus is an opinion shared by people who wouldn't dare to hold it individually. Loathe their own societies as they might — and there is plenty to loathe, even for those of us who realise that a free nation is bound to be full of things we don't like—even the most uninformed Western intellectuals are smart enough to see individually that President Bush didn't order the attack on the Twin Towers: if he had, the Golden Gate bridge would have fallen down instead. But collectively they are ready to agree that it doesn't matter what lies are told as long as a greater political truth is being served. They are unfazed when it is pointed out that the same assumption was a point of agreement between Hitler and Stalin. The totalitarian attitude to the truth, with history being rewritten not just retroactively but as it happens, has become standard. This could be an instance of decay through inheritance. Studying the institutionalised opportunism of states ruled by unalleviated mendacity, a previous generation of students caught the bug. In their separate death throes — spasmodically sudden in the case of the Third Reich, gruesomely prolonged in the case of the USSR — the totalitarian powers were dying patients who infected the doctors: a clear case of the original virus being sucked up into the syringe. The antibiotics have become toxic, like Harry Lime's penicillin. Measuring their virulence, we get a good idea of how lethal the disease was that they were originally employed to cure.

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