Vignettes of a Tragic Century --- George F. Kennan
Vignettes of a
Tragic Century
George F. Kennan


In the late I970s and early 1980s, historical research (for two volumes of European diplomatic history) required occasional protracted spells of work in European archives --- primarily those of Paris and Vienna. Here: a touch of what this meant in terms of daily life.
--- March 20, 1982

Our life here is relatively quiet, especially in the evenings. This small hotel occupies one small wing of the Schwarzenberg Palace. The great drawing rooms of the palace are rented out, as occasion presents itself, for all sorts of private purposes: parties, exhibits, whatnot.

Our windows look out on the park of the palace, quiet now in its wintry sleep, the water in the pool of the fountain sometimes partly frozen, the statues covered with square plastic hangings, the tennis courts empty and damp, the lawns neat but brown --- everything waiting. A young black dog is let out there every morning. Sometimes he has companions; and with these he plays happily when they will join him. When we first arrived, seagulls --- for some strange reason --- wheeled over a section of the park (so far inland!). They have now left, but their place has been taken by some birds from the south, northward bound, unidentifiable at this distance. Otherwise, the park lies deserted.

I make my way to the Archives every weekday morning by means of the D tram, which stops right before the palace. Back of me as I wait for it, below the fenced parking place of the palace, is the Soviet war memorial: a semicircular colonnade, with the tributory legend spelled across it in large golden Cyrillic letters. In the middle, at the axis of the semicircle, there rises a high thin column, surmounted with the symbolic heroic figure (and not a bad one) of the Soviet soldier of World War II. It is, I fear, no place of reverence today --- a fatality, no doubt, to the behavior of the Soviet troops in 1945 (the rapes, the plundering, the executions, and other excesses) and to the political brutalities perpetrated upon so much of the rest of central and eastern Europe. The Viennese make fun of it, referring to the figure on the top, for some reason, as the Erbsenkönig(the pea king). I, alone, perhaps, in this city of nearly two million, view it with sadness, sympathy, and respect, seeing in the millions of Russian youngsters who laid down their lives in that war a tragedy rising above all the political emotions of that time --- a tragedy no smaller than that of any of the young men who fought on the other side. May those who sent all these men to their death, on whatever side, someday be compelled to account for their action to the God who had caused these victims to come into this world, at one time, as sweet innocent children, needful of love, and normally surrounded by it, only to leave it, unfulfilled, in circumstances of such pain, bewilderment, and misery.

The streetcar D turns at the end of the Schwarzenbergplatz and pursues its way up the Ringstrasse, past the Opera, past the great buildings of the Hofburg on one side and those of the museums on the other, past the Greek classical parliament building, to the Burg theater, resplendent now in its restored neo-Renaissance glory. Here I get off and make my way along the side of the park to the Bundeskanzeramt (the Federal Chancery), where, through a rear entrance opposite the Minoriten Church, one enters the Archives. One fills out the daily form and mounts the old stone staircase, between the full-length white statue of Maria Theresa, very impressive in her smart dress with the narrow waist and full skirt, and the equally white bust of Franz Josef, halfway up the staircase. Then, into the dusty but wonderful old documents --- these colorful and poignant memorials of the realities of a bygone day brought to you, after a decent and respectful interval, by a silent elderly retainer who himself has the look of archival personality of the eighteenth century, so that you find yourself wondering, in this ambiance of the past, whether he, too, like so many of the documents, has not mysteriously survived from that earlier day.

§     §     §

--- En route by train, through
Jutland (Denmark), to Hamburg.
September 1959

We reached Hamburg in early evening. Having four hours to wait there, I treated myself to dinner at the Vier Jahreszeiten, which I have always thought of as the best hotel in Europe. The rest of the evening I sat on a café terrace across from the main railroad station, watching the people move along the sidewalk and the stream of traffic coming and going before the station, and pondering the nature of this new Europe --- this materialistic, impersonal, semi-Americanized (but in some ways more modern than the U.S.) Europe --- with which I have so little to do. Never had I realized more keenly the extent to which the Europe of my youth, and the Europe about which I had cared, had left me and receded into the past, just like the America of the same description. A man's life, I reflected, is too long a span today for the pace of change. If he lives more than a half century, his familiar world, the world of his youth, fails him like a horse dying under its rider, and he finds himself dealing with a new one which is not really his. A curious contradiction, this: that as medicine prolongs man's span of life, the headlong pace of technological change tends to deprive him, at an earlier age than was ever before the case, of the only world he understands and the only one to which he can be fully oriented. For it is only the world of one's youth, the nature of which is absorbed with that tremendous sensitivity and thirst for impression that only childhood and early youth provide --- it is only this world that answers to the description. The Western world, at least, must today be populated in very great part by people like myself who have outlived their own intellectual and emotional environment, and who are old not only in the physical and emotional sense but also in relation to the time. We older people are the guests of this age, permitted to haunt its strange and somewhat terrifying halls --- in a way part of its life, like the guests in a summer hotel, yet in a similar way detached from it. We sometimes talk with the hotel staff. We are listened to with interest, amusement, or boredom, depending on the relevance of our words. Occasionally, whether by officiousness or indiscretion, we get fouled up in the life of the place. But guests we remain: it is not our hotel; we do not work there; we never fully understand what goes on in the pantries and the kitchens; we shall be leaving it; the personnel, who will remain, is youth. And the faces of the personnel, while sometimes cheerful, sometimes competent, sometimes strong, are nevertheless terrifying to us for the things that are not written on them.

§     §     §

--- Written in Rheinfelden, a town on the Swiss side of the Rhein, not far from Basel, where I was attending an academic conference.
September 18, 1959

One afternoon just before departure I took my passport along and crossed the bridge to the German side. I was overwhelmed by the contrast. Here, more clearly than anywhere I had ever been, one saw the difference between a country that had involved itself in two world wars and one that had not. On the Swiss side one had in every way this wonderful feeling of intactness, both in space and in time. One felt that the generations had merged imperceptibly into one another, that values of the present had been erected carefully and reverently on the foundations of the values of the past, that families had remained families. On one old house in the Swiss part of the city I had noticed, in fact, an inscription:

          Lasset uns am Alten,
          So es gut ist, halten.

          Where the old is good,
          Let us hold to it.

And the fact that the tail end of a late-model Mercedes protruded from a garage in the same building somehow failed to destroy the force of the motto.

On the German side, all was different. Whether or not there had been physical destruction by bombing, I do not know; but the place had the air of a town that had been torn to pieces and was being reconstructed: no harmony, no center, little beauty. And the people were as different as night from day. There was, compared with the prim Swiss, a ravaged, desperate, and brutal quality to their faces. One saw at once that here was a place which had been through moments of something like a breakdown of civilization. There was still a tinge of wolfishness in the way people viewed each other: the memory of a time (the final years of war and Nazidom) when man was enemy of man, as in the Russian Civil War. On the other hand, there was, as compared with Switzerland, a certain wide-flung, careless energy on the German side. The Swiss, too, were energetic, but with them this force was contained, well-bred, bourgeois to the core. In Germany, these middle-class values had disappeared, so that one had, along with the sense of coarseness and brutal competition, a sense of greater scope and power and ruthiessness of action.

Curiously enough, the women on the German side had also been in some way affected by the disintegration and looseness of values. They had the sheer, coarse, sexual attractiveness of primitive women, which again contrasted strongly with their prim and repressed sisters across the Rhine. Surely, one thought, this cannot be just the force of environment: this must reflect the fact that in Switzerland, over the course of generations, the discreet influence of parents, interested less in the girl's physical attractiveness than in her qualities as a person and a memberof society, has been important in shaping marriages; whereas in Germany the children of this age are the products of the catch-as-catch-can sexual mores that have prevailed in that country for the past forty years. Here, by consequence, the sultry belle of the streets has taken a prominent share in motherhood. Her children show it.

§     §     §

---Berlin again, fifteen years after the war.
June 16 - 22, 1960

Berlin was bright, open, sprawling --- with its characteristic energetic air, in which one burns one's self out (at least I do) with the sheer output of energy, on first arrival. The rubble had not been all removed, in the western sectors at least; clusters of buildings were still separated by wide gray fields on which scarcely anything grew. The new Hilton Hotel where I was installed (a curious mixture of mid-century America and Germany, as modern as anything in Texas or Southern California) stood alone, with the wide expanse of the Tiergarten on one side and a desert of such cieared land on the other, so that one had the sense of being somewhere on the periphery of town, not in its center.

Now, for the first time, one had the impression of a wholly new Berlin, with a quite different arrangement of functions, arising --- or, better, superimposed --- on the skeleton of the old one, the street pattern being largely unchanged. It was a shock to reflect how much of the old city, particularly the parts of it that had once been so central and so imposing, so seemingly timeless and indestructible --- the great, teeming business center between Potsdamer Platz and the Friedrichstrasse and the old residential Tiergartenviertel --- had passed utterly into history, so that coming generations, in fact even today's young people, would not even know that these quarters had ever been there, and would be unable to picture them even if told. Five years ago the old Berlin, if only in the form of its ruins and rubble, had still prevailed: the new life had only camped, tentatively and almost apologetically, on what was left of it. Today the new Berlin has taken over. The old one, the scene of such vitality, such pretensions, such horrors and such hopes, is being thrust down into the oblivion of history, before the eyes of those of us who knew it.

Never before have I been so impressed with the sheer grandeur and scale on which this citY is laid out. One wonders where such generosity of concept came from in the Gothic complexity of the Wilhelminian outlook. Imitation of Paris, presumably; but compared to this, even Paris seems to me somewhat cramped and confined. If, in some remote future, this does not become the greatest of world cities, it is not because it was not designed for it.

Today a great air of relaxation hangs over this vast urban area. There is little of the hustle and bustle that marked it in the prewar period. There is space. There is time. Everyone is waiting for something. They do not know when it will happen; they only know: not soon. Meanwhile, there is not much to do but to live and to wait.

My first day in Berlin was the seventeenth of June, the seventh anniversary of the day when the workers of the eastern sector revolted and the East German government came within an inch of destruction. Toward evening I attended a mass commemorative ceremony on the square before the Schöneberger Rathaus. In 1928 --- thirty-two years ago --- I had lived on this square. It was then a marketplace. My windows had looked down on the canvas roofs of the stands. The place was then the end station of one of the double-deck bus lines that combed the city; and all night you could hear the chugging of the idling motors of the buses waiting to start uptown again. Now the apartment house where I then lived was gone, destroyed in the bombing --- gone with all the life that then had filled it. Even the eager, nervous, bewildered boy of twenty-four, who once sat at that window on the fourth floor, was really largely dead. Little remained of him but some silly habits and memories in a graying man of fifty-six.

But now, today, at the commemorative ceremony, we all sat or stood, in great masses, on the square where the market had once been, and watched the long streamers that hung on the sides of the Rathaus flutter in the fresh evening wind, or stared up at the tremendous tower that loomed overhead. There was a high podium and massed flags. Runners in track suits --- German kids of high-school age --- arrived with a torch they had carried from somewhere (the last 110 miles, of course, had to be traversed by airplane), and a girl presented it to Willy Brandt, after which it served to light a fire in a tall urn. The Regierungspräsidentof Schleswig-Holstein then made a tactless speech, in which (to the annoyance of the politically more sophisticated Berliners) he dwelt on the German-Polish border problem. He was followed by the ex-president, old Professor Heuss, whose Schwabian good humor and oldworld charm went right to the Berlin heart. Then came Willy Brandt: young, strong, confident, a little too much the candidate for the chancellorship, I thought; but who are we Americans to speak of such things in an election year.

Later that evening I sat with a group of Social Democratic personalities --- Brandt and his Norwegian wife (he was himself a Norwegian citizen at the end of the war); the vice president of the parliament, Carlo Schmid; Erler, head of the Social Democratic opposition in Bonn; Richard Löwenthal; and others --- in a restaurant, and whiled away the hours of the night. I had feared they would embarrass me with questions about international affairs, but they appeared to accept me largely as one of themselves. No pressure was put on me to contribute; and I had the feeling conversation would have been much the same had I not been there at all.

On Monday evening I went to the theater, over in the Communist eastern sector of the city with M. It was the former Theater am Schiffbauerdamm --- the theater where, until his recent death, Brecht had directed. The area around the rheater, once the very teeming center of this entire city, was now empty, silent, almost deserted. Across the parking plaza and the river loomed the huge corpus of the Friedrichstrasse railway station, once the main station of Berlin, now dark and empty, witness only to the passage of an occasional half-empty elevated train.

The play was a dramatization of Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don --- translated, obviously, from the Russian. The acting was good. The house was not full. In the corridors people whispered and glanced furtively at one another. One had suddenly the feeling that we --- the actors and the little band of spectators --- were the only living people in the great, ruined, and deserted area that stretched for miles around, that we were going through a ceremony of sorts in the midst of this great void, as in a dream, as though some menacing spirit were mocking us, putting us through our paces. Fear ---- guarded, concealed, nameless fear --- presided over the whole performance, and we, the hushed, defensive, haunted audience, were as much a part of rhe strange spectacle as were the actors.

M. and I sat, in stony silence, in the second row, behind two silent figures in some sort of Communist officer's uniform. Even when the curtain was down, there was not a sound among the audience. A whisper would have been heard all over the hall. It was clear: I was back in Russia --- not the Russia of today, but Stalin's Russia. The dreadful, furtive spirit which Khrushchev had largely exorcised among his own people had found refuge here in this distant Russian Protectorate, and it now presided, like a posthumous curse of the dead Stalin on the "faithless" Germans, over the ruins of the "eastern sector." The first of the two parts of the play --- one and three-quarters hours of the wretchedly primitive ideology of the early Stalin period --- were all I could take. We left during the intermission. The square in front of the theater lay empty and barren as we emerged. On the nearby raiiway station there was a moving band of electric writing: the words of a Tass news program fleeing out of the darkness to the right and disappearing into the darkness at the left; but there was no one but ourselves to read those words, and we had no interest. A street running off of the square, narrow like a chasm, between two rows of undestroyed apartment houses, was brilliantly lighted, yet utterly empty, like the corridor of a prison. One wondered whether the houses behind these frowning facades were real, or whether they were only papier-mâché, and the whole thing some evil, mocking trap.

We drove across the bridge and turned left along the river, behind the university, heading toward one of the great squares that fronted on the one-time (now destroyed) Imperial Palace. Suddenly, we emerged onto this vast open area from the little park in front of the ruins of the old Zeughaus. We got out of the car, walked out onto the deserted square, and were suddenly overwhelmed --- but utterly, profoundly, as I have not been in many years --- by what we saw and felt around us.

It was now late twilight --- the long-drawn twilight of the northern night. Under the trees it was dark, but the sky was still partly bright. There was a touch of gold in the air. Before us, there was only the great square confronting the ruins of the enormous Wilhelminian Romanesque cathedral. The entire area was unbelievably silent and empty. Only one pair of lovers, standing under the trees by the Zeughaus, moved uneasily away at our approach. All about us were the ruins of the great old buildings, semisilhouetted against the bright sky. And what ruins! In their original state, they had seemed slightly imitative and pretentious. Now they suddenly had a grandeur I had never seen even in Rome. We both become aware that this was, somehow, a moment like no other. There was a stillness, a beauty, a sense of infinite, elegiac sadness and timelessness such as I have never experienced. Death, obviously, was near, and in the air: hushed, august, brooding Death --- nothing else. Here all the measureless tragedy of the Second World War --- the millions of dead, the endless seas of bereavement and sorrow, the extinction of a whole great complex of life and belief and hope --- had its perpetuation. So overpowering was the impression that we spoke only in whispers, as though we were in a cathedral, instead of standing in the open, before the ruins of one. Not a soul was now in sight. But no --- far up, at the top of the enormous flight of steps leading up to what was left of the cathedral, on the pedestal of one of the huge marble columns, we saw half-hidden in the shadows three adolescent boys --- motionless, themselves like statues, themselves silent, endlessly alone and abandoned; and their lost, defiant figures burned themselves into my vision to the point where I see them still today --- elbows on the knees, chins resting on the palms of hands --- the embodiment of man's lost and purposeless state, his loneliness, his helplessness, his wistfulness, and his inability to understand.

We drove back, in silence, down the dead space of what was once the great Unter den Linden, to the Brandenburger Tor and through the Tiergarten; and when we got back into the bright lights and the busy normality of West Berlin, it all seemed toylike and trivial: an officious little busybody of a civilization, fussy and impermanent. None of it seemed to matter. Neither of us could forget the great awesome ruins, standing so patiently and majestically and sorrowfully, under the night sky, four miles away.

--- ©1989, Pantheon Books

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