The Peripatetic Reviewer
Harcourt Brace Jovanovieh, $15.00
“In 1914,” writes Mr. Fest, “there had been only three republics alongside of seventeen monarchies in Europe. Four years later there were as many republics as monarchies .. . the democratic idea seemed beyond question.” But of the new democracies, the Weimar Republic was the most vulnerable. At the outset it had to put down the Marxist uprisings in Bavaria, the Ruhr, and in central Germany. When it became apparent that the Wilsonian principles were not to be extended to Germany, the Republic was blamed by the disillusioned war veterans; it was blamed for the hunger and mounting inflation, and for not forcibly putting down the Bolshevik outbreak. The stage was set, so Mr. Fest’s argument continues, for a demagogue, not of the officer class, who could rally the romantic, resistant, unpolitical country, and when Adolf Hitler found his voice and, as early as October 16, 1919. began to intoxicate large audiences, no one could stop him. The personal grievances, and the prejudices which had festered in him for thirty years, added magic to his oratory.
Of Hitler’s fifty-six years, says the biographer, thirty were of dullness, twenty-six of suddenly electrified political life; but for the reader the formative period, so carefully documented, is anything but dull. He was a loner, a bourgeois down to his heels; a romantic who imitated his hero Wagner in his anti-Semitism and vegetarianism; a pretentious artist who would not accept Vienna’s rejection of his drawings, and who found his consolation in visions of a master race put forward in the cheap pamphlets by the eccentric Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. The swastika, the “Aryans,” the “Jewish worldwide” conspiracy–and the belief that the mongrel AustroHungarian Empire should be servile to a purer Germany–were all embedded in Hitler’s thinking when he enlisted in a Bavarian regiment. World War I hardened him physically; he was wounded, gassed, and twice decorated. Rootless, his parents dead, Hitler after the Armistice returned to the regimental barracks, where he helped to track down veterans who had gone over to the Bolsheviks. This brought him into the beer halls and when the mouthings infuriated him he sprang to his feet and vented his outrage in that lava of words which was to overwhelm Germany.
What gives this monumental biography its authority is the careful coordination of historical details and character analysis. Mr. Fest has an advantage that future writers will lack, in being able to quote from all levels of the Nazi movement, and these innumerable voices testify to the crises in Hitler’s rise. The failure of Hitler’s putsch before the guns of the police on November 9, 1923
(“perhaps the greatest stroke of luck in my life”), is magnificent drama: Hitler dropped to the pavement as the man whose arm he was holding was killed, while Ludendorff at the head of the demonstration marched unscathed through the volley. From that defeat came Hitler’s new ground rule: “revolution by permission of His Excellency the President.” As a martyr in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf in three and a half months, and its insinuation that he was the prodigy the nation needed helped him force his way into the chancellorship.
Thereafter he out-thought and outbluffed the democracies in France and England. To gain the loyalty of the general staff he liquidated Röhm and the roughnecks in the Storm Troops (SA); a treaty of nonaggression with Poland became a springboard for his conquest of that country; and when his professional soldiers advocated the traditional sweep through Belgium, Hitler insisted on the bolder offensive through the Ardennes, which had Marshal Pétain suing for peace in three weeks. But it was a costly victory, for thereafter Hitler distrusted his generals and played his hunches, doubling the stakes again and again in his reckless, costly assault on Russia. Not until the grizzly days in the bunker at the close of his life does the gray-faced invalid, living on drugs and cake, with the last of his reason recapitulate his mistakes and his imagined betrayals. With the many horrors he perpetrated, which this book never minimizes, Hitler routed out the Junkers, but in the long run he undermined, one hopes, the war psychosis and strengthened the democratic spirit in a nation the United States generously helped to revitalize–which was not what he had in mind for the Third Reich.
NANCY ASTOR AND HER FRIENDS by Elizabeth Langhorne Praeger, $10.00
Lucky perhaps that the Virginian, Nancy Astor, should have been the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament. That august body was not too happy to accept her, but she was to be a member for twenty-hve years and by her spirit and resourcefulness she wore down most of the opposition. How this ill-educated, spunky American won her place and friends as dear to her as Lord Lothian, George Bernard Shaw, and T. E. Lawrence is sympathetically told in Elizabeth Langhorne’s cousinly, candid, but not uncritical biography.
Nancy’s father, Colonel “Chillie” Langhorne emerged from the Civil War with “nothing but a wife, a ragged seat to my pants, and a barrel of whiskey.” In Richmond in the 1880s he recouped, and his hospitable country place, Mirador, near the Blue Ridge, became known for its horses, dogs, juleps, and the five lovely Langhorne daughters. Irene married the artist Charles Dana Gibson, and was the model for the “Gibson girl,” and when Nancy after her debut captured the attractive Robert Gould Shaw of Newport, she seemed destined to be a social butterfly. But Shaw was an alcoholic. On the second day of their honeymoon at Hot Springs, Nancy ran back to Mirador, sure, as the biographer says, “that sex was one of the more regrettable aspects of human existence.” She was to return to him but they were divorced six years later, and she regarded alcohol as an evil for the rest of her days.
Her new life began when crossing the Atlantic she met and swept off his feet Waldorf Astor, one of the richest men in the world, and like herself of American lineage. Early in their married life at Cliveden, that vast palace with its terraces above the Thames, three things began to shape her thinking: Waldorf was elected to Parliament; Nancy, who had long been seeking religious ballast, became an ardent convert to Christian Science; and she in turn converted her dearest, platonic ally, Philip Kerr, the future Lord Lothian. Waldorf was a liberal Conservative and with Kerr’s aid he formed the Round Table, idealists including Robert Brand, Lionel Curtis, and Maurice Hankey, who envisioned a commonwealth of nations and who found their champion in Lloyd George. These men gave Nancy her baptism in English politics.
When Waldorf Astor reluctantly took his place in the House of Lords, Nancy campaigned for his vacated seat in the House of Commons as the new member from Plymouth, with the slogan, “Vote for Lady Astor and Your Babies Will Weigh More!” She learned to handle hecklers, and once elected, with Waldorfs coaching, she argued for women’s rights, for pure milk, for postponing the age when children could leave school and young men could enter pubs. The Liquor Trade was her bête noire. In her speaking she was witty, impulsive, though not always persuasive. With Winston Churchill she argued ferociously. When he saw her in the House of Commons, Churchill said he felt “as though some woman had entered my bath, and I had nothing to protect myself with except my sponge!” Josiah Bunting III is an engaging, sardonic writer with a mocking sense of humor, and one who knows the English so well that he can take off their mannerisms, their way of talking, their attitude toward us, with entertaining accuracy. His new novel is set in an old inn in Surrey, the Rufus Arms, where Lord Nelson was reputed to have spent the night on the way to his glorious final defeat of the French. To this inn come Mark and Marjorie Adams with their two young children in the late autumn of 1971. Mark, the narrator, is a Princeton graduate, who went on to study at Clare College, Cambridge. Now, after an interval of seven years in which he served in Vietnam and taught none too successfully in a boys’ school, he has returned to research for a book he is writing about a forgotten British general. The plan is to park Marjorie and the children at the Rufus Arms while he commutes for his note-taking in the British Museum. But to Mark’s dismay, at their very first evening in the taproom they find an older American in residence, a bombastic, well-set-up, heavydrinking character named Frederick Giles, whose prejudices, freely expressed, set Mark’s teeth on edge. Mark derides Giles’s boorishness with all the sarcasm at his command and the friction between them makes for sparkling dialogue.
The biographer places her at her best politically in the post-World War I years when for a brief interval world peace seemed possible. But both she and Lord Lothian were at first deceived by Hitler, and the Astors, who had become known as the “Cliveden Set,” came under fire for Britain’s weak position in the late thirties. As age hardened Nancy in her habits, “the loneliness and alienation of her last years were the inevitable result of a lifetime of pointing out to others how to run their affairs.” She even shut out Waldorf before his death and when she called out to him as the last utterance on her own deathbed, it might have been a cry for forgiveness.
THE ADVENT OF FREDERICK GILES by Josiah Bunting III Little, Brown, $6.95
But Marjorie’s reaction to Frederick Giles is quite the opposite: she feels sorry for him; she appreciates the little excursions he plans for her and the children, and gradually the suspicion takes root in her husband’s mind that while he is in London grubbing at his research, Giles is making love to his wife. This is more than the rather conceited Ivy-Leaguer can take, and at a Christmas Eve celebration put on by the local squire, Mark’s anger and jealousy surface in a scene in which Giles has much the better of it.
The English atmosphere is entertaining all the way and Marjorie is so skillfully portrayed that one is never sure whether she was–or ever wanted to be–seduced. For me there were two puzzlements: I cannot understand why a man as intelligent as Mark would be fooling around with such an idiotic piece of writing; and, secondly, when with some disgust he goes to bed with a friend’s mistress in London, I need a diagram to understand what they are doing. I was never much good at plane geometry.
WAYS OF LOVING by Brendan Gill
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95
One has no need of diagrams to comprehend Ways of Loving, a collection of eighteen short stories and two novellas, not necessarily confined to bed. Brendan Gill has O’Hara’s gift for projecting his people and their predicaments in a very few pages of swift and touching prose. “The Knife,” for instance, one of the very best of the short narratives, tells of a young widower, deep in grief for the wife he has lost, walking the streets at night, doing what he can to console his young son who still believes mother will return. Not a wasted word and with such surprise of emotion at the end that one is truly moved.
I like his versatility. “The Mischievous Sinfulness of Mother Coakley” is a vignette of a quick little nun who loved to play tennis and went on playing in the full skirts of her habit long after she ought to have stopped. She “scampered about the court like a frantic chipmunk,” as she taunted and took pride in beating the younger sisters. So, too, “Truth and Consequences,” in which a lame, sexy girl separates a son, destined for a seminary, from his overbearing mother.
The better of the novellas is “The Malcontents,” a satire of three generations of a wealthy Southern family. The finicky Mrs. Fennelly, who has long outlived her divorced husband, is eighty; her daughter Claire, also divorced, is a selfish bitch of fifty; and her only son Nicky, now fifteen, is a lost soul until he finds his adored tutor. Mother and grandmother live to bait each other, and they spend the dreary summers being driven about Europe by their profane black chauffeur or moldering in a dank Irish castle which they have mistakenly rented for the view. This story of “no-love” is one of the most amusing accounts of the spoiled getting their desserts I have ever laughed my way through.