Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 2: Loyalty and Disloyalty

Assimilation: Culture & Economics; Family Politics and Cover-ups

by

Howard Adelman

 

My father came to Canada from Poland when he was six years old just after the end of WWI. One of his earliest memories was being in a parade in Warsaw when the Kaiser came and he waved a German flag. He always had a strong positive view of Kaiser Wilhelm, reflecting even the Ostjuden view of Germany as the leader of European enlightenment culture. In Jeremy`s first paragraph of chapter 1 of his biography of Albert Hirschman, he writes that Carl Hirschmann (Albert`s father) “was a patriot; he loved Beethoven, Goethe, and the values of the German Enlightenment, as well as the German nation. In the wake of the naval Battle of Skagerrak (known as Jutland in English, May 31 – June 1, 1916) he gushed to his wife, `What do you think of our victory at sea? How wonderful it would to have been there!`”

The problem is that the battle was not quite a victory. In the largest naval battle of the war and the only confrontation between battleships, both sides lost. When we were taught that battle in high school British history, I recall that as schoolboys we discussed whether the British admiralty were competing with the British generals of the ground forces for a medal for the worst performance, though we generally agreed that it would be hard to beat the British army officers in their horrific leadership.

Both the British and Germans wanted to lure the enemy`s fleet into a trap to destroy their capacity by sinking or damaging enough of the other`s warships, in the British case, to remove the threat to their mercantile navy and, in the German case, to break the British blockade and allow the German mercantile fleet to operate freely and open the supply lines to Germany. Using intercepts, the British learned of the German plans, sailed from Scapa Flow in Scotland when they learned the German fleet had left port and caught the submarines unprepared. However, the British were nevertheless caught by German Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper`s superfast five modern battlecruisers and drew them into a battle with the German High seas fleet. Before the British could get back to their own main fleet, they lost two battlecruisers in the battle between Hipper`s five fast ships and the British navy`s six battlecruisers and four battleships. In that sense, the navy battle was a victory for the Germans.

On the other hand, the Germans had been lured into an open battle of the fleets with 250 ships engaged altogether. Eleven German ships were lost but at great cost to the British who lost an additional twelve ships. Further, the Germans managed to escape their encirclement and return to port when the British failed to press their advantage. The British also lost far more sailors. Nevertheless, the British succeeded in deterring any future naval engagements by the Germans and the German fleet remained blockaded in port, but the process also tied down the British fleet and limited its protection of the Atlantic sea lanes.

As is usual in wartime, both sides claimed victory. The difference is that in Germany, the public believed the German military propaganda. In Britain, expectations had been high of another Trafalgar, but the British were not only disappointed that their great fleet had been unable to destroy the German one in open battle, but also at the greater losses on their side. They also learned of the design flaws in their own ships and even questioned the naval commanders` conduct of the battle as we as high school students had. In contrast, Carl Hirshmann, the German loyalist who secretly came from Ostjuden stock but named his son Otto after Otto von Bismarck, the Great Prussian chancellor and founder of modern Germany, accepted that the battle as a German victory and faithfully served the wounded and sick and even eventually the starving as the British blockade lead to cold, darkness, starvation and death in Germany. Carl Hirschmann in his self-deceit was unprepared for the overthrow of the German monarchy.

Jeremy summarizes the key events of the latter all too succinctly. After the flu pandemic which killed 5,000 in Berlin alone, “the Spartacist uprising a month later ended in savagery. Rosa Luxemburg`s body was dumped in the Landwehr Canal, Karl Liebknecht was shot in the back in the Tiergarten Park, and right wing thugs patrolled the city to stop the Soviet influence from crossing into German lands. From this mayhem was born the Weimar Republic, the political and cultural setting of Otto Albert`s upbringing.” What Jeremy does not write in his caution in not drawing forth generalizations unless clearly indicated by the evidence is that these key events not only reinforced the self-deceit and mindblindness of Carl Hirschmann on the political as well as personal level, but adumbrated the path of compromise and betrayal that would be the end as well as beginning of the Weimar Republic.

Although the thugs of the proto-Nazi Freikorps carried out the murders, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Chancellor Friedrich Ebert in particular, most probably ordered them. The SPD, now in government in league with the conservative party, was, like the Chinese government today, wedded to the rhetoric of Marxism but driven by the revisionist nationalist theories of Edward Bernstein which made loyalty to the German state a priority rather than international solidarity. The SPD backed the Kaiser`s war, turned on those leftists who had split away from the SPD and, in my conviction, specifically ordered the assassination that took place on 15 January 1919 of Luxemburg (who, incidentally, initially opposed Liebknecht`s call for an insurrection) and Liebknecht, the leaders of the breakaway faction of the socialists in Germany. The process legitimized thuggery as a political tool at the same time as it sewed deep schisms of distrust among leftists in Germany. Luxemburg`s call for “spontaneity” in revolution to which Albert Hirshman was initially attracted was left undeveloped and without her charismatic leadership. Perhaps this allowed AH to abandon Marxism long before his ideological sister was able to free herself.

Jeremy writes: “He (AH) carried throughout his life many of the precepts and values he had inherited as a boy and picked up as a young man in a vibrantly cosmopolitan, civil, bourgeois – republican – upbringing, steeped in the view that things could be made better, that out of the ashes of the old, new worlds could be made. But throughout his life, he knew equally well just how precarious this world could be.” (pp. 18-19) I would argue that he learned more than simply precariousness. Long before his participation in the Spanish Civil War, before he was even politically aware, his upbringing had been steeped not only in the values of civility, meliorism and republicanism, but in the absence of solidarity, loyalty and unity on the left. He had also learned that the resort to street violence was as integral a part of German culture as Goethe and Wagner. 

But German contemporary culture of Dada artists, Bauhaus architect, Berlin expressionists, and avant-garde filmmakers was perhaps the greatest influence on AH. Jeremy writes: “Berliners turned to culture…Perhaps best known was the flourishing of a distinct Berlin movement in theatre, film, and criticism, especially with the collaboration of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, whose Three Penny Opera presented industrializing London as an allegory for contemporary Berlin. Berlin`s first talking movie, The Blue Angel, made Marlene Dietrich famous around the world.” For Jeremy, the image of Dietrich of her memorable walk down a broad staircase in tuxedo and a top hat stands out as does the family lore told by Eva, AH`s young sister, of AH`s father, Carl Hirshmann, spotting Marlene Dietrich at a resort and then jumping up when an opportunity presented itself, draping Dietrich`s fur coat over her shoulder and whispering in her ear, `Meine beste Freudin,` the name of her hit recording from the film. In fact, the song was called, “Wenn die beste Freudin” and it did not come from the film, My Blue Angel, but from the duet she had sung in 1928 with Margo Lion from the musical revue, Es Liegt in der Luft. Since the song was not included in the 1964 albums of Berlin songs by Marlene Dietrich, it is not well known. However, the song can still be heard on YouTube and I personally heard many of them as my German teacher in high school played recording after recording. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSOvHdAcdHA.) The song became an anthem for the risqué lesbian movement at the time, but it is unclear whether Carl Hirschmann was being ironic when citing the song as he flirted with Marlene Dietrich.

More significantly, although the book is very long, I think it would have been helpful to briefly unpack those two splendid examples of avant-garde German culture to reveal the tensions between the passions and interests that so dominated Berlin cultural discourse at the time and remained ever present as a theme in AH`s thinking and was, of course, the name of one of his most important books. I wrote a theatre review for the Threepenny Opera (as we wrote out the title) in the early sixties and do not recall thinking of the musical as presenting industrializing London as an allegory for contemporary Berlin even though the plot was taken from John Gay`s The Beggar`s Opera, but rather as an interpersonal struggle set against a tale of ostensible class warfare between a peachy father and his daughter. The father is ironically named Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum who is a Fagin character running a troupe of beggars. He is governed solely by self-interest but, unlike Fagin, disguises his main occupation through respectability, civility and religious cant. His daughter, Polly, is a naïve creature driven by passion and desire who falls in love with a charming new thief, Macheath, hired by her father. Macheath has coated his pursuit of both self-interest and desire with an attractive quality of charm and goodwill that serves as a cover for the ruthless murderer beneath. The musical with its wonderful ironic music plays on the tension between two forms of ardent self-interest in juxtaposition to desire and various forms of cover ups for that tension so it would have been helpful to learn whether AH saw the musical when he was fourteen or, at least, how he regarded it, especially its deus ex machina ending when Macheath ends up with a pardon for all his crimes and a pension from Queen Victoria.

The Blue Angel, Germany`s first talkie in 1930, is such a contrast to Hollywood`s 1927 The Jazz Singer which told the story of the tension between tradition and modernity between a Jewish cantor`s son and his father loosely based on the life of its star, Al Jolson, my favourite singer as a kid. The Blue Angel based on Heirich Mann`s novel, Professor Unrat (garbage), is the story of a bourgeois, prudish and stuffy teacher in a gymnasium much like the one AH attended who goes to a cabaret to catch his boys watching the torch singer, Loa-Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich, and falls deliriously in love. It is a movie about passion overwhelming reason and common sense leading to the destruction of bourgeois values of civility as the professor is reduced to the humiliation of playing a clown in cabaret as Marlene Dietrich cavorts with her latest lover. The surprise is how well this trite and simplistic plot works so powerfully and how much more powerful the film must have been in Germany where the theme of the tension between unbridled passion and rationality has such a deep resonance. 

I know Jeremy`s book is very long, but I would have appreciated a bit more expansion on the possible effects of such German iconic cultural products on AH himself. I also missed some more unpacking of the tension within Albert between tradition and modernity set against the tension between self-interest and emotional attachments. We are told the parallel story of his very wealthy cousins who take self-interest to the extremes of hedonism and the implied rejection by Albert of those values. We are told of the family`s conversion to Protestantism along with another half million German Jews, but it was Lutheranism and not just Protestantism established by the ardently anti-Semitic Martin Luther to which they converted.  The family observed Christmas and although Albert was converted, he never took up his vows as a Christian. The family really worshipped at the altar of German respectability.

We are told of Carl Hirschmann`s rejection both as an applicant to become head of neurosurgery at a gentile hospital and his rejection as head of surgery at the Jewish hospital and the conviction by himself and his family that his conversion was the reason for the rejection. Other than a loss in status for Carl, especially in the eyes of Albert`s socially aspiring mother, we are not told of how the inner turmoil played out in the life of his father, or, more importantly, within AH other than the statement that Albert wore a “carapace of invulnerability” that even his daughter, Katia, who returned to Judaism, could not seem to penetrate. I wanted Jeremy to make a greater effort to penetrate that carapace that stood in such contrast to the themes of voice, of exit and of loyalty, for the lifelong drama seemed to have the smell of a son trapped, even if in a less auspicious way than his own father. I suspect that his daughter sensed that rather than simply accepting the inherited line that, other than in a sense of humour and a sense of compassion, his Jewish heritage was worn very lightly to be discarded at will with no consequences.

Further probing of Katia on this question would have been helpful in gaining a greater insight into AH. Though I am getting ahead of the story, in chapter 3, Jeremy quotes AH. “`The question of a `return` to Judaism never came up for me (ne s`est jamais posée por moi),` he explained many years later to his grandson Grégoire on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. `First of all, it was never instilled in my upbringing…and above all I would have sensed that an embrace of Judaism as a reaction, as something history imposed upon me which I then had to live (persecution), and for me the question was how not to submit to this miserable history created by Historic Laws (because there are none).`”

What a dramatic revelation written in a note to his grandson in 1989! But in chapter 1 and 3, Jeremy leaves the superficial and indeed silly explanations that simply dress up his carapace unexamined. Look at what he wrote. The history of the Jews is simply a “miserable” history and not a story of both mistreatment and glorious achievement. The issue is not whether the question of return to Judaism was relevant for him, but why return was viewed as a reaction and not a choice. Why was this option regarded as an imposition rather than an option? And what in any rational universe does the history of Judaism have to do with the issue of Historic Laws? Judaism is, if anything, in its deepest roots opposed to the conception of fate whether in the form of Historic Laws or any other expression. This is simply a statement of ignorance and prejudice unbecoming to a man of probing intellect so it raises questions about why stupidity prevailed in this area when AH was so brilliant and wise in so many other areas of his life.

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One comment on “Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman

  1. […] Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (howardadelman.wordpress.com) […]

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