BOOK: Sven Hedin, "German Diary"
[Note: this post is rather longish, so I'll split it into two parts. This is part 1. Part 2 appears tomorrow.]
Sven Hedin's German Diary, 1935–1942. Translated by Joan Bulman. Dublin: Euphorion Books, 1951. viii + 252 pp.
Hedin was a famous Swedish geographer who made some pioneering journeys and expeditions to Central Asia in the early 20th century. I first heard of him in Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, a very fine book about the history of the exploration of Central Asia and the rivalries between the western imperialist powers in that area (particularly Britain and Russia). The book has a whole chapter about Hedin (ch. 13); he was apparently a splendid geographer and cartographer, but not necessarily a very nice person: he was ambitious to the point of ruthlessness, and did not spare the lives of his camels or indeed of his native companions (e.g. during the crossing of the Taklamakan desert; Tournament of Shadows pp. 322–3). The British praised him for his achievements, but he later fell out with them because of a quarrel, mostly due to his unwillingness to admit that some aspects of his achievements were not strictly speaking “firsts” as they had already been done before by British explorers (pp. 335, 338). “Excommunicated by the British, Sven Hedin found ever more fervent devotées in Germany” (p. 343). After his death in 1952, a British geographer wrote: “By temperament Hedin was a Nazi, to whom exploration was a Kampf, a struggle not only against the forces of nature but also on paper, against rival explorers. It is not surprising that he espoused in turn the causes of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler.” (P. 311.) Meyer and Brysac compare Hedin's attitude to the Nietzschean Superman (pp. 327, 330). “He expressed no regrets or apologies for his wartime activities, and in his German Diaries approvingly quotes a final letter from Hitler seconding Hedin's view that ‘This war will go down in history as President Roosevelt's war’ ” (p. 527). The notes on p. 604 mention this book again in a list of Hedin's works, and state that it was published in Dublin in 1951.
For some reason, I am always a bit curious about these slightly unsavoury fellow travellers of nazism and fascism. (Another example is Curzio Malaparte, whose books I also hope to read at some point. And D'Annunzio too, I guess.) There is a moderate sort of notoriety about them, which invariably excites my curiosity. In the case of the German Diary, another thing that made me curious is the fact that it was published in Dublin. My experience with English-language books is that, when you read the list of books cited in the bibliography section at the end of a book, they are usually all published either in London or in New York (indeed sometimes the authors go so far as to say at the beginning of a bibliography that all the books cited have been published in London unless noted otherwise). But here we have a Swedish author's book published, not long after the war, in obscure Dublin, in neutral Ireland rather than in one of the allied countries who had won the war. (We are used to thinking of WW2 as an all-encompassing event, and we sometimes forget that throughout the entire war there existed quite a few neutral countries who had more or less normal diplomatic relations with both sides; which led to some curious and fascinating situations, such as this one mentioned in the Wikipedia: “Following the suicide of Adolf Hitler, de Valera, following diplomatic protocol, controversially offered condolences to the German ambassador.”) There's a whiff of notoriety right there. It isn't quite as exciting as if it had been published in Buenos Aires, but it's right next to it. (In fact, it turns out that a German translation of this book had in fact been published in Buenos Aires; Dürer-Verlag, 1949, 283 pp.) I also noticed that the book isn't terribly common; I'm not saying that it's a big rarity but if you try searching for it on ABE you are as likely as not to get zero hits. Because of all this I decided to buy and read the book as soon as a suitable opportunity would present itself.
Meyer and Brysac don't mention the name of the publisher, Euphorion Books, but I probably found it soon afterwards on the web (see e.g. Daniel C. Waugh's Hedin bibliography; or in Hale's book, which mentions the publisher in its bibliography on p. 563; see below). Later, when reading Mary Lovell's biography of the Mitford sisters, I noticed that Euphorion Books was the publishing house set up after the WW2 by Oswald and Diana Mosley, mostly because British publishers refused to publish Oswald's books as he had been the leader of British Fascists before the war. “Eventually they produced a list, which included reprints of classic works as well as Mosley's books.” (Lovell, p. 416). The Mitfords are another thing about which I am mildly curious (see my post about Diana's autobiography, Life of Contrasts; the latter also mentions Euphorion Books, see ch. 19), so this connection to them was another motivation for me to be interested in Hedin's German Diary. Given the Mosleys' right-wing and pro-German opinions, it isn't surprising that they were interested in publishing this book.
The German Diary is also mentioned in Christopher Hale's Himmler's Crusade (ch. 13, pp. 456–9), which I read just a few days after Lovell's biography of the Mitfords. Hale's book is about the curious 1938 SS-sponsored German expedition to Tibet, led by Ernst Schäfer (also mentioned by Meyer and Brysac, ch. 21), and about the subsequent careers of the scientists who had participated in it: some of them got involved in SS Ahnenerbe “research”, which could range from relatively harmless pet projects and theories of the sort that regularly occurred to Himmler's mind (see e.g. pp. 479, 488–9 in Hale's book; for some more examples of that sort, see my post about Speer's Slave State), to highly unethical anthropological research on concentration camp inmates and their corpses (pp. 464–5, 516). I remember that the book fascinated me and I read it quite quickly over the course of a few days — too quickly, apparently, for I soon forgot more or less everything that I had read in it and retained only an exceedingly dim memory of the contents of the book. It wouldn't be a bad idea to read it again, this time more carefully. Anyway, in relation to Hedin's German Diary, Hale mentions his sycophantic attitude to the German leaders (“Hedin was sympathetic to the Nazi New Order while making the odd protest or three. Most of the time, though, he was a sycophant”, p. 456), and his gullibility such as when the German authorities offered him the use of a car and unlimited fuel so as to be independent in his research for his planned “unbiased” book about Germany (p. 458).
Anyway, Sven Hedin and his German Diary never quite slid out of my memory afterwards, and occasionally I would try searching for the book on ABE and eBay. A few weeks ago an eBay search proved successful, an auction for the book was just in progress and I ended up winning it for the not unreasonable price of £19. There weren't any copies listed on ABE at that time, but now as I write this I see two copies there, both in more or less very good condition, just like mine, but both much more expensive ($85 and $111, though the latter admittedly includes a signature of Hugh Trevor-Roper, who is said to have thought it a “naive little book”). Of course, the prices you see on ABE are often too high because the lower-priced copies will get bought quickly and you are not as likely to notice them when you do your search. Nevertheless, I'm quite happy with the price at which I got my copy, and I think it shows that a book doesn't have to be expensive just because it is scarce — low supply won't lead to a high price if the demand is also low.
It isn't really a terribly exciting book, but it's readable enough anyway; you can read it in a single day, and it contains many interesting passages.
Hedin certainly doesn't hide his admiration for German culture and history, e.g. when describing his tour of Germany in 1935 (p. 4). On several occasions he explicitly refers to himself as a “Germanophil” (this curious spelling is used throughout the book; e.g. on p. 207). This is not to say that he is completely uncritical of everything about Germany, especial after the Nazis' rise to power. Thus on pp. 8–9 he complains that the Nazis neglected scientific research, except insofar as it seemed immediately useful to them. He also deplores the amount of money wasted on flowers to lay on graves: “In actual fact the Third Reich at the height of its glory used flowers on a scale of magnificence never known before.” (P. 9.) In his 1937 book, Germany and the World Peace, he included a few complaints about the persecution of the Jews and of the church (p. 14), and he refused to modify or remove the passages in question even though this meant that the book could not be published in Germany; see p. 15 and the protracted correspondence with Walter Funk, a state secretary at the German propaganda ministry on the following pages. (Funk's reasoning on pp. 11–2 struck me as particularly curious in an amusing sort of way, because it goes somehow along the lines of ‘well, you know, it just so happens that we are an authoritarian country, and as you know, in authoritarian countries one can't allow the state ideology to be questioned or debated in public, so, well, uh, I guess we can't really publish your book here, can we?’ — as if the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime was the most natural and reasonable thing in the world, something for which no arguments or apologies need to be given, simply a matter of fact which can be used as an axiom to derive further conclusions, such as the impossibility of publishing a book such as Hedin's.) Funk later went on to become minister of economics and president of the Reichsbank, and was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Nuremberg trials. Hedin's comment on this is (p. 24): “I learn with sorrow and disgust that he, in common with other ‘war criminals’, is now repining under inhuman conditions in Spandau prison.” I'm always a bit uncomfortable about these war crimes trials; on the one hand, because it's the victors trying the defeated; on the other hand, because it seems that only the leaders were being held responsible for the crimes, like some kind of scapegoats, although the crimes (e.g. exploitation of Jews and foreigners as slave labor, which I guess is probably what Funk was called to answer for because of his important positions in the Nazi economy) had in fact benefited a much wider segment of German society. I doubt, however, that the conditions in Spandau can fairly be regarded as inhuman; from the description in Gitta Sereny's biography of Speer, I got the impression that the conditions really were a bit unnecessarily harsh, but then again perhaps not that much worse than other prisons in Western countries at that time, and certainly a great deal better than the conditions that many prisoners under the Nazi regime had to endure.
The tone of Hedin's correspondence with the Nazi bigwigs does seem a bit sycophantic at times; it's all Herr Reichskanzler here and geehrter Herr Staatssekretär there etc. etc., but then I guess that to a considerable extent these were simply normal forms of address in such circles at that time. After all, the Germans address him in similarly respectful terms (“Hochgeehrter Herr Sven Hedin!”, Hitler on p. 16). And he could be quite insistent when he wanted to; after one of Hedin's conversations with Hitler (pp. 176–82), a minister named Dr. Meissner, who had also been present during the conversation, commented: “No one has ever gone so far before in contradicting and arguing with the Führer and I was surprised that you obstinacy only amused him instead of, as I had feared, irritating him to the point of frenzy.” (P. 185.)
Hedin published a lot of books aimed at the general public, and many of them were quite successful (especially in Germany). He used the profits from these books to finance the publication of his scientific works when he couldn't get funding from other sources; pp. 14, 26, 84–5.
On p. 29 Hedin quotes Hitler's remarks, made in conversation with a Briton, Lord Londonderry, in 1936, about the great strength of the Soviet Union and its immunity from attack; “Five years later Hitler was to have the opportunity of putting to the test the truth of the statements he had made to Lord Londonderry, and it is strange that he did not himself take heed of his own warning.” Similarly, on p. 178 Hitler emphasizes that “a war on two fronts is inevitably fatal for Germany”, as he learned from WW1; which makes it “all the more surprising that only six months later Hitler should have broken the Russo-German Pact and launched a war on Russia” (p. 185). I admit that it does all seem a bit confusing. When they were beginning their attack on the Soviet Union, the Nazis would often claim that it would fall apart at the first kick like a house of cards. Perhaps neither of these two claims was entirely sincere (i.e. they neither quite believed in 1936 that Russia was unassailable, nor in 1941 that it would fall apart like a house of cards); or perhaps Hitler felt he had grown that much stronger since 1936, or (as Ian Kershaw often suggests in his recent biography of Hitler) his decision to attack was due to his “gambler's instinct”. Another motivation for his attack on the Soviet Union was that he felt that waiting will only make the task more difficult because the Soviets were rearming at the time; besides they might attack Germany first rather than wait to be attacked.
“How different everything might have been if only Lord Londonderry's views had found a hearing both in London and in Berlin—agreement between Great Britain and Germany!” (Pp. 30–1.) I guess it's statements like these that lead to Hedin's book being described as naive. How could such an agreement be possible, when the ambitions of the two countries were so irreconcilably different? Although Hitler claimed he would leave Britain and her empire alone, he wanted to make Germany the dominant power on the European continent. As the British well knew, it would be very hard for them to defend themselves against such a strengthened Germany if Hitler later decided to break his promises (as he had broken so many others before). Besides, a system like his relied on expansion and would probably produce a war sooner or later unless everyone everywhere gave in to his demands. And every concession from his opponents he regarded as a sign of weakness and upped his demands accordingly. Were they supposed to give him a free hand in central and eastern Europe, as he insisted so many times? How could there be agreement with a person like that?
Here's a very politically incorrect statement from p. 33: “A defeated Germany meant in my opinion the opening of the floodgates of the unnumbered hordes of limitless Asia and consequently the downfall of Western culture.” Note that this is from 1939, so the defeat would come from Britain rather than from Russia. I guess it's an illustration of how powerful the fear of communism, of Stalin, of the growing strength of the Soviet Union was at that time among many people in Western Europe, but it still seems bizarre to me that someone should think Nazi Germany to be a lesser evil. The silly concerns about the imminent downfall of Western culture (oh you inconsistent social Darwinists! if it's so weak, why not just let it die?), and the contemptuous reference to “the unnumbered hordes” of Asia, also seem to betray that smug mixture of racism and imperialism which enabled the Victorian gentlemen to think of themselves as the pinnacle of all creation; I'm not entirely surprised that the sentiment had not yet died out completely by the mid-20th century (and Hedin was quote old by then anyway; his formative years had been in the late 19th century), but I would naively imagine that after all his travels in Asia, Hedin would have a more considerate and humane attitude towards its inhabitants. I guess he was a hard geographer after all; his interest during his journey had been in the topography of the land, the layout of the rivers and the altitudes of the mountains, rather than in the people that inhabited it.
Anyway, he made another similar comment regarding the consequences of a German defeat in the summer of 1941, when it was becoming clear that the U.S. would probably enter the war: “Neither did one need to be a prophet to realise that such a development [i.e. the U.S. entry into war] would be fatal to Germany and so for Europe as a whole.” (P. 248.) I'm completely and utterly baffled. What on earth is the reasoning that can lead to such a comment? If he had at least explained how he reached this conclusion — but he doesn't. First of all, as it turned out, such a development was fatal for the Nazi regime in Germany, not for Germany as such; but even if we leave this quibble aside, assuming that Germany had been defeated in the war and somehow turned into a weak and insignificant country, why would this be fatal for Europe as a whole? When the heck did Europe's well-being and that of Germany become one and the same thing? For many areas of Europe, what would have been fatal for them is not Germany's defeat but its victory. Maybe this claim of Hedin's is again based on the assumption after Germany's defeat and weakening, the Soviet Union would be able to occupy or in some other way dominate a large part of Europe. But even here the situation would not necessarily be simply fatal for Europe as a whole. It is unlikely that the Soviet influence would get any further than it in fact did get after the WW2; and it wasn't fatal even for the Soviet-influenced eastern part of Europe; it merely slowed down the economic progress of those areas. As for Western Europe, it actually benefited immensely from the neighbourhood of a powerful communist block: the Western capitalists were willing to improve the lot of their working classes and permit the introduction of a welfare state so as to prevent the people from being attracted to communism. We see how things are changing for the worse in much of Western Europe now that the fear of communism is no longer keeping the greed of the capitalists in check.
Here's another ridiculous statement on the theme of anti-communist paranoia: “On 28th June  I wrote in my diary: ‘If the Anglo-Saxons win, then Europe will be turned into a desert and Stalin will get his great chance’—two predictions which came true.” (P. 223.) Europe was still quite far from being a desert, and besides the amount of ruin depends not so much on who won the war but on how tenaciously it was fought. And the fact that Stalin got his chance is still vastly better than that Hitler would have got his chance.
On pp. 37–8 there is an interesting quote from Hedin's conversation with Göring in October 1939, where Göring explains the likely fate of the smaller countries during the war (“I fear that the neutrals will go under”).
Here's another fine contribution to the growing genre of quotations expressing contempt of the Italian military forces. In a conversation with Hedin in November 1939, a certain Dr Goerdeler “quoted General Gamelin's words: ‘If Italy comes in on the side of Germany, I shall need an army corps at the frontier; if she remains neutral I shall need two, and if she goes against Germany I must have three army corps.” (P. 58.)
There are several passages where people comment on Hedin's health and vigour despite his relatively advanced age (he was born in 1865, and was thus about 70–75 years old in the period discussed in this book): Ribbentrop on p. 63, Hitler on pp. 73–4. Hedin mostly attributes his health to his “healthy open-air life” (p. 63) during his many journeys in Asia. With Hitler they quickly get into a hilarious discussion on the diet of the Tibetans (Hitler on p. 74: “Yes, yoghourt, sour milk is the best of all foods, healthy and good to eat. Anyone who has made yoghourt his staple diet for twenty years will be strong as a bear and live longer than other people.”).
Hitler observes on p. 76: “In these days a single bomber can destroy a battleship. For the cost of one battleship we can build 600 aircraft.” This is quite correct; battleships had still played an important part in the first world war, but during the second it finally became clear that they had become obsolete, particularly because were too vulnerable to aerial attack. During the second half of the war, plans for new and still larger battleships were scrapped or redesigned into aircraft carriers. It's strange how it always takes a new war for such things to be realized, and once they are realized they seem so blindingly obvious. How come nobody noticed e.g. ten years before the war that battleships would be too vulnerable and that aircraft carriers were the way to go?
There's a description of the luxury of Göring's mansion, the Carinhall, on p. 83.
Apparently there had been an increase of reading during the war, and a corresponding increase in the sales of books (including Hedin's, p. 84). “There was plenty of money about and people were unable to spend it on luxury goods, amusements, clothes or foreign travel. In addition the extremely strict blackout regulations made it difficult to go out after dark. People had to stay at home, and reading was their only pastime.” (P. 85.)
On p. 85 he also mentions how many famous people, heads of state, monarchs, etc. he had corresponded with: “All told the collection numbers more than 130 historically famous names.” Too bad that this correspondence didn't get published.
[End of part 1 of this post. Continue to part 2.]