BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I’m about a quarter of the way through Robert Musil’s 1,000-page novel The Man Without Qualities.
Here’s the mise-en-scène: In 1913 a committee of grandees in Vienna is planning a jubilee to honor the 70th anniversary of Franz Josef’s rule as the Austro-Hungarian emperor.
The idea is that Franz Josef has achieved such prosperity and stability for his empire, his ideas deserve to be promoted as Europe’s best hope for perpetual peace. The jubilee is to take place in 1918. Of course we the readers know Europe will be a smoldering ruin by then, devastated by precisely the kind of nationalism Franz Josef personified.
All of The Man Without Qualities‘s dark comedy stems from this setup, pregnant with irony. As a parallel, imagine a novel about a group of American idealists who convene in 1960 to spread peace in Southeast Asia through the self-evident appeal of American democracy. Even a thousand-page book might be too short to convey all the ways that project would go wrong.
So we read even the smallest detail in The Man Without Qualities with a sense of foreboding. Everything the main characters do will go wrong on a massive scale. It is with this feeling of having one’s finger on a hair trigger that we read, for example, Musil’s discussions of anti-antisemitism in Europe. The denigration of Jewry as a scheming, international cartel of financial interests picks up speed, Musil indicates, in a spate of ordinary bad manners.
Through the experiences of two of the novel’s Jewish characters, we learn that Europeans’ attitudes towards Jews were balanced on a precipice at the turn of the century. In 1894 the tension of Europe’s Jewish question took on a very public profile with the Dreyfus Affair.
Musil suggests that at least some enlightened Europeans used the Dreyfus Affair to signal their own liberalism. To the upper bourgeoisie of many leading countries, including France and Germany, the idea was dawning that anyone professing republican ideals could be welcomed as their fellows and equals. States were formed of citizens, not tribesmen, they believed. One of Musil’s characters, a Germanic Austrian woman, marries a Jewish man in part out of loyalty to this idea.
She doesn’t think much of it when her husband starts to be increasingly subjected to petty insults. We the readers, though, know that the ill manners of Europe’s Blut und Boden nationalists were the rattling pebbles that signaled a coming earthquake. At one point in Europe’s civilized history, Musil reminds us, the generation who would deport their Jewish neighbors and even fire the ovens were just plain folks voicing age-old suspicion of outsiders.
If you want to get a chilling sense of this development, read the first volume of Victor Klemperer’s landmark memoir I Will Bear Witness: 1933 – 1941. In it, Klemperer describes the rising tide of “ordinary” antisemitism in Germany before World War Two.
As a diary, Klemperer’s depiction of creeping Nazi racism is written without the clarity of hindsight. He just writes down the small outrages and alienations as they happen, with no idea of where they are leading. So, if you are inclined to dismiss something like Musil’s novel as just a hoity toity work of art that retells European history the way the author wishes it to be seen, Klemperer’s book provides an undeniable record of real events that bolster Musil the artist. What started out as petty insults and vague conspiracy theories about Jews hardened over a decade into a political program for their extermination as a people. Klemperer writes it all down.
I am not the only person who thinks it is a good idea for us to mind our manners. The excuses we make for racial slurs today might indicate an organized program to normalize the denigration of outsiders just a few years from now. In 2015 the historian Timothy Snyder published a reconsideration of the Holocaust whose subtitle said it all–Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.
In 2019 it seems unbelievable that civilized people should have to study the Holocaust as a warning. Isn’t Never Again just a fixed star in our political firmament now?
We can hope so, but a safer bet is that we should accept that we must work for enlightenment. We cannot rest on the idea that we’ve achieved liberal democracy for all time. If you believe otherwise, maybe you should read Musil’s depictions of the Austrians who fervently believed in 1913 they were on the cusp of solidifying world peace. Or, if you prefer real life to dark comedy, you should read Victor Klemperer’s record of the petty insults he received from “ordinary” Germans venting “ordinary” grievances. It’s all written down, and it all looked so normal at the time.