Pevsner’s diaries – a question of evidence

In her review of Pevsner – the Early Life: Germany and Art (Stephen Games, Continuum, 2010), Rosemary Hill makes a shrewd and accurate observation. ‘It may be true, if unpalatable to some, that Pevsner had some sympathy with the political right in Germany before 1933, and little interest in himself as a Jew. But the evidence that would confirm or refute it, as well as cast light on his feelings about his family, must be in the diaries he kept at the time.’    

A page from Pevsner's teenage diaries

 I have been lucky enough to have been given exclusive access to Pevsner’s diaries, along with his personal correspondence – an extraordinary resource, as I have explained on my website, . As well as supplying the dates that establish the timing of key events and the detail of private thoughts and feelings that bring Pevsner’s portrait to life, they also provide the context which makes it easier to weigh his public pronouncements. 

Annie Pevsner

Pevsner’s  diaries reveal, for example,  that he adopted conservative political views, as a teenager, at least in part as a reaction against his mother’s strident liberalism. Throughout the First World War – the years when the young Nika was entering an uncomfortable adolescence – she proclaimed pacifist views, worked for pacifist causes, and supported his older brother in his defiantly antipatriotic sentiments. ‘We had “Tipperary” amongst the files of music,’ Pevsner remembered, and he lived in dread that she would sing it in public. She was prone to remark to the rest of the family that an English victory would be a good thing, and she would have been just as happy to see their father naturalised a Swiss citizen as a German. ‘She shows warm sympathy for communism and things like that – a bit incongruous, with her mouth full of  …. good Schnitzel.’ ‘She accuses the Kaiser of being solely responsible for the war,’ he lamented. ‘She says of the German people’s sufferings, “They deserve it, it doesn’t matter”.… She  compares the Germans to the Conquistadores …. She doesn’t believe this rubbish, of course – but it makes any dealings with her impossible. I have to get away from her, I have had it.’    

Pevsner in his teens

 As for his interest in himself as a Jew –  gangling and awkward in his teens, Pevsner was chronically aware of his appearance and his inability to fit in, and part of this was anxiety about his Jewishness. He remembered having gone once to a Tanzstunde or formal dance at the house of a friend, and then never again: ‘It was  probably anti-semitism – did I know?’  He was certainly aware that the mother of one friend was unwilling to receive another of his classmates in her house. ‘Someone got cross and said, “Judenbengel (Jewboy)”. That’s nasty .… It’s hurtful, and makes P gauche and uncertain of himself.’ ‘Why don’t I find my own acquaintances?’, he wrote miserably at eighteen. ‘Because I am solitary, I abhor people impinging too much, and I fear anti-semitism.’    

At the same time, he detected the same kind of anti-Jewish sentiments in himself, and, as part of the unflattering self-portrait he was determined to draw, he did not shrink from documenting them. ‘I can only get over this,’ he wrote at the age of eighteen, ‘by becoming a christened non-Jew, amongst other non-Jewish Jews. Once I can ignore the solidarity that is being forced on me, then perhaps this anti-semitism will become less raw and aggressive.’    

This was, in fact, precisely what happened. In later life, as a Lutheran convert of thirty years’ standing and a recently naturalised Englishman, Pevsner would remind his children, ‘The fundamental fact you must keep in mind is that you are, to put it in the Nazi way, 75% Jewish.’ He never sought to deny his Jewish descent, but he almost certainly felt that, after his conversion, he was a ‘Hitler Jew’, someone whom only Hitler made a Jew. For this reason, among others, he refused ever to seek sympathy by classing himself as a refugee from anti-Jewish persecution. ‘I am not … the refugee settled successfully,’ he wrote to Francesca Wilson in 1961. ‘My case was to a large extent one of losing a job (for whatever reasons) and deciding to go to a more promising country to start again. I went through a difficult year or two and then got my family over complete with removal vans.’   

People may not always directly tell the truth about themselves – although Pevsner was more scrupulous than many diarists – but in the words they use and the facts they choose to reveal (or conceal), they give themselves away, in the best as well as the worst sense, and an archive of  the richness of Pevsner’s personal papers is a biographer’s dream.

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