Georg Brandes, Good European

Morten Høi Jensen

This essay is part of Morten Høi Jensen’s column European Diarist.


On June 7, 1914 the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes delivered a lecture on Shakespeare at the Comedy Theatre on West 41st Street in New York City, an event described the following day in the New York Times as “one of the most remarkable welcomes ever extended to a foreign lecturer.” The theater filled to capacity so quickly that a thousand people had to be turned away at the doors and police dispatched to clear the street outside. “Within the building,” according to the Times, “every foot of available space was occupied long before Dr. Brandes rose to speak.” When the novelist Upton Sinclair brought the Times to Brandes’s hotel room the following day, the Danish critic allowed that it was good publicity. Privately, he complained that he’d seen “nothing in America but ten thousand reporters.”

Though largely forgotten today, Georg Brandes was once among Europe’s most popular and influential critics. From his beginnings as a swashbuckling literary provocateur in 1870s Copenhagen, whose conservative provincialism he outraged with his liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and Jewishness, Brandes’s reputation swelled over several decades of relentless literary and political activism in the service of liberal and progressive ideals.

His six-volume literary-critical epic, Main Currents of Nineteenth-Century Literature, was once described by Thomas Mann as “the Bible for young intellectuals,” and was for some time the staple of literary diets from Moscow to London. Thanks to his tireless lecturing in every nook and cranny of the European continent, Brandes popularized Henrik Ibsen and discovered the writings of an obscure German philologist living in Turin by the name Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1895, he wrote a book on William Shakespeare that went on to become an international bestseller, and was the occasion for his fame in England and America. He counted among his friends and acquaintances John Stuart Mill and Edmund Gosse, Paul Heyse and Anatole France, Ernest Renan, and Peter Kropotkin. Both Thomas Mann and James Joyce sent him copies of their first novels in hopes of securing his approval. Stefan Zweig called him “the international master of the history of literature.”

I’ve been thinking of Brandes because he spent years—decades, even—bearing witness to the gradual and then sudden implosion of Europe in the years leading up to the First World War. A scourge of nationalism in any form, he was a tireless champion of the sovereignty of Europe’s smaller and more vulnerable nations. He criticized European colonial ambitions, heaped scorn on the Turkish genocide in Armenia in 1915, and shuddered at the destruction of Belgium by German forces during the war. He even spoke publicly about the British annexation of South African territories, the Japanese control over Korea, and the Anglo-Russian division of Persia in 1907.

As early as 1881, he made the chilling prophecy that Germany would become an isolated conservative stronghold in the middle of Europe: “Germany will lie there, old and half stifled in her coat of mail, armed to the teeth, and protected by all the weapons of murder and defense that science can invent. And there will be great struggles and greater wars. If Germany wins, Europe, in comparison with America, will politically be as Asia in comparison to Europe. But if Germany loses, then… But it is not seemly to play the prophet.”

Returning home to Denmark following his 1914 tour of America, marked the beginning of the end of his career. (The last decade of his life—he died in 1927—was spent writing hulking biographies of great European figures such as Goethe, Voltaire, and Michelangelo). On July 31, he wrote in his diary that a “wealth of miseries descends on Europe.” His many essays and articles on the war, collected in The World at War (1916) and The World Tragedy (1919), as well as his involvement with the Clarté movement (a “league of intellectual solidarity for the triumph of the international cause” that counted Henri Barbusse, Stefan Zweig, and Thomas Hardy among its ranks) made Brandes a persona non grata in many of the European capitals he loved to frequent.

In Paris, it was his old friend George Clemenceau who led the crusade against him. He publically condemned Brandes for his support of Denmark’s neutrality in the war in an open letter reprinted in French and Danish newspapers that began, and ended, “Adieu, Brandes.”

Clemenceau tried to equate Brandes’s opposition to war with support for Germany—a slander Brandes disputed. “For you the whole problem seems simple and clear,” he wrote in his response. “Right, truth, liberty on one side; injustice, oppression, barbarism on the author […] I for my part look upon the increasing national hatred that is splitting Europe as a sign of an immense reaction.” He then asked a foreboding question: “But what if neither side were to win a decisive victory? Suppose that all these horrors lead to nothing but a partie remise as every indication seems to show?”

A postponement indeed. The outcome of the war, the belligerence of its advocates, the death and destruction heaped on the European continent—Brandes sank into a weary pessimism. “What is Europe?” he asked in a speech on conditions in Poland. “Transformed into hundreds of battlefields, thousands of cemeteries and hospitals, one enormous bankrupt estate, and one immense insane asylum.” Similarly, an interview with the New York Times on November 6, 1921 was emblazoned with the headline: “Europe is Finished.” The accompanying illustration of Brandes was almost Mephistophelian in its grimness.

But there was a pathos to his pessimism. Brandes had dedicated his entire life and writing career to the open exchange of culture across national borders. He could himself be tyrannical, sectarian, and relentlessly quarrelsome—but the persecution and vilification he suffered at home and abroad was real nevertheless. Nietzsche rightly called him “a good European and cultural emissary.” Commenting on the obstinacy of English, French, and German writers who refused to read or understand one another, Brandes had once written: “It seemed to me one could do much good simply by studying, confronting, and understanding these great minds that fail to understand one another.”

Then, as now, being caught in the middle and resisting extremism by appealing to a shared humanity was a courageous, and costly, position.


Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and The New Republic, and is the author of a forthcoming biography, A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen, due out from Yale University Press in the fall of 2017.


Photo: Morten Høi Jensen, Private
Photo: Georg Brandes, Flickr


Published on December 1, 2016.


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