Manning Clark and the Nazis

Coming to Terms with the "German Experiment"

"But my emotional sympathies are with them in this tortured struggle."
Manning Clark on Nazi Germany, October 17, 1939 

The recent launch of a new biography of Manning Clark (An Eye for Eternity by Mark McKenna) has resurrected some of the issues that have surfaced over recent years about the scale of Clark’s Soviet fellow-travelling and about the extent of his faith in the Soviet system. The usual excuses have been offered on his behalf by those unwilling to accept anything less than a hagiography. The biography has also resurrected some questions about his now notorious 1938 Kristallnacht self-delusion, or fabrication, where Clark falsely claimed to have been present in Nazi Germany on the next morning, although it has continued to excuse his oversight in a gracious manner that is rarely extended to other historians.

However, these issues of fellow-travelling and Kristallnacht delusions are neatly combined when Clark’s diary of the late 1930s is examined, for here the young scholar recorded his travel to Nazi Germany and the aftermath. The picture that emerges from this important but often overlooked document is of a tortured, guilt-ridden young man who could only be labelled a “fellow traveller of the Right”, the antithesis of the older man who was later associated with the ideologies of the Left. The Soviet Union was not the first totalitarian state to excite Clark’s sympathies — Nazi Germany also did so and his biographer’s claim that Clark had not quite made up his mind on the Soviet Union applies to a sharper degree towards Hitler’s Reich. The notably anti-Nazi campaigner of later decades is not the man of the 1938–40 travel diary and the nagging Kristallnacht episode warrants further examination, for it is a guide to Clark’s broader attitudes in the period, when he could be categorised as markedly pro-German. His later expressions of anti-Nazi horror were not based on what he had witnessed at the time, for if the diary is an accurate guide to his thinking, then his visit to the Reich (November 1938 to January 1939) left him with an understanding, sympathetic outlook that even the outbreak of war failed to modify. This sympathy is of greater significance than any debate about the immediate or later impact of Kristallnacht.

At Oxford since August 1938, Clark was unsettled and keen to rejoin his Melbourne girlfriend Dymphna (a doctoral student at the University of Bonn), and did so in November for a two-month holiday in Hitler’s Reich. He purchased a travel diary on arrival and maintained this journal until April 1940, when the warmth that he had developed for Germany finally began to cool.

As a mature historian, Clark argued that the primary sources should be allowed to speak for themselves and that history ought to be created anew through their voices—this maxim also applies to his 1938–40 diary, for this sojourn in Hitler’s Reich was not as initially distasteful to the young man as was later suggested in the memoirs of an older, wiser one. Nothing illustrates this better than his initial response (or lack of it) to Kristallnacht. Reunited with Dymphna in Germany on Saturday, November 26 (even though his new diary characteristically recorded that day as the twenty-fifth), two weeks after Kristallnacht, there was no mention of any adverse reaction to the recent anti-Semitic outrage that Clark dwelled upon in later years. He noted the ubiquitous uniforms and the portraits of Hitler in Bonn, but wrongly perceived that “life went on here very much the same as in England”. That had not been the case a fortnight earlier, but he had then been absent.

Clark did not even consider the “purge of November 10th” worthy of a mention until his diary entry of December 2, when the young student encountered his first German denial of Hitler’s complicity in that atrocity, from the physics professor at Bonn. Similar denials from another academic on the following day (“an aggressive Nazi, but not unpleasant”) made Clark realise that things were different in Germany, but there was still no noticeable discomfort. If the travel diary is an accurate guide to his thinking, Beethoven’s birth-house was more significant to him than any outrages of broken glass. Nearby Cologne soon beckoned and the Australian tourist still “felt glad” and “very safe” there despite its more extensive anti-Semitic public signage, even if he now conceded that the “Jewish question is a very complex one” after another academic conversation in Bonn on December 11. It was more complex than Clark could ever imagine, as he soon discovered in Munich, the “Capital of the [Nazi] Movement”.

The broken glass was long gone from the elegant streets of the Munich when Manning and Dymphna arrived on December 23. Their first stop was the memorial to the Nazi martyrs of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in the Königsplatz, the forum which now constituted the heart of the Nazi movement. Inspiring though this snow-covered scene was—“a beautiful scene, quite serene, very impressive” with “blue”-uniformed (they were black) SS honour guards—the visitor did have the good sense to wonder whether Nazism was really a “gloss” rather than something “deep-set” in the German psyche. Clark was not yet ready to provide an answer to this nagging, inner question, even to himself.

The couple visited another new Nazi monument on Christmas Day, the neo-classical “House of German Art” which contained material adjusted to Hitler’s own artistic taste. The kitsch collections of this gallery left Clark cold and he now conceded that the “new outlook, the idea of the superman, the man of power” was an artificial one, and that “man could not live up to it”. This growing discomfort was soon fuelled by visits to Dymphna’s old school colleagues (she had attended a Munich Gymnasium in 1933) and the depth of Nazi “brutality and bestiality” were communicated to him first-hand by a former Dachau inmate, but the revelry of the Bavarian capital continued regardless.

A drunken and argumentative New Year’s Eve followed in a café or beer hall (possibly the hallowed Hofbräuhaus), inhibited by displays of the “violent tendencies of the lower orders” which had now been channelled, he noted with disdain, into a dangerous Hitler worship, but Clark nevertheless admired the Nazi “Cameradschaft” (sic) of the evening and one that followed, where “the atmosphere was very good”. He continued to liken the abusive language of the Nazi fanatics he encountered to the raucous “utterances of a football barracker in Victoria”. Yet, if the vulgarity of the German masses spoiled this festive occasion, the delights of timeless German culture eased Clark’s pain on January 3, 1939, when he attended a “magnificent performance” of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the National Theatre. The diary contained only a gushingly enthusiastic report about this Wagnerian evening, without any of the suggestions of his later memoirs that the experience had been soured by his troubled conscience, given the association between the composer and the current German leader. 

Soon it was time to leave the Reich and return to Oxford. In one of its last German entries, the diary elegantly summarised the dual nature of the impressions that he had formed about Nazi Germany in those passing weeks. Clark recalled accounts of the (ineffective) abuse of Bavarian dissidents by the SS and the almost comical resistance of the local fire brigade, but also reported without comment the observation made by an Irishman whom the couple had encountered on the train back to Bonn: “The men in power know what they are doing.”

So it seemed to the young, impressionable scholar when he was once again ensconced in the dreaming spires of Oxford (where he was soon joined by Dymphna as his wife, to the horror of the in-laws back in Melbourne). The distance from Nazi Germany seemed over the next year only to subdue the reservations that Clark had harboured since Munich and to stimulate the warmth and respect that he had developed for the now distant Reich.

The diary soon gave evidence of a marked sympathy for Germany’s position on foreign affairs, particularly in regard to its relations with the British Empire, an institution that Clark now reviled; this flirtation would endure for the remainder of his sojourn in England, even after the declaration of war. By mid-January, he expressed his private confidence in Germany’s peaceful protestations about her eastern policy and his distaste for the critical attitude of another expatriate Australian scholar, A.G.L. Shaw. Against Shaw’s “moral self-righteousness”, Clark expressed his understanding of the “German case” against England, likening Germany’s modern “ruthlessness” to that employed by the English in the establishment of their empire; he wondered on January 16 whether it was also the sign of Germany’s “creative work”. He was even “nauseated” by the “cynical” observations made about Germany by an Oxford lecturer, concluding on January 18 that the Reich differed from Britain only in method rather than in any substance:

At 10 I heard a lecture by Mr. Brogan in which his delight at provoking laughter by cynical observations at the expense of the Germans nauseated me, and I do not like the increasing tendency on behalf of Englishmen to assume they have a monopoly of truth, justice and righteousness, which those who use different methods are only worthy of their contempt. I didn’t like this development, as it minimises possible understanding, and must lead to destruction & perversion of truth …

By January 21, he had struggled towards an under-standing of the recent strengthening of the position of the extremists in the Reich: “If the Nazis have a work to perform, a mission to fulfil, they are justified in taking preliminary measures to ensure the success of their plan, to leave no loop-hole open. Judgement must be suspended.” He suspended his own for another fifteen months, having found his own modus vivendi with Nazism, one that included a reluctance to accept any armed resistance to Nazi aggression. Hitler’s threatening, watershed speech on foreign affairs to the Reichstag on January 30 also met with his approval, despite its promise of the “annihilation” (Vernichtung) of European Jewry in the event of war, of which the diary made no mention. The young radio listener thought the speech “very moving” and a clear statement of Germany’s position that was unworthy of the ridicule it excited amongst those who openly despised the German leader. Clark did acknowledge (to himself) that defending Germany’s aspirations left one open to the impossible need to justify the “Jewish persecution”, but he still thought it important to distinguish between German aspirations and distasteful “Nazi methods”: “If one accepts the framework of capitalist society then the aspirations of Germany are natural and justified.” This was an academic distinction that few outside the universities could afford to harbour.

Once Hitler’s war began in September 1939, Clark found no reason to alter his earlier view that armed resistance against Nazism was unwarranted. Nor did he see any reason to reassess his peacetime conclusion that their victory would lead to only a “temporary eclipse of [the] spiritual values” that he no longer shared. About to become a father, the diarist had been forced to accept a teaching appointment in Devon in late September and reluctantly to decamp from Balliol College. There was still the solace of the radio, both the BBC and the German short-wave service, which was already spreading the wartime Nazi gospel. The Clarks, in their last weeks at Oxford, listened attentively to Hitler’s October peace speech which offered the prospect of an international conference. Manning privately expressed his sympathy with that proposal and with Hitler’s analysis of Polish intransigence by noting the “poignancy” of his appeal. Even the musical menu offered by German radio (with its “rough simplicity”) was preferred to the blasé melodies of the BBC, not to mention their “turgid, full-blooded, unrefined” spirit. This was not all he preferred about the Nazis by October 17: “But my emotional sympathies are with them in this tortured struggle.” Once the “phoney war” allowed him the luxury in Devon in March 1940 of deciding where he stood on the issues of the continuing war, he concluded: “I am inclined to agree with the German Nazis that the destruction of English power is a prerequisite to stability in Europe”, a conviction he confessed to the diary that had been brought about by the “forcefulness of the German case”. This was a conclusion that would have greatly interested the British security services, which were monitoring (and soon interning) home-grown sympathisers with Hitler’s peace probes. 

Only after the commencement of real hostility (with the German invasion of Norway and Denmark in April 1940) did the young schoolmaster step back from the abyss to contemplate on April 15 what a German victory might actually entail, but it was an almost reluctant step: “The event has forced me to abandon being an onlooker & to become a barracker. This also I can’t understand.” Nevertheless, this puzzled resolve now indicated that Clark was finally beginning to see that perhaps the “German experiment” was ripe for the judgment he had avoided since November 1938; the end of the “phoney war” also constituted the end of his flirtation with the aspirations mouthed by the resurgent Germany. After Dunkirk, he confided in his diary that he now wished for an Allied victory, although it was not, he hoped, to come about without the infliction of some cathartic pain on the English. On June 17, conscious of the German propaganda motto Gott strafe England (“God punish England”) he concluded: “Must England be punished. Again, I fear so.” He also wanted the English social system to be defeated, whatever the military outcome of the struggle, but was reluctant to witness that punishment first-hand. Mr and Mrs Clark returned home to Melbourne in August 1940.

Although the returned native could thereafter no longer be tagged a fellow traveller of Nazism, how different would it have been had the war not broken out in September 1939, or had a different outcome? Clark’s reputation is not well served by attempting to gloss over his outlook at this time or by excusing his later evasive observations about Kristallnacht—it is surely better to concede that he later accepted a youthful error of judgment and over-compensated for it by self-delusion. Such behaviour would certainly have been in accordance with his character.

Some of his more startling private observations of the 1938–40 diary could also be explained through a recall of the assessment made by his first academic patron, Professor Max Crawford of the University of Melbourne. In September 1938, Crawford told the expectant Master of Balliol College that his young client was “always apt to neglect the obvious for the remote”. Half a century later, a wiser Manning Clark admitted to the ABC interviewer Terry Lane in September 1989 that most of us do not always catch up with what is really happening before our eyes. Both comments apply to what Clark saw and absorbed of the “German experiment” in 1938–40. If we are prepared to pardon one whose attitude to the Soviet Union was, at the very least, benign, are we prepared to pardon an intellectual and historian who was a fence-sitter on Nazi Germany? This is yet another challenge when assessing the role of this complex man, who contributed so much to Australian intellectual life, whatever his flaws. 

Dr David Bird is the author of The Nazi Dreamtime: Australian Enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany, 1933–45, which will be published in September by Australian Scholarly Publishing. It deals with others more enamoured of the “German experiment” than Manning Clark.

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