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ISSUE:  Spring 1975

FOR thirty years I have been meaning to pay my tribute to an inspiring teacher, the man to whom I owe my intellectual awakening. Teachers who suffer from the impression that what they say is lost on their pupils may take heart from the fact that, if my old high school teacher were still alive, he would surely be astonished to know the extent to which his teaching has shaped my mind and determined my future. But he is not alive. He died thirty years ago under circumstances that, however sordid superficially, were fundamentally tragic.

I could say that my long-standing intention of writing this tribute has represented my sense of an obligation to be discharged, and this would not be untrue. What really prompted it, however, was my preoccupation with an ethical paradox exemplified by the moral disaster into which my teacher later fell—a disaster into which, indeed, a whole nation fell. His career was like Macbeth’s, that of an essentially noble being who takes a wrong turning, and, repenting too late, has no choice but to follow the way on which he has embarked to its fatal end.

As I originally conceived the composition of a memorial tribute, it would have required preliminary research in scattered German archives, as well as in American newspaper files. But there was never a time when it was possible for me to undertake this research myself, and I did not know whom I could get to do it for me. A colleague corresponded with several German archivists on my behalf, only to learn that the documentary material I needed would not be easy to locate. At last I have had to recognize that, unless I write my tribute on the basis of my memory alone, it will never be written. My memory is uncertain on many points and surely wrong on others, but this does not affect the essential truth of the history I now have to recount.

In the middle 1920’s it became necessary to recruit a second German teacher for Lincoln School in New York City. Fraulein Holz, the school’s only German teacher at the time, found a candidate at International House in the person of a young scholar newly arrived from Germany, poetic and impractical, penniless, hungry, and looking for a job. She hired him provisionally, and I remember that during his first year she occasionally slipped quietly into his classes to sit at the back of the room and see how he was doing. On such occasions he made an effort to teach us the forms of the German language, its tenses, its cases, and the categories into which its prepositions fell.

Dr. Otto Koichwitz must have been under thirty at the time. He was of a light and bony build, with dark hair that was long for that day, and a face in which the nose was excessively prominent. He was a man whose mind dwelt always in the empyrean, in a world of epic visions from which the petty practical affairs of our day-to-day world were excluded. I got to know him well enough to be invited to Sunday dinner at his house on Long Island. (That, however, must have been after I had graduated and was on a visit home from college.) His wife, who had been a German governess in New York when he had met her, was statuesque, with prematurely white hair that framed what was, nevertheless, the face of a girl. Her hospitality to a shy young boy was as warm as her smile. For anyone who knew Dr. Koichwitz it took no shrewdness to guess that, in addition to looking after him like a mother, she was the one who attended to such mundane matters as paying the rent.

I see ourselves around the dining table in a small room in a suburban box of a house—the three of us plus two small children, one in a high chair. Mrs. Koichwitz was repeatedly going into the kitchen to return and set before us the glory of her cooking. She had constantly to feed the infant in the high chair with a spoon, and to see to it that the rest of us were satisfied. All happy families are alike, according to Tolstoy, and since this was a happy family I need say no more.

Dr. Koichwitz’s mind was typically German in the exclusiveness of its addiction to vast abstractions, perhaps also in its affinity for the kind of scholarship that overdoes thoroughness. As a university student he had specialized in mediaeval German literature. I daresay it was from his lips that I first heard the names of Walther von der Vogelweide, the prince of minnesingers, and Wolfram von Eschenbach, the author of “Parsifal.” He once told me sadly how, as a student, he had been so in love with a girl that he had devoted all his spare time for over a year to making, as a love offering, an exhaustive collection of mediaeval German love poetry, all of it inscribed by him on vellum in mediaeval characters with illuminated capitals and decorations, and hand-bound in one volume. But she had shown herself indifferent to it, and he had no idea what had since become either of it or the girl.

Although I took German under Dr. Koichwitz, I hardly recall his teaching it at all. Certainly I did not learn it, for it was the German examination that I failed when I took my College Boards the following summer. The consequence was my rejection for admission to Harvard. (A small college that would take me was hurriedly found, and I transferred to Harvard the next year.) This was the price I paid for what Dr. Koichwitz did teach me, and in the perspective of the years I count it cheap.

What was it, then, that he did teach?

I recall the day when he opened his class by drawing a railway-train on the blackboard. On top of one of the cars in the middle was the figure of a man, and exactly opposite him, on the ground beside the tracks, another. He then drew two jagged lines to represent flashes of lightning, one in front of the train and one behind, taking care to make them equidistant from the two men. That done, he explained how, although the flashes appeared to be simultaneous to the man on the ground, the man on the passing railway-car saw the one in front first, since he was moving toward it, and the one behind later, since he was moving away from it. So, Miss Holz being out of the room, he introduced us to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. On that day there was born in me a lifelong interest in the structure of the universe that has been one of the forces by which my mind has been shaped.

An even more powerful effect—indeed, one that overwhelmed me for years to come—was produced by the talks he gave our little class on Oswald Spengler’s philosophy of history, as set forth in his “Decline of the West.” The result was that, at the age of sixteen, I neglected my assigned homework to spend my evenings reading the two weighty volumes that, almost half a century later, still stand on the bookshelf beside me as I write. The tragic Spenglerian vision of human history—as entailing the germination, growth, flowering, decline, and death of one civilization after another—kept me enthralled throughout my undergraduate years. So it was that I continued to neglect my assignments in order to devote myself to a course of reading that represented the interest in Spengler’s vision aroused by Dr. Koichwitz, who may therefore be held to have been responsible for the poor grades I received in college.

Let the reader recall that this was still the period after World War One when Mussolini was about to become the miracle man who would make the trains run on time in Italy, when no one had yet heard of a character called Hitler, who, when we first saw his picture, would remind us of Charlie Chaplin. The intellectual atmosphere of the West (Spengler’s declining West) was one of decadence. T. S. Eliot memorialized it in “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men.” All the disciplines of civilization appeared to be breaking down. Freudianism had become the religion of the intellectuals, and one conclusion they drew from it was that everyone should get rid of his inhibitions, inhibitions that our traditional civilization had imposed on us, before our present enlightenment, as if by conspiracy. Artists, liberated from the traditional discipline of representation, cultivated lunacy under such names as Dadaism and Surrealism. The lithographic pencil of George Grosz in Germany drew the caricatures of a civilization grown fat, soft, and rotten. Dissolution was in the air, giving plausibility to Spengler’s thesis that the West, like Rome before it, had entered the stage of its decline and fall. This impression would have had a special poignancy for one whose mind, inhabiting the heroic world of Wolfram’s “Parsifal” or Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung,” could not altogether exclude an awareness of how different the world immediately about him was.

One reaction to the smell of death in the air took the form of a romantic revulsion against the cold intellectualism of the rationalistic and skeptical tradition. By recoil from its “bloodlessness,” the word “blood” acquired a special virtue— in D. H. Lawrence’s call for us to think with the blood, or in the association of nationalism and the concept of racial purity with “the call of the blood.” All this was not wholly out of keeping with Freudianism and the doctrine of discarding one’s inhibitions. Freud himself had taught the impotence of reason before the dark animal forces that dwell in the unconscious. “Thinking with one’s blood” meant the recognition and release of those forces which the hypocritical Victorian era had tried to deny, suppressing them by the cultivation of inhibitions. One can understand that, to a romantic like Dr. Koichwitz, Spengler’s “Untergang des Abendlandes” might have acquired a meaning of which Spengler himself would not altogether approve—just as Freud would not altogether support some of the conclusions drawn from his own teachings.

What we have largely forgotten today is that the appeal Hitler initially made to many educated persons was in the impression he gave that he was leading a movement against the rationalism, the cynicism, the materialism, the decadence, and the demoralization of our increasingly rotten civilization (as well as against the Communists who were proliferating within it like termites in the wood of a dying tree). More particularly, he was thought of as calling upon all Germans to return to the heroic days of the “Nibelungenlied.”

Even in the 1920’s, before any of us had heard of Adolf Hitler’s regenerative movement, Dr. Koichwitz would sometimes refer to the bonds of blood, to the call that could not be denied. We should, however, be careful of interpreting this in the light of later developments. He was not anti-Semitic, for he revered Einstein, nor would he then have identified himself with the sordid and destructive aspects of Hitlerism that the world was to learn about only years later. In any case, his idealism tended to exclude realism. Well before the end, however, the monstrous reality must have at last imposed itself on his consciousness. One can only imagine what the terror of it must then have been. But here I am ahead of my story.

In the years after I graduated from Lincoln in 1928, Dr. Koichwitz, who had become an American citizen, began to enjoy a deservedly successful career as a popular lecturer at the university level. He had left Lincoln to become a teacher at Hunter College in Manhattan. My recollection is that he traveled regularly to St. Louis, where he also lectured, and that he was increasingly in demand elsewhere in the country. He began to be rather well known. I picture him addressing rapt audiences on such subjects as German mythology and the Spenglerian conception that civilizations undergo the same life-histories as organisms. He would have presented his universalistic visions in the soft German accent that added to the unconscious poetry of his utterance. His lectures, like his talks in our classroom, must have had an epic quality in themselves. The success of the young man whom Miss Holz had found hungry in the halls of International House was a cause of satisfaction. It showed that merit is not always unrewarded.

It was in the middle thirties, after Hitler had come to power, that Dr. Koichwitz paid a brief visit to the old country. A year or two later he returned to it, taking his family with him, and this time he remained.

Again suppressing our hindsight, we should recall that in the late thirties the increasingly evident invincibility of Hitler, in his apparent regeneration of the German nation as in his foreign policy, made it hard to associate the possibility of failure with his name. All failure was identified with the decadent and increasingly demoralized democracies, represented by France and Britain, both of which were so paralyzed in their will that, like rabbits before a snake, they could not move to avoid their inevitable destruction. Otto Koichwitz had felt the call of the blood and had seen where, in a degenerate world, the sole hope of the future lay.

As the years passed the horrors mounted, inside Germany and outside, and the whole world fell into war. My old teacher had been seen to enter into what he had thought to be the empire of the future, and had then disappeared. No further word of him reached the outside world.

It was late in the war, when the empire of the future was about to become only a sickening memory of the past, that the New York Evening Post carried a sensational story on its front page.

We all know how William Joyce, the holder of a British passport, broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany to Britain, where he was known as “Lord Haw-Haw.” His counterpart on short-wave broadcasts to the United States was someone whose program was entitled “O. K. Speaks.” The identity of O. K. had remained a mystery until the day when the Post revealed, on the basis of secret sources, that it was none other than that popular lecturer of a decade earlier, Otto Koichwitz.

Because he was an American citi’/en there could be no doubt that, if he had been caught at the end of the War, he would have been tried and sentenced to death for treason. By that time, however, he was already dead. There were reports that, like other Nazi functionaries, he had abandoned his wife and children in favor of some flaxen-haired Brunhilde who represented the Nazi ideal of womanhood. (One thinks back to the Sunday dinner with a family that was just like all happy families. What became of the devoted wife and her children?) After the allied troops occupied Germany they learned that Otto Koichwitz had committed suicide.

Everyone will interpret this history according to his own mind. If one’s mind is Manichean, if one assumes that good and evil are respectively divided between two opposed species of humanity, then one will conclude that the Otto Koichwitz I knew had been simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If, on the other hand, one takes the view that humanity is one species, that all good and all evil reside together in each of us alike, then one will come to a different conclusion.

His mind was vulnerable because it inhabited so exclusively the world of the great abstractions. Long before the end, however, he must have seen with mounting horror how false was the vision by which he had been captivated, that vision of a regenerated Germany returning to the heroic age of which Wolfram von Eschenbach had sung. Long before the end, when the petty reality could no longer be excluded from his consciousness, he must have seen for himself, in the privacy and desolation of his own mind, that the Valhalla to which he had thought he was returning was nothing more than a den of gangsters. By the time he had thus tasted, at last, the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, there was no longer any turning back. As the final consequence of his fall approached, as the ring closed upon him, he may well have thought with Macbeth in like circumstances: “I have supped full with horrors.” He must have welcomed the release of death.

The debt I owe to Otto Koichwitz cannot be lessened by what happened to him later, or even by what he may later have become. What my teacher had been he had been truly, a man of authentic vision. His understanding of the tragedy of history, like his understanding of Einstein’s universe, was not false in itself. But he could not focus on what was small. He did not understand the intrigues of practical politics and the sordidness of the day-to-day world. He knew all about man but nothing of men. He was therefore susceptible to illusions about existential reality, and to casuistical error, to the misapplication in practice of what were, nevertheless, valid insights. He had, as I say, the vulnerability of the visionary.

He was able to see truly, as Einstein himself had seen, the grandeur and beauty of the four-dimensional universe. And he was able to see the tragedy of our human lot as Thucydides and Shakespeare, and Spengler too, had seen it. To the extent that the universe has seemed immense and beautiful to me ever since I sat at his feet, and to the extent that I have since been able to appreciate the human tragedy, I owe it in the first instance to him, for it was he who opened my eyes.

Others of my generation must have benefited as I did from the breadth of his mind, the integrity of his spirit, and the inspiration of his teaching. Later circumstances were such, however, that there can be no memorial to him anywhere today—not even, I suppose, a gravestone. Consequently, I here set down the name of Otto Koichwitz, as if in stone, and after it the letters R. I. P.


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