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National Traits


ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

The Natives of England. By Henry Woodd Nevinson. With sixteen plates by C. R. W. Nevinson. New York: Alfred A. Kn,opf. $3.00. England the Unknown Isle. By Paul Cohen-Porthelm. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00. England’s Crisis. By Andre* Siegfried. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Germany and the Germans. By Eugen Diesel. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00.

In spite of all that has been written about the English character and the economic malaise of the tight little island, the first three books here reviewed deserve close attention, Mr. Nevinson not only knows his own people intimately from having lived with all sorts and conditions of them, but, having been a newspaper correspondent in many quarters of the globe, is able to measure the English against other nations. And he is very far from subscribing to that “unremitting disparagement” by Bernard Shaw which he thinks explains the Irish dramatist’s popularity in England. Englishmen are self-controlled, incorruptible, and free from rancor; they love fair play and they, dote on good form; the working people delight in irony and abound in humor; the middle classes, if rather dull, are at least clean and decent; and the aristocracy consists of ladies and gentlemen who “are not only, envied, but admired, imitated, and in some cases respected.” In matters of art there may be doubts: “If a young man announces that he intends to be a painter or a poet, we look upon him with suspicion and regret, as likely to be futile, disappointed and poor.” Mr. Nevinson insists, however, that there is plenty of art in English literature, while “the English can claim in Constable and Turner two landscape painters of the highest rank.”On the other hand, he cannot deny a certain insularity. “ ‘What do you as a foreigner think of our cities?’ asked an amiable German of the English lady on a Rhine steamboat. ‘I’m not a foreigner, I’m English,’ was the inevitable reply.”

By and large, Herr Cohen-Portheim, a painter of Austrian parentage who chanced to be in England on August 4, 1914, and was interned during the War, does not disagree with this picturing, even if he sometimes tempers his admiration with a sting. Self-control appears to him as the Ideal of Repression: “It is just because the Englishman is a man of very strong impulses that his education aims at subduing them, and because the unregenerate savage within him is still pretty strong he keeps him chained up.” Conventionality, is overdone: “The upper classes make use of the rules of the game, the middle classes regard them with veneration, and the lower classes ignore them; but they stump the foreigner.” Oxford and Cambridge are delightful places— “they are the only surviving university, towns”—’but they regard the “imparting of specific knowledge as a secondary affair.” (Mr. Nevinson, for that matter, attended a public school “where learning was naturally despised.”) Herr Cohen-Portheim decides that “the Englishman is an artist in houses, gardens and clothes,” and that “since the war, the English stage, in contrast with the state of things on the Continent, has beyond any doubt improved very much.” The fact is that our German writer understands the English as well as any foreigner can (Mr. Nevinson declares that no foreigner can do so completely). How well, can be gauged from his observation that “the foreigner in England enjoys every imaginable liberty, but he always remains a foreigner.” There is a delightful chapter on London, which “is not a city, but a hundred cities,” and a keen analysis of the press. Herr Cohen-Portheim is nearly as enthusiastic about sport as a true-born Englishman. His conclusion is that England is the bulwark of European civilization, and he ardently, hopes for her continued prosperity and power. What he appreciates most is the aristocratic ideal, which was “the Norman legacy to England,” because it makes for character, and “character and more character is what the Englishman demands of his country’s leaders.” “In other countries too,” he shrewdly notes, “the upper classes have offered up their children in time of war, but only in England have they offered up their money in the same way.”

Mr. Nevinson, though personally very much of a democrat, is equally aware of the aristocratic tradition, quoting with approval Salvador de Madariaga’s dictum that it is “the norm of English society.” He keenly appreciates the virtues of the English gentleman; he himself is a shining example of the type. But he does not like all the consequences of aristocratic control. In the rural districts “fear of the landlord is the beginning of wisdom”; otherwise the worker may lose his job or his cottage. The handicap is perhaps even greater when it comes to dealing with the problem of poverty in the cities. Mr, Nevinson’s picture of the conditions in which the masses live makes gruesome reading, even though he thinks those conditions have improved since his boyhood; he is painfully impressed by the lack of good food, which helps to explain why the British navy has to reject ninety per cent of those who would enlist and the police ninety-five per cent. If the aristocracy has not driven the people to revolution, as they did in France and Russia, Mr. Nevinson seems to be decidedly skeptical of any large improvement until its hold on the popular imagination is greatly diminished.

It is to this economic problem that M. Siegfried, famous as the author of “America Comes of Age,” addresses himself. “Great Britain,” he says on his opening page, “still depends on an economic structure and on methods which often definitely belong to the previous century.” The result is calamitous, expressed most obviously in the “permanent million” of unemployed. These exist because exports have fallen off twenty per cent since the war: exports have decreased partly because of “antediluvian” equipment and methods, partly, because the leaders of business are often chosen “from the sons and nephews of the present directors,” but chiefly because wages are too high. Wages are too high because after the war the City, forced the restoration of the pound sterling to parity with the dollar, while the trades unions insisted on keeping the wage scale at the level required by the depreciated pound. On the other hand, imports have increased twenty per cent: “In the old days imports were hailed by the orthodox school as a sign of wealth, but now to a host of people, they are an insult not to be tolerated.” The surplus of imports is, of course, partly accounted for as the return on capital invested abroad; but M. Siegfried points out that the amount invested abroad has fallen from eighty-two per cent of the total new issues in 1918 to twenty-six per cent in 1928, and he is fearful that since high wages mean small profits, the springs of saving will dry up and that the equilibrium cannot be maintained indefinitely.

His remedy is engagingly simple: “Lower the standard of living and work harder.” But public opinion, to which the politicians of all parties are obedient, will not hear of lowering the standard of living of the masses; the qualities of “ferocious energy and dogged striving” which secured English ascendency, in the Victorian age have seemingly disappeared; the Englishman “has not the courage to go sincerely to work,” “it bores him to think,” and he expects Providence to pull him through. If we accept M. Siegfried’s logic, England’s day is done. But Herr Cohen| Portheini remarks that “the English are absolutely illogical, but they get there.”

And, in a sense, even on M. Siegfried’s own showing, they are getting there. The old industries—coal, textiles, engineering—probably are doomed; but the new industries, to be found chiefly in southeastern England, are prosperous. It is significant that out of one hundred industries, seventy-one show increasing employment. Why? Because the masses, receiving higher real wages than before the war, are able to buy what the new industries produce. Certainly this is made possible at the expense of the middle and upper classes, but when M. Siegfried complains that more money is spent on “better food, more comfortable houses, leisure, sport and travel,” he seems to express a social philosophy as Victorian as the economic system which he condemns. Is it not a gain that England is able to depend more and more on her domestic market and less on foreign trade? Furthermore, he has to admit that the restoration of the national currency to par has enabled the City, to retain its position as an international commercial centre, All things considered, this very stimulating book offers the clearest account yet available of England’s post-war economic problems. M. Siegfried is far from being hostile to England; rather he regrets what he calls her “mulish individualism” and agrees with Herr Cohen-Portheim that she “could not safely be dispensed with.” And he concludes on a note essentially English. Seemingly England will have to choose between Europe and the Empire. But M. Siegfried shrewdly guesses that “England will not choose at all. . . . A European England is a dream, and a closed Empire a Utopia. . . . When England changes, we say she is dying, and it is never true.”

Herr Diesel’s book on the Germans is less direct in its approach than the three relating to England. Though he does treat material things and economic problems, his primary interest is in the German character and mentality. It is soon apparent, however, that Germans do not yield to analysis as do Britons and Frenchmen. “Even as a geographical unit,” says Herr Diesel, “Germany has always lacked clear definition,” and the three geographical divisions of the country are responsible for three different psychologies, Although the ancient tribal spirit has been partly broken down through the migrations of the industrial age, the nation “lacks any clear national ideal,” The prosperity and glamor of Bis-marckian and Wilhelmian Germany created only a “mechanized unity” which was the beginning, not the end, of a process. “Never has Germany experienced a really unified leadership; the World War was its first all-embracing national experience, and that ended in disaster.”

So the author devotes some illuminating pages to the characteristics of the Bavarians, Swabians, Lower Saxons, and so forth, and, in one of his most interesting chapters, attempts to catch the spirit of different cities. Munich, he laments, is filled with “brooding resentment,” Cologne exhibits “a half serious, half-mocking affection for France,” Hamburg and Bremen reflect “a certain Anglo-Saxon influence from over the waters.” If Frankfurt has a “universal German quality,” Berlin “never seems to have been a happy town,” and today is the place “where chaos has acquired form, as chaos.” Stuttgart impresses him as the ideal German city: “it took leave of its king with sorrow and regret; but now it marches in the forefront of the modern age.”

Because “the German is not born with the feeling, which is the Englishman’s birthright, that he is part of the nation, and that the rest of the nation is fundamentally similar to himself,” he lacks inner poise and confidence in himself. Hence the passion for “order”: “Future historians will pass over many political events and tendencies of our time, but will not fail to mention that the tax-collector’s notices were sent out without interruption during the most critical days of the Revolution in Berlin”; hence the never-ending effort to frame “definite rules which shall be universally, applies Me.” Unfortunately German education aims at “the almost mechanical mass production of knowledge” and too often produces “intellectual snobs” rather than men with personality and character, in lieu of whom the country has to depend on the specialist and the expert.

Nevertheless, in spite of these shortcomings and the present economic distress, which is described in moving words, Herr Diesel does not despair of his country. Rejecting the gospel of Americanization so popular with many, he wishes Germany to become “the most modern of all the nations of the earth” and take the lead in the creation of European unity. German culture, he argues, has always been European rather than German, and “a people without any satisfactory symbol except their language, without uniformity of race, of habits, of religion, frontiers, civilization, tradition or administration” is peculiarly suited to the task. If he adduces no specific method or positive programme, he asserts that “at last the Germans have the opportunity to produce a race of men worthy to rank alongside the English gentleman without in any way trying to imitate him.” Herr Diesel’s book, written without passion and without prejudice, will be of great value to anyone trying to understand the German people in the difficult time through which they are passing.

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