Naughty Nikolai

Pevsner and the Nazis, round two: who and what did the great architectural historian want to be?

Seconds out, round two. There was a bit of a brouhaha back in 2002 when biographer Stephen Games first pointed out that beloved English art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was in fact a proud German who wanted to stay in Germany after Hitler came to power. That was in the introduction to “Pevsner on Art and Architecture”, a collection of the great man’s BBC radio talks. Enraged broadsheet commentators queued up to accuse him of suggesting that, despite his Jewish origins, this national treasure was some kind of closet Nazi. Games rebutted the charge forcibly then, and does so again here, but he clearly relished the publicity it brought. Now, finally, we have the first part of the full biography that Games has been working on for most of his adult life. More background to the revelations: expect more outrage.

Pevsner remains a pivotal figure, 27 years after his death. A most formidable intellect, he saw us with fresh eyes, and among much else single-handedly defined our architectural heritage in the post-war years through his “Buildings of England” series, originally for Penguin, still going strong today. He lectured, broadcast, wrote prolifically on art and architecture. A dogmatic early 20th century modernist by conviction, he also supported some threatened Victorian buildings such as London’s St. Pancras station. He loved old churches and always gave them pride of place in the “Buildings of England”. He was a sparring partner for Sir John Betjeman and his snobbish, xenophobic kind. They liked to describe him, when they were feeling jealous, as “the Herr Doktor Professor”, and cast him – with reason – as an obsessive cataloguer. But Pevsner was much more than that, a one-man hive of industry with a dry wit and a non-parochial, European-wide standpoint. He was unstoppable right up to the time when he finally fell victim to Alzheimer’s at the start of the 1980s.

He only reluctantly moved to London (his first choice was Rome, and he considered America), having been forced out of his art-history lectureship at the University of Göttingen by the new Nazi regime in 1933. This is the point at which Games ends this first tranche of biography. “He had to decide…whether he preferred to be an unwanted German in England, or an unwanted Jew in Germany,” is how he succinctly sums up the position in which Pevsner found himself, a refugee with a high academic reputation, with a family to support, in a country with few opportunities available in art history. He made it – helped, as Games says, by his light Saxonian accent, which suited the clipped-pronunciation English ruling-class ethos of the time.

This book, then (despite its cover mimicking the 1960s design iteration of the Buildings of England series) is all about Pevsner the pre-war German. Which is also, since it delves right back to his origins, the story of Pevsner the Russian Jew. Although he was born in Leipzig in 1902, he and his family did not achieve German citizenship until 1914, and he was originally Nikolai Pewsner. Games makes much of the young Pevsner’s feelings of social inadequacy, embarrassment about his moustachio’d, frequently absent, fur-trader father, and desire to fit in – something common to many recently-arrived immigrants in Germany. Having shaken off his Russianness, Pevsner then rejected his Jewishness also. In 1915 he refused to undertake the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah and (again this was common) as a student in 1921 converted to the Lutheran branch of Christianity. This seemed to remove the bar to his marriage to Lola, his on-off sweetheart from schooldays whose family were much higher up the social pecking order than his own. The marriage took place surprisingly rapidly, with few present: Lola was immediately pregnant. Games draws the inevitable conclusion: naughty Nikolai, who now called himself Nikolaus, had got his fiancee up the duff.

As for the Nazi bit – well Games has unearthed papers which seem to show Pevsner supporting Goebbels in his drive for “pure” non-decadent German art (“Goebbels’ argument connects past centuries seamlessly to what is most alive in the art of the last decades”, Pevsner wrote in 1933). Ooh-er. The fact is that, just as Pevsner later became more English than the English, back then he was trying hard to be more German than the Germans, and in both cases adopted a dispassionate academic tone. He’d grown up during the First World War, got married during the hyper-inflation of the Weimar Republic, he wanted a strong Germany, and Hitler promised this. Was he naive? No, says Games, he was simply wrong.

Games quotes a British refugee aid worker of the time who met Pevser and reported him saying: “I am a Nationalist, and in spite of the way I am treated, I want this movement to succeed. There is no alternative but chaos, and I cannot want my country to be plunged into civil war. There are things worse than Hitlerism…” That was in May 1933. By July, the game was up, and Pevsner wrote to Britain’s Academic Assistance Council, asking for work in England. Eventually, to our enormous benefit, he got it. His first book published in England, “Pioneers of the Modern Movement” of 1936, remains hugely influential despite frequent revisionist assaults on it.

So, let the battle of words recommence. Games has had to circle his subject somewhat, as – although the bulk of his papers are held by the Getty Institute – it seems there are still private papers that the Pevsner family has not released. There is perhaps too much speculation in the book, but there is much good primary source material also. The story of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in the end, is the personification, in one brilliant individual, of fractured Europe in the 20th century.

Review of “Pevsner – the Early Life: Germany and Art”, by Stephen Games, pub. Continuum £20. Full pre-edit version of the article published in The Sunday Times, London, 28th March 2010, as “Prepare to be Outraged”.


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