By David Pryce-Jones
Criterion Books New York 2015
RRP – $30 pb
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
Without doubt, the all-time lasting image of the twentieth century is and will remain the Holocaust – the systematic program of Hitler’s Nazi Germany to exterminate Europe’s Jews. Coming after the cosmopolitan years of the 1920s and the German Weimar Republic’s open and liberal milieu, the contrast is difficult to take in. All of which is a cautionary tale for those of us who trust in the safety of our democratic systems and pluralistic institutions.
Now, in a seamlessly written memoir, drawing on material over generations from an eclectic extended family, an elite mixture of Jewish and Gentile forebears, aristocratic, industrialist, military and intellectual, and loved ones from eccentric lovers to devoted nannies, writer and commentator David Pryce-Jones has woven a personal history of more than a century of European life.
With the dominance of Christianity across Europe for a millennium, Jewish life in Europe faced pograms and persecution. But, by the late nineteenth century, with the Austro-Hungarian empire wealthy Jews found themselves, as Pryce-Jones describes, “increasingly free to meet everyone else on equal terms and so make what they could of their talents”.
On his mother Therese (Poppy) Fould-Springer’s side, David Pryce-Jones is a descendent of such Jewish families. Mitzi Springer, his Viennese maternal grandmother, was the only daughter of industrialist Gustav Springer. While Gustav inherited wealth from his father, he made an even larger fortune from buying up shares in the Vienna financial crisis of 1873. His interests were finance, railways and coal mines. His estates were to be found in Austria, Hungary, Czechslovakia and France.
Writes Pryce-Jones: “Gustav’s extravagance was legendary. Mitzi would remember the luxury of their private train, and his habits of sending his shirts to be laundered in Paris.” Gustav’s homes were grand structures – as were those of his daughter and her first husband, Frenchman Eugene Fould. All gone long since with the Nazi Holocaust, these great monuments, writes Pryce-Jones, “have something empty and haunting about them, as though to reproach what happened to those who once lived in them.”
As for all upper class Europeans of the time, marriage was the social force of connections and class. Mitzi’s children made marriages on their own terms out of personal attraction – helped by the lure of Mitzi’s wealth. The eldest Fould-Springer daughter, Helene (Bubbles), married Spanish diplomat Eduardo Propper de Callejon, a Catholic. Pryce-Jones’ father Alan was Welsh, the son of Harry Pryce-Jones, an honoured military man and Vere Dawnay, daughter of Colonel Lewis and Lady Victoria Dawnay. The youngest Fould-Springer daughter, Liliane, married her childhood friend Elie de Rothschild.
As David Pryce-Jones writes, his father Alan, educated at Eton, “grew up with the sense that he was numbered among those with the means and the standing to be able to live as they pleased”. David Pryce-Jones was of school age before he became aware that his origins were Jewish. And then it was only after anti-Semitic comments by (what had been) his beloved prep school teacher, Miss Earnshaw. His mother, Poppy, had never practised Judaism nor taught him about it.
For Alan Pryce-Jones, coming into contact with the wealth and pleasure of continental life among the Fould-Springers and their influential social set in Vienna, and meeting Poppy Fould-Springer, was enough to abandon his male lovers for the more traditional life of man and wife. While he was very fond of Poppy, in fact devoted to her, he could be quite frank in his letters and diary about his need for the freedom a wealthy family connection would give him. Before marriage, he was careful to play down Poppy’s Jewish background in letters to his parents: “The Springers are, I’m sorry to say, Jews, and cousins of the Rothchilds, Goldsmids, Goldsmid-Rothchilds… but are really very, very, very nice.”
Mitzi’s marriage settlement for Alan and Poppy was generous – “Poppy would be acquiring a British passport and the sweet little couple’s wish to live in Meidling [Springer family mansion in Vienna] spared her the complication of getting money out of Austria.” Alan describes a comfortable landing as husband – “We are to have Meidling plus the two cars and about five servants … four rooms, two bathrooms, and the big central hall of the house for a dining room… We shall have about £2000 a year clear, and allowances for children.” This was 1934.
Alan and Poppy Pryce-Jones brought two worlds together – Mitzi’s wealth and aristocratic European connections and Alan’s what his son calls “a roll call of the smart set” among British and continental intellectuals and the upper classes. This on the eve of the late 1930s and 1940s that would end it all.
As Hitler’s storm troopers took over the streets of Germany, Alan and Poppy took off for a honeymoon of luxury. “It is unlucky that we look so very rich,” Alan wrote, “We arrive with a mountain of luggage, in huge fur coats of obviously the best fur.” His account to his friend Patrick Kinross of arriving at one family destination appears much like royalty being met. At the end of the account, Alan writes, “It was almost as much to be her [Mitzi’s] son-in-law as to be Poppy’s husband that I married the girl. That, by the way, could not be going better.”
Reading history backwards – from beyond the aftermath of World War II – it is easy to berate appeasers like Neville Chamberlain and most of the leaders of the free world in late 1938-39. However, despite the carnage of World War I, Europe remained a democratically pluralistic centre of both intellectual and capitalistic freedom in the terms of its time. Bonds between families and colleagues across national boundaries flowed back into life between the UK and continental Europe after 1918. To witness the changes in Germany after the Fuhrer came to power in 1933, was not always to understand what would take place beyond 1938.
After Oxford in the late 1920s, Alan Pryce-Jones, as his son writes, “had no money and put a great deal of his natural talents into getting in with the right people”. His homosexuality was “his early passport to social and literary success”. At Oxford, he became one of Harold Nicolson’s lovers; setting off to the south of France in 1929, Somerset Maugham took him up. John Banting, Brian Howard, Eddy Sackville-West, Maurice Bowra, Hamish St Clair Erskine, Sandy Baird, Robert Pratt-Barlow (Bobby) – who became David Pryce-Jones’ godfather – T E Lawrence, the names dot the pages. In all these connections, there was also Mitzi’s second husband Frank Wooster (for whom she became a Christian). Frank had been the lover of Mitzi’s first husband Eugene. “Homosexuals make the best husbands,” claimed Mitzi.
This somewhat inbred and complicated collective made money, set the pace of literary and art fashions and generally pursued their pleasure as they found it. Living in England after 1940, Poppy’s only relative was her cousin (through the Ephrussi connection) Elizabeth de Waal whose grandson wrote The Hare With Amber Eyes. Like David Pryce-Jones, de Waal charts European history through this extraordinarily gifted and privileged network of extended families.
What was happening to Europe with the rise of Nazism and the Hitler takeover of Germany came only slowly into focus. The violence of totalitarianism might have taken over Russia and its satellites but could such a phenomenon really take over cosmopolitan Europe?
In Vienna in early 1934, Alan wrote of tear gas bombs thrown into a cinema he had gone to and then moved on, without comment, to write of the parties he would attend, ending with the best to come at the Fould-Springers “from six to six”. David Pryce-Jones acutely describes the set his forebears and relatives belonged to as “not quite Jewish and not quite Christian, not quite Austrian and not quite French or English, not quite heterosexual and not quite homosexual, socially conventional but not quite secure.”
By 1940, Mitzi and the family were once again concentrated in France, based at her beautiful chateau Royaumont (seen on the book’s cover) and in Montreuil. While David stayed in the care of his nanny Jessie with remnants of the extended family, Alan and Poppy made it to London. As Frank Wooster had advised Mitzi, who disapproved of her eldest daughter’s choice of Spanish diplomat for a husband, “a diplomat can come in handy”. It would be due to Eduardo’s daring act to issue hundreds of Spanish visas to endangered French Jews that secured the Fould-Springer’s escape. Eduardo was demoted as a result.
Using escape routes to South America, Canada, Morocco and eventually England for the five-year-old David, the Fould-Springer extended family survived the Holocaust while thousands of French Jews were sent to their deaths in extermination camps. Pryce-Jones sums up the way his older Fould-Springer relatives saw themselves:
To the end of their lives, they were unable to put into words that they had been dicing with death. They believed that people like them were essentially immune to persecution and murder. Bad things were what happened to the poor, to Jews unable to call on lawyers and bankers. They couldn’t imagine that the Germans and a good many French made no such distinctions about Jews and were determined to kill the lot.
David Pryce-Jones has written ten novels and thirteen non-fiction books. Increasingly, he admits, he became more interested in non-fiction than in writing novels. His time as a small child in Morocco, as he and his nanny Jessie fled the Vichy French, opened his mind to Arab society which he continued to find fascinating. The world that unfolded in his mature years threw up issues that involved him more than just from his interests as an academic, writer or commentator. He had lived its contradictions and its extremes. At 16, his mother Poppy died of cancer, but the Fould-Springer family remained thick around him. Meanwhile, in his intellectual life as writer and lecturer, Pryce-Jones found himself often ostracised for his views that rejected fashionable and left leaning positions. At other moments, he registered crude anti-semitism among individuals he came to know in the ranks of the British elite.
At Oxford, Pryce-Jones found A J P Taylor both provocative and personally menacing but it was only when researching his book on Hitler fan Unity Mitford – following the publication of Taylor’s The Origins of The Second World War that partially exonerated Hitler – that Pryce-Jones witnessed Taylor’s actual admiration for a Hitler supporter. Taylor was dining with Oswald Mosley and took Pryce-Jones along so he could capture something of “one who had made history”. Pryce-Jones records that “Mosley was even more conceited and unrepentant than Taylor. The more Mosley defended his Hitlerite past, the more Taylor fawned on him.”
With his father setting a literary pace as editor of the Times Literary Supplement and his own intellectual circles expanding, David Pryce-Jones rubbed shoulders with British elites generally. At unexpected moments, he registered the worst of generational dislike of Jews and those descended from Jewish parents. As Alan became enamoured by Spectator owner Ian Gilmour’s mother-in-law, the Duchess of Buccleuch, David noted that Gilmour himself a progressive Conservative MP had no time for Jews – “his resentment of Jews was obsessive, ignorant and snobbish”. Ian’s father-in-law, the Duke of Buccleuch, had presented Hitler with a pair of Sevres vases on his fiftieth birthday in April 1939 – “Only Jews could conceivably object,” the Duke told Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, but they did not count.
And then there was Harold Pinter. Dining with Harold and Antonia Pinter (nee Fraser), Harold asked Nadira and Vidia Naipaul if they had made friends since arriving in England. Vidia said yes, David Pryce-Jones. Pinter stormed out of the room saying he would not listen to such a thing, “only returning to pop his head around the door and bark, ‘Besides, he’s a Zionist’”
The question of the State of Israel took this anti-Semitic underbelly to a new level. “How to survive,” writes Pryce-Jones of his relatives, “now was the question. Was the loyalty demanded by nationhood merely emotional, even tribal? Poppy and her family might think themselves assimilated and secular, but to everybody else they were still primarily Jews.”
Sitting beside Israeli hero Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who had taken him to a Mapai Party meeting in Israel, Pryce-Jones was given Ben-Gurion’s candid view that the worst anti-Semitism was in France – “bigotry was endemic and the French incurable”. Whatever the truth of Ben-Gurion’s view, in David Pryce-Jones’ Paris in The Third Reich the collaboration of the French with the Nazis, including the deportation of French Jews, is laid bare.
Fault Lines is a deep stream – from chance meetings with and personal insights on celebrities like Greta Garbo and many significant and not so significant others to a complex inspection of family ties in an age when many children grew up separated from parents for much of their childhood. But through this deep stream runs a dark, more overarching dye that has coloured the human condition for most of the past century. In searching for answers, David Pryce-Jones captures it in explaining his work The Closed Circle:
My sense at the time  was that the general public in the Muslim Middle East had expectations for a better future, one with justice instead of enforced obedience to a ruler without mercy. The Closed Circle posits that this must happen one day. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini’s seizure of power, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the whole grisly chain of bloody causes and even bloodier effects means that this time of justice is postponed until reason overcomes superannuated religious and social codes; that is to say indefinitely. Communists tried to destroy Jews; the Nazis then had their turn at it; and now that Arabs and Iranians are operating more or less freely they put themselves next in line for genocide, intent on killing off the Jewish movement of national liberation.
As he puts it, what David Pryce-Jones seeks to do in Fault Lines and much of his writing is to examine “what makes people believe the extraordinary, irrational things they do believe and then act upon”.
Fault Lines is a work of art set around a personal labyrinth that, in perfect pitch, explains the world most of us have lived with for most of a century.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History