Andre Malraux & the Transformation of History
André Malraux’s The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (Lausanne, 1943), an underrated masterpiece of the twentieth century, is a difficult and elusive book, full of art analogies, brilliant aphorisms, lyrical descriptions, philosophical ideas and military battles. Written during the German occupation of France, the novel tells the story of the heroic but disillusioned Vincent Berger, narrated by his French-Alsatian son, who presumably relies on the diaries of his late father. It has a confusing time-scheme, a mixture of fictional and historical characters, and a lofty intellectual debate. Though the broad historical outline is clear enough, the chapter of the novel about Vincent’s relationship with the Turkish revolutionary Enver Pasha and his PanTurk campaign departs wildly from the historical reality, and has usually been ignored by the critics. It is worth considering why Malraux invested this historical figure with the aura of heroism.
The novel begins with a prologue, ‘Chartres Camp’, in 1940, about twenty-five years after the main action. The narrator has been captured by the Germans and confined with other prisoners of war in the magnificent but symbolically empty French cathedral. Chapter two (my main focus) goes back to Turkey before World War I. Vincent, a German-Alsatian (since Germany had annexed that province from 1871 until 1918) lectures on the Nietzschean ‘Philosophy of Action’ at the University of Constantinople, and becomes Enver Pasha’s trusted advisor. Enver sends the idealistic Vincent to Central Asia to help promote the Pan-Turk movement, but his mission ends in failure.
Chapter three takes place just before World War I at the high-minded colloquium, organized by the narrator’s uncle Walter, in the Altenburg Priory near Strasbourg. It describes Walter’s friendship with Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he had rescued and taken back to Germany after the philosopher’s
complete mental breakdown in Turin. Vincent’s father has committed suicide for obscure reasons, and his death seems thematically connected to Nietzsche’s insanity. The fictional ethnologist Möllberg gives a provocative lecture in which he argues against his now-discarded idea that all civilizations share a basic unity. The debates at Altenburg give the novel its philosophical theme and ask: in the presence of war and destruction can we believe in the fundamental goodness and unity of man? Malraux uses the experience of his hero Vincent Berger to question his own existential despair during the German occupation, and the apparent destruction of France and its cultural institutions.
Chapter four shows how Vincent Berger falls victim to a horrific German gas attack on the Russian front in Poland in 1915. Chapter five, also called ‘Chartres Camp’, leaps forward to World War II in France, but takes place before the opening chapter in Chartres. Part of a four-man tank crew, the young Berger is caught in a deep anti-tank ditch, but the Germans do not, as expected, annihilate them with a barrage of artillery. Though Malraux does not describe the actual scene, the men are captured when France surrenders in 1940 and imprisoned (as in chapter one) in Chartres cathedral. The circular structure frames the portrayal of the previous war and suggests men trapped in a destructive version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.
To understand the significance of Enver Pasha in the novel and in Vincent Berger’s life, it is necessary to distinguish the historical record from Malraux’s fictional account. Enver Pasha (1881-1922), the son of an Anatolian bridge-keeper and an Albanian peasant, was the leader of the Young Turk revolution. Born in Constantinople and educated at its military academy, he was a commander in Libya and the Balkans, and Minister of War from 1913 to 1918. As the strongest advocate for Pan-Turkism, he was mainly responsible for advocating, as a state policy, the defeat of Russia and establishment of a Eurasian empire. He was also one of the principal architects of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Enver’s real character was very different from the heroic leader portrayed by Malraux. Louise Bryant, who knew him when he was being courted and lionized in Moscow in 1921, recalled that he ‘certainly has charm, in
spite of his very obvious opportunism, cruelty and lack of conscience’. The historian David Fromkin, even more severe, calls the dapper, mustachioed, unusually short soldier ‘a vain, strutting man who loved uniforms, medals and titles. . . . As a general he continued to be God’s gift to the other side. As a politician, he was equally maladroit: he alienated the other Basmachi [anti-Soviet Moslem guerrillas], many of whom turned against him’.
Always cavalier about veracity, notably in his Anti-Memoirs, Malraux hastily wrote his novel in Nazi-occupied France during an obscure period of his life, and may have relied on faulty memory. Careless or ignorant of the facts, he uses aspects of Enver Pasha’s life to suit his own novelistic purposes, turns Enver’s defeats into victories and makes his failures seem heroic. Drawn to hopeless causes, Malraux wrote great novels about the suppression of the Chinese revolution and the lost war in Spain. In his poem ‘Spain’ Auden wrote, ‘History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon’. But in Walnut Trees, written from the viewpoint of the defeated side, Malraux both helps and pardons Enver Pasha.
Malraux’s narrator tells a story of idealism and daring. He mentions or describes the major military events in modern Turkish history, but does not portray them accurately or in chronological order. He, of course, does not refer to Enver’s dominant role in the massacre of the Armenians. He portrays Enver at the height of his power, glorifies his Nietzschean philosophy of action and military exploits, and does not describe his defeat in the Caucasus in 1914 or death in Central Asia in 1922. In contrast to the negative historical accounts of Bryant and Fromkin, Malraux praises Enver’s positive qualities: his youth and:
dash, his toughness, his romantic temper, his charm. . . . The Turkish army, for the first time since the Battle of Plevna, now had a war leader. . . . Enver had a fanatic faith in his luck, which had up to now  served him well; overcoming all disasters, going ahead whatever the result, had, he believed, been the very source of all his achievements.
Malraux writes that Sultan Abdul Hamid, the Caliph of all Islam, feared
the Young Turks would diminish or even extinguish his power. He opposed their movement and advocated his religious Pan-Islam program—rather like the one ISIS is fighting for today--in which his name ‘had been proclaimed in daily prayer from Fez to Kabul, and in all the mosques of India. . . . In the palace the word ‘Turk’ was used only as an insult; army commanders who were suspected of nationalism were sacked on the spot’. Malraux repeats three times that the Young Turk revolt began with their army in Macedonia and, asserting Realpolitik, the narrator states that military force was paramount: ‘The Young Turks are the only ones at the moment who are capable first of maintaining [the army], then of developing it. Authority [of the sultan] is all right, but power is better. . . . We can only take action through some one, and that someone can only be Enver’.
Malraux gives the misleading impression that Enver had defeated the Italians in Libya in the Italian-Turkish war of 1911. In the novel, when Enver arrives in North Africa, the Italians hold the coastal ports and he is discouraged by the catastrophic state of the Turkish army. But he joins forces with the local Senussi tribes, a military and religious order who fight against the Italian invaders. Vincent Berger, Enver’s éminence grise, advises him ‘to mobilise the tribes of the Libyan Desert with the help of the Senussi, and try to paralyse the Italians by modern guerrilla action without giving battle’. Berger’s idea was not based on Enver’s conduct but on the tactics of Malraux’s great hero, T. E. Lawrence, in Arabia. Malraux writes that when money and machine guns arrived from Constantinople, Enver was ready to take on the Italians: ‘[General Rodolfo] Graziani flung in five columns: all five were wiped out’. But the Italians, not Enver, actually won that war. Graziani (the victor in Abyssinia in 1936), did not even fight in Libya until the 1920s.
Breaking chronology to suggest the confusion of events, Malraux begins Berger’s account of Enver’s career with the Turkish defeat in the Balkans, the siege of Adrianople (235 kilometers west of Constantinople) and enemy forces only thirty kilometres from the capital. In this version, Enver himself kills the minister of war and rescues the city: ‘Enver, at that time commanding the Tripoli army, had suddenly appeared in the huge doorway. At the third step he took towards him, the Minister of War fell to the
ground clutching his stomach’. Enver then ‘re-formed the Turkish army in one month, assumed the offensive, and, after a forced march of eighty-four kilometres in one day, reached Adrianople. Constantinople was saved’. Enver did recapture Adrianople, during the Second Balkan War in July 1913, when the vastly outnumbered Bulgarian army retreated.
The Moslems of the Caucasus, not the Young Turks, had taken control of that region. Enver never got as far as China, and it would have been impossible to integrate the distant Uyghurs with the Anatolians. But Malraux writes that before World War I, to counter the Russian expansion as far as the Pacific, Enver envisioned ‘the union of all Turks throughout Central Asia from Adrianople to the Chinese oases on the Silk Trade Route,’ with its imperial capital in Samarkand instead of Constantinople. He therefore sends Vincent Berger as his emissary to establish contact ‘with the Kurds, the emirs of Bokhara and Afghanistan, the khans of Russian Turkestan’. In the bazaar of Ghazni, Afghanistan, Vincent is suddenly attacked by a madman, considered holy in Moslem culture. He cannot defend himself and is beaten up, but the physical assault brings intellectual clarity He learns that civilizations are vastly different from one another, as the ethnologist Möllberg later argues at the colloquy at Altenberg, and realizes that ‘Ottomanism, the incentive to the new Turkish aspirations which had perhaps saved Constantinople, simply does not exist’. When the deeply disillusioned Vincent travels back to France and meets Enver en route in Port Said, he feels ‘he had been deceived, not by himself, but by that false, idiotic Central Asia, which had rejected its own destiny, and by all those who had shared in his belief’. Still clinging to his own illusions, Enver says he should have sent a Moslem instead of Vincent.
After many years in Asia, Vincent is deeply moved by the reunion with his own urban culture in the old port of Marseilles: ‘Through the strains of music and the smell of warm bread, housewives were hurrying along, shopping-bags on their arms; a print-shop put up its multicoloured shutters on which a last sunbeam lingered; a liner’s siren wailed’—but he ignores its alluring summons back to the East. Vincent’s return to Marseilles foreshadows the concluding scene of the novel when he sees an old peasant couple in a war-wrecked French farmhouse who stoically accept disaster
and represent, like the ancient trees of Altenburg, the survival of traditional values and culture: ‘Open doors, washing, barns, man’s imprint, biblical dawn in which the centuries jostle, how the whole dazzling mystery of the morning deepens into the mystery’ that appears on the wasted lips of the old woman.
Despite the novel’s loose structure, Malraux clearly intends the chapter on Enver and the Pan-Turk movement to relate to the other parts of the book. Just as Vincent survives a defenceless beating, dysentery and severe disenchantment in Asia, so his son, in the virile fraternity of the tank crew, survives being trapped in the deep tank ditch and escapes land mines and the German crossfire.
Möllberg’s nostalgic memory of Africa is one of the exalted moments of the novel:
The endless succession of days under the dusty firmament of Libya or the heavy leaden sky of the Congo, the tracks of invisible animals converging on the water points, the exodus of starving dogs under the empty sky, the time of day when every thought becomes a blank, the giant trees gloomily soaring up in the prehistoric void.
Though he longs for these exotic places, his lecture at Altenburg rejects the continent he once loved. Some of the speakers idealistically propose the unity of mankind. Möllberg, rejecting this theme, makes some weird clay and bronze figures—a striking contrast to the handsome carved wooden Gothic statues in Altenberg and in the distant Strasbourg cathedral. But these are hideous hybrids, inspired by the monsters in Bosch and Breugel, and parody the grotesque distortions of African carvings: ‘penguins with cats’ faces, squirrels with fins, fish with ectoplasmic heads, birds of prey with monkeys’ bodies’. The unity of mankind turns out to be an illusion, refuted by the failure of Pan-Turkism and by Möllberg’s repudiation of fifteen years of ethnological research. Möllberg has thrown away the manuscript of his unpublished book, Civilisation, Conquest and Fate. The pages, blown across Africa by the desert winds from the Sahara to Zanzibar, recall the letters written by the French prisoners of war in Chartres,
thrown away by the German guards and also blown away by the wind.
In the greatest scene in Malraux’s novel, the poison gas attack against the Russians in 1915, the victorious German soldiers personally confront their victims. Horrified by the success of the gas, they wearily carry their suffering, burned and asphyxiated enemies back to the safety of their own trenches. The men who release the gas and the men who are poisoned by it are both victims of this barbarity. As the humanity of the rescue transcends the gas attack, this German retreat is more of a moral victory than a German advance. Malraux writes of Vincent, who gasps for breath and dies while rescuing a Russian soldier, ‘What he liked about war was the masculine comradeship, the irrevocable commitments that courage imposes’. Vincent has discovered that there is no monolithic unity in civilization, but still believes in common humanity.
In The Walnut Trees of Altenburg Malraux portrays Enver as a courageous idealist who remains faithful to his vision. Strongly attracted to this flamboyant figure, he distorts history and character to portray the Turkish adventurer. Vincent, his disillusioned alter-ego, takes the prewar trip to Turkic Asia which foreshadows the same journey that led to Enver’s death in 1922. Malraux omits his evil acts and his failures, awards him a military victory in Libya and leaves him at the peak of his power. He does not describe how he died fighting for a hopeless but noble cause. The lives of Enver Pasha and Vincent Berger embody the great themes of the novel, defined by Joseph Frank as ‘Man’s irremediable solitude; his absurd but unquenchable longing to triumph over time; his obligation to assume the burden of freedom by staking his life for his values; his defiance of death as an ultimate affirmation of ‘authentic’ existence.’ Malraux was drawn to the idealism, Napoleonic ambition and heroic failure of the revolutionary Enver, whose qualities he admired and shared. Like his creator, Enver exemplifies the ideology of action, the desire to leave a scar on the map and the possibility of triumphant achievement despite military defeat.