The Diary: Martin Wolf

On April 23, I, my brother, Daniel, and members of our families will be celebrating the 100th birthday of our father, Edmund, in Vienna, the city in which he grew up. I wonder what our father would have made of this event. Most probably, he would have appreciated the irony: even in death he is far more a part of the world in which he would have perished, had he stayed, than of the England that was his home for the last 60 years of his life.

Between the two world wars, Vienna was the impoverished and politically embattled capital of the rump state of a vanished empire. It was, in substantial measure due to its Jewish population, a leading centre of intellectual and cultural life. Yet it was also a leading source of the virulent anti-Semitism that was, in the 1930s, to consume the German-speaking world.

Some Austrians want to preserve the memory of the world its people helped destroy. After our father’s death, the Österreichische Exilbibliothek (the “library of exile”), a section of the Literaturhaus in Vienna, accepted all the literary remains of this central-European, German-speaking, Jewish writer and intellectual. Opening on April 22, an exhibition organised by a remarkable woman, Ursula Seeber, will celebrate the life of the man who made me.

Today’s Vienna is very different from the tortured city in which my father grew up. It is peaceful, prosperous and somewhat provincial. Yet it also contains some remarkable people, Seeber foremost among them, dedicated to reconnecting the severed chain. For me, the effort to do this is extraordinarily moving.

My father was born in Rzeszow near Cracow, in what was then Austro-Hungarian Galicia, the heartland of east European Jewry, and died in London in 1997. In 1914, when he was four, he left with his parents for Vienna, where he was to live until 1937, when he left for London. It was there that he married and had his two sons.

My father lived under the shadow of two extreme ideologies: Nazism and communism. The first was a modern version of age-old anti-semitism: its proponents sought to kill him. The second was a modern version of age-old millenarianism: its proponents were, in his eyes, deluded fanatics.

By avocation, my father was a playwright. He had his first play performed as an adolescent. He was a student at the Reinhardt Seminar, founded by the great Max Reinhardt, in the early 1930s and then writer of comedies and dramaturg at the German Volkstheater (People’s Theatre) in Vienna. His plays were performed throughout Germany and central Europe. This very success made it possible for him to leave for London with hopes of earning a livelihood.

My father had fled with his parents to Vienna to escape the fighting in the first world war. He then fled from Vienna to escape the second world war. His immediate family managed to escape to Palestine in 1939. But his wider family perished, almost without exception, in the Holocaust.

He was fortunate and knew himself to be so. Interned, with typically British obtuseness, as an “enemy alien” in Canada in 1940, he returned safe and well in 1942. Thereupon he met and married my mother, a Dutch Jewish refugee, and joined the German service of the BBC.

My father’s English was excellent. But his language was and always would be German. What was such a man to do in exile? He wrote a play that was still successfully performed in Germany in the 1950s. But he felt increasingly isolated from the German-speaking theatre. He had to reinvent himself.

So he did: he was programme organiser at the BBC’s German service, London correspondent and columnist for the leading German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, documentary producer for German television and an outstandingly successful writer of television plays. He won several prizes for his work in Germany. His last television play, on the death of Jan Masaryk, the Czech foreign minister, was produced by Austrian television when my father was 80.

It was, in all, a successful professional life. But it was also the divided life of exile and not the life of the theatre that he had wanted. Perhaps most painful of all was that his last great project – a series of 12 television plays on the relationship between Hitler and his generals, written in his seventies – was never produced and shown in full. The work – partially a defence of the Prussian military tradition – was too controversial.

A son cannot ever be objective about his father. He had some of the less attractive characteristics of intellectuals born in his time and place, not least an embattled certainty. He felt, rightly, that the world fought him. He was fearless, intellectually and physically. He always said what he thought, whatever the consequences.

My father’s signal characteristic was his blend of intuition, intelligence, courage and integrity. As befits a creative writer, intuition came first. He would always start from people. This gave him an insight absent in almost all professional analysts.

In 1979, he did a film on what was then Southern Rhodesia. At that time the late Abel Muzorewa was prime minister, after an internal settlement. But the UK government wanted an agreement to end the conflict that would include the rebels, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. This became the Lancaster House Agreement. In the subsequent election, after much intimidation, Mugabe became president. My father found Muzorewa an impressive human being and Mugabe a would-be tyrant. His response to what he saw proved entirely correct.

Most profound was his attachment to the democratic cause. The core of his commitment to democracy lay in his views about human beings. To attempt to create a new kind of human being was a fundamentally inhuman – indeed anti-human – project. Moreover, because we are all imperfect, nobody could be trusted with unchecked power and those who sought it were the least trustworthy of all.

Unlike many intellectuals of his generation, he never had the slightest respect for socialist utopianism, because its roots lie, he realised, not in how human beings are, but in how intellectuals want them to be. He admired writers who expressed human truths deeply – Shakespeare, above all. He despised those he considered mere stylists.

When he aired his views, he started from his intuitions about human beings. But he did not end there. He would work meticulously through to his conclusion. His aim was to create an unanswerable case – unanswerable not only because of its content but also because of the force with which it was presented.

This, then, is the man to whom I will say a final goodbye this week, almost 13 years after his death.

When I grew up it never occurred to me that I, too, would become a journalist, as he had done. I thought I would be a professional economist. When I did become a journalist, by accident, at the age of 41, I thought my work would be very far removed from his. I now understand that this has not been so.

As a journalist, documentary director and playwright, my father sought to bear witness to what he saw and thought for the people of his time. He did so throughout his long working life, as the exhibition and the wonderful book about his life that accompanies it make clear. So now do I. As time has passed, the connection between us has become not more distant, but closer.

Literaturhaus, Seidengasse 13, 1070 Vienna, ‘Edmund Wolf: Ich spreche hier nicht von mir,’ by Ursula Seeber and Barbara Weidle, is published by Weidle Verlag

Martin Wolf is the FT’s chief economics commentator

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.