Thomas Mann and Germany's Demons

June 1, 1996 Topics: Society Regions: Central EuropeEurope Tags: Bosnian WarEmpireYugoslavia

Thomas Mann and Germany's Demons

Mini Teaser: It is understandable that Donald Prater, in his new biography of Mann, should have emphasized the novelist's political evolution, which was so closely associated with the history of Germany.

by Author(s): Anthony Hartley

Donald Prater, Thomas Mann: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Was there ever a great writer whose relationship to his own country was as anguished as that of Thomas Mann with Germany? Dante, perhaps, who can be said to have made Italy, and who certainly made the Italian language. But Dante did not suffer Italy in the way that Mann suffered Germany. Mann's first great novel--Buddenbrooks--was subtitled "The Decadence of a Family" and recounted the downfall of that North German patriarchal bourgeoisie from which he came. In due course, his own life was to become the record of a similar collapse. His family life, so apparently ordered and set in its ways, such a model of German middle-class behavior, was to experience political exile, two suicides among the children, addiction to drugs, and the other dangerous pleasures of the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, Mann himself ruthlessly sacrificed the happiness of everyone around him to his literary greatness, as he struggled to maintain that bourgeois model of comfortable living that provided the necessary framework for his own unremitting determination to write great books, live like a great man, and die as the most revered of German intellectual figures.

All this he achieved. There has hardly been a greater writer in the twentieth century than Thomas Mann. The only novelist who compares with him is Proust, who also perceived some of the dangerous fissures in a time that began with comfort, prosperity, and the prestige of great families. It was one of these fissures that swallowed up Imperial Germany, whose success between 1864 and 1914 had filled its functionaries with euphoria and the heads of its intellectuals with nonsense. After the disaster of the First World War, German life was permeated with the desire to avenge defeat and to assign blame for it. In the veins of the young Weimar Republic ran the venom of the Dolchstoss, or "stab in the back", legend and the resulting dissatisfaction with democracy was to leave the political field open to the National Socialists who led Germany into a catastrophe, compared to which everything that had gone before was as nothing.

Thomas Mann had seen--or perhaps one should say felt--what was coming. His sympathy for his country was such that, in his imagination, he could share even its sickness. Dr. Faustus, his last major novel, remains the best account of the insanity that overtook the German people: a fury of hatred, paranoia, xenophobia, and nihilism such as no other European country has undergone, and which, irrational as it was, is most convincingly explained by a kind of diabolical possession. Indeed, the demons only had to wait to come into their inheritance. Rationally, Golo Mann, in his history of nineteenth to twentieth century Germany, explains the success of National Socialism by the fact that it was the only new element in postwar German political life, untainted by the errors and miscalculations that had brought Germany to its defeat. But did the void have to be filled by quite as horrific an apparition?

After 1918 Germany's middle classes faced a generalized decline, of which Buddenbrooks was in a sense a prediction--a decline that was not simply bankruptcy and loss of money, but that represented the destruction of a way of life, the entry into a dark land where comfortingly traditional homes, family festivities, and regular holidays on the Baltic coast were no longer to be enjoyed. It is small wonder that they should have mistaken Hitler's "order" for the prospect of a restoration of all the things they had lost and which, they believed, could only be found again in a strong and proud Germany with a stable currency. It was their error (and misfortune) that they expected these bourgeois gifts from a failed painter, whose mind was anything but orderly, and who preferred a Götterdämmerung to a quiet and industrious life. The Buddenbrooks and their like were only to get what they wanted after the Second World War--from Konrad Adenauer, the first German chancellor to come from the upper middle class and who, as a Rhinelander, was not attracted by the Prussian military tradition and the romance of marching men.

It is understandable that Donald Prater, in his new biography of Mann, should have emphasized the novelist's political evolution, which was so closely associated with the history of Germany. This was perhaps the only possible approach if literary analysis is excluded, or at any rate relegated to a secondary level in the story. All else is the detail of the Mann family and their attachment to that comfortable standard of living that Mann needed to continue his work, which usually progressed at a snail's pace. To be told of the furniture in his study, or of the ginger biscuits and Earl Grey tea he consumed at four o'clock, may seem trivial until we realize that this was ritual required to enact the life of a great writer, a world figure, whose impressive facade must be served by a continuity of habits. Similarly, his somewhat ungrateful behavior to Agnes Meyer, the wealthy wife of the owner of the Washington Post, whose rather oppressive goodwill he came to find a bore after his installation in the United States, becomes more excusable if we consider that, in Mann's own eyes, his writing enjoyed an absolute importance that transcended personal relations.

Even his occasional excursions into homosexual love remained mostly platonic, and one has the impression that the importance he attached to them was because they expanded his experience and, hence, the materials available for his art to transform. Having noted that only once had he known the fulfillment of actually enfolding the beloved in his arms, Mann commented: "This is no doubt humanly fitting, and thanks to this normality I can regard my life as more integrated into the natural order of things than through marriage and children." Without some experience of satisfied passion, his writing might have been the poorer. As it was, even a single experience could be extrapolated. In Death in Venice, the destruction of Aschenbach through his surrender to the charms of the boy Tadzio shows how fully Mann realized the incompatibility of such transitory relationships with his own settled bourgeois life. Like many young men growing up, he had perceived sexuality as a threat. "How I hate this sexuality, which claims for itself everything that is beautiful. It is the poison that lurks in all beauty!" he wrote in a letter to a friend. The homo-eroticism, toward which Mann inclined and which led him to admire now a waiter, now the legs of a young tennis player, was anything but "gay", and the part it played in his life can hardly be taken as a manifesto in favor of any kind of "liberation." Like other elements, it is taken into his writing as an enrichment, but its influence seems to have stopped there. If his emotions were involved they could emerge freely in his work.

For one who lived such a literary life, Mann had surprisingly little interest in the literary movements of the Weimar Republic. Nothing could be less like his literary principles, than, for instance, the program set out in the Expressionist anthology Menschheitsdämmerung (The Twilight of Humanity), first published in 1920, whose commitment to a revolutionary view of the future had little in common with a writer whose intention was to continue in the line of the great German classic writers and whose style of life was avowedly middle-class. Mann succeeded in his aim of becoming a classic, whereas the young Expressionists, for all their talent, were destined to poverty and death in exile. They would have scorned his taste for order and the predictable rhythms of bourgeois existence; his Olympian reply was to ignore them.

But if Mann neglected the blood and fire of the Expressionists, he was deeply and consciously indebted to those great figures of the German past, whose successor he believed himself to be. Just as Konsul Buddenbrooks believed himself and his family to be linked together in a chain that united past, present, and future, imposing duties and standards of behavior on its members, so Mann saw himself as the final figure in the succession of German literature. It was natural, therefore, that he should devote his critical attention to those predecessors--the Dichter (a German word that carries the sense of seer and prophet as well as poet)--who had created German culture. His writing of novels was accompanied by a series of essays paying tribute to the cultural giants of the German past. Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche--they are all there, along with many minor figures from whom can be extracted some lesson about German culture.

Also there are the great Russian novelists--Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in particular--who could be compared with a Goethe or a Schiller. Mann's essay Goethe and Tolstoy, significantly subtitled "Fragments about the Problem of Humanity", is probably his greatest piece of literary criticism, revealing his own personality as much as those of the writers he was analyzing. His definition of Goethe and Tolstoy as "divine", as opposed to the merely "holy" qualification of Schiller and Dostoyevsky, showed clearly enough where he placed himself. For it was characteristic of the classical writers he admired that they struck those around them as awe-inspiring. Goethe has an angel looking out of one eye, said someone who had met him, a devil out of the other, and his speech is a deep irony on all human things. Tolstoy, according to Gorky, resembled "an old Russian god under a linden tree." Mann himself perhaps deserves the description once attached to Goethe--said to be "the most frightening"--"He is tolerant without being mild."

Mann's conservatism, which he once described as "an erotic irony of the spirit", was based on traditional values rather than a carefully developed political system. It was made up of an accumulation of habits and traditions, all the more compelling because unconscious. At the heart of it all was the family. There is not much evidence that Mann loved his children, except perhaps Elizabeth, his last daughter. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary, though he found Erika helpful and Klaus handsome. Here again he approved of the idea of a family, and the rituals it brought with it, rather than its actual living representatives. To Katia, his wife, he showed gratitude for all she did for him and sometimes wondered how his work could continue if she were to die or fall ill.

Mann, indeed, attached more importance than many writers to the possession of a family home, a local habitation, and a name where he could find a base and give himself up to the quiet productive rhythms of his work. Here again he was a typical middle-class German. The concept of Gemütlichkeit (coziness), which has both a physical and a spiritual sense, is of importance in Central European life, being the opposite of the dangerous forests surrounding snug village houses. That is why the inflation after 1918 produced such a deep wound in the German psyche: it brought with it, for much of the middle classes, the destruction of homes and the loss of much loved objects, handed down over generations.

Mann shared such feelings. What he cared most about was his work, but that work had as its instrument the German language and often as its subject matter the history of twentieth-century Germany. Not that he set out with political aims. His beliefs concerning the relationship between art and politics are set out in his Observations of an Unpolitical Man, written to define his attitude to the First World War. "Art is a Conservative power, the strongest of all; it preserves spiritual possibilities, which without it--perhaps--would die out." And again: "For all Conservatism is anti-political, it does not believe in the political, only the progressive does that."

This is in the line of Goethe, whose indifference to politics, and above all to meliorist politics, is remarked on by Mann in his writings. The "erotic irony of the spirit" can hardly be used to support any moral or political opinion. Its function is rather to abolish them. Mann's conservatism was part of his skepticism over schemes of political improvement. Like Dr. Johnson, he was not impressed by them, and extremism of any kind was antipathetic to him. After defeat in the First World War, during which he had supported Imperial Germany at the cost of a famous and prolonged quarrel with his brother Heinrich, he became a supporter of the Weimar Republic. When that fell victim to the National Socialist coup, he left Germany as an exile. After 1945 he refused to choose between East and West Germany. Though he was no communist--a crude and obviously flawed political movement--he disliked the Cold War atmosphere that reigned in Bonn and in the United States, and also retained hopes for German reunification and something of the old Prussian tradition of balance between Russia and Western Europe.

After 1933, his reluctance to immediately enter the arena against the Nazis, which so disturbed Klaus and Erika, had as its motive the wish to see his books still circulate in Germany and be read by Germans. Mann saw his place in history as being at the end of a cultural chain that stretched from Luther to Nietzsche via Goethe. Because Germany had no history in the sense in which France and England possessed one, Germany had to look back on these monumental teachers of the past, whose position, accordingly, came to be quite different from that occupied by great French or English writers. Germany was not a nation-state in the sense that older European countries were. It was, as Mann wrote, a Kulturstaat held together by cultural ties. Admire as one might (and as Mann did) the work of Bismarck, it nonetheless remained an artificial construction. The real roots of Germany were to be found in a few great writers, philosophers, and musicians, exposure to whom linked the German people--perhaps, more especially the North Germans--in a common consciousness. It is, therefore, quite understandable that Mann should have been convinced of the supreme importance of his writings continuing to reach the German people. Only so could the values that he felt himself to represent be kept alive in their minds.

Yet despite Mann's rejection, in the 1920s and 1930s, of the vulgar völkisch, or populist, version of the German national destiny proffered by Hitler and other nationalists, such as those who assassinated Rathenau, there is little doubt that, for him too, Germany and German culture were "different" from those of other European states. He had claimed much for the old German Empire on the grounds of its cultural superiority--a superiority of which the Nazi regime was a betrayal. Mann felt that betrayal acutely, but it would be difficult to claim that he had any great confidence in democracy. His values were not legitimized by the counting of heads, nor was his idea of Germany based on electoral mandates. The ordinary operations of political democracy were simply irrelevant to the cultural criteria by which he judged countries.

The message that Mann imparted to his fellow countrymen was a lofty one, but it implied the existence of an elite through which German culture justified itself. The terrifying aloofness that he noted in Goethe's behavior was suitable for a Dichter, through whom the existence of Germany found its true meaning. Thus there was always a split in society between what might be called "the initiate" and the masses who dwelt outside the circle of meaningful culture. This was the weakness in Mann's conception of his country and countrymen (they were, indeed, countrymen and not exactly citizens). His protest against National Socialism was made in the name of cultural values against the crude and uncivilized beliefs that prevailed among doctrinaires of German nationalism and xenophobia. But such a protest could hardly have much impact, unless it were supported by a political conception that could make a forceful appeal to the German people as a whole. A Kulturstaat was not such a conception. It envisioned a community, the majority of whose population were in the very nature of things excluded from any very active participation in deciding how it should be governed. It was appropriate that Mann's best known attack on the Third Reich should have been addressed to the dean of the faculty of philosophy of Bonn University, which had recently deprived him of his honorary doctorate. This famous pamphlet was published at the time of the entry into the Rhineland, when German nationalism was enflamed by the recuperation of the "German Rhine" and Hitler found a new popularity.

Against a background of gun carriages rattling through a beflagged Cologne, Mann's voice could hardly make itself heard inside Germany. It was abroad that its impact was felt. In the United States, above all, he helped to reveal the real nature of the National Socialist regime. His audience was not a political one, and his message was directed to the same students and professors who had thronged to his lectures in Germany. But it could not counter this new party that swept over Germany like a flame, fanned by new types of manipulation invented by Josef Goebbels.

Thomas Mann certainly knew the errors and the weaknesses of Germany's educated classes. At the end of Dr. Faustus, during the terrible collapse of the hero into paralysis and madness--or, to put it another way, his surrender to the demons that have taken over his personality, paralleling the fate of Germany--an offended guest leaves the room with the remark, "This man is insane. There can be no doubt about it, and it is a great pity that, in our circle, neurological science is not represented. As a numismatologist, I feel myself quite incompetent here."

This is an acid criticism of the moral neutrality observed by the German professional classes, who continued to maintain a narrow definition of professional duty that excluded issues outside their immediate interests. This restricted view of duty enabled them to continue carrying on their occupations as lawyers, doctors, and civil servants without paying any attention to the wider implications of the work. This disinclination to inquire too closely into the general moral consequences of policies was one of the elements that helped to undermine the Weimar Republic. The phrase "Dienst ist Dienst" ("Duty is duty") imposes a frontier that the consciences of those engaged in public service cannot cross. It leaves certain moral areas of discussion with the notice "Entry Forbidden" as a warning to civil servants who may be rash enough to trespass on them. This forbidding sign was as clearly displayed over the approaches to certain types of discussion as it was to be later over land sequestered for use as a concentration camp.

Indeed, sometimes it was the very professionalism of this class that attracted them to the Nazi movement. Albert Speer, for example, put down his own adhesion to National Socialism to the fascination of Hitler's personality, but there was more to it than that. As an architect, he had found a fascinating client, whose ambitious plans and capacity to have them realized offered him opportunities that would never otherwise have come his way. Once again, the implications of such service were ignored--finally to the point of turning a blind eye to the death of thousands of slave workers during the building of the secret weapons that were intended to win the war. Similarly, officers of the Wehrmacht, faced by the moral difficulties posed by the actions of the National Socialist regime (the order for the killing of Communist Party members in Russia and others), chose--of all issues!--to worry about the oath they had sworn to Hitler.

From this initial hesitation stemmed their helplessness when National Socialism began to threaten their caste. By 1939 the leaders of the Wehrmacht, the heads of German industry, the judges, the diplomats, the businessmen, the economic experts--all were pursuing their tasks regardless of the long-term consequences. There they were, drawing up accurate and effective strategic plans of aggression against possible enemies, inventing new weapons, multiplying them by the most efficient systems of production, using the cunning of a deceitful diplomacy and the threats of a propaganda machine in advance of its time to overcome their adversaries, and yet it hardly seems to have occurred to these engineers, financiers, technocrats, and men of science that they were running the risk of a failure that would be visited on their own heads. By 1945 many of them were dead, killed by the demon they had helped to conjure up, and Germany lay in ruins around them.

Likewise, by the end of August 1914, von Moltke, the commander of the western German armies, was writing to his wife that the War was already lost. Yet the German general staff had been planning it for years and was willing to accept the Schlieffen Plan, with its thrust through neutral Belgium which eventually brought Great Britain into the war on France's side. And when the British declaration of war was announced to the German cabinet by the chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, it was Tirpitz who cried out, "Then all is lost"--Tirpitz who for decades had done so much to poison relations between Britain and Germany by his plans to build a high seas fleet. For a moment--but only for a moment--these experts perceived the consequences of their actions and were terrified by them. Hitler's generals, we know, secretly felt such qualms as well, but, after the early victories in the field, hardly dared to express them.

Elsewhere in Dr. Faustus there is a significant exchange between an anonymous student and the narrator, Dr. Serenus Zeitblom. The student describes the multiple and contradictory trends in German culture. "A rich people", comments Zeitblom. But the student retorts: "A confused people . . . and bewildering for the others." Was that Mann's final verdict on his compatriots? For the very richness of their culture--the multiple possibilities and ambiguities that it allows--certainly carries confusion into its interpretation by others. At present, neither an Englishman nor a Frenchman can have much certainty as to the direction in which a newly reunited Germany will jump. The lack of clarity of German culture, its essential ethical neutrality, is reproduced in political behavior that is hard to reduce to moral categories.
Take, for example, Germany's current devotion to the European idea. From its very inception this has had as its objective, in the eyes of its German supporters, the enabling of Germany to re-enter the comity of nations. Europe, as Adenauer wrote to Erhard, was the one means through which Germany could again have a foreign policy, escaping from the trauma of National Socialism. But if the formation of the new Europe were carried out according to past German plans--the ideas conceived earlier by Rathenau or Stresemann--then such a policy would certainly extend well beyond Adenauer's concept of a Germany again taking its equal place among other European nations. For a united Germany, present once again among European policymakers, would be far stronger than its fellows both in terms of economic capacity and of the size of its population. The question is whether such a Germany's determination to involve itself in a web of binding European regulations and legal restrictions should be interpreted as a means of depriving itself of the ability to wield unchecked power over others--or as a means of gaining such power without appearing to do so.

To answer such a question requires a reliable interpretation of German motives. Yet there is no means of arriving at any such certainty. Germany possessed, almost accidentally, of great geopolitical power, is offering its companions in the European adventure something that might turn out to be either an embrace or a stranglehold. Mann himself, in his attitude toward post-World War II Germany, reflected this indeterminacy. "If only, as when Hitler was flourishing, one knew to which side one belonged", he wrote to a friend in 1951, "communism with its infantile amoralism is impossible, but so is any belief in the future of this corrupt, condemned, late-capitalistic world of profit." A refusal to accept either American or Russian ideology was accompanied by a refusal to abandon either East or West Germany or the hope for their reunification. This was the attitude of a Prussian conservative, with its traditional leaning toward Russia and its distaste for modern industrialism, which was no longer the mercantilism of the Buddenbrooks. Mann's conservatism was a controlled conservatism, moderated by tradition and kept far away from populism. It was the conservatism of an ordered form of life that Mann himself practiced until his death. It lay as far from National Socialism as it did from communism.

Germany today has rebuilt its stocks of Gemütlichkeit. But its tranquillity would be deeply disturbed were the prospect of losing what has been regained once again to threaten the middle class. Similarly, while "race" is a forbidden word in Germany today, the prospect of being swamped by refugees or immigrants would produce unpredictable reactions in those who regard nationality by blood as the only title to the German name. The German state has been willing to pay out considerable sums of money to repatriate the remnants of those German communities that once peopled Eastern Europe (it used to be said that anyone driving an ox cart from Vienna to Constantinople could stay in a German village each night). Now even the Volga Germans are being brought back to Germany. However, immigrant workers from Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa can acquire German nationality only with difficulty and are given no political rights. Thus there are still areas of exclusion in German life, despite the terrible past, which, one might have thought, had ruled out such feelings forever.

Mann, in his life and writings, represented that older Germany, whose tribal coziness and stock of common habits he found comforting. The question is how such a local Germany can fit into a more mobile and more cosmopolitan world. To return once more to the future of Germany in Europe, will this local Germany not dislike having to bring its habits into line with those of its neighbors? Will it not prefer to lead others into its own ways? If Chancellor Kohl is eager to unite European currencies into one monetary system, is this not because the mark is Germany's strongest card in Europe? To play that card is to have a strong possibility of getting one's own way. To play it without effect would mean a bitter loss of prestige. Thus the question of monetary union has now become primarily a political question, but one which masks a more fundamental cultural uncertainty.

Count Keyserling, in his book Europe, describes the "fundamental characteristic" of the German as being his "lack of realism." This defect, which has brought with it defeat in two great wars, could be remedied by an application of Mann's "erotic irony of the spirit." Indeed, the ironist would hardly expect any far-reaching political project to succeed. The possibility, at least, of failure must hover over it. The question is how will that affect the German mind? Disappointment there will be if European plans do not meet with the anticipated success, but does that imply another Armageddon? Perhaps Germans will care more for their restored Gemütlichkeit than for the exact shape of a future Europe. They would be wise, anyhow, to remember Keyserling's analysis of their weakness and to avoid upsetting themselves over ambitious schemes. After all, with a reunited Germany, they can settle comfortably into their middle-class existence. With the capital moving to Berlin and the eastern provinces once again playing their full part, they have enough challenges to meet without taking on too many others.
Germany still retains the indetermination that Mann saw in it. Behind it looms the ambivalence of German culture. Within is the past fissure between East and West, between Protestant and Catholic. These are all matters to be regarded with that "erotic irony of the spirit" that Mann recommended, and whose quieting effect may calm the turbulence and confusion of the German spirit. No wonder that Dr. Faustus closed with a prayer: "May God be merciful to your poor souls, my friend, my fatherland."

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