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Culture

The Unpolitical Mann

On the 50th anniversary of the death of writer Thomas Mann, Germany debates the legacy of one of its most famous sons. DW-WORLD spoke with Manfred Görtemaker, author of the study "Thomas Mann and Politics."

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Artist or political commentator?

The relationship of the Germans to one of their most important literary figures, Thomas Mann, grew strained in the aftermath of World War II. More than anything else, Mann's political statements amounted to what can be described as a public campaign against him in postwar Germany.

Germans did not take kindly to the fact that, during the war, the expatriate who moved to Switzerland after the Nazis came to power used speeches broadcast by the BBC to call on "German listeners" to resist Hitler. In one speech, he expressed understanding for the bombing of Lübeck, the city of his birth. After the war, Mann spoke of the "collective guilt" borne by the Germans, and said he hoped for a cleansing effect from the wave of executions of war criminals.

The question remains though, was he really a political thinker?

"I wouldn't see him that way today," said Manfred Görtemaker. Mann may have written prolifically about politics, but Görtemaker agrees with the opinion of prominent German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who maintains that Mann was essentially an unpolitical person who judged politics from an artist's point of view.

"All his life, his reflections on politics remained 'Reflections of an Unpolitical Man,' as he put it during World War I," Görtemaker said.

Thomas Mann Bildgalerie # 4/12

Portrait of the German author Thomas Mann (1875-1955) whose early novels "Buddenbrooks" (1901), "Der Tod in Venedig" and "Der Zauberberg" (1924) earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.

It was with "Reflections of an Unpolitical Man," published towards the end of the war in 1918 that Thomas Mann first got vehemently involved in the politics of his day. The 580-page tome was "dreadful," according to Görtemaker -- longwinded, pompous, abstract, and out of touch with reality. A "product of the Zeitgeist of World War I," Görtemaker said.

Practical democrat

Görtemaker says Mann never did become a democrat during his lifetime. "You do him the most justice by referring back to his Germanness. Most Germans are not democrats to this day. They don't just have a very strong tradition of authoritative state rule, but they're also very deeply rooted in the 19th century, in the philosophy of idealism, in romance, and inwardness," Görtemaker said. "And that was very much true for Thomas Mann."

Mann began his career as a sort of patrician, and never shook off his patrician heritage. "He was an elitist his entire life, and of course also artistically, he remained an elitist. No matter what he had to say about politics, this heritage remained intact until the end of his life."

Thomas Manns Schreibtisch in der Sommervilla Bad Tölz

Mann's library and desk is in the Mann's villa in Bad Tölz.

During the Weimar Republic, however, Mann transformed himself into a Vernunftrepublikaner -- a republican for practical reasons. At the start of the 1920s, he was already warning against the rise of National Socialism. When the Nazis took power, he found his purpose in being a political writer in the fight against Hitler. In his speeches broadcast by the BBC in London, he called repeatedly on the Germans to overthrow Hitler and resist his dictatorship.

By the end of World War II, Mann was more resigned. "Hitler is no accident," he said in 1937, adding: "He is a true German phenomenon."

With that, Mann showed he was already much further than most of his countrymen, who still preferred to describe the Nazi era as an "operational accident" way into the 1950s and 60s.

"Thomas Mann derived Hitler logically, and rightly, out of the political philosophy of the Germans, out of the political culture of the Germans," Görtmaker said. Part of it was put down to idealism and romanticism on one side, but also the old respect for the authoritative state, the quest for a strong leader, a strong personality. "All this culminated in the person that was Hitler."

Required reading

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann in Los Angeles, 1942

Thomas Mann remained an "unpolitical poet, who felt himself continually pushed towards political statements," Görtmaker said. While he is able to point to an abundance of errors and contradictions in Mann's career, what few dispute is that Mann was able to illuminate Germanness in a way that is still painful today. "In this respect, the explanations offered by Thomas Mann are very accurate, and still worthy of deliberation today."

Görtmaker said he can only recommend that Germans continue to read Thomas Mann -- even the political Thomas Mann. "You will learn many things that you will not like very much," he said, "about yourself, as well."

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