Flames of ignorance and hate lit the darkness on a May evening in 1933. The consuming pyre was fed by thousands of heaped books set on fire by Nazis and their sympathizers. The incendiary event was the culmination of a torchlight parade of students, which ended on Opera Square in front of the University of Berlin. With the fascist state now firmly entrenched, various authors deemed undesirable and enemies of the new order would have their works expunged: Jewish and non-Jewish writers alike. Such events would be staged throughout Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich. Books by names such as Stefan Zweig and Albert Einstein, Jack London and H.G. Wells were set aflame. In such a manner would the once proud and rich culture of Germany be transmogrified and remade under the sordid shadow of the swastika. Within this incipient, brutal regime, volumes by Germany’s great Nobel laureate Thomas Mann were also found suitable for burning.
Mann was born into wealth. Though his mother was Roman Catholic, he was raised in his father’s Lutheran faith. After the death of his father when Mann was still a teenager, his mother moved the family to Munich. Broad success in his chosen literary profession came in Mann’s mid-20s with the novel “Buddenbrooks” in 1901. In the course of his authorial development, Mann manifested his deep concern for the conflict between Geist and Leben — Spirit and Life. His work bore the influence of philosophers Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and the quintessentially Teutonic composer Richard Wagner. Themes of internal struggle and philosophical disputation were explored with delicacy and refinement in Mann’s stories, like the novella “Death in Venice” and in his great achievement “The Magic Mountain.”
Early in his career, Mann had been meticulous in avoiding any involvement in politics and later even published a book entitled “Reflections of an Unpolitical Man.” As Notre Dame professor Tobias Boes demonstrates in his scintillating study “Thomas Mann’s War,” that apolitical attitude was transformed fundamentally. As the social and political landscape of Europe underwent seismic upheavals in the wake of the First World War, Mann evolved into an outspoken champion of democratic values and an impavid opponent of the fascist movement. In this respect, his embrace of the generous and emancipating poetry of Walt Whitman had affected Mann profoundly.
It so happened that Mann and his wife Katia were out of the country when Hitler and his party solidified their power. Mann’s adult children, Erika and Klaus, implored their parents not to return to Germany. Indeed, it was certain the Mann and his wife, who was Jewish, would have been arrested and incarcerated. Eventually, Mann — considered by many to be his country’s greatest representative within the world republic of letters — was stripped of his German citizenship. They remained in Switzerland until making their way to the United States where, in 1944, Mann became a citizen.
Of Mann’s immigration to America, Boes writes: “Mann was not a down-on-his-luck refugee in a threadbare suit like so many other German intellectuals who streamed to the United Sates in those days. He came crowned in the aura of European sophistication and mystery, almost like a latter-day Count of Monte Cristo. No wonder, then, the US magazines devoted extensive coverage to his works and that both Life (in 1939) and the New Yorker (in 1941) ran rather gossipy biographical essays about his stay in America.”
After a time at Princeton University, the Manns traveled to Southern California, where a number of other German emigres had landed. They made their home in Pacific Palisades, a suburb of Los Angeles. From there, Mann continued to write and rail against authoritarianism. His personal campaign on behalf of western civilization took multiple forms. In the studios of NBC and CBS, he made audio recordings that were carefully transported to England, from where Mann’s dissenting perspectives would be broadcast into Nazi-occupied Europe. Thus did Mann maintain “a disembodied presence” in the realm of the Reich. The Nazi hierarchy felt quite threatened by Mann’s voice on the airwaves. In 1941, the propaganda ministry ordered German newspapers to “polemically attack the speeches by Thomas Mann that are being broadcast over British radio.”
Mann’s old German publisher Gottfried Bermann Fischer — who had also fled the Nazis — was ever faithful to Mann and did what he could to keep Mann’s books in circulation outside fascist strongholds. Some of Mann’s writings were smuggled into Germany, “frequently disguised as street maps, tourist brochures, or other utilitarian examples of print culture.” Other interesting routes to convey the forbidden author’s work to his former German readership involved placing snippets of his oeuvre on leaflets in “hidden recesses of some of the smallest, most disposable, and most quotidian objects imaginable, such as tea bags or seed packets.”
The short story “Mario and the Magician” is an allegory in which a supercilious and cynical stage hypnotist manipulates and humiliates several members of the audience subjected to his mesmerism. The tale ends in violence. Clearly a warning about the arrogance of power and abusive potential of persuasion, Mann penned this piece three years before Hitler’s hold on the German nation was complete. In the aftermath of the war, with much of Europe in ruins, Mann wrote his most challenging fictional work: “Doktor Faustus.” In it, Mann presents the tragic Adrian Leverkuhn, an avant-garde composer whose devolution is symbolic of the political and social unraveling of his homeland. It was Mann’s way of coming to grips with what had happened and what had driven his people to fall prey to the totalitarian temptation.
With the war’s end, a shifting political atmosphere in America heralded a different kind of international tension: the Cold War. Forces of the West led by the U.S. were now pitted against the ideology of Communism. The Soviet Union — once America’s ally in the fight against fascism — was now the despised Other, a source of economic competition and political paranoia. The promise of peace was transmuted into a drawn-out epoch of proxy wars, low-intensity conflicts, neocolonialism, covert actions and a dangerous arms race played out on a global chess board. Once celebrated as the doyen of democracy and a luminous beacon of humanism, Mann became an object of suspicion. His view of the world and humankind was a bit too open and universal to accommodate the narrow-minded allegiance the dictates of Cold War attitudes demanded. With mounting discomfort, Mann left his adopted country. In 1952 he and Katia relocated to Switzerland, where Mann died at the age of 80 in 1955.
In the political maelstrom of our time, Mann is immediately relevant. Writes Boes: “Amid rising currents of authoritarian populism, xenophobic nationalism, and transatlantic insecurity, Thomas Mann’s public attempts to position himself in opposition to fascism are interesting again.” Mann left us a vast, vibrant cache of novels, short stories and essays. Delve into any one of his creations and you will be in the presence of a master of language and insight into the human condition.
Read more in the Dec. 30, 2020 - Jan. 5, 2021 issue.