PROFILE - Thomas Mann: ‘Un-German’ author of 20th century

Thursday marks 66th anniversary of death of German author whose writings were thrown into flames by Nazis

Merve Berker and Dilan Pamuk   | 12.08.2021
PROFILE - Thomas Mann: ‘Un-German’ author of 20th century


Thursday marks the 66th anniversary of the death of classic German novelist Thomas Mann, who under Nazi rule was accused of being an “un-German” author, his works consigned to book-burning flames.

Mann was born on June 6, 1875 in Lubeck in modern-day Germany as the son of a wealthy merchant family, which gave him the opportunity to receive a proper education.

However, with the death of his father, he was unable to finish his higher education.

After leaving university in 1891, he moved with his family to Munich, a center of art and literature, where he lived until the mid-1930s, when Adolph Hitler came to power.

Writing as way of life

His first short story collection, Little Mr. Friedemann (1898), reflects the fin-de-siècle aesthetics of the 1890s, deeply inspired by philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, and composer Richard Wagner. Many of the stories deal with the problems faced by creative artists.

At the same time, the theme of an ordinary, trouble-free life found greater expression in his first novel, Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1900).

In 1905, he married Katja Pringsheim, his indispensable life partner. After a time, however, he started feeling emptiness, and reflected his pain and a sense of imprisonment in stories and characters reflecting decadence.

His famed novella Death in Venice (1913) tells the story of an artist who flees his "degenerate" lifestyle and goes to Italy in search of love. It was later adapted as a movie by Italian director Luchino Visconti.

The outbreak of World War I aroused Mann's fervent patriotism, and awareness of the artist's social commitment.

His brother Heinrich was one of the few German authors to question Germany’s war goals, and his criticism of German authoritarianism brought put the brothers at odds.

In 1918, Mann published a long political treatise, Reflections of a Non-Political Man, in which he voiced support for authoritarianism.

This work belongs to the tradition of revolutionary conservatism following from 19th century German nationalistic and antidemocratic thinkers Paul Anton de Lagarde and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an apostle of the superiority of the “Germanic race.”

Later, Mann was to firmly repudiate these ideas.

Change of mind

Following the founding of the Weimar Republic in 1919, Mann slowly revised his perspective, and his essays started to illustrate his somewhat hesitant advocacy of democratic principles.

After the assassination of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922, Mann turned his back on his previous political views and began to defend the republic and democracy.

After a while he also made peace with his brother, as their political ideas began to sync.

His literary and cultural essays also began to play a growing role in illuminating and communicating his awareness of the fragility of humanity, tolerance, and reason in the face of political crisis.

In 1930, he gave a bold speech in Berlin called An Appeal to Reason, calling for the formation of a common front of the cultured bourgeoisie and the socialist working class against the “inhumane fanaticism” of national socialists, meaning the rapidly growing Nazi movement.

In essays and lecture tours in Germany, Paris, Vienna, Warsaw, Amsterdam, and elsewhere during the 1930s, Mann, while steadfastly attacking Nazi policy, often expressed sympathy with socialist and communist principles in the general sense that they were the guarantee of humanism and freedom.

Hitler, World War II

For several years, the Manns were unable to return to their home in Munich, as their political ideas had put their lives in danger, in an atmosphere of escalating political violence.

After the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, Mann was prompted to offer anti-Nazi speeches in German to the German people via the BBC.

In these eight-minute speeches, Mann denounced Hitler and his followers as vulgar right-wingers who had no place in European culture.

"The war is terrible but it has the advantage of preventing Hitler from having conversations about culture," he said in a speech.

He said in another speech: “Those whose world became grey a long time ago when they realized what mountains of hate towered over Germany; those who, a long time ago, imagined during sleepless nights how terrible would be the revenge on Germany for the inhuman deeds of the Nazis, cannot help but view with wretchedness all that is being done to Germans by the Russians, Poles or Czechs as nothing other than a mechanical and inevitable reaction to the crimes that the people have committed as a nation, in which unfortunately individual justice, or the guilt or innocence of the individual, can play no part.”

Among German-American expatriates, Mann was one of the few vocal opponents of Nazism.

His new political thinking was explored in his earlier novel The Magic Mountain (1924), one of the most influential works of 20th-century German literature.

In 1929, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Blacklisted, exiled​​​​​​​

In 1933, the year Hitler came to power, Nazi students at more than 30 German universities pillaged libraries in search of books they considered "un-German."

Among the literary and political writings they threw into the flames were works by Mann such as The German Republic (1922) and his An Appeal to Reason.

In 1936, he was blacklisted, his German citizenship revoked for his anti-fascist sentiments.

After his exile in 1933, he emigrated to the US in 1938, switching to Czechoslovakian nationality from 1936 to 1944. In 1944, he became a US citizen.

Following the war and the end of the “thousand-year Reich,” in 1952 Mann returned to Europe, and settled in Switzerland, where he died on Aug. 12, 1955.

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