Thomas Mann: Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (English title: Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man) ISBN 978-3-596-15052-6 ⭐️⭐️ As much as I like Thomas Mann’s novels like “The Magic Mountain”, “Tonio Kröger” and “Doctor Faustus”, his reflexions about World War I and Germany’s political role, published between 1918 and1920, appalled me. Mann, a faithful follower of Arthur Schopenauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, believed in the separation of politics and arts. In 1914 he argued that arts should stay away from day-to-day politics. He saw a fundamental opposition between “Geist” (mind) and “Macht” (might) and decried a perceived proliferation of politics into all aspects of human life, arts included. He would not use his undeniable talent as a writer to voice his opposition to the pending war.
Mann was supporting the war that he saw as part of a cultural struggle opposing Germany to the rest of Europe, a mindset he did not consider a political action and thus would not be a contradiction of his goal to remain an unpolitical observer of history unfolding. “Did the world look more beautiful before the war?”, he asks rhetorically, alluding to the class differences and the excesses of unrestrained capitalism in the late 19th century. “When it [the war] was young, when it started and blew away ‘peace’, wasn’t Germany much to the contrary beautiful during a holy moment?” War as a purification of corrupt societies – on both sides, France and Germany, intellectuals succumbed to that illusion. What a tragedy!
My German edition of “Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen” has some 580 pages, the vast majority serving to a mystic and bombastic, at times polemic defense of German militarism in the name of the superiority of the German soul and the German culture. According to Mann, both the German soul and the German culture had to defend themselves against a perceived French-Italian-English cultural dominance and influence, exemplified by these countries’ emphasis on democracy, liberalism, human rights and pluralism. Mann instead promotes the unity of the German people, the Kaiser and the church with an emphasis on duty and Germany’s fundamental cultural difference from all other countries. He uses a formula directly borrowed from German Romanticism, obsessed by death wishes and heroism: Kreuz, Tod, Gruft – cross, death, tomb. The main inspiration of his ideas: Fyodor Dostoevsky – Nietzsche was impressed by Dostoevsky’s insight into the human soul – and of course Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a sworn enemy of French republicanism.
Germany’s alleged superiority
Mann’s credo is concisely explained in the central chapter “Against law and truth” – a direct answer to his brother Heinrich Mann, who opposed Germany’s war policy. Mann writes that a lasting peace in Europe can only be based “on the victory and the might of the supra-national people [of Germany], the people that holds the supreme universalist truth, the most accomplished cosmopolitan gift, the deepest sense of European responsibility.” Where Adolf Hitler some 20 later would emphasize the biological superiority of Germany, Mann uses the argument of cultural-philosophical superiority. Both are phantasms, both served to justify a European- and worldwide war. And Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda mastermind, would try to co-opt Mann as an ally until the latter’s emigration.
Mann claims his position about World War I “was necessary, logical, authentic and true, it was the result of my true being, my origin and education, of my nature and my culture, which cannot be completely mean, false, since they gave birth to two or three works that are good and will stay on…” I cannot be wrong now since my ideological framework allowed me to write a successful book – what kind of logic is that?
How could such an intelligent and well-educated writer fall for such nonsense? I probably underestimated Nietzsche’s attractiveness – I see his ideas as a curious historical footnote – since I have the benefit of hindsight, nevertheless it remains a mystery to me why Mann failed to see the purely geo-strategic dimension of World War I, and how the idea of a German cultural exceptionalism could obfuscate his mind to such a degree that he would rank cultural differences just as important as geo-strategic issues when it came to the reasons leading to the war.
No, I don’t like this book, and many times I was tempted to set it aside for ever. As a matter of fact I skipped several dozen pages, such as those where Mann makes fun of the use of chemical weapons against Germany’s ennemies. Nevertheless I kept going until the end, despite the ideas Mann propagates and despite Mann’s arrogant attitude. Yes, arrogant, since Mann portrays himself as the only one holding the truth and denigrates anyone who would dare question his “reflections”. Why did I persevere then? Because I think it is important to see how a brilliant mind can be led in error despite its good intentions.
Leaving the ivory tower – reluctantly
Thomas Mann switched sides a few years after he had published this collection of essays. In the chapter “Politics” he already hints at the possibility that he may change his attitude though he sees it as a possible “adaption” to the changing political and societal environment: “As far as I am concerned, I must understand that I need to absorb, learn, seek understanding, correct myself – but I can’t deny my true being and my education, I can’t pull out my roots and plant them elsewhere.”
Mann may be forgiven then, because he understood the artist’s duty well before the outbreak of World War II and left the unpolitical artist’s ivory tower. In 1930, three years before the Nazis came to power, he warned his fellow Germans in his “German Speech: An Appeal to Reason”. He called upon the Germans to vote for the Social-Democratic Party in the upcoming parliamentary elections and questioned whether it was compatible with the German spirit to “transform politics into an opiate for the masses” as the Nazis did. He denounced the fanaticism of National-Socialism as alien to the German soul.
At a time when someone like Steve Bannon sets out to poison European minds with his alt-right conspiracy theories and his overt racism to influence the 2019 elections for a new European Parliament and to promote nationalistic, xenophobic and racist parties, one has to be watchful not to repeat the errors of the past. At a time when the deliberate spreading of propaganda and fake news via social media have given nationalism, racism, anti-intellectualism an enormous potential audience, it is important to see how easily even a bright minds can be confused.
Thomas Mann loved Richard Wagner’s operas and he speaks several times in his “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man” of “Tristan und Isolde”. I am infatuated by this opera myself and willing to share my enthusiasm, provided we leave any political interpretation aside: