In the last months of World War I, when it was clear that Germany would be defeated, the acclaimed novelist Thomas Mann declared his support for the Kaiser and his antipathy for democracy. In Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, 1918), Mann argued that Germans would never accept democracy because they were essentially unpolitical. Democracy was, he thought, essentially an anti-German idea. There was much more to the book, which was greatly concerned with the place of the artist and intellectual outside of politics, but this argument made him a hero to the German right.
Only a few years later, however, Mann was an ardent defender of the Weimar Republic, the democratic government that replaced the Kaiser after the war. The conservatives who once lionized him now anathematized him. The Nazis would target him. Mann would become one of the most vocal German anti-Nazis, literally in the case of his German-language broadcasts over the BBC during World War II. On vacation in France when the Nazis came to power in 1933, he went into exile. Eventually he reached the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen. He died in 1955, never living in Germany again.
Scholar James N. Bade charts Mann’s course from Kaiserreich-monarchist to champion of democracy. He argues that the catalyst for this transition was the shock of the assassination of Walther Rathenau. The Weimar Republic’s foreign minister was killed by right-wing terrorists in 1922.
“Rathenau, a liberal Jew who had become such an outstanding and internationally well respected politician, and who for so many had represented Germany’s hope for the future, had been cut down in his prime in the name of anti-Republicanism,” Bade explains.
The assassination “led directly to Mann’s decision to make a public declaration in support of democracy.” Part of that shock was Mann’s “deep concern that his Betrachtungen played a part in fomenting that anti-democratic sentiment which had encouraged extremist violence.”
Bade also shows that Thomas Mann’s reconciliation with his brother Heinrich Mann ran “parallel” to his new defense of democracy. The sibling rivalry between these two authors had been intense, explosively exacerbated by political differences during World War I. In his 1918 polemic, Thomas applied the pejorative label Zivilisationsliterat, meaning cosmopolitan, un-German intellectuals, to people like his brother.
Thomas Mann is, of course, the better remembered of the two Manns today. Bade notes that Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1924), one of the most influential works of German literature, is clearly divided between chapters written before and after Rathenau’s killing. Initially Thomas was going to deride a character named Settembrini as a Zivilisationsliterat like Heinrich. As the brothers reconciled their political differences, however, the character was transformed into a spokesman for Thomas himself.
A new edition of Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man and other writings offers an excellent opportunity to explore Thomas Mann’s political transformation. In a new introduction, Mark Lilla argues that Reflections advocated for the freedom of the artist outside of politics. But as the experience of the Weimar Republic showed, that can be hard to do. Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1929, had his books burned by the Nazis. There was a clear choice to be made.