Man of War
The Mind in Exile; Thomas Mann in Princeton, Stanley Corngold, Princeton University Press, 2022, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Between September 1938 and March 1941, the novelist Thomas Mann, in exile from Nazi Germany, was a Lecturer in the Humanities at Princeton University. This prestigious appointment was made possible by Agnes E. Mayer, wife of Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post. It provided him with a generous income and also with a platform of which he took full advantage at this critical period when “Fascism was rampant both outside and inside America”.
Stanley Corngold is Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton. His focus in this book is on Mann’s “humanist resistance to populist totalitarianism”. But, as he acknowledges, some critics (including Manfred Görtemaker, author of Thomas Mann und die Politik, 2005) consider Mann a political lightweight and never a sincere supporter of democracy. Indeed, another recent commentator referred to the “irremovable glaze of irony” that permeated Mann’s writings on democracy at this juncture. Corngold manfully contests these criticisms but this reviewer was not convinced.
In his 1938 essay ‘A Brother’, the brother in question (although never named) is Hitler. According to Mann, the latter was “possessed of a bottomless resentment and a festering desire for revenge”. Neil Ascherson, likewise, refers to the “shattering blow to his [Hitler’s] self-esteem when the Vienna Academy turned down his application to study art…” Mann even suggested that the Anschluss was motivated by Hitler’s detestation of Freud. But Morten Høi Jensen, in ‘The Unbearable Pathos of Thomas Mann’ (2016), makes some telling observations about ‘A Brother’. It is informed, in his view, by Mann’s guilt about his support for German imperialism and militarism during the Great War. Thomas A Baggs, for one, reminded readers of Mann’s ‘To the Civilised World, a Manifesto’ (1938) that in 1915, in Frederick und die Grösse Koalition, Mann had supported German Kultur in opposition to the supposedly civilised values of “democracy, politics, newspapers”, espoused by the Entente. Back then, he deemed the German soul “too deep to accept civilisation as the motivating force”. And, in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918), he once again opposed democracy in the name of true freedom and culture.
So was Mann a sincere or credible champion of democracy in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s? Corngold considers Mann’s mea culpa, entitled ‘Culture and Politics’ (published in the Survey Graphic, February 1939) compelling in this context. Mann conceded therein that his values, both before and during the Great war, were “intellectual, bourgeois, German and unpolitical”. He cited Arthur Schopenhauer, an earlier influence, as an exponent of the prevalent bourgeois misconception that “a man of culture could [even should] remain unpolitical”. Mann notes that Schopenhauer regarded the state as a necessary evil which protected property rights. In the 1848 revolution, he called the common people “souveräine canaille” and lent a soldier his opera glasses so he could direct fire on the barricades. The passivity and alienation from politics of the German bourgeoisie facilitated the rise of Nazism, in Mann’s opinion. In this stratum, Hitler’s claim to be “a breakwater…to hold back the forces of socialism” carried weight.
Not without reason, Mann explained the failure of France and Britain to resist the occupation of the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in terms of Hitler’s strident opposition to communism. But some of Mann’s political statements at this time make uncomfortable reading and bespeak a lack of judgement. He made fatuous comments about Marx’s struggle “for the sake of a new truth and justice”. He said that Russia and the Anglo-Saxon peoples were together fighting “the enemies of freedom”. He averred that the British had exercised imperial power “in the gentlest and most unobtrusive manner”. Despite the temporary success of fascism, he maintained that progress “has led mankind to pacifism”. And that the power of nationalism “to bind and enforce” was declining and that the sovereignty of nation states was passé. He characterised Communism as morally superior to Fascism, while simultaneously claiming, correctly, that Fascist barbarism was indebted to Bolshevism. Baggs, accordingly, had little for Mann’s “windy suspiration of forced breath”, to wit, his portentous defence of humanity’s “inborn obligations to decency before God, to reason, truth and right”. And Trotskyist James T Farrell thought that Mann’s critique of fascism lacked substance and was replete with empty rhetoric.
Mann’s concerns “speak to us today”, suggests Corngold, referring to the slogan America First, prevalent in the 1930’s. He is clearly alarmed by the recent rise of populism. In another implicit swipe at Donald Trump, he welcomes the failure of certain “vicious types in office here and now around the world…” to crush ‘humanist thought’. Like many other academics, such as Professor Sarah Churchwell, he evidently despises ordinary people and believes that the intellectual elite should supervise democracy (see ‘Behold, Fake History’, QR, October 2018).
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of Quarterly Review