In My Defense


In the May Atlantic THOMAS MANN, famous German novelist who has recently become an American citizen, contributed a profound study of the Teutonic character. Several readers have interpreted Dr. Mann’s essay as a plea for a soft peace; and one in particular, Professor Henri Peyre of Yale University, took him to task for his violent attack on “Western and liberal ideas” at the time of the First World War. At the conclusion of his letter, which was published in the Atlantic Repartee section of the July issue, he raised the question: “If a man of his eminence and of his wide culture could think and speak thus in 1915-1918, can he now expect his readers readily to dissociate the German people from the Nazis?” Dr. Mann’s reply FOLLOWS.-THE EDITOR


THE political bias of Professor Peyre’s letter to the Atlantic Monthly emerges clearly in his final question. In my essay “What Is German?” he sees an attempt on my part to persuade the readers to dissociate the German people from the Nazis; he sees in it a plea for the granting of a “soft peace” to Germany. That, to be sure, is a misunderstanding. The sole purpose of my article was to identify, objectively and psychologically, certain traits of German character with which I am only too familiar and which have become disastrous for Germany and for the world. But unfortunately Professor Peyre gained that wrong impression. He wrote his letter, and produced his aged quotations, not out of personal enmity, — for which he has no reasons, — nor out of a special liking for denunciation, but in order to counteract the — in his opinion — harmful consequences which might — again in his opinion — emanate from my article.

His zeal is understandable. It is only regrettable that it darkens and suppresses qualities that are ordinarily inbred in a serious scholar and researcher — qualities in which, I am sure, Professor Peyre himself is not lacking under other circumstances. It is probably not his custom to live by disjointed quotations gleaned here and there, and to write about things with which he has only a hearsay acquaintance. It is undoubtedly his normal habit to pursue with conscientious thoroughness those intellectual matters, developments, and destinies upon which he expatiates in public, and to study them at the hand of original documents rather than superficial and haphazard garnerings from Literary Supplements.

But in this case political passion dulls his scholarly accuracy. He rashly states, for example, that “Frederick and the Great Coalition,” an essay which I wrote in 1914, “has never been translated in this country.” But this historical study, which I still regard as one of my best productions, — however much or little that may mean, — is to be found by anyone who cares to look in a volume entitled Three Essays (Knopf, New York, 1929).

The shocking quotations, however, which Professor Peyre took from the London Times, are not to be found in this book. Nor are they to be found in the Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, that unrestrained and painful work of introspection and confession, written between 1915 and 1917, with which Professor Peyre is also not familiar, if only because — quite properly — it has never been translated. I should never have published it even in German, for a more intimate and more misusable diary has never been kept by anyone. Its sole right to publicity may perhaps lie in the fact that it served as the intellectual preliminary to the novel of European dialectic, The Magic Mountain.

The statements which Professor Peyre used to frighten the readers of the Atlantic Monthly were quoted from an article written in 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of the war, entitled “Gedanken im Kriege” (“Thoughts in War”), and published in the Neue Rundschau. True enough, this polemic contains a good many stormy remarks. Many stormy, gross, and extravagant things were said in Europe at that time — not only in Germany and Austria, where writers like Dehmel, Wassermann, and Hofmannsthal, politicians like Harden, Rathenau, and Stresemann, approved of the national war as well as I, but also in the foreign countries arrayed in war against Germany.

My extravagances of 1914 are to be regarded in part as a reaction to the many heated insults which were at that time hurled against German philosophy and culture, with which I was living in close association. Primarily, however, they are to be explained by the fact of the utter political innocence of the German intellectual, rooted in Lutheranism and Romanticism, who, taken unaware by the war, for a long time saw in it only a justifiable defense of spiritual values which, to his boundless astonishment, were suddenly abused from all quarters. Whatever I had produced up to that time was indigenous to the domain of these spiritual values. Whenever I said “Germany” I meant this domain, and I interceded for it with complete naïvete.

As a disciple of Schopenhauer I did not like the optimistic stress upon progress on the part of the rhetorical bourgeois, the type which I at that time dubbed the “Zivilisationsliterat .” In The Magic Mountain, in the person of Mr. Settembrini, this type became humanly rather attractive, but ten years earlier I had little sympathy with them. I adhered to an ethics of pessimism, the essence of which was the concept “In Spite of All”; its ideal was courage and tenacity under difficulties.

I saw in Germany a country that lived in severe internal and external circumstances, a country that suffered hardships as an artist suffers hardships. I identified myself with that country — that was the form and content of my wartime patriotism. I even spoke on behalf of Prussian conviction, Prussian attitude, Prussian “militarism.”

In this connection I am reminded of an essay dealing with Prussianism in German literature that recently appeared in the Moscow periodical International Literature. The author, George Lukász, a literary historian of Communist persuasion, discussed in it, among other things, my statements during the last war and declared that my Fredericianism of that time, my apology for the Prussian attitude, could not possibly be properly judged psychologically unless viewed in conjunction with my short story Death in Venice, which appeared before the war, and in which the Prussian ethos suffers a fall of the most ironic tragedy. Well, in this case Moscow did a finer critical job than Yale.


MY ACCUSER points out that at the time in question I was forty years old and that my opinions were those of a mature man. That, too, had already been said in the Times Literary Supplement; Mr. Peyre gratefully made use not only of the quotations but also of the accompanying comments. This particular one is not very remarkable. Maturity is a relative concept, and a man who is destined to endure and to go a long way may not be at all mature at the age of forty. I don’t even know whether I am mature today. Perhaps an entire lifetime is required to attain maturity, and to be mature may mean mature for death. As an artist, it seems that I was precocious, for at the age of twenty-three I wrote a book that still lives today and that may, possibly, outlive everything that I wrote later on.

In respect to politics, on the other hand, I undoubtedly underwent a very slow development — a characteristic which may be nationally German. In fact, it was the outbreak of the war in 1914 that shook me to my very foundations and that forcibly brought me face to face for the first time with matters which until then had been entirely outside the domain of my consciousness. And so the old essay with which Professor Peyre has a fragmentary acquaintance stands at the very beginning of a long intellectual process that led through the Betrachtungen and The Magic Mountain to the speech on “The Coming Victory of Democracy” — a process which, naturally, did not take place in a vacuum but in direct connection with the changing situations of historical reality, and by means of which I succeeded in rounding out my concept of humanity in a political sense and in finding my proper place in the struggle of mankind.

With biting irony, made slightly comical by his ignorance, Mr. Peyre remarks: “It would be most enlightening to his readers to have Herr Mann explain how and why he was converted ... to his present attitude.” I may refer him to a book, Order of the Day, Political Essays and Speeches of Two Decades, that appeared in 1942, in which he may follow the stages of my “conversion” by years, from my Berlin speech, “The German Republic,” down to my letter to the Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Bonn — which he could read in any language that he might chance to understand. He knows nothing about this book, and nobody expects him to.

But what Professor Peyre really ought to know and undoubtedly does know is the fact that for ten years before Hitler’s assumption of power I fought against the rising nationalistic tide in Germany. Exposed to the most poisonous attacks and with the constant sacrifice of my peace and personal comfort, I sought for a decade to ward off the evil that I saw coming. And in the end I paid for this fulfillment of my duty with exile, with the loss of my German reading public, with the loss of home and fortune. Mr. Peyre knows that.

Moreover he is probably not without some feeling for the inappropriateness of tripping up with the cudgel of ancient quotations a man who is exerting the vital powers of his declining years to play a rightful part in the current struggles of humanity, and to combine his duties as a world citizen with the task of furthering and completing a life’s work that may have some value for many people. He is probably aware of the inappropriateness of persistently reminding such a man of statements that he made in an entirely different phase of history and of his own life, and of forcing him to justify himself with regard to them. This feeling, I say, is certainly not entirely foreign to Professor Peyre. But his passionate fear that my article in the Atlantic Monthly was intended to arouse sentiment for a soft peace makes him forget all other considerations.

He need not be so disturbed. It is quite unlikely that Germany will emerge from the present war with nothing more than a black eye. Neither the plans of the European Advisory Commission in London nor the statements issuing from Moscow point to any such conclusion. Germany has long ago begun to atone and faces still harsher atonement — and I have no objections. I am not one of those emigrants who stand with patriotically outstretched arms in protection of their country and declare that nothing must be done to it — after the most incredible things have been done to others.

I regard it not only as absurd, but also as unworthy, to differentiate between the German people and Nazism in such a degree as to look upon Germany as Hitler’s first victim, as the first nation to be subjugated by National Socialism. If there is such a thing as collective responsibility, if there is such a thing as a nation, a people as a mythical personality, then National Socialism is nothing but the form which a country, Germany, assumed in order to carry out with the most comprehensive means the boldest attempt at world domination that history has ever seen—an attempt which came within an ace of succeeding. It was only one attempt among others, but never has this attempt been undertaken with so much malignity and ruthlessness, in a spirit of such inhumanity.

The success of this venture would have been an unspeakable misfortune; its failure means an annihilating catastrophe for Germany, perhaps the end of her history, certainly the end of that epoch of her history that led to the venture — all that goes without saying. I can give the assurance that I will not move a muscle over any measure that the statesmen of the world will regard as necessary to render Germany incapable of repeating her attempt. I shall be all the less inclined to do so since Germany has always developed her finest gifts in the service of humanity far more successfully in a state of political impotence than in the ban of power politics.

It is a different question, of course, whether Germany will have much opportunity in the next few generations to make use of her humanistic traditions. It does not appear, unfortunately, that the end of the present struggle would mean, at the same time, the end of the era of wars and revolutions in which we now stand. The corning conflicts will scarcely have their source in Germany’s defective endowment for democracy and civic liberty. Peace on earth, the union of humanity in liberty and justice, are goals that lie, I am afraid, in the far-distant future, and perhaps they will eternally recede before our longing. We must act, of course, as though they were attainable; we must strive for the impossible to realize the possible. But the ideal, the divine, can only be approximated.

The same thing can be said of Truth. If I was in error at the age of forty, I do not imagine that I possess the Truth today. It can never be a possession, but only an eternal aspiration. May it be said of each one of us that he spent his life honestly and restlessly striving for the true and the good.