Mann, Thomas (1875–1955)

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MANN, THOMAS (1875–1955)


German writer and thinker.

Arguably the greatest writer in German of the twentieth century, Thomas Mann's life and work bear witness like no other to the deep intellectual and cultural history of his native country, its modern political upheavals, and its subsequent near self-destruction.

Mann, who was born in 1875 and died in 1955, lived through four different forms of government on German soil—not to speak of exile in various foreign lands—but until the outbreak of World War I when he was thirty-nine he remained remarkably, indeed willfully, unpolitical. His supreme achievement up to that point was his first novel, Buddenbrooks, which appeared in 1901 and ultimately won him the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he received in 1929. Although its plot coincides with much of the turbulent nineteenth century, it is, as its subtitle indicates, more of a description of the private "decline of a family" than a literary analysis of the waning bourgeoisie. Other, shorter works, such as Tonio Kröger (1902), The Blood of the Wälsungs (1905), and, most famously, Death in Venice (1912), are concerned predominantly with the complex interplay between art and life, focusing on the role and character of the artist and the dangers of decadence.

The year 1914 changed everything. Like many other writers, Thomas Mann initially greeted the war with enthusiasm, indeed he understood it as a kind of liberation from the debilitating decadence he had portrayed in his own works. In his notorious essay, "Thoughts During War," published in November 1914, he wrote: "How could the artist, the soldier in the artist, not praise God for the collapse of a peaceful world which he was so tired of, so thorougly tired of! War! It was purification, liberation that we felt and an enormous hope" (Harpprecht, p. 380; author's translation). He amplified these ideas into a political-cultural manifesto, Observations of an Unpolitical Man, which he published in 1918. In its tone and tendency it is of a piece with the works of other nationalist, conservative, and vehemently antidemocratic German intellectuals of the time, notably Oswald Spengler, whose Decline of the West had just appeared and which Mann greatly admired at the time.

However, in the next several years, Mann changed his position and began, albeit somewhat hesitantly at first, to embrace democratic, or at least republican values. Initially outlined in detail in the essay "On the German Republic" (1922), his struggle with the opposing political ideals of democratic humanism and autocratic absolutism, together with his principled adherence to the former, finds its consummate novelistic expression in The Magic Mountain (1924). In some ways, the novel represents a renunciation not only of the political ideals Mann had articulated during the war but also of the aesthetic credo to which he had previously adhered: the novel's protagonist, Hans Castorp, in the end makes the decision to abandon the airy heights of the Swiss sanitorium where the novel takes place and to enter practical life, descending to the trenches of the Great War.

Combined with his newfound political allegiances, Mann's stature as a representative cultural figure—he received the Goethe Prize of the city of Frankfurt in 1932—made him an inevitable target of retribution when the Nazis came to power in 1933. His books, along with those of other political undesirables, were burned in public on 10 May. After five years in Switzerland, Mann went to the United States in 1938, where he remained until 1952, when he returned to Zurich, where he died and is buried. His last major novel, Dr. Faustus (1947), continues the vein of The Magic Mountain in that it again amounts to a vast, complex repudiation, only this time it symbolically forsakes Germany as a whole—represented in the life and art of the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, who relinquishes his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to create an entirely new kind of music. As with Germany as a whole, the pact ends in madness and ruin.

One of the ironies of Mann's life and intellectual career is that, by renouncing Germany—or at least that version of Germany that physically ceased to exist in 1945 and committed moral suicide by implementing the Holocaust—he thereby managed to save some part of it for the future. It was with no small justification that, when Mann arrived in New York in 1938, a reporter asked him whether he found his exile difficult to bear, he replied with a mixture of defiance and pride: "Where I am, there is Germany"(Harpprecht, p. 978; author's translation). If there was a "good" or even "better" Germany, Thomas Mann did indeed embody it.

See alsoGermany .


Harpprecht, Klaus. Thomas Mann: Eine Biographie. Rowohlt, Germany, 1995.

Kurzke, Hermann. Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art. A Biography. Translated by Leslie Willson. Princeton, N.J., 2002.

Prater, Donald. Thomas Mann: A Life. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Winston, Richard. Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist, 1875–1911. Afterword by Clara Winston. New York, 1981.

Robert E. Norton