Raising a Voice Where Freedom is Threatened
The historian Dr. Arne Karsten on Thomas Mann's speech 'Von deutscher Republik`.
On October 13, 1922, Thomas Mann gave a speech in Berlin on the occasion of Gerhart Hauptmann's 60th birthday entitled: Von deutscher Republik. Why is this speech still so remarkable 100 years later?
Karsten: For two reasons. First, because it met with a tremendous reaction among contemporaries. The speech was perceived as a beacon and was intensively commented on in the German press by all political tendencies, partly appreciatively, partly criticizing, partly scornfully. On the other hand, it is still revealing as a contemporary document of Germany's development in the 1920s and, in particular, the development of the educated middle classes of the intellectual elite in this epoch, which was marked by fundamental upheavals in the political and social spheres. The situation after 1918 was precarious; the abdication of the emperor, the end of the monarchy, the beginning of the republic, was accompanied by fundamental economic changes. We find ourselves in 1922 at the beginning of hyperinflation. The German bourgeoisie not only felt politically and socially insecure, but its economic existence was also threatened. And this speech expresses much of the mood of upheaval typical of the time.
The speech is a yes to democracy, a yes to the Weimar Republic. From what conviction does Thomas Mann speak?
Karsten: He speaks from the conviction that one must react to the changed social and political circumstances, that one must face the demands of the present and that this reaction to the demands of the day must not be characterized by a mindless repetition of mantras of the past. Holding on to the past for its own sake is something that Thomas Mann criticizes in this speech. He cites two main witnesses in his speech, and this is revealing. One is the German aristocrat, romanticist and mystic Novalis, alias Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, who lived from 1772 to 1801, and the other grantor is Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892), the American lyricist, poet and representative of American democratic ideals. A representative of the German tradition, a representative of American progress. The synthesis of both is Thomas Mann's prose.
He also speaks of "German humanity" in this speech. What is that for him?
Karsten: "German humanity" is a great theme. It's an idea that was very close to his heart throughout his life. For him, Germany, especially in its position between cultures, between the Romanesque-French-Italian tradition on the one hand and the Slavic-Russian tradition on the other, as a country in which many currents from outside come together, is virtually predestined to amalgamate these impressions and influences and, in their otherness, to take them seriously again and again. This leads to a humanity - he uses this term again and again - that is not narrow-minded, anti-Semitic, anti-Slavic or anti-French. In their specific educational tradition, it is precisely the strength of the Germans to deal seriously with the foreign, to let it become part of their own culture and thus to develop a higher form of humanity, in the sense of tolerance and recognition of the foreign.
Thomas Mann's attitude toward democracy in this speech, however, stands in stark contrast to his attitude in his book "Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen," published in 1918. Where does this about-face come from?
Karsten: The about-face is, and this is the crucial thing, a purely superficial one. Thomas Mann underlined this from the very beginning. The speech had a huge echo, it also appeared in a magazine and was soon published as a separate monograph in a pamphlet. Thomas Mann wrote a preface to it in 1923. In this preface, he also comments on the reaction to this speech and the widespread view that someone had "flipped" here. In the right-wing press, the catchphrase "Mann overboard" made the rounds. He himself did not see a break, he says explicitly: 'My thoughts may have changed, my mind by no means`. He means that in order to pursue higher goals, it is often necessary in life to change one's views about certain individual phenomena. In other words, that it seemed right to him in 1914/18 to defend German spirit and German spiritual tradition against an over-excited, almost hysterical propaganda of the democracy fanatics, takes on a different appearance when one realizes in 1922 that now the fanatics are on the other side, namely as democracy despisers. In 1922, he is of the opinion that one cannot simply turn back the hand of world history and return to the discredited monarchy. For him, the order of the day was to accept the state of development as it now stood and thus to shape politics responsibly. In this respect, he was the ideal type of the "republican of reason.
His speech is above all a speech to the youth of Germany, who were not so positive about democracy. Political terror had reached a sad climax only a few months earlier with the assassination of Walther Rathenau. What was the response to this speech at the time?
Karsten: There was also shouting in the speech, the student gesture of dissent, and Thomas Mann also addresses it explicitly to the youth. He twice explicitly addresses his listeners as "fellow students." The speech as a whole was received very ambivalently. There was a lot of recognition from the republican side, but there was also fundamental criticism from the right-wingers of the time, who only obdurately invoked - this is Thomas Mann's analysis - an ultimately dead past.
Critics doubt the sincerity of his speech, because Thomas Mann himself insisted again and again later that he had not broken with his earlier convictions in 1922. So was he just a turncoat?
Karsten: Funnily enough, you could say he was, only in an unusual sense. Throughout his life, he always looked to the positions that were socially just the strongest, that seemed to have the tailwind of history. And then he always joined the battalions of the weaker side. He defended the German traditions. This earned him the accusation of being a reactionary in 1918, when the "Reflections of an Unpolitical Man" appeared at the very moment when the revolution was triumphant. He was very much resented for this. Three years later, the wind had changed, now a reactionary mindset wins and he says: 'I believed I could do something good, against the majority opinion that is just gaining the upper hand`. His realization was that the majority does not need to be supported, it makes its way on its own. It is always to look, where are the opinions, which are just pressed. Thomas Mann was a great Nietzsche reader and without any doubt he affirmed Nietzsche's sentence: 'The surest way to corrupt a young person is to teach him to respect those who think alike more than those who think differently'. Thomas Mann always looked where freedom was threatened. This was not least his artistic ethos.
Shortly before his death, Thomas Mann summed up: "Undeniably, there is something comical about an artist's political moralizing." What did he mean by that?
Karsten: That is his artistic life credo, his life element: irony. The view that the hallmark of art is to stand above the parties. The spirit has to mediate between different positions. It rarely happens in world history that one party is completely right. Most of the time, things can be seen this way, or that way again. This position of the sovereign over the parties, over the dispute of opinions, which lets each side come to its own, which mediates and ironizes, which brings higher cheerfulness into the world, that was always the basis of his artistic self-image. And this self-image is expressed not least again and again in his statements on politics.
PD Dr. Arne Karsten (*1969) studied art history, history and philosophy in Göttingen, Rome and Berlin. From 2001 to 2009 he was a research assistant at the Institute for Art and Image History at Humboldt University Berlin. Since the winter semester of 2009, he has been teaching as a junior professor, and since his habilitation in 2016, as a private lecturer in modern history at Bergische Universität.