Germany and the Germans

On May 29th 1945, three weeks after the surrender of Nazi Germany but before the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world-famous German author Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, gave a lecture at the Library of Congress, titled “Germany and the Germans”. Many looked forward to this address with anticipation; Thomas Mann was considered a supreme interpreter of German culture throughout the world, and a fierce opponent of Nazism. The emigration of the Mann family from Germany in 1933 had echoed in the international press, contributing to the universal opposition to Nazism.

Addressing the question of German national character, he began by announcing that “I am to speak to you today on Germany and the Germans—a risky undertaking, not because the topic is so complex, so inexhaustible, but also because of the violent emotions that it encompass today”. Yet, notwithstanding the turmoil created by WWII and the Holocaust, he presents a fascinating and solid explanation for the rise of Nazism in Germany.

Before delving into a historical analysis, Mann asserts that he sees himself as part of German culture. In spite of being a brave opponent of the Nazis, he argues that there are no ‘good Germans’ or ‘bad Germans’: “Any attempt to arouse sympathy to defend and to excuse Germany, would certainly be an inappropriate undertaking for one of German birth today. To play the part of the judge, to curse and damn his own people in compliant agreement with the incalculable hatred that they have kindled, to commend himself smugly as ‘the good Germany’ in contrast with the wicked, guilty Germany over there with which he has nothing at all in common, — that too would hardly befit one of German origin. For anyone who was born a German does have something in common with German destiny and Germany guilt”.

He then turns to the historical arguments. Already in the sixteenth century Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, instilled an ambivalent attitude towards freedom: “And no one can deny that Luther was a tremendously great man, great in the most German manner, great and German even in his duality as the liberating and the once reactionary force, a conservative revolutionary. He not only reconstituted the Church; he actually saved Christianity”. From the individual’s perspective, Luther was a great liberator: he encouraged a direct encounter between man and God, freeing him from the power of the priesthood. He translated the Bible so every believer could read it himself. Yet from the perspective of society as a whole, he supported the darkest forces oppressing the evolvement of a free society. He was a liberator of the inner experience, but fiercely rejected the idea of political liberty. Germans were encouraged to nurture their feelings, artistic drives, religious beliefs – yet political freedom was denounced.

This dualism, argues Mann, was further expanded by Goethe, the great German poet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his play Faust, a masterpiece, the protagonist, Faust, makes a pact with the devil in order to achieve full self- gratification. Though the explicit point of view of the author is a condemnation of this pact, the play leaves plenty of room for moral ambivalence. The reader can infer that in order to fulfill one’s desires it would be imperative to have a pact with the devil. And Mephisto, who satisfies Faust’s wishes, is far from being repulsive. He is smart cunning and strong: “And the devil, Luther’s devil, Faust’s devil, strikes me as a very German figure, and the pact with him, the Satanic covenant, to win the treasures and power on earth for a time at the cost of the soul’s salvation, strikes me as something exceedingly typical of German Nature. A lonely thinker and searcher, a theologian and philosopher in his cell who, in this desire for world enjoyment and world domination, barters his soul to the Devil, — isn’t this the right moment to see Germany in this picture, the moment in which Germany is literally being carried off by the Devil?” Indeed, during WWI, Goethe’s Faust was distributed to the German soldiers before they were sent off to battle.

If Luther’s theology created a sense of a boundless self, utter liberation of instincts, emotions, thoughts — yet without any political progress towards democracy – Goethe implanted the notion of moral ambivalence, suggesting that in order to achieve one’s goals one would have to succumb to the enchantment of the devil.

These two influences led to the evolvement of Nazism. The State of Germany was not the result of a yearning for democracy: “Fundamentally Bismarck’s empire had nothing in common with “nation” in the democratic sense of the word. It was purely a power structure aiming toward the hegemony of Europe, and notwithstanding its modernity”. Boundless individual self-fulfilment was encouraged; the widespread moral stand was ambivalent, suggesting that cruel brutality is a necessary evil – and the result was Nazism; a full realization of a historical process that commenced in the sixteenth century.

Well worth reading; a brilliant historical analysis.



  • Fiona Saunders-Priem says:

    This talk by Thomas Mann is outstanding, especially when given so soon after the end of WW2.I have friends and relatives in Berlin. I empathise wit Caroline as I have experienced a similar struggle. My father Victor Priem was a German Latvian who fled to Germany from Riga to avoid being trapped when Russia overran his country. He and his older brothers fought on the German side in WW2. He was in the Luftwaffeinfantry and became a POW of the British. He was able to stay in England and met and married my mother. Victor always said he was never a Nazi, which I believe. I was born in1958, and anti German feeling was still strong, as I found out when I was at school. My father would never talk about what he did in the war. He and my mother did educate me and my little sister about the Holocaust, stressing how terrible and unjustified it was. Since childhood I have read much about Nazis, the Holocaust and WW2. I have watched many documentaries and films about this petiod. Even now, 25 years after my father passed away, I experience guilt about my father and my uncles having fought for the Nazis, although I think in my father’s case at least he was caught up unwillingly in the maelstrom of the war. I take comfort from the fact that my parents and I accepted the Baha’i Faith in the 1970s, as it is all about working for the unity of mankind, breaking down the barriers of prejudice of race, colour, class and religion. Through his new found faith, my father met friends of Jewish background and was able to make his peace on an individual basis of friendship. Like Caroline, I am sorry this post is so long. Thank you Emanuala for sharing this interesting talk by Thomas Mann.

  • Rich says:

    You could say the same about white Americans from the southern US. People underestimate the deep waters of distrust here. There is a polite calm on the surface but a deeply ingrained distrust in both the black and white communities. Time and teaching or not teaching children seems to be the answer.

  • Caroline says:

    Thank you for posting this. I was born in Landstuhl Germany in 1961, to a German mother, and an American soldier who fought in the war. I’ve lived in the United States since 1963, and I have always considered Germany my other home, in spite of having never being able to afford a trip to see my place of birth. But the war has always been a difficult subject in my life, as I feel pride in my German heritage, yet ashamed of what the Nazis did to the Jews. I know that my mother was just a young girl during that time, and lived among the other German people who had been living for many many years, in what is now in Poland. She and her family were victims of the war, simply because of where they lived, as many Germans did as well.They were NOT Nazis, yet there is a stigma attached to Germans, and many do not look at the individual stories the majority of the time.Her family was forced to leave the only home they ever knew by the Russians’ and migrated to West Germany, with just the clothes on their back. Mom spent some time in a Russian prison camp before making her way to Germany, with the help of two American soldiers. So many Germans were also victims, simply because of being German. Many did not agree with Hitler, and knew he was the devil in disguise, but feared for their lives, and the lives of their families if they spoke against him. Sorry for the long comment, but I just appreciate the article, and wanted to share. Thanks again!

  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Thank you, Marlene! Who isn’t confused by Nazism, unimaginable that this took place less than 100 years ago..

  • Marlene Lee says:

    I always learn from your posts, Emanuela. Germany and Naziism have long interested and confused me. It is disturbing to find pockets of evil in the world and in oneself. Reading about evil gone wildly public is instructive and, in the best writing (i.e., Thomas Mann), profound.

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