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.