Sincerity and Modesty: A Plea for Hermeneutic Fairness by Kai Sina
Literary Scholar Kai Sina gives a incidental comment on Mann’s “Germany and the Germans” in light of historical research – and a plea for hermeneutic fairness.
Photo: Kurt Blumenfeld, was a German-born Zionist from Marggrabowa, East Prussia. He was the secretary general of the World Zionist Organization from 1911 to 1914.
The critique of Thomas Mann’s essay on “Germany and the Germans” is so obvious (and so predictable) that one involuntarily wants to go in defense. But fair enough: Yes, Thomas Mann oddly suggests that there is an intellectual core to what he calls “the German soul.” Yes, he argues that a highly complex psychological conflict is at the center of German history, and even though he clearly distances himself from this Sonderweg (aberrant path), it seems to fascinate him at the same time. And yes, Mann’s assertion that the “best” in the German tradition has been transformed into “evil” through “devilish cunning” puts metaphysics in the place of acting people – probably the most irritating point in his reasoning.
All of these objections are undisputed. It therefore seems all the more surprising that “Germany and the Germans” is an important source of inspiration for one of the certainly most provocative studies on National Socialism and the Holocaust of recent years. In his book Why the Germans? Why the Jews?(2011), the historian Götz Aly refers to Thomas Mann as if his essay was a notable contribution to historical research. In Aly’s understanding, Mann explains accurately how in Germany “the ideas of individual liberty and equality before the law” were transformed “into collectivist slogans” long before 1933. He quotes from the following passage in Mann’s essay: “The German concept of liberty was always directed outward; it meant the right to be German, only German and nothing else and nothing beyond that. It was a concept of protest, of self-centered defense against everything that tended to limit and restrict national egotism [in German: völkischer Egoismus], to tame it and to direct it toward service to the world community; service to humanity. […] It was a militant slave mentality, and National Socialism went so far in its exaggeration of this incongruity between the external and internal desire for liberty as to think of world enslavement by a people themselves enslaved at home.”
In this context, Aly points to the Königsberg Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, who as early as 1932 presented a similar historical analysis as Thomas Mann did in 1945. Blumenfeld described how, since the end of the nineteenth century, the Germans have opposed the liberal state and the freedom of the individual, putting the collectivist category of the people – das Volk– center stage instead. “Thus,” Blumenfeld concludes, “the desire for a dictatorship, supported by a large part of the people, arose in a democratic way.” Thomas Mann was therefore not the only one, and not the first either, to observe and describe what Aly will use many decades later to confirm his diagnosis. Nevertheless, it speaks for his historical analysis that it is still inspiring – and convincing – even for a historian of our day.
Perhaps we should, despite the completely justified critique of “Germany and the Germans,” shift our focus a little: away from the catchy and repeatedly quoted statement about “good” and “evil” and “devilish cunning,” and toward those passages in which Thomas Mann devotes himself to historical “self-criticism.” In doing so, we should definitely take the date of the speech into consideration: Mann argues without historical distance, unprotected, as a contemporary observer. It’s certainly not an empty phrase when he describes his intention right at the beginning as “risky.”
As here, Thomas Mann consistently reflects his view as subjective and above all as personally involved. How convenient would it have been for him to put himself in the position of an outsider! How easy could it have been for him to judge Germany and the Germans with apparent distance! In the disclosure of his own subjective standpoint and the limitations of his perspective, no less than this is revealed: sincerity and modesty.