Stefan Keppler-Tasaki on the Irony of “Germany and the Germans”
German Studies Scholar and Thomas Mann House Fellow Stefan Keppler-Tasaki (University of Tokyo) focuses on the role of irony and raises the question as to whether “German” could also be read as a code for “American.”
Thomas Mann’s work runs on irony. In Germany and the Germans, a speech Mann held at the Library of Congress in May 1945, he even equated irony and art because they create a mediating space “between the spirit and life.” Irony is essential not only in Mann’s fiction such as the novel “Doctor Faustus,” to which the speech is a sidepiece, but also in his prose in defense of democracy. That the good Germany is also the bad one, as he states in the speech, is deeply ironic. The same goes for his finding in the earlier essay “Brother Hitler” that the dictator is a ‘brother’ of him, a debased artist alongside a blessed one.
The irony of Germany and the Germans is that “German” here is partly code for “American.” Nazi Germany was already defeated when Mann held this speech in Washington and again in New York and Los Angeles. Although the “German question” remained an issue for him, this text for an American audience can be read as a document of Mann’s growing concern about America itself. The culture of fear he describes for his birthplace might have followed him to his new home given the kind of anti-communism which incriminated the majority of German exiles. In his citation of the cruel “racial idol” as something “modern,” he is aware of the connection between American racism and National Socialism. The Nazi occupation of Europe, he says, was not completely strange to a “world which knows trusts, cartels and exploitation.” In Doctor Faustus, among the founding figures of America stands one Johann Conrad Beissel, the leader of a Baptist community in Pennsylvania and just the kind of backwoods dictator that is prominent in the speech.
Mann opens his address by presenting himself as an American citizen, while towards the end he says about German peculiarities: “it is all within me,” i.e. within an American. This is just another hint at the irony of a “Germany” dedicated in fact to the American self.
Photo: Thomas Mann, 1949; Thomas Mann Archives