Stefan Keppler-Tasaki on the Irony of “Germany and the Germans”

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

3 thoughts on “Stefan Keppler-Tasaki on the Irony of “Germany and the Germans””

  1. Thank you, Stephan Keppler-Tasaki, for your contribution. Well, there is no doubt that irony is a basic pattern in Thomas Mann’s character and work. However, I do not agree with your assumption that it can be found in his 1945-essay. Please correct me if I am wrong, but due to my knowledge anti-communism as it was conducted during the time known as McCarthy-era did not really start before the end of the war. Racism is an universal plague, I agree, and presume Thomas Mann would have had agreed to. But, I think there is no proof that when talking about the Germans he actually had the Americans in mind.

    1. How interesting that our readers can differ so much. I feel very much that Mann’s comments on the moral doubleness of the one and only Germany apply with disturbing accuracy to the U.S. I think I would call this “double-speak,” a kind of slyness and coyness, rather than “irony,” but the underlying point rings horribly true for me. An important secondary resonance (which may partly address T. Lechner’s point about when McCarthyism began) is that, just as Hitler’s Germany on Mann’s view has its roots deep in the Middle Ages, so McCarthy’s America has deep roots in our much younger nation. Even were it not for McCarthyism, the American way of capitalism is brutally dehumanizing and at the same time trifling in ways that Mann’s colleague and neighbor Theodor Adorno characterized all too astutely during his time here (c.f. “The Culture Industry” and so much of “The Dialectic of Enlightenment,” co-written with Max Horkheimer). Sad to say, deep roots don’t come up easily, and the likeness of Mann’s Germany to America first struck be because of its resonance with what I see around me in the present moment! E.g., the “liberating hero” who “knows nothing of liberty”–How I wish I could call this, and Mann’s comments on “the concept of liberty” (p. 56 in the English version of our essay) things of the past! “Why must the [American] urge for liberty always be tantamount to inner enslavement? Why did it finally have to culminate in an attack upon the liberty of others, upon liberty itself?” Among other reasons, because our nation was founded on an original genocide, and all of us since that time must live with a legacy of deep and troubling hypocrisy.

      I’m grateful that Mann insists (p. 49) that to say such things “should not be regarded as disloyalty”–many of my compatriots would call such observations treasonous, but facing the truth of one’s history is the only way to seek a more just and humane future. In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

      I was scratching my (proverbial) head in one of my posts about why the English-language translator of our essay would have chosen to say “liberty” everywhere Mann says “Freiheit”–freedom. After all, “Freiheit” is central to German thought from Kant to Schiller to Schelling. It then occurred to me that substituting “liberty” for “freedom” was actually a very canny move, because “liberty” is the real American buzzword–“With liberty and justice for all,” the “Liberty Bell,” Liberty University, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

  2. Among other things, this would help explain the universalizing gesture in the last few sentences of the essay, which otherwise I would consider a shockingly presumptuous deflection of responsibility (taking responsibility being, so it would seem, the very purpose of the essay)! “The German misfortune is only the paradigm of the tragedy of human life. And the grace that Germany so sorely needs, my friends, all of us need it.” (p. 66)

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