“Thomas Mann and the civilized ‘we'” by Hedwig Richter

The second contribution for the first day comes from Hedwig Richter, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History. What was the self-image of the German bourgeoisie at the time Thomas Mann wrote the novella? Her text gives us a better understanding of Mann’s self-conception and the cultural and political climate in 1929, and serves as another great introduction to our story.

Thomas Mann and the civilized “we”

Since at least the second half of the 19thcentury, many Germans have lived with the feeling that they belong to a “zivilisierten Welt” (a civilized world) or, as it has also been called, to the “Kulturstaaten” (cultural countries). This feeling was a global phenomenon, with the historian Sebastian Conrad speaking of the “global integration of societies” during this period. The bourgeoisie in particular felt that, in the German Empire, they in many ways belonged to an international class, and developed an awareness of their global status. The mercantile bourgeoisie married internationally, undertook long business trips, and went to the theater in Milan and to church in London.

Part of the bourgeois self-image was politics. A civilian was a free person and helped shape things – that was simply a matter of course. The urban politics that Thomas Mann experienced so intensely with his father in Lübeck was embedded in international processes of democratization. As in almost all of Europe, this “self-government” was by no means in opposition to the monarchy. In general, it is wrong to think that Germany was an anti-democratic exception. The Reichstag (parliament) had the usual rights enjoyed by the strong parliaments that existed in the North Atlantic region at that time, and it was elected with what, in comparison to international standards, was a very broad male suffrage.

Interestingly, these global imaginings of “civilization” survived the First World War. And, interestingly again, Thomas Mann now also shared these imaginings, having held an ultraconservative maverick position during the German Empire, one that claimed that a German “Kultur” (culture) contrasts with Western “Zivilisation” (civilization). In “Mario and the Magician,” the community of civilization becomes clear. The bourgeois civility of that “we” is underlined by the fact that the “we” in the novel is a family, the core of the bourgeoisie: this core brings together tradition and future, kindness and strictness, respect and achievement – nature and culture. Everything is immersed in politeness and manners, and children remain in the sphere of “Unschuld” (innocence) and “Zwanglosigkeit” (unpretentiousness). The “we” in “Mario and the Magician” is a family that lives in the idea that civilized behavior is a matter of course, an idea that contrasts painfully with the excrescences of fascism, its “Ungehörigkeit” (impropriety) and “Verwirrung” (confusion), its “Ungerechtigkeit” (injustice) and “Entwürdigung” (degradation).

Also interesting is that the “Unordnung” (chaos or disorder) appears as an “afrikanisches” (African) phenomenon that thrives in the sultriness of the South and is contrary to the “nordisch” (Nordic) spirit. This expresses the highly problematic entanglement of the discourse of civilization with Western colonial ideas. But what is appalling, though, is that even this Nordic and civilized “we” is sucked into the magician’s maelstrom: despite all its reservations, the family attends the magical performance and does not succeed in making the return home that is urgently required and that it even desires. 

There are numerous testimonies from citizens who could not believe that the parvenu Adolf Hitler would be able to employ his repugnant arts to gain power over Germany and to bring the population to dance. It seems that Thomas Mann had an inkling.

Hedwig Richter

The photograph shows Thomas Mann and his family on the beach in Nidden, 1930. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Thomas-Mann-Archiv / Photographer: Fritz Krauskopf

3 thoughts on “”

  1. It doesn’t really belong to a reading of “Mario and the Magician”, but the remarks of Hedwig Richter are striking a key thinking of the recent developments all over our countries. “We” are not an international civilization anymore but just families again, being asked or even obliged to stay at home not to put the society at risk. It’s funny how civilization shall be based on a culture of privacy now which doesn’t allow any public activity at all which once – certainly in Thomas Mann’s view – was the core of bourgeois self-conception. Well, at least we can still read in private and share our impressions publicly.

  2. Thanks for this blog. I like the notion that as in almost all of Europe, German “self-government” was by no means in opposition to the monarchy. An idea on which I’d like to read more, because I’m very interested on how local democracy evolved out of the union of local merchants (already existing elites, that one way or another opened themselves up a bit). Interesting!

    Broadly speaking the statement of the entanglement of the discourse of civilization with Western colonial ideas may be true, but I tend to read this particular story in a different way. ‘Afrikanisch’ here – at least in the part that I’ve reread now – clearly refers to temperature, not to culture. In so far ‘Unordnung’ is connected to culture, it is connected to Italian culture. Could it be that nationalism in this story plays a stronger part than colonialism? And that German enthousiasm in reception of this story in 1929 (as we heard about from Tobias Boes) stems from this underlying nationalist motive i.e. competition between two European – nations/spirits, namely Nordic and Mediterranean? That might also shed light on the apparent contradiction with reception of the Wagnerlecture in 1933 (as also referred to by Tobias Boes). Then the public in Munich may have seen the Wagnerlecture as a turn on Mann’s account in comparison to his Mario und der Zauberer story from four years earlier.

    1. Family, nation, culture and colonialism: That is a powerful mix. After all, all of these promoted the Dolchstosslegende which had it that uncivilized and disorganized Bolshevist-inspired German soldiers stabbed their fellow-German soldiers in the back during the end of the First World War: Proud German culture was stabbed in the back by uncivilized foreigners: Communists, Communist Jews in East and West, also läppische, flabby, really uncivilized America: These were all subcultures in comparison to German culture that had led to pinnacle achievements in science, the arts, philosophy and literature. Hitler gloried in these myths and yes, there was a significant colonialist spirit here: Hitler had 40,000 tons of Norwegian granite waiting to build a triumphal arch in Moscow once the Ostfeldzug, the campaign to subdue the East, had been completed. And German Hitler youth sang with glee, “Und heute gehört uns Deutschland und morgen gehört uns die Welt: Today Germany belongs to us and tomorrow we will own the world.” Hitler admired America for its huge land and he was going to get it and the world under his thumb. All in the name of vaulted German culture. This is colonialism! Fed on multiple elements of myth. I cannot begin to unravel the incredible mythology involved here! Let me just hint here once more at the fraudulent myth of the Socialist German soldiers’ “stab in the back” of their fellow-German soldiers. Burning down the Reichstag is further spinning out this myth: Of course it was done by a Communist. Colonialism! All in the name of unparalleled German culture.

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