Where and how to beginn? Juan Guse

Juan Guse: Where and How to Begin?

Writer Juan Guse puts Mann’s essay on trial and states in his contribution: It did not age well. Whether it is the cultural essentialism or the way Mann deals with the Shoa, does Germany and the Germans withstand a critical reading from today’s perspective?

Perhaps with the fact that I value Thomas Mann – both his literature and in his role as an anti-fascist intellectual. So, if I start lashing out at the text Germany and the Germans of 1945, then I do exactly that and only that: I start with a singular text that has aged rather badly.

A: Cultural essentialism
This is still comparatively harmless: Germans are like this and like that. According to Mann they are, among other things, characterized by “world-seclusiveness,” they are shy, “provincial,” “scurrilously spooky,” “hiddenly uncanny” and have a “quality of secret demonism.” In addition, they have an awareness of inferiority within the nation and a “musical relationship to the world.” Most characteristic of all, however, is their inwardness: “Tenderness, depth of feeling, unworldly reverie, love of nature, purest sincerity of thought and conscience, — in short, all the characteristics of high lyricism are mingled in it.”

Moreover, the German proves himself to be uncalled to politics: “Not at all wicked by nature but with a flair for the spiritual and the ideal, he regards politics as nothing but falsehood, murder, deceit, and violence, as something completely and one-sidedly filthy, and if worldly ambition prompts him to take up politics, he pursues it in the light of this philosophy.” And they are also self-critical: “Nothing that a Frenchman, an Englishman, or an American ever said openly about his people can remotely be compared to the pitiless truths that great Germans, Hoelderlin, Goethe, Nietzsche, have uttered about Germany.”

It becomes particularly disconcerting when Mann connects the presumably self-critical nature of the Germans with the decline of the Third Reich and in this way places abstract cultural essentialism (inwardness, musicality, etc.) in a quasi-causal relationship with very tangible historical events (e.g. the capitulation of the Wehrmacht): “The tendency toward self-criticism, often to the point of self-disgust and self-execration, is thoroughly German, and it is eternally incomprehensible how people so inclined toward self-analysis could ever conceive the idea of word domination. The quality most necessary for world domination is naiveness, a happy limitation and even purposelessness, but certainly not extreme spiritual life, like the German, in which arrogance is coupled with contrition.”

B: Shoa
It is a mystery to me why Mann does not call the systematic extermination of the European Jews by name and instead circles around it with “the crime” or “the horrible fate of Germany, the tremendous catastrophe.” And this despite the fact that he already explicitly mentioned it in his radio program Listen, Germany! on September 27, 1942: “According to the Polish exile government, 700,000 Jews in all have already been murdered or tortured to death by the Gestapo […]. Do you Germans know that? And what do you think about it?” see also the broadcasts of January or February 1942, in which the murder of Jewish women by gas and “the bodies of thousands and thousands of Jews who have perished in the Warsaw ghetto from typhus, cholera, and consumption, thrown into heaps for the common grave” are mentioned. Surely someone will be able to give a conclusive historical-contextual reason why Mann danced around the concrete in the U.S. Congress. It does not read less problematic therefore. 

C: War of annihilation
Another long quote: “We have seen it. Crimes were perpetrated that no psychology can excuse, and they were superfluous. For they were superfluous; they were not essential and Nazi-Germany could have gotten along without them. She could have carried out her plans of power and conquest without their aid. In a world which knows trust, cartels, and exploitation the idea of a monopolistic spoliation of all other nations by the Goering Concern wasn’t anything new and strange. The embarrassing thing about it was it compromised the ruling system too greatly by clumsy exaggeration. […] Their crimes, I repeat, were not a necessary factor of their belated embarkment upon exploitation; they were a luxury in which they indulged from a theoretical predisposition, in honor of an ideology, the fantasm of race. If it did not sound like a detestable condonation, it might be said that they committed their crimes for dreamy idealism.”

I am unsure to what extent it had already been understood in 1945 that the extermination of “people of inferior race” was not only an optional add-on to German warfare, but its anchor point; it was not without reason that a racial ideological war of annihilation was fought in the East, while in the West (for all its misery) it was more a matter of occupation. I suppose that this was not common sense at that time. In any case, I did not want to leave it uncommented. 

Everything I have said is, of course, a criticism that can be refuted with reference to the particular historical context. Good. But my reading was just that: The text (despite its critical thrust) reads as much as possible like a historical artifact that wants to be supported on the left and right. Nevertheless, there are of course also considerations in it that have lost none of their relevance. These make up only a rather small part of the 20-page speech. In addition to comments such as those on the political potential of art, the passage on Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531) is also worth reading; a sculptor and alderman who sided with the peasants in the Peasants’ War and suffered prison and torture for doing so. Riemenschneider is a timelessly interesting figure in that something becomes visible in him that basically hovers permanently above all of us: the possibility of venturing out of one’s own safe nest now and immediately and resisting injustice and destruction. 

1 thought on “Where and how to beginn? Juan Guse”

  1. Thank you very much, Juan Guse, for your contribution. Your statements are challenging.
    Yes, culture essentialisms is problematic. But, don’t you think that trying to identify specific characteristics is mandatory when you wish to find an explanation? If I understand you correctly you are generally rejecting the concept of a national character. Yes, I agree, in our globalized and heterogeneous world such concept has become more and more questionable. But, does it really make sense to accuse an artist for not having used an approach which, like gender and postcolonial studies, only became common long after the relevant piece of work having been made?
    No doubt, in the history of mankind there has not been a greater crime than the Shoa. But, speaking about it not specifically does not mean to relativize it. When the essay was written the dimensions of the Shoa were not known to the extent they are known by us today. Same applies, as you correctly pointed out, for the priority the annihilation of the European Jews for the Nazis had.
    I agree when you are saying that the text “reads as much as possible like a historical artifact that wants to be supported on the left and right”. But, isn’t there anything better you say about an essay written in a time of greatest turmoil? By the way: It’s an essay, not a novel.

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