Tobias Boes

 

On his book Thomas Mann's War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters

Cover Interview of November 20, 2019

Lastly

The reception of Thomas Mann’s War has been irrevocably altered by the events of 2016. The first major review of my book, for example, was published in The National Interest, a policy journal that steers a conservative but anti-Trump line. The reviewer, Jacob Heilbrunn, was thoughtful and well informed. Nevertheless, it was clear he was drawn to my book not because of Mann’s literary importance, but because he saw in the author the very model of an impassioned conservative response to authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. Most audiences to whom I have presented my project react in the same way.

I feel somewhat ambiguous about this reception, and not just because I have my doubts about Thomas Mann’s often-postulated political “conservatism.” The question also has to be asked what his example can actually teach us in the present. We live in a radically different social moment, and amidst a radically different media environment than did Mann. Somehow, I don’t think that a cultural commentator with his undeniably patrician demeanor will be able to reverse the damage done to our democracy on Twitter through thoughtful opinion pieces in The New Republic or The Atlantic.

Still, the fact remains that Mann provides a powerful illustration of the fact that it is possible to accept globalization without losing one’s roots in a specific cultural tradition, and to reject nationalism while simultaneously embracing patriotism. And Mann understood that democracy—to summarize his words—“will die off, disappear, be lost, if it is not cared for.” That is certainly a lesson that too many of us across Europe and North America have learned far too late.

Beyond these political implications, I also hope that Mann’s story will help illuminate the contemporary literary landscape. For example, I had to think about Mann a lot during the turmoil that followed the announcement of Peter Handke’s 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Handke, of course, is infamous for denying that the Srebrenica massacre took place. His defenders in the German-speaking press argue that these political missteps should not matter, and that the Nobel Prize is awarded solely for aesthetic merits. This is a line of reasoning familiar to any Mann scholar. When Mann won his Nobel Prize in 1929, the influential member of the Swedish Academy Fredrik Böök similarly let it be known that The Magic Mountain, Mann’s dissection of the venomous ideologies that had led to World War I, had played no role in the committee’s deliberation. Instead, the prize was awarded in recognition of the thoroughly unpolitical Buddenbrooks.

My detailed reconstructions of Mann’s changing celebrity during the 1930s shows how specious these arguments are. Mann’s esteem as a Nobel laureate was very quickly tied to his political actions. Handke’s defenders not only embarrass themselves by downplaying genocide denial, they also show themselves to be insufficiently informed about the literary tradition that they claim to serve.