Tobias Boes


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

Cover Interview of November 20, 2019

A close-up

Most readers browsing through the book in a bookstore will probably end up lingering over the fourth chapter, which has not only a catchy title (“Hitler’s Most Intimate Enemy”), but also a large number of arresting visuals. Among these is my favorite picture in the book. It shows a pro-Nazi color guard of the German American Bund assembled in front of a giant portrait of George Washington in Madison Square Garden. Nowadays, we are so used to triumphalist narratives about the “greatest generation” that we forget how, prior to Pearl Harbor, there were powerful anti-interventionist and even pro-Nazi forces in America.

The chapter analyzes Mann’s activities on the American home front during the early years of World War II: his lecture tours, his addresses to Washington insiders at the Library of Congress, his anti-Nazi essays, and his participation in various conferences and committees. Mann tirelessly urged ordinary Americans to defend liberal democracy against authoritarian encroachment, and he clearly struck a nerve. Journalists report that New Yorkers would cheer when they saw his face on a newsreel at the local movie theater. Redpath Chautauqua Collection, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa.

Honestly, though, the chapter that I’m most proud of is probably the fifth, which deals with the fate of Mann’s books on the European continent during the years in which the Nazis were assembling their empire. I’m very interested in what my colleague Venkat Mani has called “bibliomigrancy”—that is, the question how the physical journey of books contributes to their reception and to their place in the literary canon.

When we think about books and the Nazis, the first thing that comes to mind are the bonfires upon which they burned the works of authors they deemed undesirable. But it’s not as if all of Mann’s books simply went up into smoke during the years from 1933 to 1945. In fact, Mann’s German publisher Gottfried Bermann Fischer played a game of cat and mouse with the Nazis. He moved his operations first to Austria, then to neutral Sweden, and finally, in part, to the United States. From there, he oversaw ever-changing distribution chains that put Mann’s newest works into the hands of readers not only in neutral countries, but also in fascist states such as Romania. The movement of books became directly tied to the movement of armies. For instance, Sweden was allowed to export literature across Nazi soil in sealed freight cars because in return it allowed the Germans to transport military materiel into occupied Norway.

As a result of these journeys, the books themselves were changed, and so was the image they conveyed of their author. One of my most cherished possessions is a copy of the so-called “Stockholm Edition” of The Magic Mountain, which my grandfather purchased after the war. It begins with an explanatory preface that Mann had composed at Princeton, and in which he praises the acuity of a Jewish-American critic. What might his European readers have thought of this essay as they hunkered down to read Mann’s work amidst the wailing of air-raid sirens?