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Thomas Mann and the Fate of Democracy in the Age of World War II

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Although we rarely remember it today, the American intervention in World War II was hardly driven by an idealistic desire to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. Without the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States might well not have entered the conflict at all. In fact, American society during the years immediately prior to 1941 was deeply divided about its role in a changing world order. Did the democratic constitution of the United States, along with its immigrant heritage, saddle it with a moral obligation to combat authoritarianism abroad? Or would it be better to continue the policy of isolationism that had governed U.S. foreign policy for much of its history?

Although we rarely remember it today, the American intervention in World War II was hardly driven by an idealistic desire to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world.

This was the time of Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio-addressed and of mass rallies by the isolationist America First Committee. But it was also the time of courageous interventions by outspoken public figures, such as the journalist Dorothy Thompson or the polymath Lewis Mumford. At times, the contrast was direct and dramatic. On September 25, 1938, for example, almost 30,000 people assembled in New York’s Madison Square Garden to protest the impending Munich Agreement, and to urge the U.S. government not to surrender Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. Less than half a year later, an equivalent number of American Nazi supporters came together in the very same venue, raising their arms in the Hitler salute and parading swastika banners in front of a giant portrait of George Washington.

Less than half a year later, an equivalent number of American Nazi supporters came together in the very same venue, raising their arms in the Hitler salute and parading swastika banners in front of a giant portrait of George Washington.

My book, Thomas Mann’s War, focuses on a chapter from this larger history that has so far received very little attention in the United States: the anti-fascist activities of the Nobel-prize winning novelist Thomas Mann, who arrived in America as an exile from Nazi Germany in 1938. For much of his career, Mann had been celebrated on this continent in an unpolitical fashion, as simply “the Greatest Living Man of Letters.” During the period from 1938 to 1945, however, he was acclaimed as “Hitler’s Most Intimate Enemy.” He gave speeches in front of capacity crowds all over the country. He published essays and letters to the editor of major newspapers. He recorded radio broadcasts. And he met with President Roosevelt, won the acclaim of cabinet officials and Supreme Court Justices, and testified in front of Congress.

During the period from 1938 to 1945, however, he refashioned himself as “Hitler’s Most Intimate Enemy.”

These activities have so far received comparatively little attention in part because their impact is difficult to quantify. No policies were changed, and no armies were launched, on account of Mann’s interventions. But Mann knew that his proper task was not to spur direct action. Instead, he took it to be his mission to help overcome democracy’s biggest weakness: the fact that it does not inspire the same devotion that totalitarian ideologies do. What mattered most about his speeches thus wasn’t their content, but their symbolic character, and the fact that they brought ordinary Americans together in a celebration of freedom and equality.  This strikes me as a remarkably prescient lesson also for the present day, in which enthusiasm for democratic institutions is once again in global decline.

But Mann knew that his proper task was not to spur direct action. Instead, he took it to be his mission to help overcome democracy’s biggest weakness: the fact that it does not inspire the same devotion that totalitarian ideologies do.

The example of Thomas Mann is prescient in other ways as well. He was celebrated in America in no small part because he was regarded as a spokesperson for the German cultural tradition, and thus as a legitimate competitor to the propaganda apparatus of the Nazis. This is something that we still do today: when countries at the other end of the world move to the center of U.S. foreign policy, we turn to artists in the hopes that they might tell us what the situation there is really like. Whenever we read an essay or open letter by Salman Rushdie on Modi’s India, or by Elif Shafak on Erdogan’s Turkey, we thus engage with literary authors in a way that was largely pioneered by Thomas Mann.


Tobias Boes is Associate Professor of German at the University of Notre Dame and the author of one previous Cornell University Press book, Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Bildungsroman.

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