by John Raimo
Thomas Mann received a curious letter on December 25, 1936. The Nobel Prize-winning author had entered into exile in Switzerland after publicly denouncing the Nazi regime years earlier. Mann’s works had been already banned as “un-German,” despite the appearance of his novel Joseph in Ägypten (1936). More recently, the author had also accepted Czechoslovakian citizenship and himself set off the process by which he would lose his German citizenship. Yet Goebbel’s propaganda ministry sought to avoid openly antagonizing the internationally-renowned writer. The full break came through the mail. Mann received notice that the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Bonn revoked an honorary doctoral degree granted in 1919. The author saw an opportunity and, within a week, responded with what became one of the most famous polemical texts of the twentieth century.
A greater indictment can be hardly imagined than the “Briefwechsel mit Bonn” (correspondence with Bonn) or the “Brief an den Dekan” (letter to the Rector). In this open letter, Mann castigated not only the Nazis themselves but also the country as a whole for its “moral, cultural, and economic” degradation. The latter did not escape responsibility so far as it chose to follow Hitler’s “robbers and murderers” into “isolation, the hostility of the world, lawlessness, mental incapacity, the twilight of culture, and every deficiency.” The nameless university rector only personified these circumstances in his position as a steward of German culture.
Yet Mann also indirectly addressed the letter to “free and cultured men beyond the sea,” both emigrant Germans and others. Whether the most nationally representative writers have been severed from their readers nearly fell beside the point: authors’ “responsibility” to language and morality, the “wholeness of the human problem” and the “true totality” of humanity ran directly counter to totalitarian politics. The “human right to word and act” stood to be lost. And here the consequences of Nazi Germany proved universal in scope:
The meaning and purpose of the national socialist state-system is solely and can be only this: to bring the German people to the form of a limitless submission under the relentless elimination, suppression, eradication of any disturbing counter-impulse facing the “coming war,” to immunize them from critical thought, to make them spellbound instruments of war in blind and fanatical ignorance. This system can have no other meaning and purpose, no other excuse; all the victims of freedom, justice, human happiness—including the secret and open crimes [the system] took upon itself without hesitation—alone justify it in the idea of unconditional preparations for war.*
For Mann, Germany’s “moral erosion” and the specter of totalitarian forces waging war accordingly went hand in hand. The bureaucrat receiving his response was not the tip of the spear, but only one disturbing grain in the handle.
At once polemic and manifesto, the letter took immediate flight. Ein Brief (Oprecht, 1937) brought the original communication together with Mann’s response, appeared in Switzerland by mid-January, and quickly ran to nearly twenty thousand printings by March. Illegal copies passed into Nazi Germany under the title Briefe deutscher Klassiker. Wege zum Wissen (Ullstein, 1937). It also appeared in several languages, including English (Alfred A. Knopf, 1937), and traveled widely across the continent. The success was such that Mann read it aloud in a wartime radio broadcast (“Teil der Verlesung der Antwort an den Dekan der Philosophischen Fakultät der Uni Bonn auf die Aberkennung der Ehrendoktorwürde;” BBC, 15 June 1942). Indeed, the original special edition remained in print until 1980 with the text unchanged until today. The tremendous response proved such that the Reich’s propaganda ministry felt it necessary to directly respond: “Thomas Mann should be extinguished from the memory of Germans, as he is not worthy to carry the German name.”
Mann’s own name never disappeared, of course. Why this failed to happen is clear enough. How both Mann’s reputation and the text itself persisted furnish other stories, though, particularly during the dark times of the Second World War. Several fine intellectual histories might be traced here: what were the ideas of authorship and a reading public in Germany and Europe at the time? How does Mann’s text fit into a tradition of specifically German polemics? Seldom would any author make any such universal claims again or so easily presuppose an educated public, and Mann’s polemics mark a clear enough transition into the postwar period. Then how did Mann’s notions of the writer, audience and politics change over time? This is another long story, but the evolution of Ein Brief in the white heat of composition offers some interesting clues (cf. the manuscript, typescript, and print versions in Hübinger, 1974). And how did the text as such become canonized and celebrated until today, as indeed the banned title very ironically guessed? On this latter score, we can also note that Thomas Mann’s clean typescript with basic commentary can be downloaded from the website of Germany’s federal Bundesministerium des Innern (PDF) while Mann’s longtime publisher Fischer sells the text as a stand-alone eBook.
Yet another history lays closer to the ground. Research leads me to think that the text’s reception and circulation prove just as complex as its ideas. The material text and original pricing of the pamphlet ensured a cheap, easily-hidden object, albeit one designed and marketed to middle- and upper-class readers. The German publisher of the banned edition, Ullstein, saw the book to print shortly before coming under the control of the central Nazi publishing group. This act may have been a last editorial gesture of resistance. Then archival findings show little marginalia—perhaps out of fear of one’s handwriting being discovered?—yet remarkably uniform underlining and other markings of passages. Who read them? How the books were sold and presumably passed from hand to hand (and also exchanged in the mail outside of Germany) remains another story, as do the varying but wholly respectful reviews abroad. The event of the radio broadcast also tells a story, given how the BBC was heard in wartime Germany and that Mann read the text unchanged—his voice anything but incantatory, thick with irony almost dripping off key words.
This all gives one a great deal to reflect upon so far as the importance of writing, texts, and books goes in intellectual history. Yet it also raises challenges for the field. Early modernists have long plumbed the history of the book, the historic circulation of texts, and questions of reception. Granted, it can be argued that the twentieth century does not furnish as many interesting case studies in terms of editions, &c. Still, why haven’t historians of later periods followed suit more often?
*All translations by author (bis auf „angekränkeltes,“ dafür ich mich bei NC, ZB und AK bedanke)
4 replies on “An Open Letter Across Time”
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What a rich and wonderful story–and one that poses very clearly the question of what history of books and readers can do for modern intellectual history (and vice versa). At Princeton, the acquisition of Derrida’s library will afford others a different way in the same set of problems.
Oddly enough, one of those “free and cultured men beyond the sea” was my father, who dedicated one of his columns to a great salute to Mann, on the occasion of his arrival in the States. We have a noble reply from Mann to my father: a treasure of the civilization that survived those years, somehow.
How wonderful, Tony! Could you ever be prevailed upon to share either your father’s column or Mann’s response? The republic of letters in wartime would make for a wonderful post, or even better a book one day ….
I’m also still fascinated by Mann’s landing in Princeton (even beyond the thought of him hanging out with Schoenberg in California, where the great composer also apparently enjoyed playing ping-pong … http://gapyx.com/cmt/2009/11/schoenberg_pingpong_1930.jpg ). I know that a great living novelist has written a book about this period. But then again, that whole town has a wonderful history from the Frankfurt School’s quartering there to the 1966 meeting of die Gruppe 47 (http://german.princeton.edu/landmarks/gruppe-47/), &c. Some good people have written about Mann in America, but mostly from the point of what he did rather than whom he met—and I’m not sure that latter’s a less interesting story.
I promise, I’ll dig out the exchange between Wolfe and my dad. In the meantime, don’t forget the testimony of Tom Wolfe about that Gruppe 47 visit, discussed here by Joshua Glenn: https://nplusonemag.com/issue-1/essays/the-black-iron-prison/