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An Open Letter Across Time

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.

The letter initiating Mann's expatriation © Auswärtiges Amt
The letter initiating Mann’s expatriation © Auswärtiges Amt

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.

Direct response
The first page of Mann’s letter (Universitätsarchiv Bonn © S. Fischer Verlage, Frankfurt am Main)

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)

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Think Piece

Why Are All the Costume Dramas Edwardian?, or, History and Popular Memory

by Emily Rutherford

When the World War I-era miniseries Parade’s End, based on the novels of Ford Madox Ford, was being broadcast on the BBC, a British friend asked me, “Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian?” It’s true: the narrative of Edwardian innocence lost in the trenches of France and the slow disintegration of the Empire has captivated audiences for decades, from Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s, to ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, to Merchant Ivory’s 1980s and ’90s films of E.M. Forster novels, to today’s hits. The film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, released in the UK last month, has proved surprisingly popular, enough to secure a US release later this year. The main UK television networks currently feature lavish shows set in an Edwardian department store and (albeit stepping slightly later, to the interwar period) the end of British rule in India. It’s not as if the rest of the English-speaking world is immune to this form of historical romance: just look at the success that Downton Abbey has had in the US and Canada.

What’s a tour of period dramas doing on a serious blog like this one? I want to suggest, speculatively and inexpertly, that the Edwardian era (the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910, and usually lumping in the years leading up to the First World War) has an outsize place in popular understandings of the British national story, in part because of how Edwardian and interwar writers themselves defined a particular sense of their national culture. We’re bequeathed that story now through lavish television adaptations of Waugh and Forster, Brittain and Flora Thompson, and I think it’s done a lot to obscure a more nuanced understanding of continuity and change in an English/British national history.

I was set on this train of thought by reading academic histories of the early modern British Empire—what’s often called the “first” British Empire, in contrast to the “second” that takes shape after the Napoleonic Wars. The latter is characterized, the usual story goes, by a strong metropolitan government that enacted powerful political authority over colonies across the world, by a strong culture of imperial pageantry, by an economic policy of free trade, and by a cultural experience of empire that touched the lives of everyone in the British Isles as well as those native populations whom the Empire subjugated. This, understandably, is what we think of when we think “British Empire”: after all, we’re not so temporally distant from it. People our parents’ or grandparents’ age celebrated Empire Day across the globe. Historians of the “first” British empire, therefore, have often had to clarify and explain how the ideology and the practice of imperial politics, economics, and lived social experience worked in a time before the nation-state (and indeed before Britain) and before capitalism. To what extent was the British Empire a system of political governance, and to what extent was it a trading network? What were the power relations between British settlers and native populations, and between settlers and the metropole? Does it make sense to conceive of the whole empire as a single entity? How were imperial politics and economics affected by the great political upheavals in seventeenth-century England? As I read this scholarship I’m struck by its need to overcome the sense that “the British Empire” wasn’t always already the concept Benjamin Disraeli invented when, in 1877, he got Parliament to pass a bill declaring Queen Victoria Empress of India.

Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and his biography of Queen Victoria (1921) gave us the Victorian age we remember today: war, duty, muscular Christianity, sexual repression, stiff upper lips, all rendered colorfully with the irreverent tone of a child rebelling against his parents. Indeed, as psychoanalysis came to be a powerful backdrop to the explorations of the Bloomsbury set to which Strachey belonged, other writers such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster helped to solidify that sense of a generational break. “On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” The old social conventions no longer applied; the generation that grew up amid the Great War had to ascertain new ways of relating to each other. Downton Abbey, actually, dramatizes vividly this perception of a generational divide, showing it being worked out among groups other than one too-clever set of young London literati. I’m not convinced, though: my own research suggests that the concerns of affect, sociability, and interiority that preoccupied writers like Woolf and Forster had their origins in discussions about democratization, urbanization, educational reform, and, yes, sexuality that interested many upper-middle-class, educated people of their parents’ generation, too. Here, again, the psychological interest of the loss-of-innocence story that attracted literary writers since the Great War itself may be a distraction from what the evidence shows.

In order to engage with an audience wider than field-specific specialists, historians must constantly interact with received popular narratives and oral traditions about the past, narratives which as they’re repeated can seem to acquire a shinier veneer of truth than anything that appears between the covers of books published by Oxford or Cambridge University Press. If there’s a gulf between the truth that drives television ratings and the truth that gets a scholar tenure, it comes to matter: witness politicians’ attempts to redefine school history curricula on both sides of the pond, most recently an attempt in the Oklahoma state legislature to ban the revised Advanced Placement US History curriculum from state schools because, essentially, its themes and questions, crafted by professional historians, don’t conform to the rather different received popular narrative those legislators have internalized. Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian? Because they sell a dramatically seductive narrative and evoke a time when Britain still had significant world political power. But when, for instance, these narratives shape how politicians observe the centenary of the First World War and perceptions of foreign conflict going forward, the work they do to comfort and to entertain assumes serious importance.