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New International, December 1947


W. Brook

Thomas Mann’s “War Guilt”


From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 9, December 1947, p. 268.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Thomas Mann, the famous novelist who is also the idol of the liberal German emigration, was attacked by Alfred Haussman in a Swiss paper some weeks ago. Haussman quoted, from memory, a letter which Mann had written to the Nazi minister Frick in 1934.

Although Haussman’s main point – that Mann had applied for permission to return to Germany – has proved to be erroneous. still the publication was rather compromising for this leading exponent of the nauseating theory of the “collective guilt” of the German people.

For it became obvious that Thomas Mann had made rather strange concessions to the Nazis in order to obtain the renewal of his passport – especially strange when we remember that this was by no means a life-and-death question for the famous Nobel Prize winner, who was then living in Switzerland and had a choice among almost all the countries of the world which were only too eager to open their doors to such a prima donna.

To our knowledge Haussman’s letter has not been published in this country. Obviously our free press didn’t like it. Full space, however, was given to Mann’s reply to Haussmann’s attack. This reply, couched in polemical and general language, did not increase our knowledge of the contents of that mysterious letter. At any rate Mann did not take that opportunity to publish it, though it afterward turned out that he considers it a very valuable literary and biographical document. (It is hard to believe that he had no copy in his flies.)

Later the Neue Zeitung in Munich published Mann’s original letter, on August 11, 1947. Unfortunately we have not been able to obtain a copy of this issue. But on August 22 the New York German-language weekly Der Aufbau published a lengthy article on the letter, interpreting it and polemizing in favor of Mann. This article contains a few quotations.

According to Der Aufbau, Mann’s letter to Frick’s ministry was obviously occasioned either by his desire to obtain a passport or by his complaint against its refusal. According to the same source, Mann wrote to the Nazi authorities that his political aims had been wrecked, these aims having been the achievement of the “humane, peaceful and European solution of the German question by means of a bourgeois-Socialist front aiming at the construction of a real social and democratic republic.” Mann wrote that he was “not the fool who would revolt against the verdict of fate, which had decided with sufficient certainty” in favor of the Nazis, and that it would be senseless to continue battling against a victory achieved “without any doubt for a long period of time.” For this reason Mann promised to remain silent, to remain silent also abroad where he had resolved to live. He considered the exile “a leave from the national community” (Mann uses the Nazi term Volksgemeinschaft) “for an uncertain but limited period.”

If Mann had written nothing but best sellers on the psychological intricacies in the relations between Joseph and Potiphar, his letter would be of minor interest. He has, however, become also a political writer. He has been advocating the severest punishment for the German people by reason of their “collective guilt”; he has expressed satisfaction over their mutilation and starvation; he has publicly applauded an American general who threatened to shoot German demonstrators demanding an increase in food rations above 600 calories or so; he has never tired of exhorting his fellow Germans to confess and repent their guilt instead of asking for bread!

Perhaps Mann does not know that for the rest of the German people emigration was a thousand times more difficult than it was for him; that even the mere application for a passport would have meant certain and horrible death for most applicants not lucky enough to reside in Switzerland.

The just but pitiless judge Thomas Mann has established the unatonable guilt of the German people – but what exactly are they guilty of? If we are not mistaken, they are guilty of having been of Mann’s opinion; of having considered it foolish to revolt; of having believed that it would be senseless to continue battling against the decision of fate, the achieved victory of the Nazis! But in face of the mountain of guilt on the chest of every German, Mann grants no recommendation for leniency on grounds of circumstances – for example, the circumstance that revolt through action inside Germany was a little more difficult than revolt abroad through the written word.

Yet however monstrous the Germans’ guilt may be in the eyes of Thomas Mann, there is at least one crime which most of them did not commit: the promise to remain silent, a promise offered voluntarily and given from a safe haven abroad!

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