German listeners!

Image: Vasco Prado


Commentary on Thomas Mann's collection of speeches against Hitler during World War II.

“Germans, save yourselves! Wake up, Germany! Will Nazism last forever? When will the Savior of this earth come?” These appeals, now hopeful, now restless, flew from October 1940 to May 1945, the long years of World War II. They emanated from Thomas Mann, German writer, Nobel Prize for Literature, invited by the BBC to make radio programs transmitted to German territory.

Mann had become an icon of resistance to Nazism, due to his prestige as an intellectual and his non-partisan affiliation. He could represent the voice of an opposition not compromised by the traditional political game. Hence the invitation from the BBC and the expectation of success for the program.

Mann's speeches are a crude denunciation of Nazism and its leadership. It is worth remembering that, until 1942, their prestige was still high in the world, especially in Europe, where they appeared embodying an Order that was here to last. For Mann, however, the Nazis are a bunch of murderers, "demonic". The writer is convinced that they embody “evil”. The fight against them is a fight of Good against Evil. They will not win because Evil can not beat good.

Nazism was to be destroyed and its leaders "executed". If the Germans themselves took up the task, the better, Germany could regain a recognized place among the “civilized” nations of the world.

However, if they didn't, the alliance formed by the US, England and Russia would do so at the cost of atrocities and, worse, the allies would occupy the country, with unpredictable consequences for the fate of the nation and German culture.

Thomas Mann was a man of vast culture, but his perceptions of war were unique. He never refers to the Soviet Union, preferring to call it Russia, a tradition of anti-Communist currents. In describing the cruelties practiced by the Nazis, he almost always emphasizes those committed in Western and Central Europe, but little denounces the exactions practiced east of Warsaw.

As for Asia, despite the terrible killings perpetrated by the Japanese, it hardly appears in the German writer's point of view, except to praise "the sense of nobility and decency" (sic) of Japanese leaders who offered condolences on the death of FD Roosevelt , in April 1945, although Japan was still at war with the Allies.

Praise for Mann is reserved only for Western allies, to whom he has unrestricted admiration. English resistance and the determination of W. Churchill, the USA, a “combative democracy”, and, in particular, the president of the USA, FD Roosevelt, deserve vibrant praise. For Mann, Americans are only interested in “work and peacebuilding”, wars and the conquest of foreign lands seem to them “superfluous and insane”.

Later, when applying for citizenship, Mann does not hide his pride in having become a “roman civilians, an American citizen”. And that this happened, says the writer, “under the aegis of that Caesar”, referring to Roosevelt. The Rome of Good versus the Rome of Evil. Any resemblance to what would come later is not mere coincidence.

Another, essential question is the character of the association between Nazism and Germany. How could it happen? How could the “Beast” emerge in a country with such a refined culture? This is a disturbing question, which still raises controversies to this day.

In the fire of events, Mann tries to understand the enigma and tries several keys, alternately or simultaneously.

In a first register, the Nazis would have deceived the German people. With a diabolical ability to invert meanings, they presented themselves as nationalists, socialists, revolutionaries, defenders of the best traditions, protectors of Europe. They appropriated beautiful words and values ​​to defile them with criminal perfidy. And the German people, deceived and/and frightened by the dangers of the crisis, Bolshevism and chaos, accompanied those “miserable, disgusting” people. What a pity! Mann will not abandon this key, but it is too simplistic to convince him.

In a second key, then, the author invokes the circumstances. Nazism would have received foreign aid, and not just for the love of peace, but "for the worst reasons". Which? There would have been a “fatal chain of consequences”. If there is guilt, the writer sentences, “it is intertwined with many faults in the world”. Nazism was not just a German phenomenon. Once, in the March 1944 issue, Mann asserted: German and international finance capital propelled the Nazis to power. Severe accusation, unexpected. However, the subject, of interesting implications, would not be deepened.

But there is a third key, and with it Mann recognizes the affinities between the German people and Nazism. It admits historical anchors that would root Nazism in Germany, a history of nationalism and racism, “long and terrible”, ideas that always carried the germ of murderous corruption, in no way alien to “the good old Germany of culture”… And the infinite ability to swallow lies, boundless obedience, credulity, enchantment and fascination with Nazism, associated with “honor, beauty and order”. The “technicalized mysticism”, a “convulsive lack” and the envy of England and the English, ingredients that were added and combined in a thick broth, fermenting ancestral hatreds and resentments.

Different keys, which are not mutually exclusive, intertwine in a groping zigzag.

Mann and his torment: “I will continue to be a German and suffer for the fate of Germany”. And he tries to console himself: this does not sum up the history of the German spirit, there is Dürer, Bach, Goethe and Beethoven. The problem is that the Nazis also lay claim to the glorious lights of German civilization.

When the War draws to a close, amid catastrophic devastation, Mann will still try to convince the German people to revolt against Nazism. He argues, apostrophes, shouts, insults. He threatens more than justifiable annihilations: if they don't revolt, the Germans will deserve the punishment! They will atone for their faults!

There was no way. Germany preferred the rabble of Evil to the bombs and tanks of Good. The Germans fought like lions until the last citadel, Berlin, fell and the devil, Hitler, committed suicide. Nobody showed up to save them from themselves. And they would, perhaps, have been completely lost if the Cold War, which soon followed, had not spared them.

And so it took decades for professional historians to take up the keys proposed by the great German writer, putting them into action now in a more complex way, and try again to understand those ghosts that had tormented him so much and that still haunt us with their riddles.

Because that past, as we know, has not passed. Nor is it just German, although the Germans experienced it with singular intensity. And if you come back? After all, as the poet had already foreseen, the “Beast” was annihilated, but the womb that generated it remains fruitful.

*Daniel Aaron Reis é professor of Contemporary History at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Author, among other books, of The Revolution that changed the world – Russia, 1917 (Companhia das Letras).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 5, August 2009.


Thomas Mann. German listeners! speeches against Hitler (1940-1945). Translation: Antonio Carlos dos Santos and Renato Zwick. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 224 pages.





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