Thomas Mann

Image: Thyago Nogueira (Jornal de Resenhas)


Commentary on the work of the German writer

When Thomas Mann landed in New York Harbor in 1938 after initial exile in Switzerland and France, his first words in front of a camera were: Democracy will win. Under the aegis of this message, the city of Munich, where the author of the Buddenbrooks lived from 1894 to January 1933, offers until the beginning of 2021 an exhibition on the various stages of the trajectory of the honoree: the formative years in northern Germany, as the son of the merchant and senator of Lübeck Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann and the Brazilian Julia da Silva-Bruhns (nicknamed Dodo); the conservative and nationalist phase, which led him to welcome the declaration of war by Wilhelmina Germany; transformation into an uncompromising defender of democracy and the Weimar Republic; anti-fascist and one of Hitler's most prominent enemies; the intense literary and political work in his “white house of exile” in California (Pacific Palisades), where his anti-Nazi speeches and the monumental novel Doctor Faust; and his final years as a spokesman for democratic values, which would make him the target of McCarthyist persecution, forcing him to turn his back on the United States in 1952 and seek refuge in Switzerland again.

A biography, therefore, that took a decisive democratic path, as illustrated by countless positions and statements by Thomas Mann – for example, these words to an American journalist who interviewed him in 1941: “Not “America first”, but “Democracy first” and “Human dignity first” is the slogan which will really lead America to the first place in the world".

It would not be difficult to infer from this political trajectory that, nowadays, Thomas Mann could not but be alarmed by the emergence of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and other populists (and “climate deniers”) who contradict in every way the traits of the upstanding and responsible leader who , in the field of Realpolitik, he saw in Franklin D. Roosevelt (with whom he had personal contact) and who, in the mythical-literary sphere, was conceived in the biblical figure of the “provider” Joseph, in the tetralogy Joseph and his brothers (1933-1943), whose writing was also guided by the objective of “taking the myth out of the hands of intellectual fascism and molding it to the human sphere”, as expressed in a September 1941 letter to the philologist and mythologist Karl Kerényi.

There will certainly be no exaggeration in saying that the phenomenon of fascism, which unfortunately is not limited to the catastrophes of the XNUMXth century, has found in the work of Thomas Mann one of its most expressive and multifaceted literary representations. In that sense, the Doctor Faust, written between 1943 and 1947, constitutes an apogee, not only in the scope of his epic work, but of all German literature. However, 17 years before the publication of that novel, the novel set in Mussolini's Italy – and “so tragically prophetic”, in the words of Anatol Rosenfeld – appeared. Mario and the Magician, one of the first works in all of world literature to apprehend, albeit largely intuitively, the advent and rise of fascism.

But Thomas Mann also left us an extraordinary set of anti-fascist speeches and texts, such as the 58 speeches he wrote between 1940 and 1945 to be broadcast to Germany by the BBC in London, later published under the title Deutsche Hörer!: “German listeners!”, invocation and apostrophe with which allocutions began. In this set, Bruder Hitler (“Brother Hitler”), written in 1938 and published a year later in English translation (That man is my brother), occupies a unique position, since by concentrating on the personality of Adolf Hitler – a name that, however, is never pronounced – the essay is guided by aesthetic principles and concepts, leaving aside the more properly political arguments that we find in texts such as “Appeal to reason”, “Of the future victory of democracy”, “Confession for socialism” and several others.

Already the first step of the essay points in this direction: the deep hatred that Thomas Mann feels for the abject criminal (which Bertolt Brecht, for various reasons, called Anstreicher, “wall painter”) must be overcome by something more productive: “interest”, which provides the free, broad and lofty contemplation that the novelist always associated with the most characteristic procedure of his epic work: “irony”.

In this perspective, Adolf Hitler is seen not as the radically “Other”, but ironically and at the level of “distress” (Verhunzung, a central term in the essay) as a “brother” – a “brother”, as we know from Hitler's biography, who soon felt an inclination towards drawing and painting, although his few productions never surpassed the level of mediocrity. In the context of this argument based on an unusual “fraternity”, the essayist goes back to the younger years of his “double” in Vienna: a precarious and bohemian existence in hostels and cheap housing, nourished by enthusiasm for Wagnerian operas and the feeling of having born for something “great”, dreamed of from the start within the scope of an artistic career.

However, the indolent young man from Braunauam Inn (northern Austria) lacks, in addition to true talent, the discipline that, in the case of the young Thomas Mann, enabled him to complete a novel at the age of 25 at the age of XNUMX. Buddenbrooks. After successive failures to assert himself as a painter (among them, two failures to enter the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna), and equally incapable, in the essayist's view, of any useful occupation, Adolf Hitler makes the decision to become political, as he himself explains in the excerpt from the Mein Kampf (My fight, end of chapter VII), in which he reports the circumstances in which the news of the 1918 revolution and the proclamation of the republic on November 9 reaches his ears: “But I decided to become a politician” – a fateful phrase that Günter Grass will parody in the novel The Tin Drum (also an extraordinary representation of fascism) through the self-narrator Oskar Matzerath, who stops growing at the age of three: “[…] I said, I decided and I decided not to be a politician under any circumstances and, even less, grocery store, putting an end to it and staying just as it was: and that’s how I stayed, with the same stature and in that same presentation, for many years”.

Thus begins a career for Hitler based entirely on demagoguery, hatred and the propagation of what is known today as fake news; a trajectory that could perhaps receive, once again at the level of disfigurement, the attribute “genius”. The career turns out to be unbelievably successful, seeming to have come out of a “wonderful tale” by the Brothers Grimm, in which all obstacles are overcome by the suffering hero who in the end conquers the princess and the kingdom, or from HC Andersen, as “The duckling ugly". How to explain the resounding success of the Wagnerian charlatan, the histrionic demagogue to whose hypnosis millions of Germans began to succumb?

The wounded honor, the inferiority complex of a nation defeated in the First War and subjected to the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles is mixed, argues Mann, with the “unfathomable resentment and thirst for pustulent revenge of a useless, incapable, failed series of times, extremely lazy, unfit for any kind of work, condemned to eternal failure, frustrated amateur artist, a real wretch”.

And this creature, basically mediocre, manages to place an entire people “with glorious cultural traditions”, quoting A. Rosenfeld again, under the dominion of his hypnotic blue eyes and his venomous rhetoric, making the masses shudder “Heil” in unison and raise their right arm, in perfect unison, for the Nazi salute. “What, after all, is the difference”, asks Thomas Mann after referring to a recent documentary about dances performed by Balinese people in a trance, “between rituals of this type and what happens in a mass concentration, of a political nature, in Europe ?” The answer is: just the difference between exoticism and abjection.

Of extreme “abjection” is also the show offered by the magician Cipolla in Mario and the Magician. It is known that the real model for Cipolla's conception was the illusionist e prestidigitation Cesare Gabrielli (1881-1943), whose powerful hypnotic art the writer got to know firsthand in 1926, during the summer holidays he spent with his family in the Tuscan resort of Forte dei Marmi. In this small novelistic masterpiece, Thomas Mann shows us how the hypnosis practiced by Cipolla-Gabrielli fits into the kind of art that, in the essay on Hitler, is characterized as innaturalis, like black magic.

Recognizing the adepts of this art, first of all, the “wall painter”, but also a Joseph Goebbels, herald of a future “heroic, fiercely romantic, non-sentimental” German art – remembering this abomination so admired by Roberto Alvim, then secretary culture of the Bolsonaro government – ​​and author of the training novel Michael, completed in 1924 and published five years later: addressing such genocides as “brothers” is only possible in the context of an argument articulated around the concept of disfigurement, of perversion. And also an argument in which “interest” takes precedence over “hatred” in the effort to get to know the enemy's terrain in more depth.

This procedure was obviously not reciprocal, as Thomas Mann became one of the main targets of the hate machine (and of fake news) Nazi. A single example: in 1932 the newspaper The attack (The Attack), created by Goebbels, inveighed Thomas Mann because of his “Brazilian” blood, inherited from his mother Julia da Silva: “We need to demand with all vehemence that this literate mix of Indians, blacks, Moors and who knows what the hell else what – that this mixture can no longer name itself a German writer and poet”. (It's not hard to understand what this "hell knows what else" means...)

As for the author of Magic Mountain, by overcoming hatred in the essay in question and scrutinizing in himself traits of the degenerate “brother”, he also recognizes the danger, which haunted him in his conservative and nationalist phase, of becoming susceptible to ideological tendencies that would converge towards the national- socialism. In this way, the figure of the antagonistic “brother” provides him with a deeper knowledge of himself, particularly in his condition as an “artist”, that the devil, in the conversation with the composer Adrian Leverkühn (chapter XXV of the Doctor Faust) will characterize as “brother of the criminal and the insane”.

Also in the biography of Thomas Mann, the figure of the antagonistic brother has deep roots, it suffices to remember that the enlivened treatise Considerations of an apolitical (1918) largely represented a crusade against the democratic positions, rooted in French traditions, of his older brother Heinrich Mann, author of the novel Professor Unrat (filmed in 1930 as the blue angel) and extraordinary essays on Émile Zola and Gustav Flaubert. Reconciliation between the brothers began in 1922, the year in which the youngest published a vehement defense of the Weimar Republic and democracy: “About the German Republic”.

Then, the rivalry that had even reflected on the novel that earned Thomas Mann the Nobel Prize in 1929 begins to evaporate: in the episode in which the brothers Thomas and Christian Buddenbrook engage in a violent argument while their mother's body is being prepared for the wake in the next room. Then the exemplary bourgeois Thomas, with his life guided by a disciplined work ethic, says to his bohemian brother: “I became the way I am because I didn't want to become like you. If, deep down, I avoided your contact, it was because I needed to beware of you, because your essence and nature mean a danger to me…”.

Much more than merely "beware" of his "brother Hitler", Thomas Mann became one of his main enemies, not only in the Leader as well as fascism in general. In this essay the enemy Hitler is brought into the field in which he sought to assert himself during the uncertain and bohemian years of his youth in Vienna. (“The Führer loves artists because he himself is an artist”, Goebbels will also say in one of his speeches against “degenerate art”.) Precisely for this reason, the essay can conclude by expressing the confidence that the hypnotic spell celebrated in the fascist tribunes would be one day wiped off the map, that the manipulative “art” of Hitler or Mussolini – also that of the magician Cipolla, which Mario violently puts an end to – would no longer be possible in the future.

Symptomatically, the words with which the great novelist concludes the essay are the opposite of that hateful proclamation by Goebbels, plagiarized by a high-ranking Brazilian official: “I would like to believe, rather, I am certain that times will come when art without moral limits or intellectuals, art transformed into black magic or an instinctive, irrational and irresponsible product, will be as despised as it is venerated in our not very human times”. And then follows, as a closing point, the announcement of a truly human art, based on the idea of ​​mediation and spirit, which in essence would already be the same thing: “The art of the future will manifest itself and affirm, in a more notorious and happy way of what happened until today, as a luminous enchantment, as a mediation – winged, hermetic, lunar – between spirit and life. And let us not forget: mediation is already spirit”.

That these better times, with no place for the art extolled by a Joseph Goebbels, did not come with the collapse of National Socialism, this soon became clear to Thomas Mann. That is why he wrote in a letter of April 1947 that the climate poisoned by fascism, against which the telenovela Mario and the Wizard represented a first combat action, “was not completely eliminated by the war”.

If the ideology of hate, therefore, continued to prosper after 1945, it is not surprising that Thomas Mann remained one of its main targets, which is also witnessed by Günter Grass, in a text from 1980 (“As a writer always also a contemporary”) , recalling the hatred that boiled over in part of critics and public opinion when Thomas Mann returned from emigration (but only “on a visit”, without return to his native country), “with the novel Doctor Faust and read the Levites to the Germans” (wieviel Geifer in deutscher Kritik aufkochte, als Thomas Mann mit seinem Roman Doktor Faustus aus der Emigration zwar nicht heimkehrte, wohl aber zurückkam und den Deutschen die Leviten las).

Until his death on August 12, 1955, the novelist experienced on several occasions, along with smear campaigns against him, hatred of culture, democracy and the “spirit”, to mention the word that concludes the essay “Brother Hitler”. . A hatred, it should be noted, that even today thrives with particular intensity in some countries, as shown among us, for example, by the violent attacks that Abraham Weintraub – a Minister of Education! – systematically directed against the “sciences of the spirit”: Humanities, as Goethe's language calls the human sciences.

The fight against hatred that led to the advent of an Adolf Hitler continued to guide Thomas Mann's post-war life and, as such, it is not surprising that his last two major essays, dedicated to Friedrich Schiller and Anton Chekhov, also defend uncompromising expression of the democratic and mediation “spirit” that opposes all forms of fascism. From this perspective, the eighty-year-old novelist close to death closes his essay on Chekhov with a moving praise of the humanizing force of art – the art of storytelling – while at the same time reiterating his confidence in overcoming such less than human conditions: “And yet , people work, stories are told and the truth is shaped in the dark hope, almost in the confidence that truth and serene form can act on the soul in a liberating way and that they can prepare the world for a better, more beautiful life, fairer to the spirit”.

*Marcus Vinicius Mazzari Professor of Literary Theory at the University of São Paulo. Author, among other books, of The Double Night of the Lime Trees – History and Nature in Goethe's Faust (Publisher 34).



Ausstellung [Exhibition] DEMOCRACY WILL WIN!THOMAS MANN:

MANN, Thomas. "Bruder Hitler". In: Redenund Aufsätze4. Frankfurt a. M., Fischer, 1990 (pages 845 – 852). Portuguese translation by Gilda Lopes Encarnação available at:

ROSENFELD, Anatol: “Mario e o Mágico”, in; Thomas Mann. São Paulo, Editora Perspectiva, 1994.


See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives