Reflections of a Non-Political Man 
by Thomas Mann, translated by Walter Morris.
Lorrimar, 435 pp., £19.50, February 1986, 9780804425858
Show More
Show More

Long before the English began worrying about their national identity, the Germans fought a war to assert theirs – or so many German intellectuals felt in August 1914. Thomas Mann’s contribution to this eruption of nationalist self-consciousness was delivered in a series of essays written over the following four years, and it is among the strangest things he ever wrote. Not the least paradox of this exacting, ambitious and deeply ironical work is the fact that when it was first published, in the month of Germany’s defeat, the causes and attitudes so strenuously defended in its pages seemed to the population at large all but discredited: and Mann’s own rejection of most of them was soon to follow. Whatever his motives in writing these essays, there was nothing expedient about publishing them.

Beautifully printed and produced (though without index and without notes), this is the last of Thomas Mann’s major works to appear in English. W.D. Morris’s translation is felicitous, and is made accessible to the reader by means of a brief but helpful introduction. One may disagree with some of his decisions: ‘intellect’, in particular, which Mr Morris offers as a translation of Geist, seems to me a worse choice than ‘spirit’, Erich Heller’s word for it in The Ironic German. Still, unlike most of Mann’s previous translators, Mr Morris has succeeded in solving many of the difficulties arising from the writer’s delight in the ambiguities and high artifice of learned parlance; even his renderings of Mann’s notoriously complex syntax, in which (the risks authors take!) heavy-handedness itself is spoofed, are achieved without sacrifice of accuracy, elegance or wit.

By the time Mann, aged 39, wrote the first of these essays he was among his country’s most highly regarded writers. After Death in Venice (1912), his most recent success, he had begun work on The Magic Mountain, and this was now put aside, ‘for the duration’. Two events of very unequal importance unloosed the floodgates of this current of dialectical argument, special pleas, invective and self-revelation: the outbreak of the war, on the one hand, and his bitter personal and literary quarrel with his Francophile, politically-committed elder brother Heinrich, on the other. Given the violent lurch toward war of the entire Wilhelmine establishment in the summer of 1914, Thomas Mann’s part in the nationalist stampede is not all that surprising. Yet the irony of his belated fervour was not lost on him: throughout the book he keeps on asking himself ‘what the devil’ he, the author of Buddenbrooks – German literature’s finest contribution to the Western tradition of the realist novel – is doing among all those far from ‘unpolitical’ literati whom ‘the sacred requirements of Germany’s hour of need’ had turned into anti-Western nationalists.

The public or national purpose of the book was to define and defend Germany as the land of music and philosophy, of Geist and of authoritarian government – of what Mann calls ‘culture’ – against ‘the West’, with its rationalism, its French revolutionary ideas and its belief in inevitable progress through technology – what Mann calls ‘civilisation’. Meanwhile, at a personal level, yet equally publicised, the aim was to define and defend its author’s stance in relation to these two ideologically-loaded views of the German and European destiny. The tug-of-war between ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’, which Thomas Mann takes over from the conservative ideologists of the Wilhelmine Empire, is symptomatic of the dualistic manner that pervades the book. For many years, some would say since the Reformation, the obsessive play with antitheses was part of the German intellectual kit. So much so that at the end of the 18th century G.C. Lichtenberg in his Waste-Books conducted a series of aphoristic sorties against ‘the infamous TWO in the world’, singling out ‘certain of our authors who, once they’ve given their subject-matter a good thump, declare that it naturally falls into two parts’ and spend the rest of their time playing one off against the other. Such insights are lost on the less than mercurial author of Reflections. Instead of trying to soften the antagonisms of the war situation he deliberately intensifies them. The inveterate habit of dichotomising everything on the cultural and political horizon prevails: the ‘individualistic’ masses which are seen as ‘democratic’ are played off against dad Volk, which is said to be an aristocratic concept; ‘music’ and ‘philosophy’, endowed with proper German gravity, are opposed to the shallow ‘politics’ of Western meliorism; ‘power’ is opposed to ‘mind’; and Heinrich Mann the irresponsible Zivilisationsliterat is thumped on the head by the nationally-committed Brother Thomas with his ‘German-bürgerlich-artistic’ conscience.

Explaining and slightly fudging his own prewar attitude, Thomas Mann writes: ‘A good part of my patriotism came and comes from the comparison of the German-tragic concept of events with the forensic-moral concept of our enemies’ (as though tragedy excluded the moral view), and then adds: ‘But did I not also see in this turn of the century a turn of my own personal life and of all our lives?’ Here is the fatal slither from the national to the personal, from the political to the literary, that makes the book such embarrassing reading. He anticipates our embarrassment, and a few sentences later writes: ‘What shook me and shamed me was the incongruity between my personal rank and the roaring display of world history that marked the crisis of my forty years.’ What that admission (and countless others like it) subtly suggests – that somehow the ‘incongruity’ is beyond his control – is spelled out in the next sentence: ‘No doubt it is fate to be placed so in time that a change in personal life comes together with a change in the times.’ No doubt it is. But the Saint Sebastian posture he adopts in ‘bearing witness’ to these changes is not a matter of fate but a matter of choice – of literary choice. The book – he says so more than once – needs an apologia: this fatalism provides it.

Reflections – I prefer Meditations – of a Non-Political Man has often been attacked for its politics. It is, in its way, a conservative manifesto. Yet, as T.J. Reed has observed in Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, there is an air of unreality in Mann’s account of the issues involved – he is not in the least interested in the process by which political decisions are reached or enacted. ‘Democratic politics’ is condemned for lacking ‘metaphysical dignity’ – terms which make one wonder whether he was ever interested enough to find out what politics mean in practice. The gulf between his own supposedly ‘non-political’ concerns and the European bloodshed is to be bridged by irony: and irony, in Mann’s case, invariably involves lashings of authorial self-consciousness. Yet the ‘incongruity’ (some might call it indecency) of placing his own literary predicament on a par in terms of interest, importance and seriousness with the political situation – the incongruity of this ‘symbolism’ doesn’t, after all, strike him with sufficient force. The collapse of civilised values at the outbreak of war was almost complete. Yet there were a very few writers who saw ‘service for the fatherland with pen in hand’ for the abomination it was. Thomas Mann was not among them.

Instead, he creates a scenario of huge historical and cultural abstractions which he intersperses with anecdotes, brilliant insights and countless quotations from half a dozen literatures (as though his motto were ‘I quote, therefore I am’); and this view of Deutschtum, of ‘what it is to be German’, he hopes will entertain us while he manoeuvres us across the book’s fundamental flaw, the flaw inherent in placing literary representativeness – essentially a fictional device – within a political context. Most of the time, however, the device works. We read the book not as fiction but as document, though what it documents is the fiction-like ambiguity of its attitudes. With Thomas Mann’s whole oeuvre before us we can see Reflections as one of his many attempts to relate the single self to history, and to do this by means of a prose style which makes that relationship explicitly representative. The attempt will be repeated: first in The Magic Mountain (1924), where the two opposing sides – Zivilisationsliterat versus committed upholder of spiritual values – will be subjected to yet more irony and given a less transparently fictional status in the figures of the humanist Signor Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Leo Naphta; and finally in Doctor Faustus (1947).

In these contexts – that is, in fictional achievements that are wholly free from the destructive pathos of serving a warlike cause – the confrontation reflected on in this book assumes a different function. It becomes part of a legitimate concern for a national culture and identity that must co-exist – and does today co-exist – with other national cultures and identities, without which Europe would be the less.

How do we see this wartime miscellany of pleas and accusations? Again and again in these pages Thomas Mann takes pride in comparing the effort their composition cost him with the effort of his country at war, again and again the strenuousness of both undertakings is commended as the supremely ‘German’ virtue. Seeing that the author sets up his literary emporium at a safe distance from the battle – a vivandière’s enterprise seems more honourable – it can hardly be regarded as a heroic value. In any event, this elevation of the difficulties of composition to existential heights is part of a value scheme that hasn’t worn too well. There was too much strenuousness, most of it ‘beyond good and evil’, in the decades that followed for us to believe in it as uncritically as Thomas Mann does.

The merit of the book lies elsewhere. To anyone interested in the intellectual history of Germany not only up to the end of the Great War but beyond it, to the coming of Hitler, it yields some of the most profound and illuminating insights ever formulated. It has been called prophetic. It certainly anticipated developments, if only because it influenced them. Its very irony and uneasy alternation between the private and the public leaves the book defenceless against its exploitation by that ‘conservative revolution’ which prepared the way for the collapse of both ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ during the events that led to Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933; and the failure of the officers’ plot of July 1944 sealed the fate of the old conservatism as Mann had interpreted it.

Forty years later the political scene has changed beyond recognition, yet something of the book’s Problematik remains. The virulent nationalism of ‘the ideas of 1914’ is too heavily discredited to amount to a serious force in Federal Germany today. But there are other issues, passionately disputed in this book, which are very much alive in two more or less current controversies: controversies which are usually seen – mistakenly, I believe – as German contributions to an international movement. The first is the students’ rebellion in the name of the ‘ideas of 1968’. To see that turmoil exclusively as a violent reaction of the New (or whatever) Left to imperialism of one kind or another, to West German capitalism, and to right-wing attempts to keep a few old party hacks in clover, is to ignore the deeply romantic nature of the rebellion. Its protest was directed, not only against American soldiers occupying Vietnam, but also against American empiricism invading the sociology seminars of the German universities; against Western positivism and ‘functionalism’ threatening to oust German holistic and deductive theories of society; against Anglo-Saxon analytical language philosophy (which Herbert Marcuse accused of ‘academic sadomasochism’, ‘self-humiliation and self-denunciation’) threatening to invalidate German ontological thinking.

‘Could it be that German nationalism was part of the Marxist resurgence?’ Johan Galtung asks in his Structure, Culture and Intellectual Style (1981). I am sure it was. Yet for all its spasms of violence, its silly extremism and absurdities galore, this nationalism has sometimes sought its legitimation in the defence of modes of thinking that are eminently worth preserving, and not for the sake of Germany only. And that, after all, was Thomas Mann’s mission, too.

Then, secondly, there are the Greens. Their hostility to parliamentary politics, as well as their questioning of the value and meaning of technology and its apparently inevitable progress, have their direct counterpart in Reflections. Although Germany’s Green Party is pro-European and vaguely socialist in its programme, its anti-political and anti-American outlook springs from the same unease with modern civilisation as does Thomas Mann’s book: the old Tolstoy is patron saint to both. Again it may be said that such radical anti-modernism has been used – for instance, by Heidegger – and might be used again, as part of an anti-humanist and anti-democratic ideology. Such dangers are endemic in all ‘alternative’ philosophies. But we find ourselves in a situation in which we can afford intellectual risks better than we can afford intellectual stagnation. To bring Mann’s critique up to date while avoiding his self-regarding devices would be a task worth undertaking. But I know of nobody writing in either part of Germany today who has the self-confidence, the imagination and the wit of this ‘non-political man’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences