by Professor Revilo P. Oliver

April 1985

The leading article in the current (Autumn 1984) issue of" Nouvelle Ecole" is devoted to Thomas Mann. I read it, hoping to find an answer to a trivial question that has puzzled me over the years on the rare occasions on which it came to mind.

I remember that when I was a youth in college and thought I had enough German to do reading on my own, the first book that I picked up was Mann's "Der Tod in Venedig," a rather dreary and morbid tale about a German artist who inexplicitly betakes himself to Venice, to moulder spiritually among the miasmic canals of the decaying city. A little later, I read a slender volume, "Friedrich und die grosse Koalition," and was surprised when I found that the Thomas Mann who wrote it was the same as the novelist. It is an essay about history rather than a history, perhaps a little extravagant in its laudation of Frederick the Great of Prussia, but solidly based and impressive for its author's perception of the forces that really determine human history, as distinct from the fantasies of the many ideologues who, in superheated rooms, manipulate words to erect houses of cards that will collapse the moment a window is opened to the real world outside.

In 1933, Mann came strolling out of Germany to make a career of denouncing Hitler and to begin publication of a verbose and vapid novel about "Joseph and His Brethren," which he dragged out through several volumes, at some of which I have glanced in English translation. The puzzle, of course, was Mann's violent antipathy to Adolf Hitler and his hatred of Hitler's National Socialism. Superficially, there is little similarity between the careers of Frederick II of Prussia and Hitler. The world had changed drastically in the two centuries, and the great personal differences begin with the fact that Frederick was born to power, Hitler had to attain it. But both very clearly and unmistakably represented the same historical force, the same reality of political power. How could an intelligent man who fulsomely praised the one denigrate the other? Morality should not enter into the question, but if it does, a moralist would certainly place Hitler above Frederick.

So, when it occurs to me to think about Thomas Mann at all, I want to know what explains his great inconsistency. Was his praise of Frederick dishonest, simulated because there was a good market for it? Did he want Jewish money in 1933? Or was his mentality a mere weather-vane that points in any direction with the wind and whirls when it changes? Or did the man who saw clearly when he wrote about Frederick let tempting pressures and subtle bribery change his mind for him? Or was the Portuguese part of his heredity (apparently 25%) so little compatible with the Teutonic (assuming that all of the 75% "was" Germanic) that it produced a spiritual bifurcation?

The article does not give us an answer.