Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, Thomas Mann’s agonized 500-page tract on the rights and wrongs of World War I, appeared in September 1918, just weeks before the war ended in a German defeat. In the following decades, Mann became one of the world’s most famous writers, a Nobel laureate, and, after 1933, a leading symbol of German culture’s opposition to Hitler. In time, most of his books were translated into English, but he made sure that Reflections wasn’t one of them. The first English version wasn’t published until 1983, almost three decades after Mann’s death, and soon went out of print. Even many of his admirers have probably never heard of it, much less read it.
But a book by a great writer should never be considered obsolete; you never know when its day will come around again. In 2021, the appearance of a new edition of Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, from New York Review Books, feels strangely timely, in a way it wouldn’t have even five years ago. It’s not that we are suddenly more interested in litigating the events of August 1914—if Germany was justified in invading Belgium, or if it was hypocritical for democratic France to fight alongside Tsarist Russia. But such concrete geopolitical issues actually play a small role in Reflections. The question that really interests Mann is how an intellectual can justify not being a progressive—something that could not be more relevant in our age of wokeness.
Reflections has sentences that could be applied to current cultural debates without changing a word. Mann complains about the self-righteousness of the liberal, which is “directed morally toward the outside, it is aggressive, for he himself is right, he himself is unassailable, the man of progress and of moral security; only the others need criticism.” He attacks the cultural elitist who “completely perceives the life of his own people, the human reality as it surrounds him, as basically hateful and common.” He deplores the politicization of literature, the idea that a good writer “incessantly pursues humanitarian-democratic progress, insinuates the concept of democracy into every work” and that “art . . . must be the tool of progress.”
Such statements could be cosigned by many of the conservatives and onetime liberals who find themselves on the wrong side of today’s political orthodoxies. The issues at stake are, of course, very different—the progressives of 1914 wanted peace and universal suffrage, while the watchwords of 2021 are “equity and inclusion,” defined in terms of race and gender. And American conservatives who oppose woke orthodoxies have little in common with Mann’s brand of European nationalism. Still, one can recognize in Reflections the familiar frustration of a conservative who finds his core beliefs ruled out-of-bounds by the intellectual powers that be.
Written to justify Mann’s support for the German cause in World War I, the book remains closely bound to the controversies and feuds of its moment; references that would have been clear to its original readers need footnoting today. And Mann thinks about the war in ways that have become alien—even taboo—over the last century. It’s not just that he was a loyal German who supported his country, as writers of all nationalities generally did in World War I. He mounts a comprehensive attack on democracy and on the culture and character of the Entente countries. Mann extols war as a morally elevating force, argues for Germany’s right to world supremacy, and insists that authoritarianism is the best form of government for the Germans.
It’s clear that Mann recognized the moral and political dubiousness of these positions, even as he defended them. Reflections is so long partly because he was trying to drown out his own doubts. In the prologue, he doesn’t so much introduce the book as apologize for it, saying that it should not be called a “book” or a “work” at all: “Twenty years of not completely thoughtless artistic practice have after all taught me too much respect for the concept of a work or a composition to claim these terms for an effusion or a notebook, an inventory, a diary or a chronicle,” he writes, in the haughty yet defensive tone that he employs throughout.
In fact, Reflections turned out to be a dead end for Mann—better, a cathartic discharge. Four years after the war ended, he delivered a public address titled “On the German Republic,” in which he renounced the nationalistic and antidemocratic sentiments of Reflections. To the dismay of the book’s right-wing admirers, he now pledged support for the embattled Weimar Republic: “Let me say it openly: to the extent it’s needed, my aim is to win you over to the side of the republic, of what is termed democracy,” he declared.
Mann’s outspoken defense of German democracy made him a chief target of Nazi hatred. On January 30, 1933, the day Hitler took power as chancellor, Mann was abroad on a lecture tour; his children warned him not to return to Germany. He would never live there again. Instead, he became the symbolic leader of Germany’s émigré writers and artists, especially after he moved to the United States in 1939. Now Mann was making radio broadcasts extolling American democracy and using FDR as a model for the wise ruler Joseph in his biblical epic Joseph and His Brothers. Reflections was a relic from a past that he was happy to forget.
By the time the English translation by Walter D. Morris appeared in 1983—the new edition uses the same text—it must have looked like a transmission from another planet. Mann’s ideas about nationhood, aristocracy, and high culture didn’t map onto the ideological struggles of the Cold War. He was neither a democrat nor a Communist but an aristocratic conservative, a type that effectively no longer existed.
For the Mann of Reflections, the problem isn’t which political side you support; it’s the necessity of choosing a side in the first place. He passionately defends the right to be nonpolitical, arguing that this is the proper stance for the artist and, more broadly, for the German people, whose genius lies in the realm of culture and spirit, not politics. “The German will never mean society when he says ‘life,’ never elevate social problems above moral ones, above inner experience,” he insists.
Mann believed that this was the real issue at stake in the war. Historians might say that World War I was about competition between the European empires over territory and markets, but Mann has no interest in geopolitics or economics; he is even a little proud of knowing next to nothing about them. He sees the war as Germany’s defensive struggle to preserve its national character in the face of the relentless advance of liberal democracy, which claims to be the only rational and just form of government. Thus, the war poses at the level of nations the same question that it poses for Mann as an individual: Is it possible to choose not to be rational, democratic, and progressive? If Germany wants to retain its monarchy and aristocracy, to reject universal suffrage and human rights, is this mere backwardness or something more positive and defensible?
Reflections summons history, philosophy, and art to defend Germany’s right to resist. Indeed, Mann argues that resisting the West’s ambitions to create a universal order is Germany’s historical mission. In the ancient world, the German tribes refused to be incorporated into the Roman Empire. In the sixteenth century, Germany cast off the Catholic Church and embraced Protestantism. In the age of Napoleon, Prussia led the German states in an uprising against French occupation. In each case, the Germans resisted what Mann calls “the imperium of civilization,” whose power lies in its aura of inevitability.
Mann sees the Great War as a recurrence of the same pattern. In 1914, the imperium of civilization is called democracy—and once again, its standard-bearer is the Latin West, especially France. What the Entente wants isn’t just victory on the battlefield but “the intellectual capitulation of Germany” to its vision of what it means to be civilized. Here, again, Reflections is surprisingly timely. In the twenty-first century, similar protests against the arrogance of Western democracy can be heard from authoritarian rulers in Russia and China, who insist that universal ideas of human rights are unsuited to their peoples.
Even in 1914, this wasn’t a new idea. The opposition between shallow French civilization and profound German Kultur had been a central theme of German nationalism since the early nineteenth century. Later, it inspired the Slavophile movement in Russia; Mann quotes copiously from Dostoyevsky, who made a similar defense of Russian religiosity against Western modernity. What makes Reflections fascinating is the way Mann personalizes this struggle, using himself as an example of the contest between modernity and tradition, intellect and art, French esprit and German Geist.
For Mann, this debate hit close to home. When he began writing Reflections, in 1914, most German intellectuals shared his nationalistic views. That October, 93 “representatives of German science and art”—including the Nobel Prize–winning writer Gerhart Hauptmann, the theater director Max Reinhardt, and Max Planck, the pioneer of quantum physics—signed an open letter addressed “To the Civilized World,” in which they denied that Germany was guilty of starting the war or committing war crimes in Belgium. The manifesto associated German culture with the German war effort, promising to “carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.”
Mann wasn’t one of the signatories of the “Manifesto of the 93,” as it became known. But he made his feelings clear the following month in an essay titled “Thoughts in Wartime,” which celebrated the war in delirious terms. (The texts of “Thoughts in Wartime” and “On the German Republic” are helpfully included as appendixes to the new edition of Reflections, allowing the reader to trace the arc of Mann’s political evolution.)
Prewar Europe, Mann wrote, was a “ghastly world . . . swarming with vermin of the spirit like maggots,” interested in nothing but money and pleasure. Against this background, the war came as “a purification, a liberation, and a tremendous hope.” Humanitarians and democrats might deplore Germany’s war fever, but Mann waved aside such objections, declaring that “Depth and irrationality suit the German soul, which shallower peoples find disturbing, strange, disgusting, even savage.” Reading “Thoughts in Wartime,” we find no reason to think that its author would one day become a leading antifascist. Mann employs the same tropes of degenerate liberalism and redemptive violence that would be staples of Nazi rhetoric.
But Mann, already famous across Europe as the author of Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, and Death in Venice, recognized that his admirers in the Entente countries found his views abhorrent. For right-thinking people in France and England, it was beyond dispute that the war was a defense of freedom against German barbarism. Mann was particularly stung by the criticism leveled against him by Romain Rolland, the French writer and pacifist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1915. In Reflections, he quotes Rolland’s reaction to “Thoughts in Wartime”: “In an insane attack of pride and excited fanaticism, Mann tries at all costs to convert the worst criticisms against his country into embellishment and glory.”
Even in Germany, Mann writes, there were writers who “give their struggling country no support and sympathy but enthusiastically confess themselves, as far as such a confession is permissible today, to be for the enemy, for the world of the West, the Entente, and especially of France.” Mann refers to this type of radical intellectual as “civilization’s literary man”—a somewhat awkward but perhaps inevitable translation of the term Zivilisationsliterat. It’s a German word, but both its constituent parts come from French, which is very much to Mann’s point.
Civilization’s literary man, Mann argues with contemptuous irony, is a French type, not a German one. He emerged during the French Revolution with figures like Robespierre—middle-class lawyers who believed passionately in reason and gave fiery speeches on its behalf, while guillotining anyone backward enough to disagree. Civilization’s literary man is the kind of progressive who became a Jacobin in the 1790s (or a Stalinist in the 1930s), a spokesman “of the Enlightenment, of reason, of progress,” whose idealism “hardened into a scholastic-literary formula, into a murderous doctrine, a tyrannical, schoolmasterly pedantry.”
Unlike Thomas Mann, his brother Heinrich was a committed democrat from the start, and in 1914 he stayed aloof from the intellectuals’ stampede in favor of war. The next year, Heinrich Mann published a long essay praising French novelist Émile Zola for his role in the Dreyfus Affair, when he helped win the acquittal of the falsely accused Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus, over fierce opposition from the army and the Church. The essay didn’t mention current events, but there was no mistaking Heinrich’s meaning when he denounced the chauvinist intellectuals who joined in the attacks on Dreyfus, calling them “traitors to the intellect,” “disgusting corrupters” of the people, opportunists who “profit from . . . their pretended patriotism.”
Thomas Mann knew that his brother’s words were intended for him: “The political acid-sprayer was aimed and it hit,” he writes in Reflections. Heinrich’s name doesn’t appear in the book, any more than Thomas’s did in the Zola essay, but there is also no mistaking the personal animus in Mann’s attacks on civilization’s literary man—“an amazing, remarkable example of how alienated and disgusted with himself . . . a German may become even today.” Civilization’s literary man isn’t just a critic of Germany, Mann writes; he actively “wishes for Germany to be beaten and converted by the Entente,” to be turned into a democracy in the image of France.
In his fiction, Thomas Mann is a master of dialectical irony, able to say yes and no at the same time. The most famous example is the debate in The Magic Mountain between Settembrini, the Italian humanist, and Naphtha, the Jesuit zealot; Mann allows them to set out their worldviews at great length, revealing the strength and weakness of each. In nonfiction, this kind of doubleness is harder to sustain; when a writer is speaking in his own name, as in Reflections, there is strong pressure to take a side and stick with it. Mann bows to this demand—but irritably, knowing that even as he sets up as a German superpatriot, he is also, on some level, a “civilized” Frenchman.
That is because he is a novelist, and literature, in the terms of Mann’s argument, is on the “French” side, along with democracy, humanism, and civilization. In fact, Mann writes that literature and democracy are really the same thing, since both rest on the idea that everything important can and should be said in words. For a humanist, “to be without words is not worthy of a human being, is inhumane.” Germany, however, is constitutionally inarticulate because “she did not love words and did not believe in them as did civilization.” The truly German art form is music, which communicates without words, speaking to a deeper level of the spirit than rational consciousness.
But Mann never forgets that he is a novelist, not a musician, and so—by the terms of his own argument—not truly German. If humanism and humanitarianism are French, as he repeatedly insists, does that mean that it is German to be barbarous and cruel? Is it right for a writer of such exquisite sensitivity to endorse such qualities as virtues?
In one of the most remarkable passages of Reflections, Mann attempts to convince himself, and secondarily the reader, that even the carnage of trench warfare doesn’t stop the war from being morally admirable. “One does not need the imagination of a poet to measure intuitively what psychological-intellectual, religious elevation, deepening and ennoblement the yearlong daily closeness to death produces in the human being,” he writes. A decade after the war, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front would put an end to this kind of rhetoric with its clinical descriptions of the reality of trench warfare. Remarque was a combat veteran; Mann, 39 when the war began, was never in uniform, much less in the trenches (which doesn’t stop him from referring to himself as a “war casualty,” on the grounds that he spent the war years writing Reflections rather than working on fiction).
Yet in the same chapter, Mann also writes: “If I were in the field, if I saw the horror of destruction with my eyes, if I had to see the insane ripping up of human bodies . . . does one believe I would remain hard, remain ‘patriotic,’ remain ‘enthusiastic’?” At such moments, one can see the ideological structure of Reflections start to teeter, as Mann realizes that he has argued himself into a morally untenable position. A few years later, it would all come crashing down and he would emerge on the opposite side, a supporter of democracy, humanism, and Western values. The ultimate failure of Mann’s protest in Reflections is crucial to remember, even as his arguments continue to exert a genuine, heretical power.
Photo: A defender of German nationalism during World War I, Mann became an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler. (ULLSTEIN BILD/GRANGER)