Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Thomas Mann’s 'Reflections of a Non-Political Man' Foreshadows Putin’s Message, Trudolyubov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 13 – Many think Vladimir Putin’s message of the supremacy of national interests over international law, support for family values and rejection of liberal democracy are somehow unique to him and Russia; but in fact, Maksim Trudolyubov says, Thomas Mann’s Reflections of a Non-Political Man about his experience in World War I foreshadows all of them.

            That work, one radically different from the message of his later novels, simultaneously shows that all those views infected Germany before and during the first world war and demonstrates that honest, educated and intelligent people may accept them accept these notions (meduza.io/feature/2021/09/13/pochemu-chestnye-obrazovannye-i-intelligentnye-lyudi-inogda-opravdyvayut-i-dazhe-proslavlyayut-diktaturu-i-voynu).

            During World War I, Mann by his own admission fought on “the thought front,” writing articles and giving public lectures in support of the German government and its military efforts. In 1918, he published a patriot manifesto which has survived as Reflections of a Non-Political Man even though its author completely changed his views within a couple of years.  

            In that manifesto, Mann justified the war and declared German’s “eternal and innate mission to be the struggle against the spiritless civilization of the West as represented by the powers of the Entente.” And he spoke about “Germanness loneliness between East and West and cited Dostoyevsky frequently.”

            This text, despite Mann’s disavowal of it later, remains something that should be ready in “times like ours” especially in Russia because “Russia now occupies approximately the same political position regarding ‘the collective West’ that Germany did one hundred years ago,” Trudolyubov argues.

            Mann in this manifesto called himself apolitical because he viewed politics with all its parties and elections “contradicted” poetry, esthetics and art as a whole and thus undermined culture. Instead of defending culture, it destroyed it and thus must be opposed as Germany was doing.

            In his manifesto, “Mann writes about the ‘anti-German’ nature of the West – an analogue to ‘Russophobia’ – and justifies war not so much between Germany is a foreign policy competitor of France and Great Britain but rather because it is their spiritual opponent,” the Moscow commentator says.

            Mann identified as the domestic opponents of German culture literary Westernizers who promoted civilization, people who in Russia today are called “foreign agents,” Trudolyubov continues. He viewed them “as bearers of values alien to Germany which had pushed German culture from its true path.”

            The ruling group in Russia would recognize in Mann’s work many ideas that they share, including on such particular issues as family planning and the proper treatment of sexual minorities. Indeed, almost everything Putinists advocate now can be found in Mann’s writing of 1918.

            What this means of course is that such notions “are not unique either for Germany of the past or for Russia of the present,” Trudolyubov says. “Memes about he rotting West move from country to country and they emerge in any culture which highly values itself but feels insufficient recognition by others.”

            Only a few years later, Mann rejected almost everything he had said in his manifesto and cam eout in support of the Weimar Republic. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, he and his family left first to Switzerland and then to the United States. And in an essay entitled “The Tragedy of Political Apathy,” he outlined why he had changed.

            “The rejection of politics by culture is a delusion and a self-deception,” he said. “It is impossible to get away from politics in this way: one can only end up in the wrong camp, giving rise to a passionate hatred of the enemy. Apoliticism is nothing more than simply anti-democratism.”

            “Unlike Mann,” Trubolyubov continues, “we don’t need to wait for years to be horrified at what ideas like those he expressed earlier lead to. We already know” both because we have seen what happens when those with power accept what those with such ideas call upon them to do.

            The ideologies Russia’s rulers are promoting now are intended to intimidate their own people and those abroad; but there is no assurance that the current “conservative wave” will not lead us to war, the Moscow commentator says. “Revived conservatism has in a sense already led us to a war, a cultural one.”

            And that cultural war, as Mann initially wanted and then warned against, can lead to the real thing with all the suffering and death that are involved. 

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