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Thomas Mann, "Culture and Socialism" (1927)

Thomas Mann (1875-1955), already a major public figure in Germany at the end of WWI, was neither an immediate supporter of the Weimar Republic nor an obvious opponent of the conservatives. His ambivalence about mass society derived from a tension between his aesthetic sensibilities and his political ideals—a tension which this essay confronts. In 1918, he published Reflections of an Unpolitical Man [Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen], which sparked the debate to which this essay responds. In August 1927, the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten published an article titled “Metamorphosis: The ‘Reflections of an Unpolitical Man’ Then and Now” by Arthur Hübscher. A series of replies between Hübscher and Mann followed through 1928, and the exchange received wide press coverage in Germany. “Culture and Socialism” reveals Mann’s political development, as he reluctantly acknowledges that socialists and the working class now embody German intellectual ideals in practice more than do conservative traditionalists.

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The war was lost. But what most shattered the German's morale was not the physical defeat, the ruin, the tremendous plunge into national humiliation from the height of outward power. It was a more frightful derangement still: it was the profanation of his faith, the defeat of his idea, the crash of his ideology, the catastrophe to the cultural ideal which was that ideology's center of power—it was this that had been defeated in the defeat, and the victor was the opposed pole of the idea, the world of democratic civilization. Germany had engaged herself far too deeply in the realm of dialectics, in the field of theory, not to be overwhelmed with the conviction that she had suffered a downfall of the idea; and her desperate attempts to deny her defeat, her protests that she was "unconquered in the field" took place on ideological grounds—she hoped thereby to deny her intellectual, her so to speak philosophical, defeat as weIl. The conflicts that rend Germany today wear many names and take many shapes. But at bottom they are one: the conflict between defiance and the will to compromise; the grim, embittered question, shall Germany abide by her traditional conception of culture, or lay hand upon it to transmute it into the new? We are too intellectual a people to be able to live under a conflict between our faith and our polity. When she introduced the republican forms, Germany was not "democratized." All German conservatism, "all sincere belief that the traditional German idea must be left untouched, must, in the political sphere, repudiate the republican, the democratic form of government as foreign to land and folk, as false and intellectually repugnant to the realistic sense. That lies in the nature and inward consistency of things; as, similarly, only those can support the democratic form and have faith in its viability in the Germany of the future, who consider that the transformation of the German cultural idea in a world-reconciling, democratic sense, is both possible and desirable.

It ought to be said that the actual, essential difficulties in the way of the democratization of Germany are little understood abroad, and all our efforts to set the wheels in motion are insufficiently appreciated. People wonder at our false starts; they are strengthened in their political mistrust—they overlook the fact that almost all the intellectual preconditions for success are lacking. The framers and teachers of German humanism—the Luthers, Goethes, Schopenhauers, Nietzsches, Georges—were no democrats. Oh, no. If their names are honored outside our borders, let those who honor them realize what they do. It was they who created the Kultur with the big K that formed the power center of German war ideology. In Paris they applaud the Meistersinger. That is to misinterpret the association of ideas. For of the Meistersinger Nietzsche wrote: "Against civilization. The German against the French."

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