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Thomas Mann on the "Jewish Question" (1921)

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The following article was written by Thomas Mann in 1921 for the magazine Der Neue Merkur which was devoting a special issue to the problem of anti-Semitism: The editor, Ephraim Frisch, was not too happy with it since he felt it did not treat the topic as thoroughly as it might have. The author, too, was not altogether pleased with what he had written, and just before publication it was withdrawn by mutual agreement. Thomas Mann had no plans to publish it separately. It was to be included in a definitive edition of his collected works. But since false rumors have been circulating in recent years about this article, which a Mr. Klaus Schröter (writing in Welt am Sonntag) flatly described as anti-Semitic, the heirs decided to make it available to the public.

– Katia (Mrs. Thomas) Mann

Dear Mr. Frisch,

So much that is wise, penetrating and even definitive has already been said in your August issue about the matter you have asked me to discuss – though you must admit I would not have volunteered to do so – that I cannot help but think it is very daring of me to add my own opinions. A purely personal approach will be the surest means of protecting myself from disgrace, just as the personal is the refuge of those who are acutely aware of the unfathomable depths of the objective world. It is also the naturally given form of expression for a certain adventurous naïveté that I would rather like to allow myself to profess, the essence of which is to live among and with questions rather than to have printable answers at one's fingertips. Among friends I am even capable of confessing that I have always been closer to asking, "How will I ever get through life?" than "What opinions do I have on this subject?" And thus the fact is that for a man like me the difficulty of "getting through life" is greatly eased by Judaism, and this to such a degree that if I adopted and displayed anti-Semitic ideas – which are "available everywhere," as they say in advertisements – I would do something amounting to grotesque ingratitude, an ingratitude of colossal dimensions possibly befitting a Richard Wagner, but surely not me.

Thus the proper thing for me to do, as I am being asked about the Jewish problem, is not to let myself become confused by "grandiose viewpoints," neither intellectual upheavals such as the eclipse of liberalism nor responsible considerations of the politico-philosophical or biological-racist kind. Rather, I should stick to the facts of my life which betray a sympathy for Jews, as will always be true of all men who are not born to get through life in the usual way, if the truth be admitted.

I am thinking back – even my earliest memories of my Jewish fellow men are friendly. They were school friends. . . . I got along very well with them, and indeed instinctively preferred their company without noticing it. In the third grade of the Gymnasium a boy named Carlebach sat next to me for some time, a rabbi's son, an alert, not overly clean boy, whose large, intelligent, dark eyes gave me pleasure and whose hair I found more attractive than ours, we who did not wait until Biblical instruction was over before we came to class. Moreover, he was called Ephraim, a name redolent with the desert poetry of that very hour from which he was excluded by his peculiarity, or his own will. The name was more striking and more colorful to me than Hans or Jürgen. But what, in particular, I shall never forget about Ephraim was his unbelievable skill in giving me the answers when I was being asked a question, at the same time as he himself continued to read a book he hid behind the boy in front of him.

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