What Thomas Mann Can Tell Us About Defending Democracy

German novelist Thomas Mann spent most of World War II rallying the American people against Nazism and exhorting them to stand up for democratic values. Yet he also understood that no democracy can survive by culture alone — it also needs social justice to thrive.

Thomas Mann, April 20, 1937. (Library of Congress)

When President Biden began his inaugural address by asserting that “today we celebrate the triumph . . . of a cause, the cause of democracy,” he sought to put an end to four years of anxious debates about the stability of the American political order. His triumphant proclamation may well turn out to be wishful thinking — for if democracy prevailed, it did so by a hair’s breadth. One shudders to imagine what might have happened if Republican election officials in Georgia or Arizona had buckled under the pressure exerted by their own party, or if the election had wound its way to a Supreme Court stacked with Trumpian appointees. In light of this narrow escape, even the mainstream press is now devoting column space to ways in which our political system might be made more robust: abolishing the filibuster, imposing term limits on federal judges, or even getting rid of the Electoral College.

Already in December 2016, Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg commented in Jacobin on the recent tendency among op-ed writers to compare the United States to the Weimar Republic, and to worry about the threat that Trumpism posed to the foundations of American democracy. Yet, as Bessner and Greenberg point out, attempts to “tyranny-proof” democratic systems carry their own dangers. In the German context, the experience of the Weimar years bred a new postwar generation of technocrats that was profoundly mistrustful of the masses, and eager to carry out the work of governing while shielded from public scrutiny.

President Biden seems unlikely to repeat this precedent. Although he served as vice president in what was arguably the most technocratic administration ever to govern this country, he is also proud of his folksy image as “Joe from Scranton,” and has supposedly instructed his closest advisors not to approach him with policy proposals that they couldn’t explain to their mothers. His inaugural address lacks even the slightest touch of wonkishness, and instead obsessively circles around emotional calls for national unity as the only remedy for what presently ails us.

“Unity,” according to Biden, is the sole “path forward” — but also, somewhat paradoxically, the very thing that has always characterized the United States as a nation. He explicitly cites the Civil War, the Great Depression, the World Wars, and 9/11 as moments in which “enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.” This is, to put it mildly, a tendentious argument. The United States has never moved forward in unison: not during Reconstruction, not during Jim Crow, not during the economic upheavals of the Great Depression, and not even after 9/11, when airlines got huge bailouts while first responders with lung carcinomas were left to fend for themselves.

Biden knows that he was elected primarily for his perceived capacity to facilitate “healing,” not because of his policy proposals. But appeals to unity aren’t enough on their own. In this sense, attempts to restore our collective faith in democracy might well take a lesson from a survivor of the Weimar years not examined by Bessner and Greenberg: the Nobel Prize–winning author Thomas Mann. In the late 1930s, Mann rose to great fame in the United States as a prophet of democracy, indeed at a time when fascism seemed on an unstoppable rampage. He insisted that democracy must rely not just on culture but on the fight for social justice.

Unity Isn’t Enough

Mann had been forced to flee his native Germany in 1933, after Adolf Hitler took power. He first spoke to a US audience on questions of democracy in 1937, when he addressed the North American Aid Committee for Spanish Democracy at the New York Hippodrome. But his main period of activity began in 1938, when he resettled in this country and began the process of pursuing citizenship. For the next decade, Thomas Mann was one of the most visible and articulate defenders of democracy in the United States. He toured the country on lecture trips that reached hundreds of thousands of people, gave radio interviews, wrote essays and letters to the editor, addressed Washington insiders at the Library of Congress, and was twice invited to the White House.

Mann’s importance wasn’t based on specific policy proposals — but, in marked contrast to most of his émigré compatriots, he held the entire German nation responsible for Nazism and, consequently, fully supported the Allies’ punitive military strategy. His speeches were vague on particulars, but highly effective at promoting the defense of democracy as a moral duty and as a matter of conscience.

Like Biden, Mann regarded democracy as a fundamental part of American identity. His 1938 lecturer script, published as the book The Coming Victory of Democracy, even calls the United States “the classic homeland” of this form of governance. Also like Biden, Mann proposed that the threat of fascism had created an urgent need “for democracy to take stock of itself . . . for its renewal in thought and feeling.” The list of challenges that Mann rattles off sound familiar to our ears as well: the threat of propaganda as “an instrument of cynical contempt for humanity,” the “denial and violation of truth in favor of power,” and the way in which fascist dictatorships erect corrupt “pseudo” versions of social ideals.

Unlike Biden, however, Mann did not believe that the need for democratic renewal might be satisfied by a return to some mythical unity that had always held the country together. What characterizes democracy, according to him, is its “inexhaustible store of potential youthfulness,” its miraculous power for change and innovation so far removed from the youth cult by which fascism seeks to propagate itself.

A Healthy Democracy Is a Social Democracy

Mann’s emphasis on the youthful nature of democracy is unsurprising, for he himself came from a country in which democracy had taken hold only belatedly. Indeed, up through the end of World War I, Mann had billed himself as an “unpolitical” defender of the German Empire. He made a public about-face only in 1922, rising to become one of the most prominent enemies of the Nazis over the following years. Throughout this time, his message to his countrymen remained consistent: they should regard parliamentary democracy as the latest and most novel expression of spiritual values that had been latent in German culture since the time of the romantics.

This emphasis on democracy as an organic entity — something with a timeless core that nevertheless perennially changes as it adapts to new challenges — is what differentiates Mann’s from Biden’s understanding of it as an established fact that simply needs a good dusting off. It also makes his message difficult for classic liberal interpreters like David Brooks to summarize. In a 2017 column for the New York Times, Brooks spoke admiringly of The Coming Victory of Democracy as a foundational text in the “canon of liberal democracy.” Yet, he ignores completely the part of the book in which Mann writes: “Europe and the world are ripe for the consideration of an inclusive reform of the regulation of natural resources, and the redistribution of wealth.” Nor does Brooks comment on the passage in which Mann argues that “a reform of freedom is necessary which will make of it something very different from the freedom that existed and could exist in the times of our fathers and grandfathers, the epoch of bourgeois liberalism.”

Mann’s flirtation with socialism originated in the hectic months following the end of World War I. Although it was never grounded in the actual study of Marxist texts, it remained a constant part of his political thought for the rest of his life. In 1932, at a time when Nazism was a clear and present danger not only to German society as a whole but also to Mann personally, he nevertheless took it upon himself to address a gathering of Viennese workers on socialist topics. The following year, shortly after Hitler’s seizure of power, he wrote a “Commitment to Socialism” at the behest of the Social Democratic Party of Germany politician Adolf Grimme.

It’s an even earlier text, however — his 1927 essay on “Culture and Socialism” — that proves most enlightening in the present context. In it, Mann justifies his commitment to socialism not on economic grounds, but rather on spiritual ones, having to do with the future shape of human communities. The German people, he argues, withdrew from political reason into a veneration of culture for the longest time, because throughout the nineteenth century, culture alone still gave them the sense of cohesion provided by the “cultic” in earlier ages. Amid the ever-greater social divisions of the twentieth century, however (Germany had just recovered from a period of devastating inflation), contemporary appeals to culture had themselves been exposed as a cynical ploy of reactionary politics. True communal cohesion could henceforth only come from a common struggle for social justice.

The United States is not Weimar Germany. But we would do well to remember that when we reduce American identity to our supposedly proven capacity to “stand united,” we commit a similar error to 1920s conservative thinkers when they reduced German identity to a shared cultural inheritance while closing their eyes to the social contradictions of their own day. We abstract from the dynamic deliberative processes that actually shape national identity and seek refuge in a timeless conception of what has always defined us.

By doing so, however, we find ourselves on ground that has already been lost to the enemy. One of the core principles of Trumpism — and indeed of all populism, as the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has argued — is that it turns the call for national unity into one of the “pseudo” concepts so memorably described by Mann in The Coming Victory of Democracy. The American people, according to this populist logic, are always already unified, for to hold dissenting views means that one isn’t part of the true people at all.

Mann understood that in moments of crisis, democracy cannot fall back upon the terms that have defined it in the past. It needs to give new meaning to these terms if it wants to shield them from the forces of cynical reaction. If Biden wants to stake the legitimacy of his presidency on national unity, then he will have to offer a novel vision of what such a unity might look like in 2021. To combat the politics of white supremacist resentment with which the mobs of Charlottesville and Washington, DC, hijacked the terms “we” and “us,” he cannot simply look back fondly to assertions of “We the People.” Democracy, ever youthful and vigorous, requires a new articulation. A commitment to greater social justice would be a good starting point, as Thomas Mann already pointed out in the 1930s.