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27 July 2022

A fatal attraction

Thomas Mann, German identity and the romantic allure of Russia.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February changed everything. It transformed the post-Cold War security landscape of Europe, killed off any hopes of reconciliation between Moscow and the West for at least a generation and gave the rest of the continent a direct stake not just in Vladimir Putin’s containment but in his abject defeat. Heart-rending scenes of missiles hitting residential blocks and hospitals, of Ukrainian civilians killed and mutilated, have dramatised those new realities. If there ever was a time for ambiguity, it has passed.

Yet in Germany, many are struggling to process all this change. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s federal government proclaims wholehearted support for Ukraine but has procrastinated on sending weapons. A glimpse into the thinking behind this reluctance came on 21 June, when Scholz’s chief foreign affairs adviser, Jens Plötner, chided journalists for concentrating so much on arms exports: “You can fill a lot of newspaper pages with 20 Marders [armoured fighting vehicles for infantry], but larger articles about what will actually be our relationship with Russia in the future are somehow less frequent.” The future of Berlin-Moscow relations, he argued, is “at least as exciting and relevant an issue” as weapons deliveries.

In fact, significant parts of the German intelligentsia remain preoccupied by exactly that. In a succession of open letters, writers, philosophers, actors and commentators have warned against “disproportionate” or “escalatory” responses (including weapons deliveries). Alice Schwarzer, a veteran feminist journalist and a convener of one of the letters, has demanded negotiations with Putin and has baselessly accused Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of being a provocateur. With war fatigue setting in among voters and growing concerns over a gas shutdown this winter, the pressure for Berlin to push for some sort of settlement with Putin is growing.

[See also: Was Angela Merkel too easy on Russia?]

Confronted with this exasperatingly durable German urge to be a bridge to Russia, international observers often turn to history for explanations. Germany’s decades-long reliance on Russian energy is one, and is related to a second: the legacy of the former West German chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” from the late 1960s, seeking improved relations with Moscow, which is cherished particularly by Scholz’s centre-left camp. Russophilia in the eastern German states has certain roots in their decades under Soviet sway (a 15-year-old Angela Merkel won a trip to Moscow as a prize for her performance in East Germany’s national Russian-language competition). And then, colouring everything, there is German guilt over Nazi-era atrocities committed against Russia and its people.

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All of these are persuasive explanations. And yet they are also inadequate. For it is impossible to understand the depth of German Russophilia – and with it the yearning for good relations with Moscow against even the grimmest of backdrops – by reading it off economic statistics or timelines of world-historical events. One has to delve into culture and ideas, and go back much further than 1945, into the darker, older mists of the German psyche and imagination. Fortunately, there is a guide. 

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Thomas Mann’s Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), republished in English last year, grew out of Mann’s politicisation by the First World War and its role in the breakdown of his relationship with his brother, Heinrich. Where Thomas had embraced the nationalist fervour of 1914, his sibling rejected the war and called for a democratic German republic. Over the course of the conflict the two issued thinly veiled broadsides at each other. Ostensibly they were debating whether the political (that is, the progressive or radical) and the aesthetic belonged together, but more fundamentally this amounted to a debate about the very nature of Germanness.

Reflections was the cumulative work of this feud, by which point the brothers had stopped talking to each other. In it, Thomas drew on the German 19th-century distinction – popularised by Friedrich Nietzsche, among others – between French and English “civilisation” (summarised by the American political scientist Mark Lilla in his introduction to the text as “reason, scepticism, humanitarianism, democracy and progress”) and German “culture” (“more primordial, drawing energy from the dark side of human nature and producing greater depth of feeling and therefore greater art”). Mann argued that the war had been necessary to uphold the conservative order that shielded these musical, philosophical and artistic depths of the German soul from the decadent, materialistic, civilisational West, of which he considered his “Zivilizationsliterat” brother (a derogatory term meaning “civilisation’s literary man”) a dismal lackey.

Mann was drawing on the two most fundamental tropes of German identity: a people defined by their culture rather than fixed, territorial nationhood (in contrast to, say, France and England), and a people who are not entirely of the Roman West. The Germanic tribes, after all, had largely dwelled beyond the “Limes Germanicus” (the fortified frontier that marked the north-eastern boundaries of the Roman empire in Europe); the Lutheran rupture from Roman Catholicism in the 16th century was fundamentally a German phenomenon; the kernel of the future German state was forged in opposition to Napoleonic France; and the liberal-nationalist ideals of the revolutions of 1848 flopped among Germans and gave way instead to romantic-conservative nationalism.

This German sense of ambivalence towards the Roman West was often bound up with the lure of Russia, with which Germans had close cultural and political ties. These bonds had been strong since the reigns of Catherine and Peter the Great, and could be traced further back to the medieval period and the Ostsiedlung, when German-speaking merchants and artisans settled in parts of eastern Europe. And so post-1848 notions of German “culture” opposed to Western “civilisation” were closely associated with a perceived Russian kinship.

Nietzsche’s contempt for mediocre “modern ideas” (“‘French ideas’… [which] were English in origin”) was matched by his yearning for Russia. The author of Beyond Good and Evil (1886) venerated Fyodor Dostoevsky, describing “that sudden, instinctive feeling of having encountered a blood relative” on reading the Russian’s writing; and he hailed the expanses of Russia as “that huge empire-in-between, where Europe as it were flows back into Asia”.

No two figures are more prominent in Mann’s Reflections than the duo of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. Mann opens the book by citing approvingly the former’s 1877 description of Germany as “the protesting kingdom” – “her eternal protest… against the heirs of Rome and against everything that constitutes this heritage”. Mann argued that this “formulation of the German character, of German primeval individuality, of what is eternally German, contains the whole basis and explanation for the lonely German position between east and west”. Over the course of the book, he wove this “eternal protestantism” with political conservatism (calling “anti-radicalism” the “specific, distinguishing, and decisive quality or peculiarity of the German spirit”) and an elevation of wild, musical emotional depth over orderly formalism (the “Dionysian” over the “Apollonian”, to use Nietzsche’s taxonomy).

[See also: Nietzsche before the breakdown]

This, Mann argued, left him in “no doubt that German and Russian humanity are closer to one another than the Russian and French, and incomparably closer than the German and the Latin”. After all, this shared humanity was rooted in a shared history of suffering: “What a kinship in the relationship of the two national souls to ‘Europe’, to the ‘West’, to ‘civilisation’, to politics, to democracy!… It is no accident that it was a Russian, Dostoevsky again, who, as early as a generation and a half ago, found the expression for the antithesis between Germany, this ‘great and special people’, and western Europe, the antithesis from which all our reflections began!” Concluding the book, Mann looks ahead to the new post-1918 landscape of Europe and calls for: “Peace with Russia! Peace with her first of all! And the war, if it continues, will continue against the West alone, against the ‘trois pays libres’ [France, Britain and the US], against ‘civilisation’, ‘literature’, politics, the rhetorical bourgeois.” Post-1918 Germany should, in other words, at the very least adopt a “Mittellage” (middle position) between Russia and the West.

The novelist Thomas Mann in his younger years. Photo by Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy

Reading Reflections today, it is striking that the author of a work as humane as Buddenbrooks (his 1901 novel about the decline of a bourgeois northern-German trading family) could produce such vitriolic reactionary prose. Yet it is best to view it as the product of a wartime fever dream from which Mann would soon awaken. In the febrile early postwar years, he came to dislike his new conservative acolytes, who as Lilla notes “placed him on a pedestal next to second-rate minds like Oswald Spengler”. He reconciled with his brother and then, shocked by the assassination of the Jewish German foreign minister Walther Rathenau by far-right militants in 1922, he delivered his speech “On the German Republic”, in which he distanced himself from many of the arguments of Reflections. The new Mann thundered against “sentimental obscurantism” and called on German intellectuals to support the Weimar Republic. He would personify the struggles between Enlightenment humanism and romantic irrationalism in the clash between the characters Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta in his 1924 masterpiece The Magic Mountain.

It is a measure of the speed of Mann’s shift from the authoritarian right to the democratic liberal-left that he felt compelled to flee to Switzerland in 1933 on the ascent to power of Adolf Hitler, an extremist motivated by some of the irrationalist 19th-century ideas that had so consumed Mann only 15 years before. Mann would acknowledge the irony of this in a 1938 essay entitled “Brother Hitler”. A more explicit renunciation of Reflections came the following year when Mann, now living in the US, wrote of his “non-political German” that “his elegant disdain of democratic revolution has made him the tool of another revolution; an anarchic one, running amok to threaten the foundations and props of all our Western morality and civilisation”.

The completion of the author’s political journey towards the Roman and Anglo-Saxon West came, both intellectually and geographically, during his wartime years in Los Angeles. From his Californian exile, Mann gave German-language radio broadcasts denouncing Nazism on the BBC and came to know Franklin D Roosevelt, idolising him as he had once idolised Dostoevsky. In a speech at the Library of Congress three weeks after the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, Mann argued that his homeland’s war guilt had deep roots in the country’s psyche, and laid particular blame on the “morbid” Wagnerian romanticism he had once championed. “As the rose bears the worm,” he said, German romanticism’s “innermost character is seduction, seduction to death.” These ideas took literary form in his 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, which drew on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s magnum opus, Faust, to depict Germany’s national seduction to death by the diabolical forces of Nazism.

The NS Summer Special, out 29 July. Illustration by Cold War Steve

Mann’s homeland would soon walk the political and intellectual path that he had taken. While the part of Germany under Soviet control would remain padlocked to Moscow in what became East Germany, roughly three-quarters of Germans ended up in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) when it emerged in 1949. This new entity became everything that the Mann of 1918 loathed: democratic, consumerist and avowedly Western. The new republic’s first chancellor was Konrad Adenauer, a Francophile, Catholic, democratic moderate from Cologne who looked instinctively westwards and prioritised the “Westbindung” (the link with the West and the security and rehabilitation this offered) over the old “Mittellage”.

This new Germany feted Mann as a pillar of German letters unsullied by the Nazi years. His novels, banned under Hitler, became bestsellers. In 1949 he received the Goethe Prize, one of Germany’s highest literary awards. The federal republic’s “social market economy” was modelled on Rooseveltian New Deal principles that Mann had so admired in America, and resembled the “middle-class democracy in the Western-Roman sense” that in Reflections he had argued would “take away from [Germany] all that is best and complex”. His vision for “a European Germany, not a German Europe” and “a free Germany [in] a European federation” would soon take shape with the creation in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel Community, which would grow into today’s European Union. Mann lived to see West Germany join Nato in May 1955, dying three months later – an appealing conjunction, which could be taken as a neat symbol of the final reconciliation of the novelist’s journey with that of his country.

[See also: Germany’s impending energy crisis is no reason for it to abandon Ukraine]

Too neat, in fact. For Germany’s story is not as binary as this chronology suggests. While Mann – and the country – travelled a long political path between the early and mid-20th century, there were points of consistency throughout. Mann imagined Germanness on a spectrum of traits. Even in Reflections, he did not argue that the romantic streak in German nature was its sum total, just as he did not argue that German and Russian cultural affinity was absolute. Rather, the Germanness he described was fundamentally a Mittellage, an in-between state “between a burgher and an artist… between a protester and a Westerner, a conservative and a nihilist”. His 1918 Russophile conservatism was an argument about which side of this in-between state his fellow Germans should prefer when faced with a choice.

Even the Mann of the postwar years cleaved to this dualism. The protagonist of Doctor Faustus, his 1947 personification of Germany, is an Enlightenment man who succumbs to the powerful (and diabolical) undertow of irrational romanticism. In essence he is caught between the two traditions, rather as Goethe himself had been. Nor did the elderly Mann gravitate to absolutes in his political outlook: he abhorred the partition of Germany and Europe, and seems to have considered Adenauer too comfortable with the federal republic’s alienation from the east (calling it in private “his Vatican-American West Germany”). The “European federation” of which he dreamed spanned east and west. Mann remained ambivalent about his homeland until the end of his life, choosing to spend his final years on the shores of Lake Zurich.

But all of this really makes Mann an ideal symbol for modern Germany. The complex of his impulses and contrasts – his internal battles and transitions – captures an aspect of the country that endures even as Putin’s tanks rumble across Ukrainian soil: a tension between its straightforwardly Western political vocation (a Westbindung challenged only by the hard right and hard left) and its sometimes more fraught cultural and emotional sense of itself in a Mittellage. The irrationalist pull on the German psyche remains. And for as long as it endures, so too will the deep romantic appeal of Russia: the ineffable tug exerted on German hearts by clichés such as deep birch forests, onion-domed churches, samovars, infinite snowy expanses and Dostoevsky; the country’s “Russia complex” as the German historian Gerd Koenen titled his 2005 book.

Understand that, and you understand the turmoil that Europe’s new security reality causes Germans. After all, a major part of the euphoria the country felt over the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification was the sense that this old tension had finally been resolved: Germany would no longer have to choose between west and east, between politics (“civilisation”) and spirit (“culture”), between Anglo-French rationalism and Russian depth. Their country’s long, awkward Mittellage now placed it at the heart of a peaceful, united Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. Putin, who knows Germany relatively well having lived in Dresden in the 1980s, appealed directly to this in his 2001 speech to the Bundestag, invoking both the Enlightenment “freedom and humanism” of the German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the romanticism of Dostoevsky.

Understand the intensity of this dream, and you also understand why the German establishment has clung to it for so long; why Russia’s turn away from the West under Putin has been so hard to accept; why political figures like the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder (the leading proponent of Germany’s gas dependency on Moscow) wax poetic about the “Seelenverwandtschaft” (spiritual kinship) between Germans and Russians; why his fellow former chancellor Helmut Schmidt scandalously called the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 “understandable”; why Merkel, although intellectually committed to the Westbindung, kept a portrait of Catherine the Great in her chancellery office and deepened that energy dependency even after 2014. It is also to grasp why Scholz’s reformist liberal-left German government is wringing its hands about “our future relationship with Russia” and struggles to take seriously the pleas of the countries (Poland, the Baltics and of course Ukraine itself) wedged between Germany’s eastern border and Russia.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has challenged many of the German establishment’s policy assumptions, but, more than that, it has exposed conflicts in the country’s basic identity – east or west, Mittellage or Westbindung, rational or romantic – that are still not settled. There is some evidence that younger Germans, those who have grown up since the wall fell, are more firmly Western in outlook than older generations. Polling shows they are more likely to back a more “responsible” Germany (a fairly reliable proxy for the Westbindung) over “restraint” (the language of the Mittellage). There is also a notable generational divide between the older intellectuals who dominate the signatories of the open letters promoting negotiation with Russia – such as Schwarzer, born in 1942 – and the younger signatories of opposing letters that urge Germany to stand with Ukraine. Time will tell whether these are indications of a bigger shift.

It is tempting to wonder what Mann would have made of today’s Germany, and where he would have come down in the battle of the open letters, were he still around. Would his romantic, Dostoevsky-loving spirit have found the prospect of permanently frozen relations with Russia too much to bear and the vision of a Mittellage too emotionally resonant to give up? Or would his FDR-loving democratic rationalism have put him on the side of sparing no effort to arm Ukraine? He certainly would have been intrigued by Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian turned war leader. But quite what the old novelist would have made of his country’s plight now, with its moral constitution under greater strain perhaps than at any point since 1945, is unclear. And in that very ambivalence, he stands as a fine symbol of a federal republic whose long journey – emotional, cultural and political – is far from over.

[See also: Letter from Germany: A train journey through Prussia’s heartlands]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special